“Candi, I’ve fell and I can’t get up.”
The man’s voice on my messages was extremely distressed. He sounded like he might have been crying. The message had been recorded much earlier that Sunday morning. I was half-awake when I started to check them, but this one startled me into full awareness. It was Robert. Dwayne, my husband and I threw our clothes on and went to Monroe street where Robert lived. As we were on our way, I called Charlotte, and we rushed over to his apartment.
We could hear the television blaring, but the place was locked up tighter than Fort Knox. so we called Robert’s caseworker, hoping she had a key. Dwayne walked around the perimeter trying to determine a way to get in. There was no way to get it in the apartment. We knew that his case manager, Diane, might have a key. So, we called her. She did have a key, and she came right away, but it was just one key. Robert had put three more high-security locks on the door to protect his hoard of used television sets, DVD players, and VCRs that he intended to fix someday. I called 911.
After an unnecessarily dramatic rescue with a smaller-than-average rookie climbing through a tiny window and landing in the bathtub, we found Robert languishing on the floor, hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, his dog Blue at his feet. A cigarette smell hung heavily in the air. Cockroaches scattered in every direction as we came in. The floor of the dark room was littered with DVDs, dog food, fried-chicken bones, and old newspapers. Dishes caked with dry and moldy food were piled high in the kitchen sink, and the countertops were filled with half-full take-out containers from days ago, a bag of dog food, packages of dried beans, an open loaf of bread. Robert was propped up against an old chair with a floral cover and arms so worn you could see the wood. The first responders moved him to a stretcher. Neighbors came out to see what was happening. The day before, they had become a little concerned when they saw Blue outside without Robert, so nobody could be sure when or how Robert had fallen.
He beamed his familiar toothy smile at me as they carried him out of that wreck of an apartment, put him in an ambulance and set out for United Regional Hospital. Charlotte followed the ambulance and made sure everything was taken care of at the hospital. Robert was admitted for dehydration and diabetes-related problems. She called me soon after he was admitted to tell me that the injuries were not life-threatening and that he was stable and in good hands. I cried all the way home. What do people like Robert do if they don’t have someone to call?
December 7, 2018
“Are you Candi?” the nurse asked. I nodded.
“I need to give this to you,” she said, handing me a battered brown leather wallet. It was thick and heavy, and I couldn’t imagine how Robert had managed to close it. I wondered silently if they didn’t have a locker or closet where he could keep a few essential possessions with him in the hospital room. I hadn’t gone to the hospital on Monday, but I came today to check on him and cheer him up. When I got to his room, he wasn’t there. I thought they might have taken him for x-rays. That was when I saw this nurse, who was giving me the wallet and the startling news.
“Where is Robert?” I asked, attempting to control a panicky feeling in my stomach and chest.
“He’s in Critical Care.”
“Why?” I asked. The panic had crept into my voice.
“He was sitting up for lunch and dozed off with food in his mouth. He aspirated the food, and that caused his heart to stop.”
I resisted going into full panic mode only because I needed to focus on the next thing to do. The next thing to do was call Charlotte because I had to see Robert, but I didn’t want to go into the Critical Care Unit alone. She was on her way almost instantly, but it seemed like it took her forever to get there.
I had met Charlotte Gill in April, 2012, at the first service for Church Without Walls. She is a petite woman, meek and gentle, with a heart bigger than life. Charlotte is in charge of setting up the meals for our monthly gatherings at Church Without Walls. She and her husband John had “taken to” Robert from the time they met him, and they began to check on him weekly, helping him get to his doctors’ appointments and get an apartment.
As I waited for Charlotte, I cautiously opened the overstuffed wallet: appointment cards dating back two years, a worn-out picture of a little girl–his daughter, I guessed, little pieces of paper with phone numbers on them but no names, another little paper with my name and number. No money–not a surprise. Pawn shop notes from places with names like Quik & Easy, The Nest Egg, and Payday Loan & Pawn Shop.
Charlotte finally arrived, and together we went to the CCU. Robert was on a ventilator. We still did not comprehend what had happened. The CCU nurse was over the top wonderful to us, explaining everything. Robert had been without oxygen too long. He probably would not recover.
Several Years Ago
My mind went back a few years to the time when I owned a little coffee shop in the Hamilton Building in downtown Wichita Falls. Every day before I opened the shop, I would pick up the daily newspaper and put it on a small table beside the big comfortable chair at the front. One day, a man who looked like he didn’t belong there came in, sat down, read the newspaper, and nodded off to sleep. He was a nice-looking man. I figured he was in his forties or early fifties. He didn’t use his left hand much, and he walked with a limp. He didn’t ask for coffee, and I didn’t offer. We really didn’t talk. I was usually busy with customers. The building manager didn’t like anyone sleeping in the coffee shop, so I had to tell him that he was welcome, but he couldn’t go to sleep. He didn’t cause any problems. He just sat and read the newspaper. On a day when business was slow, I started a conversation. I noticed a stutter.
“So, do you work?” I asked.
“No, I don’t work. I got sick and have a disability.”
“Oh, where do you live?’
“I stay in a trailer in the backyard of my friend, Pat. His house is on Paradise Street.”
“Are you from Wichita Falls?”
After that, whenever he came into the coffee shop, if I didn’t have any customers, we would visit. Often he was at a loss for the right words. Sometimes he would get frustrated and say “Gaw dog.” He had trouble saying numbers, so he would slowly write them in the air with his good hand. If I didn’t understand something, he would shake his head, heave a huge sigh and with a quirky smile, say “Gaw dog,” and we would play this game until I finally understood what he was saying.
“Do you have a family?”
“I have a daughter that lives in Altus, Oklahoma.
“How old is she?”
“She was about six years old last time I seen her.”
“How long ago was that?”
“About ten, twelve years ago. She lives with her mother.”
“So, what do you do all day?”
“I walk around town. I see my friends. I buy radios and TVs to fix.”
“Are you a veteran?”
“Nope, never served. I got into some trouble, and ended up in prison.”
(“Oh, crap!” I thought, “I’ve got a felon in my coffee shop, and here I am talking to him.”)
“What happened?” Now, I really wanted to know.
“Well, I had these friends who I was hangin’ out with, and one of them had a car. They decided they wanted to rob a convenience store. I said, no. They said, ok, you can drive the car once we get the money and drive us away.” They robbed the convenience store, and Robert drove the car. They didn’t get far, and the police arrested them all. They were found guilty of aggravated robbery. Robert only had to serve four years, but the rest of them had longer sentences.
Robert walked with a limp, and I asked him about it. “I did some drugs, and I guess I got some bad drugs. I had a stroke and this is the way I walk now.”
Robert’s friend Pat lived on the east side of town. The trailer in Pat’s backyard where Robert stayed was small indeed. Pat ran an extension cord out to the trailer, and with a tiny fan, it was bearable, but hot. When I saw it, I was in shock. How could anybody live there? Robert stayed off and on at the homeless shelter and ate his meals there. Charlotte and I bought him phone after phone after phone to try and keep up with him. We would see him regularly, then he would disappear for days. We were worried at first, but we realized that Robert had a life that didn’t include us.
Robert’s birthday was in April, and my husband and I, along with John and Charlotte took him to Texas Roadhouse that first year after we got to know him. He had never been there. He loved it.
We gave him some DVDs because he was always repairing television sets and DVD players. With the help of some friends, we got Robert into an apartment. At one point he had twelve television sets in his apartment.
When Church Without Walls began in 2012, Robert was there. I thought about Robert’s sweet smile that could brighten up any day for me. In spite of years of drug use, he had beautiful teeth. In winter, he would grow a beard, and I thought he looked very distinguished. He chuckled when I told him that. “Heeeeeey!” he would always say when he called. Charlotte and I would take him to doctor’s appointments because of his diabetes and heart problems, which, along with other effects of drug use, had taken a toll on his health. We did our best to surround him with love. Another friend took him to lunch several times a month. Robert loved to eat out and have someone else pay.
I never felt unsafe with him, even though I knew that he had served time in prison. I asked him if he would like to see his daughter sometime. He hadn’t seen her since she was a little girl. “I don’t even know what street,” he had said, shaking his head.
Robert had mental as well as physical problems. He hoarded food, fearing constantly that people were coming into his apartment to steal it. More than one case worker had resigned because he accused them of stealing. He couldn’t keep an apartment clean, so he moved from place to place after each one became unfit to live in. He received a small social security disability check on the third of every month, but by the fourth, it was gone. We never knew how he had spent it. He had “pawn loans,” so he probably owed them money. He received food stamps, but he also went to the food pantries for more food, which he hoarded, along with a stash of broken TVs, DVDs, VCRs and boom boxes that he intended to fix someday. Diabetes and heart problems put him in the hospital several times, but he always bounced back. As Christmas approached, we would see Robert all bundled up in the cold weather ringing bells for the Red Kettle-Salvation Army. We would often take him some fried chicken. He loved that!
After Robert had been showing up at the Church Without Walls for a couple of years, somebody gave him a sweet blue-gray dog with a little tuft of hair on the top of his head. He named him Blue, and the two were inseparable, even for church services.
December 7, 2018
There was no conversation today. We had to find his next of kin. His brother was in jail and on his way to state prison. He had a niece and, of course, his daughter, but we had no idea how to find any of them. We finally located his brother. “Keep him alive. Keep him on the ventilator,” his brother had said, clinging to a vain hope that he would recover.
Charlotte and I rubbed Robert’s hand, stroked his forehead, told him we loved him even if he was a pain in the butt. Neither of us could stop crying, and the nurse’s eyes were tearing up too. They monitored him constantly and kept in touch with the hospitalist. After some time on the ventilator, it became obvious that although Robert might keep breathing, his heart might continue to beat, he could not be revived. His brother reluctantly agreed that the attending staff could remove the ventilator.
“He might last a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days,” the nurse told us. Charlotte and I stepped out of the room and held tight to each other. The nurse came out and told us we could go back in.
“It’s all right, Robert, we said. It’s okay to go home to Heaven.” We stayed awhile, crying until there were no more tears. We thought it would be our last time to see him.
December 8, 2018
When I returned the next day to see what had happened, Carson, a friend and hospital employee, said, “Robert has been moved to the fourth floor.”
I hyperventilated in complete disbelief. “Is he awake?”
“No, but when they don’t die right away, they put them on a floor to keep them comfortable.” In my mind, I was thinking that he would get better. Not so. The fourth floor is where they take them to die. The hospitalist called Robert’s brother to tell him that Robert was no longer receiving IVs or palliative care. Robert continued to breathe on his own, and at times he would open his eyes. Charlotte and I always held out hope that maybe…just maybe…he would wake up and say, “Heeeey!” and be his old stubborn self, but no. There was no change. He was just lying there in the bed.
December 10, 2018
The weather got really cold. Five days after Robert’s cardiac arrest, I had a brilliant idea of taking Blue to the hospital to see him. It was very much against the rules, but my friends and I thought that if Robert touched Blue, maybe…just maybe…he would come out of the coma.
It started to sleet. The plans were all in place. I coaxed Blue into a big black bag, and we proceeded to the service elevator so as not to bring attention to that whimpering black bag. Joel, one of the nurses on the fourth floor, was the son of a friend. He knew how much we loved and cared for Robert. Joel just winked at us when he saw the bag wiggling and heard it whimpering. I got Blue out of the bag and onto the bed with Robert. Blue’s fluffy tail wagged hard when he saw Robert. He licked his hand. I placed Robert’s hand on Blue. Maybe I saw Robert respond. At least I wanted to believe that Robert knew Blue was there. Blue licked Robert’s scruffy face and rough hand as a final goodbye. We were all weeping, knowing that this was without a doubt the last time that Blue would see Robert. We put Blue back in the black bag whimpering and wiggling, and a sad sound came from the bag as if Blue knew. Every day we would go to the hospital. Charlotte and I would tell him that he could go home to Heaven. But Robert was stubborn.
December 12, 2018
They took Robert to Hospice on December 12, nine days after the cardiac arrest. It was hard to convince his brother to take this last step, but he finally relented. I have never been to such a caring, warm, soothing and quiet place. The nurses and staff cared for Robert as if he were the richest person in Wichita Falls. Every day Charlotte or I and sometimes both of us would sit with Robert. We would caress his hand and his head. There were times that he moaned very loudly. After a while, the staff turned on Christmas music to drown out his moaning.
We could not comprehend why he was still with us because he had had no water or food since December 5. God had a plan, and in a story within a story, Charlotte and I told each other about our lives, and we gained a beautiful friendship.
December 21, 2018
Charlotte went to see Robert on December 21, a Friday. I had been busy with school and getting ready for Christmas, but I planned to go to see him on Saturday. Charlotte called. “There is a death-smell in the room,” she said. “He’s lost a lot of weight. His cheeks sink into the stubble of his beard. His breathing is very shallow and extremely slow.”
I decided to drop everything and go today–just in case. When I walked into the room, I was taken aback by that death smell, but I moved to his bedside and said, “Hey, Robert. How are you?”
He looked at me with eyes wide open for maybe ten seconds. Did he know who I was? I don’t know. I told him that I loved him and that he could go home to Jesus. There was a white washcloth on his forehead because he had fever–a herald of death in cases like this. I took the washcloth to the sink to freshen it up, then put it back on his forehead and said once more, “Robert, you can go home.” I patted his rough hands and told him that I would see him tomorrow.
December 22, 2018
The phone rang at 2:30 a.m. as Friday was turning into Saturday.
He was gone.
“Do you want to come see him?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“Give us ten or fifteen minutes to clean him up.”
I told my husband that Robert was gone, and that I was going to Hospice. On the way, I tried to call Charlotte, but there was no answer. The night was crisp. The stars were more beautiful than I could remember. As I got out of the car, the cold air took my breath. All was quiet, but I could hear coyotes howling in the distance. As I walked to the Hospice door, I took deep breaths. When I walked in, I was smothered with care, concern and love from the nurses, and I just cried. Alisha, a dear friend, walked me to Robert’s room. Another deep breath, then I felt like I was going to throw up.
“Are you going to be okay? Do you want me to stay?”
“No,” as I gathered myself, “I’ll be fine.”
She quietly left the room.
Finally, Robert looked at peace. No more moaning, no more shortness of breath.
No Christmas music playing. Just quiet, silence. I rubbed his forehead as tears rolled down my cheeks. I touched his hands–those rough and calloused hands.The nurses had told me to talk to him because hearing is the last sense to leave the body. I told Robert to please tell my mother that I turned out well, for you see, she died when I was twelve. “Tell my mother you met me; you know me.” I told him again to let her know I am doing great. I stood at the door ready to leave, but it was hard to leave him. He was such a pain in the butt, but we all loved him. “See you soon, Robert.”
So I left Hospice. The night was still quiet and the stars were still in their place. The coyotes continued to howl. Robert’s life was over.
January 22, 2019
We buried Robert’s ashes in the county cemetery on January 22, exactly one month after he left this world. The county cemetery has a place for people who have no money for burial. It was cold and a light mist was falling. Several of Robert’s friends spoke, but John Gill said it best:
It always amazed me how many people he knew and how many people knew him. Black, white, Latino, it didn’t matter. Everywhere we went, he knew someone in the room. The man could eat like no other! His favorite foods were ribs and hamburgers. Ribs at P-3 and hamburgers at Ronnie’s or the Oyster Bar. He also loved Golden Corral! When we went there, his eyes would light up, especially around the dessert area. He knew if he was with just me, he could get a little extra and I would look the other way. If Charlotte was with us, he could only get the sugar-free stuff!
One day we were in my car, headed to lunch, and I had a CD on with several classic rock bands on it. He started naming each one as they played and even knew about the time the song came out. I asked him how he knew so much about music, and he told me he used to DJ parties, and he remembered all those songs.
Robert was a bit of a hoarder, as so many former street people are. If he was ever offered socks, coats, gloves, he always took them…maybe took them “just in case he might need them.”
He had this crazy fascination with electronics. He would have TVs, stereos, radios in his apartment in various degrees of assembly. He would tinker with them. At one time he had thirteen TVs in his one-bedroom apartment.
Robert’s favorite catchphrase if you asked him a question he really didn’t want to answer was, “It’s complicated.”
He had this odd childlike quality. He could make you madder than heck one minute and then he would give you a big ole smile and you kinda forgot why you were mad, or you figured out it really didn’t matter. He was childlike in that very simple gestures brought joy to him. I gave him a coat of mine that had a lot of pockets, and he lit up because of all the stuff he could carry. I went through my collection of CDs and gave him a bunch, and he acted like it was Christmas morning.
Gaw dog, Robert! We miss you so much.