This is how our Wings Home provided a place for reunion between a homeless man and his family during their last Christmas together. He had called from a hospital in Ohio having been told he would soon die. His sister from Allegan went with her husband to pick him up in their own vehicle, not knowing if he would survive the trip back to the Wings Home.
He was dying of liver failure, a long time alcoholic, at 53 years of age. He had floated in and out of jails, prisons, rescue missions and an occasional girlfriend’s house for years. He had abandoned his children. In the case of two of his children, the mother had dropped them off as toddlers at a police station, just like someone might drop off a stray pup at a dog pound. She did not hug them, kiss them or say goodbye. She just turned and walked away.
The children had very hard lives in and out of foster homes. Eventually, three daughters had lived for several years with an aunt here in Allegan. When they, one by one, walked into the Wings Home, now from various parts of the country, they looked older than their age. One, a 28 year old, looked 48. There was a hardness in her face but a softness in her eyes. When she came through the front door, she had that look that a girl sometimes gets – a look that says “I feel like crying but I’m going to try to smile because I just walked into the room.”
In her arms she carried a Christmas tree about two feet high. She said she had brought it to place at her father’s bedside. It was a rather scrawny tree – shabby and worn. The brown plastic limbs and faded emerald needles hung awry. There were conspicuous spots where there was no branch. It sat rather crooked and had some ornaments that looked old and worse for wear. But, as I was soon to find out, it was actually better for wear.
I asked her why she had brought the Christmas tree as it wasn’t quite Thanksgiving yet. She started to cry but wanted to express herself through her tears. She said, “I have brought this tree here because it reminds me of the only times I have seen my father. The only time he came home to my aunt’s house each year was for Christmas Day. We didn’t have much, but I always got out this Christmas tree because I knew he would be coming. He won’t be home for Christmas this year, so I brought it here to set by his bed.”
This rough and tough drifter, each year on Christmas Eve, would walk up to a counter in a bus or train station somewhere in the Midwest. He would buy a ticket to go “home” to his sister’s place in Allegan. Or, if he didn’t have the money for fare, he would hitch hike. Along the way, he would look out the window at the miles going silently by and think about the family he was about to see. This year, he came in the back seat of his sister’s car, and he was about to discover once again that God is a God of second chances.
The man who had trampled on all their hearts over the decades lay breathing his last in the room at the end of the hall at the Wing’s Home. That room, and the living room, were packed with people ’round the clock for four days. Siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, friends, and those precious, broken daughters with their children slept on the furniture and on the floor. They might have been bitter. Many are in their situation. But the forgiveness they chose to give this man, and the love they shared with each other, were even more beautiful than that tree perched precariously on the bedside table. The few lights that still functioned on the tree would undoubtedly bring memories of this warm family gathering for years to come.
I asked the aunt who had sometimes kept the children why there was such an intense love for this man who had rarely interacted with them. She thought the love emerged for two reasons: 1) They had worried about him and longed to be with him over the decades, and 2) when he was with them for Christmas day, he had a lot of fun with them and made them laugh. Now, being in a weakened condition, he seemed to elicit powerful emotions that had been bottled up over the years.
The week before he died, his jaundiced, swarthy body laid amongst the blankets and bodies of loved-ones. His dark hair and long unshaved whiskers stood out from the white pillowcase. Even though he couldn’t respond, they rubbed his tattoo covered arms, legs, chest and head, telling him over and over that they loved him. They swabbed his mouth with cool water and, with tears dripping off their faces, sometimes sobbed inconsolably. Other times, the room rang with laughter as they enjoyed each other and memories. The homeless man had come home to the Wings Home – very blessed to have a place to be loved.
What does hospice do? Our Wings of Hope Hospice volunteers gave this man comfort care. Our hospice nurse and doctor skillfully minimized his pain. Our Certified Nurses Assistants provided home care services. Our hospice social worker helped them tap into community resources. Our chaplain brought strength and encouragement on a spiritual level. We made sure the family was aware how they could be in one of our grief support groups. And we provided a warm, comfortable room in a home-like atmosphere.
That’s what we do at Wings of Hope. We provide for people’s needs so they can focus on what is most important to them.
By: Greg Carlson, Spiritual Care Coordinator
Photo credit: Craig Gardiner Photography