I Think I Understand Now

© Ian Espinosa on Unsplash


It was an otherwise unremarkable night in 2017. I had arrived early for the evening shift at the emergency shelter where I work and had just stepped inside the kitchen to gather my thoughts. I soon found myself speaking to Tom, one of the guests residing in the shelter. It turns out there was much I had to say. I remember it all, and I’m sharing it here as I shared it with him, though some details have been changed to protect his identity.

Tom, do you remember the last time we spoke here? Well, I certainly do. It was the first time I felt scared about someone’s drug use. It was the first time other men in the shelter came up to me to say they were scared. Yes, they really did. You’d be surprised, Tom, how much the men in this shelter actually care about each other, and how hard they try to pretend that they don’t. It was the guys who shook their heads and complained so dismissively, “Tom is out of control.” It was those same guys who each told me privately, in quieter but more sincere tones, “Please help him.” I had just started this job, though, so I didn’t know how. My job is not to be anyone’s savior, but I found myself in the strange position of being asked to save you and being, quite frankly, one of the only people close enough to you to try. So even though I didn’t say yes, I didn’t say no either.

So much has changed, hasn’t it? When you first entered our shelter back in the fall, you had been street homeless for so many years that regardless of whether you kept using drugs, we considered it a success that you had simply decided to spend a winter indoors. You missed Logan Square, though. That park was your home and even if you weren’t sleeping there you still visited every day. Until January, right? I remember you told me that you had seen your ex‐girlfriend walking through the park, and you were too ashamed to approach her, but you could see that she was pregnant and walking arm‐in‐arm with another man. She was happy; you saw her happy in a way she wasn’t happy when she was with you. You came in that night extremely intoxicated, but beneath it all, you were just devastated. Heartbroken, really.

Do you remember how I asked you to go with me that night to the crisis center up the street or to the emergency room to detox? Your substance use was simply out of control. I don’t think you realized how much my voice was shaking while I said those words. I felt so nervous confronting you. You didn’t want to go. You asked every question you could about when we would get there, how we would get there, how long we would be, what would happen once we got there, when we would leave. But what I noticed most in that exchange was that you didn’t leave the room. You could have walked out, but you didn’t. I couldn’t answer any of your questions because I had never done any of this before, so that’s when I finally said, kind of pleadingly: “Tom, I care about you, and I don’t want to see you get hurt. Please go with me. Please.”

I didn’t think I had said anything extraordinary, but you got very still when I said that. You leaned over the countertop toward me, with your head bowed, looking down. You were so quiet, Tom; it frightened me. You know, we like to think that silence is worshipful, but sometimes it’s just dreadful. Then all of a sudden two tears rolled down your face and dropped in between your hands. To be honest, I was trying not to cry, too; you were trying even harder, though. You know, that’s something else you all do in this shelter. You all cry, and you all act like you don’t. But every one of you has cried in my office or shared quietly that you wait until it’s late at night, when everyone’s asleep, and you throw a blanket over your head and cry. How is it that someone can feel so alone in a room full of men who genuinely share his pain? Why can’t you guys be tender with one another the way you are alone?

How is it that someone can feel so alone in a room full of men who genuinely share his pain? Why can’t you guys be tender with one another the way you are alone?

Tom, I remember you took a breath in; you held those tears back fiercely. I’ll never forget what you said next because you spoke like each word was made of lead: “I have nothing. I have lost everything to drugs and alcohol … friends, family, girlfriends, money. I have ruined every relationship I’ve had. I don’t even remember what it’s like to be sober, and I don’t want to have to deal with what’s in my head sober. I’m not going to detox, and if you give me an ultimatum I will walk out of the shelter right now. So what’s it gonna be? Do you want me to leave?”

You knew how I would respond, didn’t you? You knew I cared too much to give you that ultimatum. You were right. Do you remember what I said to you? “Tom, I won’t make you go anywhere. I want you to stay. You don’t have to go anywhere.” I recognized that if you felt I was pressuring you into treatment, you really would flee the shelter. It was safer to keep you here, even if you were still using dangerously, because we could at least try to engage you about treatment; if you disappeared to the street, there would be no one else to do that. You’d be dead within a week.

But you weren’t dead within a week. You stayed, and during that week we found you that bed in the long‐term treatment program for chronically homeless men. People said it was the best program in the city. The director even agreed to meet you in person at our shelter in a few days to go over everything, then drive you over to the program herself. What shocked me more was the moment I told you, and you said you would try it out. You actually agreed to give it a chance. If I’m honest with myself, in that moment I felt like I had saved you. I felt like God had intervened on your behalf. This must be grace, I thought.

Then I walked into the shelter the following evening and saw the yellow note tacked to the notice board: “Heat broken.” We confirmed the heating system had indeed broken, which meant, as you know, that we could not remain in the building overnight. It took us less than an hour to make arrangements with nearby shelters to house everyone until the heat was fixed. Everyone handled it fine. Except you.

You were the last one to leave the building. I remember you looking at me intently for a moment, and looking around, then saying with resignation, “We really can’t stay here? It’s not that cold.” And I, also with resignation, said, “No, we can’t; we have to go, Tom.” A quiet moment passed before you responded, “Then I think I’ll just go back to the park.” I asked if you would come back the following night to meet with the treatment program. “No thanks,” you said. “I think I’ll just go back to the park.” And so you left, just like that.

You never came back. A few weeks later I got the news you had overdosed on fentanyl. Word on the street is that you realized it the moment it happened; you looked up, with the needle still in your arm, and said: “Call my mom.” And then you fell face‐first on the ground. Dead. Gone.

© Jair Lázaro on Unsplash

Someone once told me that there is beauty in sorrow. I think I understand that now, Tom. I wanted you to know that.

So much of what happens to us seems so random, Tom. Not in a pointless sort of way, but just matter‐of‐factly random. I am in awe at the weight of happenstance in our lives sometimes. Why couldn’t the heating system have failed one day later, just one day?

It wasn’t my job to save you, Tom. I didn’t try to, but I didn’t not try either. I did care about you, though. A lot, actually. And I think you should know that the men in the room just outside this door cared about you, too. A few even cried when they found out that you had died—and for the first time, I saw them cry openly here. I saw them comfort each other. Without hesitation, without hiding, without explanation. That night was painful, Tom, but there was also grace in it. Not the smug grace of getting what you want and having it your way, but the grace of feeling connected even when everything has fallen apart, when you’ve completely failed, when the world has conspired against every hopeful intention and effort you made. Someone once told me that there is beauty in sorrow. I think I understand that now, Tom. I wanted you to know that.

Andrew Huff served with Quaker Voluntary Service in Boston, Mass., in 2015–16. He attends Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting.

Posted in: 2020, Drugs, Features

, , , , , , , , ,

One thought on “I Think I Understand Now

  1. Johanna Jackson says:

    City & State
    State College, PA
    Andrew, thank you for your tender article. It inspired me to change some new writing, and move it to the second person, because I saw that come alive here. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Sign up for Friends Journal's weekly e-newsletter. Quaker stories, inspiration, and news emailed every Monday. Web comments may be used in the Forum column of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.