Ten years ago I was a case worker for a small nonprofit organization serving individuals and families living with HIV/AIDS. After a brief period of training, I began to meet with men and women whose paths couldn’t have been more different than my own thus far. Aged eighteen to fifty-something, our clients were typically uninsured, homeless or home insecure, and struggling financially, physically and emotionally. Aside from a bit of homesickness, I was healthy, happy and confident. The job was both leisurely and intense, with little direction from management and great opportunity to explore, learn and grow.
Several of our clients were ill, but most managed their condition fairly well. Some had access to federal assistance programs, but most of the Mexican and Central American men and women we saw were migrant workers without papers. Some were angry, but most were willing and glad to spend time with us. Some I remember, and most I’ve forg0tten.
Many were alone in their journey, and their visit to the organization may have been their only social experience of the day. Sometimes it was enough to say “hello” and inquire “how are you?”. The clients did the rest of the work. Our job was to figure out how to help ensure the client had a roof over his or her head, food, water and medical or social support, as needed.
Sometimes boundaries were crossed – by clients or staff – as we learned more about each person’s experience and coordinated a network of resources to assist them in moving forward. Sometimes they helped me, rather than the other way around, by making me laugh, or telling me a story that made me think differently than I had a moment before.
One of my clients was a man named Ron. Ron was probably twenty years older than me. Weathered, white skin, faded tattoos and hollow cheeks made him look older than he actually was. He was fiercely straight and frequently commented upon the fact; unlike many of the men we saw, his sexual experiences were exclusively with women, and he wanted everyone to know that. After shooting up in a friend’s car, he leaned back and noticed a half-empty bottle of prescription medication in a backpack stuffed under the seat.
The friend admitted to being HIV positive.
What did you do? I asked quietly, envisioning tears, shock, stillness, maybe a dash for home.
Then I remembered he didn’t really have a home, and hadn’t, for a long time.
I beat the crap outta him, he said.
What was done was done. Ron continued to shoot heroin and use other drugs, though he rarely drank. He developed a peculiar set of ethics that included never breaking into someone’s car or other personal space, but a gas station or a grocery store was fair game. He claimed convincingly that he never shared a needle, no bad how someone wanted it. Even knowing he was positive, there were plenty of people willing to take the risk of acquiring the virus.
He refused to let them take it.
Occasionally Ron began to show up for his appointments bearing small gifts. Once, he shyly handed me one of those tennis ball things that you put on the antenna of your car – in order to help you find it in a big parking lot, he explained.
Twice a week I drove my boyfriend’s dark green truck past fields of men and women wearing long pants and handkerchiefs picking strawberries. I sang aloud in the vehicle during the warm, dusty, heart wrenching journey and watched row after row of lush green plants being harvested. I accepted the tennis ball from Ron, though I never did put it on the antenna. It turned out that even heroin addicts are better at navigation than me, which is not altogether surprising.
Another day he brought me a bagel and cream cheese in a small paper bag. I discouraged any further gifts, but I appreciated the hope – and the sadness – I observed in his actions. I do not think that the kindness I showed Ron was anything other than what a decent case worker shows anyone, but there were moments when I wondered about just how little kindness this guy had ever experienced.
Ron stayed clean and sober for the better part of a year while I knew him, and he was invited to Thanksgiving dinner at his brother’s house. More or less estranged from his family, he attended the gathering with a healthy bit of trepidation and a six-pack. A few days later, I asked him how it had gone.
Shaking his head, he gazed at me seriously.
“Sara, they let me hold the baby”.
I cannot describe the look in his eyes. He hadn’t been permitted (or asked) to hold anyone’s child before at a family gathering. At that moment it was worth everything to be a part of this low-paying, dysfunctional but committed and loving organization just to hear him tell me his story, and offer a simple reflection that gave me tremendous pause about the way in which the world views and treats everyone and the vast diversity in our expectations of our place in our families and communities, our expectations of what we might wish for and do and be and think and experience and attempt.
Ron expected nothing. I, however, had been raised to expect a great deal, both of myself and of others. While thoughts whirled around my head, I focused on the dialog at hand.
We talked about what it’s like to hold a tiny, fragile baby who is sleeping soundly, surrounded by his family. He described how he had gently supported this teensy living person and silently watched his chest rise and fall with breath.
I had no idea what he was talking about, but it sounded good. Today I know that it’s almost impossible to stop watching a sleeping babe, especially if he’s yours, in those first few months.
Ron and I were different in many ways. By sharing his story, his humanity tumbled out of this nearly dry well of emotion while he cried and I listened and he made all of our differences disappear for a little while.
“There, but for the grace of God, go I”.
In other words, he could be me and I could be him. Had I been raised in an abusive environment with equally low expectations, I could not be sure that I wouldn’t have made the exact same choices, bringing me to a place where health and happiness were within reach, yes, but very, very difficult to hold onto with any sense of permanence.
It seems to me a lonely place.
Ron made mistakes, some of them quite serious, but then he wasn’t exactly provided a solid foundation on which he could learn to walk. A few months after the holiday, he started using again. Frail and not exactly depressed but not always smiling, he started sleeping in his car again, and I saw him less frequently.
I’ve been traveling all day, and the guy on the plane seated next to me today reminded me of Ron. He, too, appeared worn and thin. He didn’t meet my eye when we exchanged greetings, but a moment later a small animal started meowing at his feet.
Glancing downward, he grinned. “Anyone else hear a cat?” he joked.
He didn’t seem ill, but he sneezed a lot.
He had brought his eleven-year-old cat with him on his journey from Oregon to North Carolina. I’m not sure why, or if it was a one-way trip, or what, but the cat was none too pleased about having been tucked inside a carrier for several hours. Toward the end of the flight he snuck her onto his lap, and talked quietly to her. I asked if I could pet her, and he said yes. The flight attendant walked by and reprimanded him, and the cat had to go back in the carrier. We didn’t speak much after that, but I am grateful for the memories that came flooding back tonight because of his presence.
Memories of small kindnesses and sad, soul-bearing conversation, and memories of a man who died a few years after I’d left my position for a new job and a new community. May Ron rest in peace tonight.