As is usually the case until you’ve lived something..compassion runs low..and addicts seem to be the lowest according to the inactions of mainstream society. This same society..usually the first to rally for the ‘underdog’ cause..has somehow missed the reflections of self when it comes to addiction. People are beginning to see that addicts bleed red and cry tears of salt like anyone else, but we’re a long way off from any real solutions. Change is always slow and the fight to bring respect to the tables of all peoples..the slowest of all.
I remember when I was living in Vancouver in the late 70’s, I’d heard a girl I knew from the streets was in the hospital having overdosed on heroin and pills the day before. While waiting to meet up with my dealer I saw her Asian boyfriend hanging around outside a popular restaurant where people would go to buy their drug of choice. I asked how she was; he said he didn’t know because he was afraid to go and see her in case the police wanted to ask him questions. Recently arrived from the east coast I was taken aback by his answer but knowing what I do today..I guess he was scared.. strung out and not taking any chances..real or imagined.
I went up to the hospital later that day, found out what room she was in and sat with her. She was comatose..there were no police anywhere..I didn’t think there would be..there was no one actually. I asked the nurses why she wasn’t on a breathing machine, they answered that she was breathing fine and would probably come out of it in her own time. I never did know here real name..as I said she worked the streets..a really beautiful Native American girl with the prettiest long, thick, dark and shining hair, she looked to be no more than 20.
I spent 4 days in the hospital going to visit her. Every morning I’d look for the straight backed uncomfortable wooden chair that somehow always disappeared from the day before, carry it over to her bedside, place it to rest on the window side of her bed and taking a seat I’d sit watching..keeping guard..as she slept her deep, deep sleep. I was told people can hear you when they’re in a coma so talk I did, asking her to come back, to squeeze my hand if she could hear me..to try and open her eyes. Always there was nothing, no response. I marveled at how normal she looked..how simply peaceful..not a machine in sight..anyone in passing would surely think her taking a nap, recovering nicely from some minor surgery perhaps..and not in the serious coma she really was. A quick glance around told me her neighbors were all elderly women in various stages of medical conditions, a typical sight in hospitals these days. For many..though unbeknown to them..it was only a transition stop on their way to a last residence on this earth..an old folks home. Their next home..the one not of this earth..would finally be a permanent one. Or so I hoped.
On the days that followed when there was no change. I resorted to bargaining with her, saying how we could be great friends and get our lives back, she could come with me to Montreal, we’d support each other, start a small business..maybe go back to school. I’d tell her that she was needed here in this world, she mattered and was loved whether she knew it or not, adding too that whatever she chose to do would be what was right for her soul, I knew that, but I’d rather she stuck around if at all possible.
I remember thinking how bloody sad is this..not one person she knew standing by her side..no wonder she didn’t want to come back. When I’d run out of things to say there would be the silence I’d grown used to..I heard nothing going on around us…it was our little world. I thought of many things during my time spent with her, of my own addiction, parents, prostitution, hopes, dreams, lovers and other strangers…of life and what it could possibly all mean.
Memories took me back in time 4 years I had just turned 16, to the day I woke in an intensive care room..my mind foggy and unable to get my bearings. Machines hooked up to almost every part of body..keeping me alive..breathing for me. I’d just come out of a coma and then darkness engulfed me again. The next time I opened my heavy eyelids an intense anger flooded me. My very first emotion..my first reaction to life..was contempt and bitterness for the people who took my much desired sleep from me. Still very stoned I imagine from all the barbiturates I’d swallowed. I ripped at the tubes running helter skelter through my body..yanked at the catheter catching my urine…the breathing tube removed I tried to speak unsuccessfully…my throat raw from tubes. I fought the life given back to me..then I passed out again.
On the 4th day of sitting with her I saw that her third finger was stiff (it couldn’t bend), and her breathing much more labored..there was a thick gluey phlegm starting to come out of her mouth..I would keep wiping it away and massaging her finger..instinct told me this was not a good sign.
I pushed the bedside buzzer for a nurse to come in. When she finally arrived I said “Come on this is not right, doesn’t she more help than she’s getting..why is her finger like this and her breathing?” She looked at her then back at me with an empty stare and replied by asking if I was family and if not I really shouldn’t be there. Suddenly they cared who I was? Why, because I was rocking their boat that she may need more care. They knew bloody well I wasn’t family because I asked if they had her name when I first visited and every day since..at that point she was a Jane Doe. As long as I kept quiet, remained nameless, I was just another piece of furniture, like the sleeping doll in the bed I sat by. But I was alive, able to speak for myself, she could not. In hindsight I should have trusted my instincts and made them listen to me.
On the 5th day I arrived at 10 am as usual and headed past the nurses station to visit with her..as I passed I asked one of the desk nurses I recognized “How’s our girl doing today?” Without skipping a beat she looked up and said “She passed away a little before 8:30 this morning.” My stomach, suddenly not my own was lurching back and forth, my mind raced with questions, I was weak. An all encompassing anger raced through me and my heart sank as I said ‘What do you mean she passed away..she’s dead..what do you mean, I don’t understand?” “I thought you all said she would pull out of this, she’d be okay..why, why is she dead?”
Again I got the “This is not something we can discuss with you..it’s a family matter, we don’t control life and death we just try to help.” I just looked at her..at them all in disbelief and wanted to scream “You know damn well she had no family…did you even try..how do you feel inside that this young woman lay dead in your morgue right now..and you, we, didn’t even know the most basic of things about her..like her name?” She could have and should have gotten better treatment, you all know that, didn’t one of you speak up, give a little bit of a shit?”
But I didn’t, what was the use, it was too late for her and I couldn’t speak my throat choking back tears.
I could hardly catch my breath, eyes looking back at me without understanding, moving on to their next task already. My legs were shaking as I ran to the nearest bathroom, tears began to fall for this young life I had known all to briefly. Now in a place that cared not what she was or where she came from..finally at peace..as it should be.
Still..I wept for what was not hers on this earth..common decency and respect during the last days of her life, people to comfort, to say it’s all going to be okay..even if it wasn’t.
That day I spent in a park..under the shade of a great Cedar tree; a warm healing sun made its way through dense foliage to warm me every now and then, breathing fresh, clean, alive air. They wouldn’t let me see her again. I didn’t use that day..I was young, and I was learning what the world really thought of addicts. My future would hold many a lesson on the travesties done in the name of ‘ridding this world of drugs and their users.’ I called the city morgue for 3 months asking if anyone had claimed her body for burial. Before I left Vancouver, homebound to Montreal I called one last time. I was told a family member had been reached but no one had ever claimed her, so she was given a burial in potter’s field. I had asked to be notified if this would take place as I would’ve liked to have been there..no one ever called me. In truth though I buried her that day in the park..she was free..I felt her go..I felt her for a very little while…and it was good.
They (street people), called her Rose and by the way..within the week I saw her boyfriend arm in arm with a new gal. As we passed each other he looked up and asked if I’d heard Rose had died. I just gave him a sad little smile, nodded yes and went on my way. I guess rather than face the pain he’d moved on..as junkies and many people..are want to do during times of enormous stress.
Our time together was well spent I’d say..two strangers thrown together, ones life ending, the other a witness to her final hours..who after 4 days were as close as two people could be in a very special way. She said nothing..she said everything. She the teacher..I the student..her lessons done..mine just begun.
I think of Rose often during the course of a year..her pretty still face comes back to me. I long ago stopped asking why her..or others and not me, those questions are out of our hands, serve no good purpose. All we can do is accept that which we cannot change and when we know better, try and do better.
Rest well sweet Rose…you are remembered.