I have a standing date, every night, at about 1am, with an old friend named The-Things-I-Cannot-Control.
We meet at our favorite 24-hour diner, in the same booth, each on the same side where we always sit. I sit facing the outer wall of windows where the diner makes a 90-degree turn. This way I can look out into the darkness and be reminded of everyone else who isn’t there with us at the booth, because they’re asleep, and I’m not.
We get the same drink: coffee (preferably a few hours old and burnt from the element), two creams, two sugars. We leave our spoons in our coffee when we pick up the mug to take a sip. This is important somehow.
And we have the same conversation, every night, about the world, each other, our mutual friends (The-Things-I-Wish-I’d-Done-Differently, The-Way-I-Wish-The-World-Was, amongst others).
I saw a short video clip where some flavor of inspirational speaker gave his best piece of advice, that being along the lines of: if you’re worried about something, make a list of the things you can’t control, then a list of the things you can control, and then throw the first list away and work on the second.
This works pretty well for me in the daylight hours, but once I’ve run through that list I realize I didn’t actually throw the first one away. I just crumpled it up and shoved it in my back pocket.
And I don’t know what to do with that list, so I pack up a few leftovers from dinner and wrap some plastic silverware in a napkin and a rubber band and I drive to the parking lot of Big Lots, or the doorway next to the Unity Care clinic, or the vacant building a block from Fred Meyer, and I look for Lori and Michael, or Fast Eddie, or Sammie, or Matt (human) and Max (rottie-pit-mix).
I found Sammie crying in a doorway just before the second big snow, weeping uncontrollably and swearing ceaselessly at people who weren’t there, “I’M SLEEPING IN A FUCKING TARP, ASSHOLES, SINCE YOU STOLE MY SHIT!” and on one side of her was a pile of human waste and garbage and on the other side was her shopping cart, and she’d actually tied herself to the cart this time to try to keep people from stealing her stuff. Lots of do-gooders just like me had already dropped off food for her, so I went over to JJ’s and bought her some Mountain Dew and a pack of Crown 100s and gave her the blanket out of the back of my truck, and she drank the Mountain Dew right away and shoved the cigarettes into her shirt and started crying again.
And then I left, because what she needed was to not sleep in sub-zero temperatures wrapped in a tarp on the sidewalk, and I couldn’t offer her that. It felt awful.
“That’s something you can’t control.”
I take a sip of coffee, thumb anchoring the spoon. “But can’t I? Could I do more? Something different? Advocate in some way? Is there something about this that I could control?”
“Don’t fucking tell me to just do the best I can at that moment in time.” I put the mug back on the formica table with a sharp snap.
“Too bad, you’re about to hear it again. That’s all you can do for Sammie. And that’s all you can do for your mother.”
The 1am diner is the only place I can cry openly, and I haul a bunch of napkins out of the silver stand-up dispenser, shoved up against the window next to a leaning tower of jam packets and a salt shaker that got too close to someone’s scrambled eggs yesterday.
I know what’s coming, and luckily that particular dispenser never runs out of napkins.
“Well, fuck you very much.” My face gets red and blotchy when I cry.
“You know exactly why you drive food, cigarettes, lighters, dog food, bottled water, blankets, and Mountain Dew out to the streets in the middle of the big dark. It’s not going to make her Alzheimer’s any better. Also, you swear too much.”
I grab another handful of napkins. “Have I mentioned I fucking hate you, and I’d rather be asleep?”
“Every. Single. Night.”
I wonder if Sammie has children. Or if her mother is still alive somewhere. Grief and fear and trauma push us down the river of our years far faster than we are meant to travel, so it’s hard to tell how old she is.
I also wonder if she survived a 9-degree night in that doorway, under six inches of snow, but I’m too cowardly to go back and check. If I found out she died on a sidewalk under a tarp and my truck’s spare blanket, curled up around a pack of Crown 100’s in her shirt, I’d have a standing 1am date for the rest of eternity.
It would be nice to sleep through the night again someday.
Atheists don’t believe in an afterlife. There is no patriarchal moderator playing Yahtzee with our lives up above the clouds, and if there *IS* and he still kills random babies and firefighters, and burns the hands and feet of koalas in Australia, and lets Sammie sleep on a sidewalk in a tarp, and gives my mother Alzheimer’s before she ever has a chance to embrace her crone-hood, then I don’t want any part of his stupid fucking shithead asshole Yahtzee game anyhow.
We believe – as Herb Kazzaz says – the drip finally stops.
And that’s it.
But the mental exercise of playing “Who’s Hanging Out With Whom In Heaven Right Now” is too entertaining to pass up.
Tonight, I start.
(The first bout of crying is over, btw).
“Betty White is still giving out high fives and hugs. She hasn’t had a chance to sit down yet.”
“She won’t have a chance to do that for a few more eternities. Desmond Tutu?”
I throw a disbelieving look across the table. “Who the FUCK do you THINK he’s talking to???”
“Captain Obvious, reporting for duty.”
“Duh. Harry Reid?”
“Hanging out with Ruth and wondering who Mitch McConnell got under a desk for that’s kept him alive after them.”
I pretend to be offended, but I laugh because I am a terrible person.
In the lull, a police cruiser drives slowly past the diner window. Someone at the far end of the counter orders a burger, and the waitress heads back to the corner of the kitchen to wake up the line cook, who fell asleep an hour ago on a pile of unopened Sysco boxes.
“What do you think Sammie will do when she goes?”
“That’s easy. She’ll close the door to her bedroom, turn the lock, set the thermostat up-up-up, and crawl into bed, under a duvet, and sleep in safety and comfort for the first time in memory.”
There is another lull.
“What will your mother do?”
That makes me smile. “That’s easy, too.”
I wrap my hands around the coffee mug, still warm, still stale, always half full. “I dream of houses all the time. Big houses, estates really, with sweeping acres around them, and cluttered rooms of books and junk and the detritus of a life lived loudly, fully, in company and with joy, and sometimes there are rooms that need to be repaired, and there’s always someone taking a nap in the spare bedroom. And there’s always a kitchen. Always.
“And after my mother dies, I fully expect to sleep, all night, for the first time since she got sick. And somewhere in that first sleep, I’ll be back in that house, that estate, and I’ll squeeze through the visitors and toys and furniture and finally to the kitchen, and my mother will be there.”
“And she’ll smile at me, and beckon me over, and I’ll sit next to her at the kitchen table, and she’ll take my hand and say:
“See? I told you it would smell like nutmeg.”
I’m thankful we are on this planet at the same time. Pause if you must one day, but please do not ever stop.
What a wonderful journey you just took me on. I so understand your sentiments about the lure of imagining the pairing offs in an otherworldly afterlife. It gives tired brains respite in the middle of the night.
My mom would ask me if I wanted a cup of coffee while we watch Jeopardy.
Oh Martha, caregiving has been very hard on you, who has cared for so many; without patients, understandably, your angst has spilled over into the urge to care for all of the homeless people you meet. Everyone should care–especially in such cold!–but not everyone has your level of empathy.
A suggestion: If you can spare the time, you might fill out a disability (SSDI) application with Sammie, then try to find a lawyer willing to represent her. Most people are turned down without a lawyer, so it isn’t worth trying without one. Their fee will be taken from the first disability payment, which starts accumulating the day the application is submitted. I did this process with a homeless lady who used to park her wheelchair outside my building at night, and though it took over a year, we got her accepted and housed, with medical coverage.
Good luck, Martha, and remember that you can only push one boulder at a time uphill. Looking forward to your next.