Sunday, August 4, 2013

A New Feature of Coping: Seeing Pat in Every Needy Face

I was on my way to the airport several weeks ago, when I saw a homeless man carrying a sign that said, "Homeless, any little bit helps." He was a young man, in his mid-twenties I guessed. His hair was very long and unwashed. He had a long, matted beard. His clothes were ragged and falling off his thin frame. He looked so much like Pat.

I knew there was only a $20 bill in my wallet. It's not the first time I gave a panhandler some cash, but never $20. As he approached, I felt my hand moving on its own. Into my purse, grabbing the cash. My other hand rolled down the window. He stopped. "It's all I've got on me, man, and it's all yours," I said.

He looked down at the cash and registered that it was a large bill.

His face lit up, as much as it could. "Thank you," he said.

"You're welcome," I told him. "Please, please take care of yourself," I squeaked as I teared up. He nodded. I hurried to accelerate as the light had already turned green.

All I could see when I looked at that man, was the people out there who are worried about him, the people who love him and hope he's doing okay. In that moment, he was my family, my loved one. And all I wanted in the world was to believe that if anyone saw Pat standing there on the onramp to the interstate they would find it in their heart to make sure he got something to eat today, to make sure he was safe.

As I drove on to the airport I thought, "Come on, Sarah. You can't go giving away money to everyone who reminds you of Pat. That man wasn't your brother."

I cried and sniffled. I struggled to maintain that happy feeling I get from being charitable while chiding myself. In the end, I decided I'd forgive myself for maybe doing this again and again in the future. After all, I believe we owe it to each other to look after each other, stranger or not.

My brother has never gone off on his own to live a transient, homeless lifestyle, but I've met a number of families who have experienced that. In fact, Clea Simon's brother lived as a transient for many years. Simon wrote about it in her book Mad House. Out of touch for a number of years, she wasn't even sure when or how he died.

The American Psychological Association reports the rate of mental illness among the homeless are twice the rate found in the general population. It also says, "Shinn and Gillespie (1994) argued that although substance abuse and mental illness contribute to homelessness, the primary cause is the lack of low-income housing."

*Update: A week later I saw this man under the interstate at the same onramp. He had his hair cleaned and cut, his facial hair was trimmed and mostly shaved. He looked like a million bucks - and younger, closer to 20. He had taken care of himself.


Anonymous said...

I feel the same. And I also feel, I don't know, wistful? sad? every time I see a "successful" 20-30 something young man, whether it's the barista at Starbucks, or just a Target cashier. And all I hope for is for my brother to achieve that kind of success and independence. Such stark contrast to my high hopes for him just last year, before the illness showed itself. I keep remembering the LEAP book, and how we have to fully grieve the person they once were, so we can embrace and feel happy (and not eternally disappointed) with our ill family member, but it's really damn hard.Thank you for continuing to write.

Sarah Rae said...

Thank you for you comments. It means so much to me to know other people out there can relate. It's great to have you here.