The Old Man and the Shelter

They respect him. The young ones move quickly to assist him. Bring him coffee, a snack, a plate of food. They will gift him, or rather pay him respect with a smoke or two. In their culture that is honor. Giving tobacco.

Some come to visit him, to talk Cree, to reminisce, to laugh. To those who show this Elder respect he treats well. Unless you are authority. Then, he will fight you. Literally.

Doesn’t matter the time or place. If you are police, government or shelter manager. The Old Man will push back. Amazing that he hasn’t softened after all these years. His physical condition is deteriorating visibly now. Month by month. In retrospect I feel very privileged to know him. To witness his uniqueness, his humanity. Never be another like him.

It would help to speak his native tongue. To be able to connect to his heart, language is vital. He lights up, and talks animatedly when another speaks the language of his youth, his only reality. Without the tongue, we can’t get close to knowing him, to him knowing us, without a common sense of together.

He’s been living homeless, on the street or sleeping rough in the bush for decades. Even in the winter, outside, pan handling on the streets, guarding the treasures from those who would take his sustenance. Now, using a walker, his legs failing, he has to depend on others. Is that hard for him, to have to ask for help, in this severely independent life?

Seeing him visibly weaken, month by month. Many wonder what will become of him. He has out lived many who have “chosen” this life. As his body fails, the options for freedom close in, shut down. He sees it coming at some level.

The lifetime of hand sanitizer, mouthwash, rubbing alcohol, hairspray ingested, occaissional wine, and rare hard liquor ravages his body now. He still must have it to cope, to get up in the morning, to not think, to not feel. Its much harder to consume now, when he is stuck in the shelter, sitting in plain view, just outside the managers door.

He is close to my fathers age. My father who I never got close to is also aging, and body failing. He is a “functioning” alcoholic. Acceptable to society mainly because he stays upright and provides for his family. He achieves numbness daily, inaccessible to his children or wife. I have been angry with him for years, but now I accept the reality of his pain. In my weakness, and in learning from the Old Man at the Shelter, I can better understand, feel for my father.

I reach out to the Old Man in kindness and what I perceive as friendliness or respect. Some days he works with the system, most days its a battle. It must be hard to be in jail for him. His almost yearly visits to the correctional center for assault or disorderly conduct or for some minor offence are often intentional to get out of the cold for the winter. Even when the shelter is available, its hard to stay put, to fit in. It must be hard to have sobriety forced on him in jail. The body will rebel against change.

To work with the Old Man is to have your self torn apart. What you thought was empathy is shattered. To put yourself in his shoes, to feel his feelings, to be kind in the face of his unkindness is what this work is about. To help people who desperately want your help is achievable. To shelter, to feed, to bring the neccessities of life to one who would just as soon harm you physically or verbally is where compassionate humanity is tested.

In retrospect, I consider myself very blessed to have had the opportunity to care for The Old Man. The lessons learned, are life long. His strength, resilience, sense of freedom, his laughter and his pain were transparent for all to see.

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