Sunday, August 16, 2009
The Soloist: Friendship and Freedom of Choice
“Let your good deeds be like drops of water into the ocean, which then disappear.”
If you have not seen The Soloist, I hope you will. A friend who has worked among people on the street for over a decade highly recommended it, saying it changed her view of things. “I’ve been trying to make them like me,” she told me, “but that’s wrong.”
I’ve just watched it, and it utterly reinforced one of the most challenging conclusions I’ve come to in knowing and caring about some of the people who are ‘chronically homeless’ in Dallas over the last six years: one cannot have an ‘agenda’ for people who are experiencing homelessness. And not having an agenda — yet still knowing them, loving them, being somewhat involved in their lives and trying to be of assistance to them in resolving critical, and sometimes urgent, issues in their lives — that is a very fine line to walk.
This past week, someone that I know, care about, and stay in touch with who lives outdoors under a bridge — we’ll call her Mary — became seriously ill. I’ve become increasingly close friends with this woman and her husband this year and see them from time to time. She didn’t call me until last Monday night, when the critical part of her illness, which had lasted several days, had passed. Fortunately, they’d had the money for a motel room for three nights when she was sickest — wracked with pain, drenched in sweat, up all night trying to get her fever down with Tylenol with cold baths. “We thought I was going to die Saturday night,” she confessed. “We were really scared.”
By the time she phoned me Monday, she had improved but was still in a considerable pain, and they were back in their outdoor camp. She thought she could make it through the upcoming night, but asked if I would be available to take her to the emergency room the next day if the pain became intolerable again, because her husband had to work, and, of course, they have no transport, their lone bicycle having been stolen a few months back shortly after they acquired it. I said I would. I offered them money for a motel room that night, but they declined.
The next morning, I got busy trying to find out what emergency medical services are available for homeless individuals besides the ER — information I felt I should have known but didn’t. I called and e-mailed friends who are staff members at The Stewpot and an acquaintance who’s a caseworker at The Bridge and learned the following:
~~ Parkland Hospital has a mobile medical unit (‘HOMES: Homeless Outreach Medical Services) which is at The Stewpot on Wednesdays and every other Monday.
~~ Parkland also runs a medical clinic at The Bridge each weekday.
~~ The Stewpot has a medical clinic in-house on Fridays.
~~ If one calls the City’s Crisis Intervention Team, there’s now a streamlined procedure set up to process a person with the medical emergency at The Bridge quickly, short-circuiting any expected wait in line which might occur. But this would only be an option, for me at least, if the friend who is homeless agreed to it, and they are often unwilling to involve city government in their situation for fear of being ticketed.
When I was unable to get in touch with Mary by phone all that day, I drove to their camp in the late afternoon, armed with cranberry juice for a kidney infection she thought she had, a bag of ice to combat the heat, and dog biscuits for their dog. I was shocked at how much thinner she’d become, noticeable just in the few weeks since I’d last seen her. She’d never had cranberry juice before, but loved it, and we made plans to go together the next morning to the Parkland Mobile Unit at The Stewpot. This time when I offered to loan her and her husband the money for a night out of the heat in the motel, she accepted.
The next morning when I drove up to the camp, she came walking down to the car and got in. I handed her the breakfast I’d brought her to eat on the way and another bottle of cranberry juice, but now, suddenly, she was hedging about going to the Parkland Mobile Medical Unit. She was really feeling OK and was no longer in pain, she said, and she looked better. But I urged her to let me take her to the clinic anyway. I knew that she has only one kidney with functions fully, and I so much wanted her to avoid another crisis. As we sat in the air conditioning of the car and the morning outside heated up, I tried again to persuade her to go see the doctor. I knew she’d be back out in that August Texas heat all day, barely recovered from her illness. “Shouldn’t we just get you checked out, get you in the system for Parkland? Then, if you have another crisis or if you need medicine for your kidneys, that will speed the process up for you when you go in.” But she didn’t want to go — it was as simple as that. I could see that she was grateful for my help but that she wanted me to support her decision.
And then… there was a moment… believe it or not, that I almost drove away with her in the car. I had been worried about her, on edge for two days; I had put things on hold to help her deal with her medical crisis; I’d canceled other plans I’d had for that morning in order to drive her downtown. I. I. I.
I argued with myself silently, and the inner monologue was pretty simple, going something like this: “Are you insane? This is a grown woman with children and grandchildren! OF COURSE YOU MAY NOT take her to the medical van at The Stewpot if she doesn’t want to go.” End of monologue. I hugged her goodbye, and, bag of breakfast and cranberry juice in hand, she climbed the hill back up to their camp.
I know better than that ‘friend-napping’ impulse implies, and it surprised me about myself. It was my choice to try to help Mary when she was ill. It was her choice, then, to say, “I’m OK now.” Would I have had the same impulse with a friend who is housed and lives in the suburbs to drive away with him or her in the car?
We cannot have an agenda for those people to whom we want to offer assistance. Suddenly, in that moment in the car when I had a momentary impulse to drive Mary to the Parkland Mobile Unit to get the medical care I thought she needed, I seem to have flown into maternal — or maternalistic — mode. I remind myself that the life Mary is living requires strengths, skills, nerve and wisdom which I myself don’t possess.
There are very to-the-point discussions in The Soloist about just this sort of issue. Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) tries to get a shelter director to force homeless cellist Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) into psychiatric care, medication and housing.
Lopez: “I want you to help him, because he’s sick and he needs medication and you have a team of doctors here. Tell him to sit down with them. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?”
Shelter Director: “Nathaniel’s made it quite clear he’s not ready to speak to a psychiatrist.”
“That’s not what we do here… Look, even if I did want to coerce Nathaniel into psychiatry… which I don’t, I couldn’t force him to take medication. The law’s the law. Unless he’s an imminent danger to himself or someone else…”
Later, Lopez’s ex-wife wisely tells him, “You’re never gonna’ cure Nathaniel. Just be his friend and show up.”
I think The Soloist gets it very right. We can’t fix people, nor is it our job to do so. We can love them and do our best to offer them opportunities that we hope will make their lives better — if we so choose. And they, as sacred human beings in their own right, have every right to accept or decline our offers of assistance.
And then there’s this optimistic bit of science at the movie’s end which one may view as a form of Grace, when Steve Lopez says of his friendship with Nathaniel Ayers:
“There are people who tell me I’ve helped him — mental health experts who say that the simple act of being someone’s friend can change his brain chemistry, improve his functioning in the world. I can’t speak for Mr. Ayers in that regard. Maybe our friendship has helped him, but maybe not. I can however speak for myself. I can tell you that by witnessing Mr. Ayers’ courage, his humility, his faith in the power of his art, I’ve learned the dignity of being loyal to something you believe in, holding onto it, and, above all else, of believing, without question, that it will carry you home.”