Many years ago while out on some rounds in Whalley, the area of Surrey, B.C. with a tremendous poverty rate, where there are huge numbers of people living in homelessness, batting hardcore drug addiction, chronic alcoholism, many with mental illness, all people struggling to just get through the day, I met Paul and Bill. They were sitting in some tall grass, beside two old bicycles drinking some beer.
That meeting would lead to a lifelong friendship. Bill always smiles and laughs. He is the nicest, most gentle of men. He suffered a brain injury many years ago. “Paulie” as he was known to everyone close to him, had the bluest eyes and the kindest heart. Both men struggled with severe and chronic alcoholism. Both were the utmost gentlemen at all times.
They offered me a beer and were especially relieved when I told them I didn’t drink!! And there began our friendship.
Paulie and Bill truly were “brothers of other Mothers”, as the saying goes, and they always referred to me as their “Westcoast Mom”. What an honour to be given that title.
Neither men had family in the west. Their families were back east, two thousand miles away. But they were each other’s brother. And they had a close circle of friends who looked out for each other. Most of their circle of friends, like themselves, struggled with chronic alcoholism and homelessness. They all knew who would seizure first after sleeping. The body’s reaction to not having alcohol. And they made sure to look after each other.
I remember one time while at the Mission, Paulie ran in the door yelling for me, “Danny’s having a seizure, it’s a bad one”. I called 911 while running to the tree they were all sitting under. I knelt next to Danny, trying to keep him safe while he seizured and waited for the ambulance to arrive.
When I stood up one of my knees were wet. I said, “I sure hope I just knelt in some spilled beer and not pee”. At which Paulie said, “sorry Mom, but nobody spilled beer”!!! Oh great. Just great, of course I just knealt in pee!! So I went inside the Mission and scrubbed my pant leg and my leg and got back to work. Welcome to our world. And at that time, there was no place I would rather have been.
Paulie and Bill rode their old bicycles probably 30 to 40 km a day. They followed the recycling trucks pickup days and stuck to that schedule. They made their money collecting cans and bottles. They didn’t ask for any handouts. They made their own money. And that money paid for their alcohol for the day. After years of doing this, they had homeowners and businesses that would regularly set aside the bottles in a bag just ready for Paulie and Bill to pick up. Every day you could see them riding their bikes balancing several full bags of empty cans and bottles on their way to the bottle depot. They were wonderful recyclers.
Like many of their friends, they preferred to be outside in the spring and summer months. But when the cold wet weather of fall and winter arrived they would often stay with us inside the shelter.
Paulie started coughing a lot in the winter of 2014/2015. One day I found him slumped against a tree. I asked him to come inside. He said no he was just getting some rest. I took him out a pillow and blanket and told him I was worried he had pneumonia. He’d get it check he said. Of course he didn’t and over the next couple of weeks he was clearly getting sicker. One of the nurses at the sobering centre noticed it as well and told him to get it check or she wouldn’t let him stay (sometimes you have to use a loving threat to take care of someone when they won’t take care of themselves)!! It worked.
Paulie did go to the doctor, was diagnosed with pneumonia and given antibiotics. Only he didn’t improve. He just got sicker. Paulie was given x-rays and an ultrasound. He had lung cancer and it appeared terminal. He agreed to chemo-therapy but after the first round he decided it wasn’t for him. He was so sick and his hair was starting to fall and he just decided no. Paulie always wore his hair in a long ponytail. Since he was a kid. His ponytail and his bright blue eyes were what attracted the girls he would say!!
I made it my mission, that my friend Paulie was not going to die on the street. And I wanted him to reconnect with his family. It had been over twenty years he said since he had seen or talked to them. I encouraged him to make that call. I told him, as a Mom, I knew his Mom would be overjoyed to hear his voice. It did not matter how much time had passed.
He called his sister first. We explained the situation to her and she agreed to go to their Mom’s the next day with their other sister and be there when he called back. Paulie’s family, aside from being devastated to hear of his terminal cancer were overjoyed to hear from the brother and son who vanished from their lives two decades earlier. They always worried they would one day get a call that he had died. After all that time they never expected to hear his voice. And a few months later his sisters came out to visit with him for a week and took him on some wonderful local adventures. And they provided him with a cellphone so they could all stay in touch every day. Paulie’s Mom was not well and was unable to travel but she was able to speak to her son every day with that phone. Paulie and his family were now reunited and everyone of them took advantage of the time they had with each other. This was a very loving family whose lives had often been hijacked because of his addiction to alcohol. Paulie left, not because he didn’t love his family. He left because he did. Addiction for most carries a tremendous amount of shame. And because of that sense of shame people struggling with addictions often make the decision to stay away from those they truly love.
But Paulie and his family were now reunited and they spoke every day on that cellphone.
Every week I drove Paulie to his doctor’s appointments for checkups and got his prescriptions filled for morphine and for fentanyl patches. I gave him just one day supply at a time so he would not be a target for anyone wanting his painkillers. I also did not want to take the chance of him trading his morphine and fentanyl for alcohol.
When we finished our appointment each week with the doctor we made it a habit of going to the Dairy Queen. Peanut Butter Parfait was a treat he remembered eating with his father as a child and it was like a walk down memory lane.
But now I had to get Paulie off the street – he was getting sicker and weaker and becoming more vulnerable to violence in his weakened condition. For a couple of months he slept on the couch in the shelter. But he needed to be in hospice. I met with a wonderful lady named Michelle Wright, a very kind and dedicated Social Worker who pulled out all the stops and did everything she could to help and together we made progress in getting Paulie into hospice. The only problem was his drinking. Paulie drank two litres of cheap sherry every day. Hospice would agree to take him but he would have to get down to one litre a day. Over the next two months Paulie steadily decreased his intake. Finally he was down to one litre a day and Michelle was able to arrange that bed in hospice for my dear friend Paulie.
Hospice agreed that Paulie could have one bottle of sherry a day. That they would dispense it to him throughout the day if I provided them with the bottle daily. Paulie’s family agreed to pay for the sherry and cigarettes. We had a solid arrangement and Paulie was accepted into hospice. It was a warm, caring compassionate environment.
His first night there he was lying in his bed with this big fluffy comforter and pillows propping up his head, with his bottle of sherry beside him, a pack of cigarettes that he could be wheeled outside to smoke, a TV on the wall, and the control in his hand. He was dying and yet he felt like a king. He said, “June, if everyone on the strip knew how good this was, they would all want to get cancer”!! That was Paulie – he could make the best out of any situation.
October 31st – Halloween was Paulie’s birthday. Two years ago today he had his last birthday. He lived Just a few weeks longer. Paulie’s addiction was so severe, that even in his last days, alcohol remained his focus. That is what addiction is. As so extremely sick as my dear friend was, his body, his mind, demanded alcohol. It was a disease so severe he was never able to escape it. The last two days he used a sipper cup. He really could no longer drink but it could slowly seep into his body.
That is addiction. That is not a choice. That is not a moral failing. It is not a human flaw. Or a weakness of character. That is a disease. Addiction is one of the most unforgiving of diseases. And until you watch addiction up close, it is hard to sometimes understand just how profound it is.
Paulie always called me his “West Coast Mom”. He said I was the best friend he ever had. He asked me if I would promise to be there holding his hand when he died so he would not be afraid. I was privileged to be there with Paulie when he took his last breath. He was not afraid. He went peacefully.