When in Need…
March 27, 2019 – Dash Point State Park, Federal Way, WA
This morning I woke to the sounds of wind blowing through the tarps and the strident cawing of crows prowling the grass in search of camp leftovers. It’s a long way from the gentle cooing of Hawaiian doves, but it is no less magical. Brent is up, but only temporarily. He’s making his CCAP check-in call, the one that enables him to avoid lockdown while waiting for his hearing on the 5th of April. It’s their way of ensuring his whereabouts, a quick name and date which he inevitably follows with “Have a good day.”
As I heat water for coffee, I hear the neighbor’s shiny new white pickup pull up in front of his equally new shiny white trailer. He’s not the typical retiree who inhabits Dash Point RV sites. He’s younger, in his 30s or 40s and he keeps to himself. I’ve seen him only a few times in the couple of weeks he’s been here, clutching a small tan-colored dog in his arms, scurrying from his truck to the trailer, never saying hello. Every morning he wakes up ridiculously early, 4 or so, starts his truck and pulls out, returning around 7 or 8 am. I try to imagine a job that would call for a schedule like this, and all I can come up with is newspaper delivery man. But what could be more absurd than that—an independently wealthy man who feels a need to keep in touch with his roots by working at a menial job? No, it must be something else, but I can’t imagine what.
On the other side is an ex-military man who’s done two tours in Vietnam. By the way he walks and talks, I can see that army life has taken a toll on his health, both physical and mental. Unlike the dog man, he’s friendly and likes to talk about his past. The other day he regaled me with a story of a 3-year old husky he owned when he was married to the woman he now shuns (he’d like to move to Oregon where it’s warmer, but she lives there now). He blames her for the dog’s disappearance, though the fact that it disturbs him so much after all these years surely means he harbors some guilt.
The poor dog was kept in the back yard by herself. “She would whine and whine all day, you know how huskies talk?” He looked at Loki and I nodded in assent. “My wife just left her in the yard, never paid her any attention. One day she dug under the fence and got out. Never came back.” He turned back towards his trailer. “Well, I have to go make lunch now. Try to have a good day.” Try? I was puzzled by his farewell. Did he somehow sense I was having a bad day (I was), did he see how his sad story had affected me, or was he simply telling himself not to have a bad day?
Yesterday, I accompanied Brent to his doctor’s appointment. “I’m not leaving until they refer you for an MRI”, I told him, though I wasn’t at all sure that either of us could accomplish this seemingly impossible task. It all started when Brent was struggling to survive in his Auburn encampment. His feet went out from under him and he instinctively put his left hand down in the mud to brace the fall. Something tore, most likely the rotator cuff, and he’s been in pain ever since. The last doctor refused to schedule an MRI until he followed a course of physical therapy. For the past few days, sleep had been virtually impossible due to the pain in his left shoulder, and his tossing and turning had kept me up as well. The doctors prescribed Lyrica as a painkiller, but that Friday as he called to renew his prescription, he discovered it had elapsed. He’d have to wait three days until his doctor’s appointment to get it renewed.
I’m well aware that the older you get, the younger everyone around you appears to be, but I wasn’t prepared on Tuesday when the doctor opened the door and strode into the examining room. She looked no older than 20, but short of being a child prodigy, how could she have accomplished so much so quickly? Evelyn Wood’s condensed medical school? Brent proceeded to give her a list of every major physical injury since his youth (quite a few), and I could sense the doctor’s confusion. Why, exactly, was he here?
Doctors today want you in and out. Just get to the point. They’re saddled with so many patients, they don’t have time to listen, to evaluate. The exception to this was my first doctor in Hawaii. He loved to talk, but not about my physical ailments. He was fascinated by my house in Italy. “What’s it like there? Do you speak Italian? How’s the food, I’ve heard it’s wonderful?” I tried unsuccessfully, to steer the conversation towards my physical ailments. Shortly before my allotted 15 minutes was up, I succeeded in addressing my major problem, but didn’t get around to the other items on my list. I switched doctors, trying to explain why. “He’s a little too friendly”, I began, switching tracks as I realized where this was heading.
Sensing the confusion in the eyes of Brent’s doctor, I re-directed the conversation, knowing we had to hurry. “He’s here about his shoulder. He needs an MRI.” I tried not to look desperate while she explained the issues. “It’s a question of insurance coverage. They want to make sure the problem can’t be resolved by physical therapy before they recommend an MRI.” It was a special, insurance company kind of logic no doubt, but there were a lot of holes. Was this really saving them money? Not only would they have to pay for a course of physical therapy but, if the issue wasn’t resolved, they’d have to pay the $2500-$3000 cost of the MRI. “Move your left arm up and tell me where it hurts.” Brent quickly raised his arm, so quickly it was impossible to determine exactly where the pain began. The doctor looked as pained as Brent as I gave her the “boys will be boys” look, trying to pacify her. “I can recommend an MRI”, she told him, but the insurance company could turn it down. We left it like that, with a slip specifying a number to call to schedule an MRI appointment.
Today we’re moving campsites and I can’t wait to get out of here. By “here” I don’t mean Dash Point State Park—seems like we’ll be here forever, only because it’s the convenient place to be. “Here” is this particular campsite where we’re living under a spotlight. We’re right in the middle of the campground in an open meadow. The one tree near us has been recently cut down. A large branch fell down onto an RV during a windstorm and, instead of just pruning the tree, they whacked the whole thing down. Now we’ll be in a tent site, shielded by trees. We’ll no longer have power, but that’s a small sacrifice. The library has become our new favorite home—internet and power at no cost.
Brent has shaved off much of his beard and I love the way it looks. To me, it’s symbolic of his new life. I look at him and I no longer see the homeless man fighting to survive. During the time I’ve been with him, I’ve come to realize that “homeless” is not just a situation, it’s a state of mind. Once you’ve been there, you never fully return.
To most of us, homelessness is a condition, one that renders those afflicted invisible. But Brent rarely passes a homeless person without making contact. The other day, as we neared the end of our walk with Loki down by the river, I sensed movement to the right. If it wasn’t for Brent, I wouldn’t have noticed the homeless man huddled in the crevasse. “How you doing boss…you need a smoke?” A gnome-like face emerged from the inky darkness under the overpass and Brent handed him a cigarette. It was a small gesture, but sometimes that’s all it takes.
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