From the Ashes

My pager buzzed as I was leaving the chaplain’s office.  “Patient in 935 could benefit from a chaplain visit.”  I see that Dean, age 39, has been admitted for fever and difficulty breathing; he’s COVID-negative, but has an underlying disease that makes his health precarious.  No one is at the nursing station, so I head into his room.  Dean is sitting up in bed.

“Greetings, I’m chaplain Greg.  I’m making rounds and offering conversation, company, or whatever folks might want …”

“Chaplain, huh?”  Dean pauses, staring straight at me.  “I suppose they told you about my sister.”

“Not a thing.  What would you like me to know?”

“Right after I got into this room they put through a call from the Medical Examiner,” he says in a flat monotone.  “They just found my sister dead in a homeless camp in Seattle.”

“Oh, Dean, I’m so sorry.  What was her name?”

“Clara.  They said it looked like she hanged herself.  They found a notebook with her stuff where she’d written that she was done with humans.”

“That’s so hard … how are you doing?”

“I’m OK.  We weren’t close.  I haven’t heard from her since my wedding day in 2010.  I tried to get her to come and she said she would, but she didn’t.  Later she called and said I probably got some nice gifts and she needed money.  I told her no and she hung up on me, and that was the last time we spoke.”

Dean’s tone remains unemotional but his eyes connect intensely with mine.

“Do you have other siblings or family?”

“She’s it.  Three years younger.  My parents are not good people.  When I was a kid, they grew weed in the basement and cooked meth in the living room.”  Dean proceeds, in a matter-of-fact way, to narrate a litany of abuse and neglect.  He concludes, “I’ve seen a lot of things I wish I could unsee.”

“Are your parents still alive?”

“They are, though they split when I was 10.  They move around, I never know where they are.  I need to notify them about Clara … I’m not looking forward to that at all.”

Dean hands me his phone.  It displays an obituary, with a picture of an old man sitting by a lake, fishing.  “That’s my grandpa.  He and my grandma never turned their backs on me, no matter what my parents said about me.  I would ride my bike for miles just to be with them, to get away.”

Dean takes his phone back, fiddles for a minute, hands it back to me with a picture of a young couple.  “Your wedding day,” I say with a smile.  “Yep,” he affirms, “and now we have two great kids.”  More pictures follow, displaying the life Dean has built for himself as a handyman in rural Washington.

I return the next day to find Dean in street clothes.  His RN enters after me, tells him his discharge orders are complete, and asks him to coordinate a pickup time with his wife.  “You call her,” he replies, “I don’t need to get in the middle.”  The nurse, a bit flustered, agrees and exits quickly.  Dean flashes me a wry smile.

“Looks like you’re feeling better.”

“Yeah, but …”  He pulls out his phone.  “I’ve texted both of my parents, telling them I have important news.”  Dean shows me a text containing two dates, which I infer correctly are Clara’s dates of birth and death.  “I thought that might get their attention, but neither of them has replied, so I guess it’s up to me to figure out what to do with her ashes.”  He’s clearly thought about this a lot since our first visit; he’s committed to honoring Clara’s life, and to giving his parents their best shot at doing the same.

Dean then asks, with sincere interest, how my work has gone since we last spoke.  I say I’ve seen the whole spectrum, from an old man all alone in the world returning to the streets (Gideon), to a man my age with advanced cancer, surrounded by family and friends, making plans for his final weeks of life.  “So often it comes down to having good people in your life,” I conclude.

“I agree.  I’ve seen a lot, and I consider myself fortunate.  We don’t have much money, but money doesn’t do it.  I’ve seen people with lots of money and the hardest hearts, and I’ve known people with nothing at all who will give you the shirt off their backs.  I’m not religious, but religion doesn’t do it, either.  Some of those religious types are so busy being holy they don’t have time for people in need.”

Just then Dean’s phone buzzes with a text message.  He looks at it and grins, then hands it over to me.

“Your nurse says I can come get you.  I’m jumping in the car right now.  I so f***ing love you! ❤️❤️❤️

Few things inspire me more than stories of resiliency like Dean’s.  The childhood he related to me was horrific by any standard, but not uncommon, especially among people whose lives have been marked by prison, addiction, or homelessness (e.g., Hector).  What’s remarkable, but also not that uncommon, is Dean’s escape from this life.  But it wasn’t easy …

Dean struggled with addiction and homelessness in his teens, though by his own account he’s been clean and sober for 20 years, and living a stable family life for a dozen.  He seems to have sensed early on that he needed to get away from home, and he did so as soon as he could; living on the streets as a teen rarely goes well, but somehow he escaped that, too.  Dean’s demeanor was low-key and laconic, but I quickly sensed a core of steel that could push through the most difficult obstacles.

Dean’s grandparents were positive influences—they often are in stories like these—but they don’t seem to have intervened actively, just offered a place of refuge.  There may have been others along the way—a teacher, a coach, a social worker—but Dean never made any such mention.

And then there’s Clara …  I can only wonder about the factors that propelled her life and Dean’s to such different outcomes.  This kind of divergence in families is hardly rare, of course, though their situation seems particularly stark.  I didn’t sense that Dean was uncaring towards Clara, more that he was simply a pragmatic survivor who knew his boundaries and knew he had to maintain them with Clara, too.

What rises for me when I think about Dean and Clara is mystery, humility, and grace.  My own life gives me at best an inkling of what it would have been like to grow up in their family of origin.  I have no idea whether I would have been reduced to ashes like Clara, or risen from the ashes like Dean.  I celebrate Dean’s resiliency as an example of what the human spirit is capable of, but I do not condemn Clara, or the many like her, who cannot find a way forward after such a traumatic childhood.  There, but for the grace of God, I might have gone. 

My sense is that Dean understands that, too, and lives each day with deep gratitude for the life he has been granted.  And that, for me, is truly inspirational.

2 thoughts on “From the Ashes

  1. Anne Marie Jacob

    “There, but for the grace of God, I might have gone. “ I have never heard that phrase inverted, and it’s so powerful that way. Thank you for this piece, Greg.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s