Saturday, June 10, 2006


(Reprinted from my submission to the Voice of Olympia–Nov 2004)

I can’t quite remember the exact moment in which I met Stephan. I do remember, though, that he had recently stepped off a bus from the prison in Shelton, and that he at first used the soft, slightly subservient tone common among men who’ve just been released from prison and who think you’re a part of the system.

Stephan was a middle-aged black man with big hair, pointed cheek bones, and a lower lip that curved out and down a little at the center like an old shoe horn. He had a beautiful smile that lifted his eyebrows and cut deep, chevron shaped wrinkles at the corners of his mouth. When Stephan walked, he stuck his rear out and leaned over a bit, taking short steps because of a back injury. His ankles were swollen and he had a big, round, distended belly that made me think of Somali children starving in the desert.

Stephan had joined the military as a young man, most likely to stay out of trouble or to pay his way into school. He served in the Navy through the late ‘seventies, spending most of his time traveling around the Pacific. The Navy, or more accurately, all the Armed Forces, suffered from an extraordinarily low morale at the time, and drug use was prevalent. Stephan’s ship was chock full of drugs collected at the various seaports of Southeastern Asia. “Hong-Kong had THE BEST heroin,” he once told me. Stephan, like many other veterans of his day, returned from the Navy with an honorable discharge and a drug habit.

After two and a half decades of hopping from job to job and from town to town nurturing his addiction, Stephan was arrested and incarcerated. He hated prison. He told me about having to listen to people scream at night as he tried to sleep. Once, he said, a guy hung himself in his cell and the guards marched all the inmates past him to get a good look before morning breakfast.

One day Stephan was particularly ill and needed to go to the hospital, but was being stubborn. Nick, one of our advocates, went running after Stephan to give him his home phone number in case Stephan changed his mind. Realizing he was lacking a pen, Nick went into the nearest establishment, a bar, to borrow one. Unfortunately Nick was under age, and, after being chased out of the bar and around the block by an angry and violent bartender, had earned from Stephan the title of ‘Damned Cool Caseworker’. Stephan had stood back giggling at the whole spectacle.

People often have funny notions about who drug addicts are. Most people imagine that drug addicts are universally desperate, dishonest, irrational, and dangerous. They rarely notice that cigarette smokers who don’t have cigarettes often behave the same as the stereotypical drug addict, and that we are all surrounded by cigarette smokers. At any rate, we miss out on the personality and character of people when we dismiss them as “junkies”.

As Stephan and I got closer, his courage became increasingly visible to me. Stephan’s probation officer had been relatively easy on him. He had known that Stephan was still using heroin, but continued to give him chances in light of Stephan’s thirty-year addiction. Then one day, most likely under pressure from his boss, the P.O. suddenly requested a clean urinalysis, within the week. Stephan dropped his habit cold turkey, and Meta and I went with him to the emergency room as he kicked. He vomited, yelled, groaned, defecated, panted, and vomited again. Sometimes his eyes would roll back as he held his belly. Rivulets of sweat rolled down his nose and cheeks, mixing with his tears. He’d holler at the nurses, then catch himself and apologized and crack a joke to make them smile before another cramp hit his stomach and he’d yell again. He stuck it out, though- the whole night.

Every winter, pneumonia becomes an epidemic among the homeless. It seems as though everyone in sight is coughing, hacking, and sweating. A few months ago, Stephan came down with pneumonia and was hospitalized. Under normal circumstances, Stephan should have recovered after a couple weeks and been back on the streets and in our lives. But Hepatitis C, gotten from a dirty needle, had been eating away at his liver, and causing fluids to back up in his lungs, belly, and ankles. Instead of steadily getting better, Stephan’s condition crashed as his liver gave out.

Meta and I went to visit him the day before he died. When I walked into Stephan’s hospital room I was startled to find a ghost of a man, emaciated but with a strangely bulging belly. His wild and lonely yellow eyes peered out from an orange tinged face, and a huge, matted tuft of hair stuck straight up from his head like a messed-up lion’s crown. I had known that he was ill before I came, but I was now certain that he was dying. I talked with Stephan’s nurse for a moment, then sat down on the edge of his bed, took his hand, and started to cry.

“Well, it looks like this is it, buddy,” I said to him, shaking a little. Stephan squeezed my hand, held it up against his cheek, smiled for a moment, and said, “The last couple weeks have opened my eyes...” And then his voice became too weak to understand.

Nick, Selena, and I visited him the next day. We held his hands and read Psalms to him as he died.

In life, Stephan was a friend to many, a guest and a brother to us at Bread & Roses, and a junkie to most of the rest of society. He was imperfect, addicted, and afflicted with illness. In the very moment of his death, though, the man that Stephan was, his very existence, the memory of him was rarefied and transformed in my mind. As he died, I thought of how he had stuck it out in the emergency room as he kicked heroin, and of his extraordinary courage. I looked over at Nick as he held Stephan’s limp hand. At this moment I realized that it was Stephan who trained Nick and who trained me and inspired me to be who I am today. And he became for me like an angel sent from heaven to make us good.

I know that this is all a simplification, that I am mystifying an imperfect and mortal man, yet I also know that he was all of these things in his imperfect and difficult life. I also know that we all embody such a beautiful nature, and that it is imperfectly expressed through the filter of our own fallibility.

You see, the memory of a person changes for us when they die so that we might have a chance to recognize real human value for once, to see it anew because we can’t take it for granted anymore.

Life looks different to me since Stephan died. I had an intense commitment to his health and sobriety, and failed. But in this failure I discovered the real contribution I had made to him, and that he had made to me. The job of Catholic Workers, of the volunteers and staff at Bread & Roses, is to be a family for the people on the streets. The only authentic commitment one human being can make to another is the commitment to love. Meta, Nick, Selena, myself, and a whole lot of other people loved Stephan, and served as his family when he died. This is all that matters.

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