Monday, August 29, 2005

Mark Castle: 1954-2005 (Part Three of Three)

Being poor is a series of indignities, and death is the final indignity.

When I spoke to the coroner about the disposition of Mark’s body, he prefaced what he was about to say by telling me that he doesn’t make the policy, and he doesn’t have to like it. If Mark is found to be indigent and his family cannot pay for a funeral, the city will cremate his remains and scatter the ashes at sea. The family will not be able to have his ashes, they will not be allowed to be present when his ashes are scattered, and they will not receive a death certificate. They would have no opportunity to say goodbye.

I went over to Mark’s daughter’s place that night to bring the awful news. I brought a picture album with me, something Mark had given me to hold for him the last time he came over, a few days before he died. When I told her his body was at the morgue and explained their policy, she looked at me with tear filled eyes and said, “So, that’s it? He can’t even have a funeral?” And in that moment I blurted out a promise: Mark would have a funeral. Somehow, we would find a way to bring some dignity to what had been a terribly undignified end.

Making good on that promise has brought me closer to Mark than I ever thought I would feel. As I have spoken to funeral home and cemetary directors, I have found myself in the same position he was in countless times: trying to get what I need with nothing but my words, spinning out the story that will overcome all resistance and reach the goal. Mark was the master, and I have apparently learned a thing or two from him in my yearlong apprenticeship.

A wake for Mark will be held tomorrow night. Afterwards, he’ll be cremated, and his ashes interred in a small plot at a local cemetary, where his younger daughter can bring his grandchildren when they get older.

I went over to Sheri’s place to break the news to her. She is living in a cooperative housing program in a beautiful apartment. We sat in her kitchen and she made us hot chocolate, and I told her what had happened. I sat in her kitchen and thought about all the times we sat together on the curb while she sucked poison into her body out of a vodka bottle. All the times we had offered her hospitality in our home. Now she was offering hospitality to me.

It was a good feeling.

A few nights before Mark died, he came over to out place and we had dinner together. He actually crossed himself before dinner, something I had never seen him do before. He read me something he wrote for me in prison about growing up in a dysfunctional family where violence and addiction were the norm (I will try to post this at some point). He told me he wanted to pursue his writing, that he was going to try to enroll in a college writing class if he could get some loans. He also wanted to learn how to use a computer. We set up an email account for him that night, so he could start using email.

We talked about the letters he sent while he was in prison. He apologized for sending them, and I apologized for not writing, for not being able to listen through the anger to hear his cries for help, his need for understanding. I later described the time just before his death as a “space of reconciliation.”

Before he left, we embraced, and he walked out into the darkness, like he did that very first night he and Sheri came over:

When it was all over, we said goodnight and showed them to the door, knowing that they were not going to get into the car and drive home like ordinary guests, but catch the tram back to their little park where they will try to live out another night without getting mugged or killed, lying huddled together in the darkness.
(Mark and Sheri, September 10, 2004)

We spent a year with Mark, and in the end, he died just about the time it looked like he might get traction, just about the time it looked like his life might turn around and start to move forward.

What did it all mean?

I've been struggling with this question, and the best answer I’ve come up with so far was written in Mark’s own handwriting, a letter he wrote in response to something Johanna posted on the blog, about a man she knew who drank himself to death:

“Reading your story let me see that we can only do so much to save the people we love and care about. Only God has the answers as to why people choose to drink themselves to death or drug themselves. So please don’t be feeling remorse that you didn’t do more. You did what you could by caring and loving him.”

And I’ve thought a lot about this post since his death.

I'm still on your side, brother. Still holding out for that winning season. Praying that it finally comes.

I still believe in you.

Goodbye brother, and Godspeed.

May you find the home you’ve been looking for.


Miss Eagle said...

I have read each of these three posts through my tears. Thank you for your commitment to these people and I hope one day that, as Sheri's life goes forward, she too has something to give of herself to others. Taking people who are homeless and addicted into your home is never easy. It is challenging but surely it is the gospel front line. Perhaps the powers that be could be asked to explain their policy on pauper's funerals and to rethink the policy. I once helped to organise a pauper's funeral. The circumstances were not harsh like your situation but it always challenges the norm and there is the rub. Let us all remember that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head - his was a life of poverty and homelessness and unsettledness yet the sacrifice of his life has given us life and hope for 2000 years and eternity.

Sampson said...

Dear Eagle's Child,

I have written a letter to the local mayor, though not on the cremation issue. It just seems perfectly logical to me that when a homeless person is released from prison on a drug-related offense, that person should go directly into a supportive housing program or some kind of treatment. To release them to the streets tells me that we are not really all that interested in rehabilitation.

Thanks for your comments.


VIctoria said...

Thank God for you. And God bless you.