I find myself in Bed 3 (of a 4 bed room) in hospital.
Soon enough the girl in Bed 1 is healed and discharged. The hospital is crowded, and within the hour the bed has been prepped and a new patient shows up.
He is 60, about 5 foot 7, gray hair, a bit plump. I don’t really notice him as he comes in, but when he is under the covers and his vital signs and blood samples have been taken I can see him.
I know him. From the streets.
I have a very fine apartment in a derelict area. It is now quickly being gentrified but a handful of bug infested residential hotels still set the neighbourhood tone. We’re in the poorest urban postal code in the nation. Our neighbourhood is still the gathering space for the poor, a 5 block stretch of the people living in the underbelly of our society, flooding the sidewalks. Don’t get the idea this is a slum – in our country we don’t really have slums.
It’s in this context that I’ve seen, and come to know, Ronnie.
Ronnie used to come to see his ladyfriend who lived in my building. They met nearly every day, their rendezvous happening some magic, psychic way – Barb always knew when Ronnie was there. I know he had somewhere to live, yet still saw him sleeping sometimes on the street, in a doorway or over a heat vent. I saw him binning; probably the results of that were that I never saw him wearing the same clothes twice. I never saw him panhandling, on the other hand I knew nothing about how he spent whatever money he had. Ronnie, unlike many of his street companions, is not a drug user. He couldn’t come into the building, he and Barb would sit for hours on the pavement or, if it was raining, the doorway of a convenience store no one ever seems to go into.
When they first bring him in, they bring him a dinner. When the nurse is not there, the tray gets dumped and thrown with a large clatter onto the floor. When the nurse, Elke, comes back a little later, she says, “Oh, you spilled your dinner on your bed. Just wait a minute and I’ll clean all that up.” Ronnie says, “I didn’t like it.”
Later, when Elke is wrapping up the patients for the night, Ronnie exclaims, “God is so angry, and so am I!”
He refuses to wear a gown, and walks around in his pullups, dragging a blanket with him wherever he goes, like Linus. He pees half in the toilet and half on the washroom floor. Elke is equanimity personified as she repeatedly calls housekeeping to clean up our washroom.
Any test or procedure they want to do, he responds, “I’m not up for that right now.” But the simplest explanations always work: “The doctor needs to see if you’re getting better…” or “Do your blood pressure for me, okay?” He always, gracefully, accepts. And he always says Please and Thank You.
Although I recognize him, he doesn’t recognize me. At the time I was glad. I had my distractions – magazines from home – and I went back to my reading.
I was reading a fascinating article about the Antarctic explorer Henry Worsley, who, having previously taken a small band to the South Pole, strove to cross that continent on his own. He died in the attempt.
I was particularly struck by what was written on his skis. On one was a love note from his wife. On the other, an adage:
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
In Worsley’s case, failure was fatal.
For some reason, as I read I was drawn back to Ronnie.
I, who have spent my adult life searching for Meaning, wondered what Ronnie’s life meant. In the big picture, in the micro, from any perspective. Worsley’s Meaning was clear: his calling was to conquer. What was Ronnie’s Meaning, to himself or others?
The Force that Through the Green Fuse
There is no question Ronnie had what some would call mental problems (in fact, we shared a psychiatrist). When his friend Barb died, everyone in the building including the manager (who had, years earlier, banned Ronnie from the premises) treated Ronnie lovingly and tried to explain to him that Barb had passed on and couldn’t meet him any more – he seemed to accept it after 2 years of convincing.
I thought about his daily life, what he saw and did all day – he was a loner, wherever I saw him. I did my best to penetrate his experience, and I could find no overarching thread. I only saw where the next meal was coming from, what he could discover in a dumpster, who he interacted with.
What did his life mean, to him or to anybody else? For one thing, he meant Love for Barb. Isn’t that alone enough? (I say yes)
Outside of that, nothing much I could find.
And then I saw my flaw. Meaning is an overlaid concept, the vital instinct of our human selves is, as everybody knows, Survival.
Maybe Ronnie’s Meaning is, like Forsley’s, the courage to continue.
Two quotes came instantly to mind:
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: 29 yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” — The Bible.
Yes, why should Ronnie have – in my eyes – any consideration of Meaning?
What carried him to continue? That was the other quote, a beautiful depiction of the simple, pervasive, Life Force:
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower…” — Dylan Thomas
Ronnie was, with a fat layer of politeness, almost feral. Yet wasn’t he in possession of something I have always been fascinated with: Innocence? He is Innocent of Meaning. Oddly, that is something that forms the focus of much Spiritual work – regaining the innocence to simply Live.
May I suggest, to turn Worsley’s adage on its side, that for Ronnie the only failure is fatality.