On death and space and work
I keep a list on my phone of people I’ve loved who have died.
At my work, we call these people “neighbors” because they literally are. Our neighbors. They sleep somewhere right down the street, whether on the pavement itself, or in a crappy motel room, or in an astronomically-priced hovel.
The moniker “neighbor” serves the dual purpose of entreating resonance with the biblical imperative to love. It’s worth noting that some people who come to this work do not need a biblical imperative to love, and some people who adhere strictly to other theological tenets of the Bible seem to miss that imperative (to which much ink is devoted) altogether.
No one knows better than those of us who toil alongside people experiencing poverty that nearly any item — or tenet — can be a tool, and that nearly every tool can be fashioned into a weapon, deliberately or inadvertently.
Take the collapse of siloed bureaucratic systems of theoretical support for example. Might just seem like empty space where help should be, right?
Listen: people die in that space.
People die in the margins of pages of training manuals imploring helpers to not work harder than the neighbor.
People die in the time between expulsion from the hospital and acceptance into their referred respite program.
People who are “medically banned” from the local shelters, which is to say they are too much trouble to bother with, die in tents along the creek.
People die in the space between bottles or vials of medicine because they live with too much pain to face it alone, because the waitlist for Medicaid-accepting residential rehab is six weeks to six months.
People die in between phone calls from the people who love them.
People die in jail cells because they failed to appear in court on camping tickets and can’t take one more day.
People die in blizzards and heatwaves.
People die because they can’t tell the difference between “enough” and “too much,” or because the street medicine they take is more poisonous than they bargained for.
People die because they are not admitted to the hospital after a stroke, are not kept in the hospital with sepsis, or because their hearts literally break.
These tools become weapons, and people die.
Poet Alice Fogel writes about “the moment between later and too late.”
People die in these moments, whether narrow fissures or chasms, and they die believing they deserve this fate.
They die in the gutters of our consciousness, and so too dies our humanity.
They die because we avoid uncomfortable truth, eye-contact, our own complicity.
They die because we will not voice the incomprehensible reality of their circumstances.
They die in our silences.
They die because we believe that we are somehow different. That the accident of our birth into a superior milieu is our God-given right. That we can keep our fortune if we just hold tight enough.
Our neighbors know better.
And this knowing is only a small part of why I love them.
And I did, and I do. Love them.
So I keep a list on my phone.