This is the thing about Ron: We had been over to Cottage Hospital to meet him before his surgery. He was pretty miserable, with a lot of pain in his belly. Mostly because he did not have any options, he reluctantly agreed eventually to move into our small hospice.
And so it was that on February 27, Dr. Lynne Janhke drove into our driveway with Ron Skaggs. She was the one who had pulled him out of the rank-and-file at Casa Esperanza, admitted him to the hospital, watched as the doctors attempted to slow a nasty case of rectal cancer, and then, when there was not much more that could be done, delivered him to Sarah House.
For a very long few days, it did not go well. At Sarah House, we are intentionally devoted to the poor. We like them and we love them. We feel honored to care for “the least of our brothers and sisters.” And we have found them to be, individually and as a group, precious and funny and dear. Although many of our homeless folks have not had a good life, we put a lot of effort into assuring they do have a good death. But Ron was difficult. Ron was hard. Ron really made us wonder if it was all going to work this time.
First of all, he was a very dirty guy. His hands were crusted with years of grime and nicotine. And he refused to wash those hands before reaching into the refrigerator. His hair was pretty much a tangled mess. The surgery had resulted in a colostomy. And Ron liked nothing better than to come down the hall, pull up his T-shirt, and bellow, “My colostomy bag needs emptying RIGHT NOW.” Our offers to help with a much-needed bathing were unproductive. He continued to smoke his Marlboro Reds standing half-in, half-outside his room. Soon the air surrounding him was a thick mixture of colostomy bag, a singular body odor, and rancid nicotine. And on top of it all, he was defiantly hostile.
But we hung in there, refusing to abandon our belief that love always wins out. We were patient. We were kind. We kept our hearts open. Eventually we learned that because of a childhood of abuse in the bed of an aunt and uncle, Ron could not bear being touched by a stranger. We learned that the sound of the daily train whistle brought a great sadness to Ron because three years before, his son had been killed walking the tracks on the other side of town. We found out that a large part of his edginess was simply his terror as he prepared to reunite with the young daughter he had walked away from when he was sent to prison. “What can I possibly say to her?” he asked. “How can I make something not all right be all right?”
And of course, of course, we found out that the thing about Ron was that he, like us, like everyone, needed love. Not a little love, either. A lot of love.
Soon we also knew a whole lot of delightful things about Ron. He loved CNN and (yes!) he was a far-left Democrat. He was also an Animal Planet fanatic. He knew every single pigeon that lived in the eaves of the house and paraded across the patio in the afternoon sun. He knew their groupings and seemed to have a sense of both their long-term and short-term schedules. Fat Mama, named by Ron for her size and authority, was clearly his favorite.
Because of his rectal cancer and its growing tumor, Ron couldn’t sit down. He pretty much ate all his meals standing around the big island in the center of our kitchen. One day, we looked up and noticed no one was sitting in the dining room anymore. Everyone had taken to standing with Ron, eating tuna sandwiches and talking about Animal Planet.
By now we had come to like Ron a lot; in fact, we loved him. He knew it. We knew it. We both said it. Lots. “Love you, Ron.”
“I know it. I love you guys, too.”
And so it was that there was a wondrous day when he told us, clearly and because it was true, “You know, for a long time, I never saw any beauty in life. But because of my condition-” he patted his belly-“and living here, I see beauty-everywhere, all the time.”
The thing about Ron is we thought he would live a long time with his rectal cancer. The doctors thought so, too. But no one was looking at his COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). Then late one Thursday, his legs swelled up and suddenly he had a lot of fluids in his system. The nurse came over, ordered a prescription of diuretics, and told him to elevate his feet and stay in bed. Soon he was a little better, but by the next afternoon, the same pattern recurred. By Saturday, we were all getting worried, including Ron. We ate outside, talking to the gardener and watching the birds. There were a lot of “I love yous” and a lot of hand-holding. Ron went to bed at 7 p.m. and by 11 p.m., it was clear he would not live through the night. He died at 3:34 a.m. In the morning, the staff was called. We were devastated.
Then, as we have done so many times before, we washed his body, lit candles, and played a little music. We sat beside him, touching his dear forehead and still hands.
A priest friend of ours offered some prayers and led us through remembrances before committing his body and soul to God. It was a beautiful and sad ceremony, but I would be leaving out an important thing if I did not tell you that, during it all, Fat Mama came and perched on the recliner right outside Ron’s patio door.
The thing about Ron is that he came into our home-soon to be his home-and although it took a little while, we loved him and he loved us, humanly and deeply. This is the work of Sarah House, work we are honored to do over and over again. And it is the thing about Ron.