A co-worker knocks lightly on my open office door. “I’ve got a man here? Can you listen to his story?”
Sure, I reply. I am the story-collector. Telling stories of the lives of the people we serve. Bringing a human face to life for other’s to see.
A short and stocky man walks into my office, black track suit, white t-shirt. He clutches a teddy bear in one hand. The other wipes at the tears streaming down his face.
He stands in front of my desk. Eyes wild. "I don't know. I don't know." he cries. "I don't know what to do."
I don’t know what to say.
I offer him a chair. Can I get you water? Coffee?
He gulps a tentative breath, collapses into the chair and sobs. “My son. My son is dead.” He looks at me, his eyes confused, red and watery. His shoulders start to shake.
Breathe, I say.
And he takes a breath, shakes his head and says again, I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.
I hand him a box of tissue. Breathe, I say softly.
And he breathes again.
Breathing helps, he says. I saw him. Just last week. I gave him a hug. He jumped off a bridge. Or maybe he fell. He’d be 22 this month. I haven’t seen him for 17 years. He’s not supposed to be gone. My daughter. My daughter she came and found me and told me what happened.
I went to the police. They told me but I don’t remember. I don’t remember what they said. I did then. At the time. I knew. But I don’t remember now. What's wrong with me?
And he looks at me as if there's an answer that will help ease his pain and confusion.
You've had a huge shock. A terrible loss, I say. You're feeling overwhelmed.
Yes. Yes. Overwhelmed. My mind is lost. I don't know where I lost it. God must have known. He must have known he was going to go cause I saw him. Just last week.
He’s staying out at the satellite shelter. I gave him a hug.
He pauses. Shakes his head.
I saw him in a line-up. Heard his name. Asked him if that really was his name and he said, Yeah. You're my dad.
I'm his dad. How strange. Him staying out at the satellite. I’m here. He’s there. Haven't seen him in seventeen years. I used to stay there. But now, I’m here. On the second floor.
My buddy, on the fifth, he asked me why don’t I move up and I told him I don’t know. Lotta responsibility to move up there. I don't know if I can do it.
I don’t know. How can I not know?
He sobs loudly. Tears stream down his face.
Breathe, I remind him.
My daughter. She’s tough. Real tough. She doesn’t like men. She came to find me. How did she find me? I don’t know. But she’s got a daughter, seven. Haven’t seen her in five years. My daughter’s a single mom. She's tough but not that tough. Good mom. Best mom in the world I think. I didn’t let her see me cry.
He stops. His shoulders shake.
What’s wrong with me? I’m losing my mind. They gave me some rocks. You know, the Victim Services people. And this teddy bear, and he holds the teddy bear up to show me. They said I could give it away to someone else. But I can't. I can't give it away. The two police officers, they told me everything but I don’t remember. What’s wrong with me? Being homeless makes you crazy. I’ve been homeless five years.
Crack. I hate it. Haven’t used in two months. That’s pretty good right? I had money and didn’t go for a fix. That’s pretty good right?
He pats his jacket pockets. Pant’s pockets. Finds what he’s looking for.
See, here are the rocks. They told me I could have one but I need all three.
He lines them up on his leg, one by one.
Believe. I gotta believe there’s a reason for all this.
Strength. They asked me if I was thinking of suicide. I told them yes. But I’d never do it. Death is God’s business. I need strength to get through this, oh and this one.
He holds up a blue rock with gold letters.
Courage. I need courage. I gotta have courage. Not to get through this though I need courage for this too but I need courage to get straight.
I put my name in for Calgary Housing. I was at the Foothills Shelter. I was the Mayor of the shelter. I’d been there since it opened. And then they kicked me out. Made it to the Salvation Army. Even got onto the paid floors. You’re doing good, they said. Real good. I told them not to say that. I told them not to say it until I paid my next month’s rent. I didn’t. Pay the rent. I used.
I haven’t used in two months. That’s pretty good right?
But what do I do? I don’t know what to do. I don’t know nothing. How can I know nothing?
You knew you could come to the DI and get help, I said gently.
Yeah. I did. I walked all night. I think I been walking forever. After I heard, I bought a six pack. Sat on a curb downtown in some parkade. This dude. Big guy. Real big guy. Came up and asked me 'what are you doing'. I started crying. Right there in the street. I started crying and he sat down on the curb and talked to me. That was real nice. Wasn't it? Nice?
Yes, I reply. It was very kind of him.
He’s not supposed to go before me. My mom, she’s gone. I thought my dad was gone but my daughter told me he’s alive. He’s in some 24 hour care place. I don’t know if I’m allowed to see him.
He starts to sob.
Breathe, I remind him.
Breathing’s good, he says.
If I get an apartment what will I do? I’ve never paid bills. When I wasn’t married I always went back to my parents. I made money. Everyone else took care of the bills. And then the crack came and I ended up homeless and now...
My son. My son.
Who will say good-night to me if I live alone? I've got two-hundred roommates on my floor. We say goodnight to each other. We care.
What do I do?
My daughter will organize the funeral, he says. I need clothes.
Don’t worry about that right now, I tell him. One step at a time.
Yeah, one step at a time. I gotta breathe. Breathing’s good.
I have to go see the police again. Talk to my daughter. She'll know what to do. But I can't talk to her today. No. Not today. I can't let her see me like this. Can't go where people are. No. Too many people. Not good. Not good.
There's a knock on my door. It's one of our counsellors.
I open the door.
Hi Jim*, he says. Let's go down to my office and we can chat quietly there.
Jim stands up.
Yeah. Gotta keep moving.
His shoulders start to shake. Breathe, he says. He looks and me. Thank you. Breathing's good.
He moves towards the open door and the waiting counsellor. He stops and turns back to look at me. One step at a time? Right? I know how to do that.
Yes you do, I reply. Yes you do.
And he's gone.
So much regret. So much sorrow. So many losses.
For now, he takes one step at a time.