Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The alcove of God's house

So last night I was walking home after a wake, when I saw Milton in his wheelchair at the corner on the other side of the street. We don't see Mark and Sheri on the corner anymore. Mark is back in prison; he failed to report for his parole, and it finally caught up with him. Sheri, on the other hand, is doing incredibly well. She went into a treatment program, and now has almost three months clean and sober. She's coming over Friday night for dinner. I'm so proud of her, but I worry what will happen when Mark gets out of prison, worried that somehow he will sabotage her progress, worried that she'll end up back on the streets with him.

Milton didn't see me, and it was late, so I started to just continue on up the street, then changed my mind and doubled back, and we talked for awhile. A year ago, Milton wasn't truly homeless, but what social workers call "underhoused," doing odd jobs to get by and living in a friend's apartment. That all changed one day last year, because he decided to do a good deed for a kid. A kite had gotten stuck on the roof of the local library. Milton was a good climber, proud of his agility and upper body strength, so he climbed up onto the roof of the library and got the kite and threw it down, to cheers from the kids. He was starting to climb back down, and then he fell. He hit the ground and felt his leg snap just above the ankle.

It's amazing how everything can change, life as you know it can end, with a sound so soft that no one can hear it but you. "This is the way the world ends," said T.S. Eliot, "not with a bang, but a whimper."

They took Milton to the general hospital to fix his leg, which had a compound fracture, the bone protruding through the flesh. This isn't the nice hospital where rich people go for their illnesses and operations; its the one where they take the poor and minorities, where the emergency waiting room is always full, where they are chronically understaffed and short on supplies.

Milton got a staph infection in the wound while he was there at the hospital, and his leg never really healed. He has had thirteen operations to try and repair it after the infection. The doctors are now talking about operation number fourteen, trying to repair his achilles tendon, which has shrunken and become so tight that he can't move his foot. His left leg, which was broken, is now a full two inches shorter than his right. The infection has gone into his bones; we had a laugh together about him being "bad to the bone." A very short, bitter laugh.

Recently, he asked the doctors about pain medication because his foot had been giving him a lot of pain. The doctors told him they couldn't give him any of the good medications like oxycodone (they cost too much), but they could put him on methadone, a heroin substitute used to treat addictions, that is itself fairly addictive. Instead, he decided to take his chances with beer, just enough to take the edge off, he told me.

Milton has been trying to go on permanent disability, but SSI has denied his petition. Now, he sleeps in the alcove of the local Baptist Church at night. He goes late and gets up early, so he doesn't think they have noticed he's staying there, but if they have noticed, they haven't kicked him out yet. Milton said that it's God's house anyway, and God never tries to kick him out.

Milton told me that, when the time comes, he doesn't really need a mansion in heaven, not even a little one. He just wants to curl up in the alcove of God's house, somewhere where he can be safe, somewhere where he doesn't have to hold onto his wheelchair at night while he sleeps, so it doesn't get stolen like last time.

I told Milton I had to get going, and he said it was time for him to move along as well. Time to start heading for God's house.

I told him to say hi from me.

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