Some roads in life are lonely and cold.
“I have cancer and I am homeless.” Those were the first words Charlie said to me in 2012. Either phrase is scary, but when I put them both together I saw a nightmare that was beyond comprehension.
My cancer treatment was over at the end of July, 2010. – I was free.
Week by week, month by month, things improved – I got stronger – now my path began to intersect with others with similar cancer stories – as though cancer was bringing us together.
Everyone’s condition is different so it was best for me just to share my story and let them tell their story, then they could find the parallels between us. That was the pattern – until I met Charlie.
Charlie and I shared the same unwanted cancer journey but he was making his trip while homeless. Yes, homeless. That was a path I did not know.
Charlie’s story was like many of our homeless neighbors, until …
Charlie and I connected because of my volunteer work with Charlotte’s homeless neighbors. He was ten years younger than me and “on the streets” without a permanent place to live. I could relate to his age, but his life-story was so different from mine. Taking time to listen to his story connected us and made me realize how imperfectly human we all are – how different, but how similar.
He was a Harding High graduate and former NC State student – but then he got his girlfriend pregnant and dropped out of school. I am sure those events were disheartening for his parents who had adopted Charlie when they were already in their 40’s, and equally stressful for Charlie, his new bride and her parents – it was not how any of them had envisioned the future.
Charlie and his wife had a baby girl – their marriage lasted for another 18 months and then it was over.
After the divorce, life was hard for Charlie. He lost track of his daughter and ex-wife, struggled with alcohol and other demons, and despite having had jobs and houses from time to time, ended up homeless.
I was getting to know someone who had lived such a different life than mine. It was eye-opening – and scary. Could that have been me? I had done my share of drinking when I was younger – what if everything had just spiraled downward – out of control until I hit bottom? Could Charlie be me? Could I be Charlie?
Charlie’s drivers license was taken away for a DWI conviction and he had been homeless for four years when he got the same news I had received. “You have cancer.”
“I have Cancer and I am Homeless”
Charlie’s symptoms had started as a cough that never got properly diagnosed until a doctor at C. W. Williams Community Health Center spent some time with him before getting him to Carolinas Medical Center (CMC).
His treatment protocol was the same as mine – chemotherapy and radiation – except his poor dental health required the extraction of all his teeth before radiation. Charlie would just need to deal with dentures later – or not.
When I think of Charlie in the early days of treatment – getting to the hospital every day – I understand the value of his acquired survival skills. Walking to public transportation from a night spent under a viaduct, wooded camp or door way – knowing where to get a hand out meal, different clothing – these are just some of the things our homeless neighbors manage daily.
I got in my newer model car and drove to my appointment – not Charlie. I had money for food and clothing – not Charlie.
Charlie may have even spent his nights camped close to Carolinas Medical Center or in their waiting rooms – sleeping in a chair – eating left behind food – asking for handouts.
It is when the treatment got hard – painful – that I lose any comprehension of how he was able to survive during that dark time. It was all I could do to make it from my comfortable home and into my wife’s waiting car, then be rolled in a wheelchair to the radiation table. How could Charlie do that in his weakened condition – with no help – totally alone?
When I finished a daily treatment I went home – to my privileged life and support system – Charlie went back to … homelessness. Back to nothing.
Amazing to think of – almost inhuman. He must have wanted to give up often, but he kept going. Was this determination in Charlie all along, or did the cancer bring it to the forefront?
In my comfortable home, I would shower each day and clean the skin around the feeding tube port to avoid infection. I would apply an anti-biotic cream and fresh dressings. My wife would carefully clean and sanitize my syringe with hot water in our kitchen. I would sit on our terrace in the warm sun and enjoy lunch or dinner – just me and my feeding tube.
But Charlie had his supplies in a small dirty back-pack. He would clean the skin around his feeding tube in public restrooms – washing out his syringe in the sink, often only with cold water, drying them with paper towels and stuffing them down in his pack.
Like me, Charlie needed four daily tube feedings, pumping in the liquid nutrition, but instead of safely storing his cans on a shelf in his kitchen, he had to hide them in various spots around town – getting to them as often as possible – feeding himself where he could find some privacy. My weight and energy loss were bad, but Charlie’s loss of both was even worse because of the irregular and missed feeding opportunities.
For me, the overnight stays in the hospital for a blood transfusion were unwelcome – I wanted to be home in my own bed; but for Charlie, an overnight stay in the hospital for a transfusion was like a trip to a luxury resort, I’m sure.
I talked of my experience as being in a dark cave – but Charlie was not in a cave, he was out in the open, on the streets of Charlotte – in plain sight. Yet invisible.
My daughter created a CaringBridge site for me. I got comfort from reading the many prayers on the nights I could not sleep. Charlie did not have a CaringBridge site – his daughter did not even know of his cancer – there were no prayer warriors to hold Charlie’s hand on sleepless nights.
Charlie Finds A Home
Shortly after finishing treatment, Charlie was able to get into permeant supportive housing. Hallelujah! I helped him move in and we went shopping for things he could start to eat so he could gradually stop using the feeding tube.
Charlie’s recovery was took longer than mine. His cancer was further along, because of slower detection, I’m sure. Also his weight and strength loss were greater than mine. I used my feeding tube four times every day at regular intervals, but Charlie could not do that. I took naps each afternoon and said ‘no’ when my body told me to, Charlie couldn’t do that either. Charlie would have used more energy to survive one day than I would use in several weeks.
Charlie was with us for a few more years, but his body just couldn’t sustain him any longer. He died before making it to the five-year cancer free celebration mark.
I miss him and his brave warrior spirit – and I worry about the other “Charlies” in Charlotte.
I am not an expert on homelessness or substance abuse. I experienced cancer from a different place than Charlie. Each time I think about my experience, I think of Charlie and all of the “Charlies” in our world who go through difficulty – caves – without the support of family, community and housing. That is too dark and too deep a cave for me.
Our city is now focused on ending chronic homelessness and that is a good thing. We are judged, I believe, by how we take care of the least fortunate among us.
What choices did you find in this story – were they good or bad choices?
Do you know anyone who has experienced homelessness. Have they been sick while homeless?
Do you know about ‘Room In The Inn’ in Charlotte? Have you ever volunteered?
As always, the conversation starts here.