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I can’t do this anymore! I admitted to myself, gripping my cane. Like stricken puppies, my legs, refused to move, despite my commanding them to do so. I was beached, immobile, furious, a storm crashing within me.

I had already checked into the YMCA, was sucking a lemon cough drip, and was standing at my usual start position by the entrance. Ahead of me stretched the wide corridor; its recessed lighting reflecting upon the floor had helped me maintain balance the four months I’d been coming here. My helper waited for me to begin my customary walk toward the gym and the exercise room, her shadowing each step lest I fall.

That was three days ago, an experience that left me floundering in self-pity, one of the faces of grief.

It’s all about acceptance: my terminal illness has taken another hit—and there have been many—but not as pronounced as this one: Weakness like I’ve never experienced, shortness of breath that worsens speech production, and muscle loss that rouses issues of disease gnawing away at my body, despite still eating full meals prepared by helpers or brought by friends.

Yes, there’s change. Rather than use my cane, I rely upon my wheeled walker to get about—It’s slower but still works. Happily, I’m still able to blog the ongoing experience of my terminal illness, and if appropriate, I will return to the Y’s NuStep and exercise my legs—not to walk as before, of course, but to keep going, one day at a time with Precious God’s help. Besides, I’ve friends there.

Scraggly, whimsical, itchable, disarming, stinking, shuddering, shocking—some reactions I had while tending to the world of the homeless as depicted in the memoir: Grand Central Winter – Stories from the Street (1998). Its author and protagonist, Lee Stringer, a veteran of twelve years on the streets of Manhattan, knows—authenticity bristles in each word—some invented to express the inexpressible—its images often crawl off the pages or meld into belly laughs.

Everywhere, grief lurks, and violence is a razor’s edge from tragedy. The underbelly of breaking the law and getting caught by the “mopes” heightens the twenty-four-seven drama. Even institutions established to meet the needs of the homeless, like the Bowery Mission, Belleville Hospital, the Tombs Prison carry the pallor of the hopeless and their helpers. Bent upon survival, the homeless squat within subways and tunnels beneath Grand Central Terminal; Hell’s Acre becomes their neighborhood. 

Other than Lee Springer, the deftly drawn postage-size characters that flit on and off the pages don’t seem to go anywhere. The story remains the same, with slight variations: desperate for the next hit of crack cocaine or whatever substance is around.

Lee shares the same desperation until discovering a lead pencil in his shirt pocket

that he uses to clean off the screen for that last hit of the evening. Later, he remembers a composition book among his stuff, pulls it free from its entanglements, grabs his pencil, and writes up a memorable experience. In his estimation, it was good, also concurred in by a sober friend.

After years of practice, the obsession of writing replaces Lee Stringer’s former crack cocaine addiction. The residue left on the pages of Grand Central Winter – Stories from the Street is critical, now rendered in eighteen languages.

It has served me well.

It was 1880, the hardest year in the life of Ivan Ilyich, the protagonist in The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), a novella written by Leo Tolstoy. Its depiction of illness morphing into the shock of death has become a classic. Its dynamics find resonance in today’s experience of dying/death, my own, as well.

An injury from a fall and the persistent foul taste in his mouth compel Ivan to seek medical help, but none of the three specialists concur on the cause of his symptoms. Instead, they prescribe ineffective tonics that exacerbate his obsessive thoughts and worsen his pain.

Months pass with Ivan’s body wasting atop his sofa, his face to its back. Slowly, the specter of his death surfaces, and with it, more obsessing for the life he once had: Chief Magistrate of the High Court, bridge player, husband and father, in name only. From isolation and loneliness spur even more painful questions, all unanswered.

Mercifully, two hours before his passing, Ivan hears a different voice from his psyche questioning his fear of death. In its place, there is light. “So that’s what it is! What joy!” exclaims Ivan Ilyich. “Death is finished. It is no more.” Thus he passes.

Within Ivan’s experience, I saw my obsessive thinking, until grounded within the discipline of CPA’s Twelve Steps. His search for a fix for his symptoms recalled my own doctoring and disappointments for years. His depression, self-pity, loneliness, fears, sleepless nights, also mirrored my own, prior to my signing on to hospice eight months ago.

Unlike Ian Ilyich, however, contentment supports the waiting for my true home from whence I came, over eighty-four years ago. Yet, I’ve still much to learn … if allotted the time.

 

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