Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Gift

Hola mi Gente,
The names and physical characteristics have been changed in order to respect confidentiality, but the following is true… I share it because I believe we sometimes forget why we’re here and what it is we’ve been promised. 

* * *

Mr. Mario

I don’t remember how it was he first came to me -- whether it was through my then director or immediate supervisor. Whatever the case, the first time I saw him, he was wearing these dark wrap-around sunglasses, the kind prescribed after cataract removal. When I asked if he had had the procedure, he answered in the negative, stating that he just liked the way they looked.

Then he did something that would come to define him in some ways: he squinched his eyes and despite his advanced age, he grinned that disarmingly boyish grin I would become all too familiar with.

He was in his mid-to-late 60s by the time we met, having been just released for a twenty-year-to-life prison sentence under the Rockefeller drug laws. Believe me: I’ve been around the block a few times -- this man was no drug kingpin. During his sentence, he suffered a stroke that partially paralyzed his left side and impaired his short-term memory. He was a Colombian national who was released with no papers. He had nothing: no social security card, no official ID -- nothing -- though the state knew enough about him to keep him caged for 20 years. He was in desperate need of medical services and a host of other things, but he had nothing. He was living with a cousin nearby my office, but his cousin was threatening eviction if he didn’t do something financially.

I couldn’t think of a more difficult case. If you sat here with me and attempted to create the most difficult case scenario, I doubt we could come up with something more difficult than Mr. Mario.

At first, I considered referring him to another organization since I really didn’t have any expertise with helping senior citizens and when I suggested an organization, he did something he would do again and again: he practically begged me to help him.

“You’re the only one that can help me, Mr. Rosario,” he insisted.

I told him he didn’t have to call me Mr. Rosario, that I preferred to be called Eddie.

“But Mr. Eddie,” he persisted, keeping the honorific, “you have to help me. No one else will help me and I heard you are the man that can help me!”

No matter how much I tried to impress upon him that he would be better served by another organization, he insisted that I was the best man for the job. “I know you can do it, Mr. Eddie,” he encouraged.

I didn’t even know where to start, but something about him touched me. I think it was partly his unwavering faith. I mean, this guy was in some deep shit and he was telling me everything would be fine. What's not to admire? Finally I relented and agreed to help on the condition that if I could find someone better suited than I, he would move on. He agreed to that condition, but with a confidence that it would never be needed.

It took us months and, honestly, there were days I have to admit dreading seeing Mr. Mario, as we would come to call him. But even on my worst days, when I was most busy, he would somehow melt my heart. When we would come up against an obstacle, or something seemingly impossible, Mr. Mario would assure me that I would find a way. Once I asked him, “Mr. Mario, tell me how we’re gonna do this because right now I don’t have a clue.” His answer? “Well, that’s why I come to you!”

The first issue we addressed was his short-term memory. We agreed that he would always carry a little notebook and that he would write important dates and information in that notebook. He was pretty good at that, though I think his short-term memory issues were sometimes selective. So, he would write things down in his little notebook and that took care of a lot of problems except when he would forget the notebook, which wasn’t often. One time, he lost the notebook and he was terrified. He kept at me in my office for about over an hour on that one.

Whether you believe Mr. Mario deserved such a harsh sentence or not is irrelevant, what most bothered me about Mr. Mario’s situation was the complete apathy with which the state dealt with his predicament. For example, one day Mr. Mario came into my office with a huge bruise on his leg and one on his face. He explained that he had slipped on some ice and had fallen on his way to a parole appointment. I was shocked that he was even being forced to visit his parole because he had a genuine medical condition. When I called his parole officer to inquire, her response was that I didn’t know “these people” how they always try to “get over.” When I informed the parole officer that I had copies of his medical condition and that he could probably sue the state if he got hurt, she calmed down a bit. Right after that conversation, Mario informed me that parole called to say they would be making house visits in the future.

My question was, and still is, what was Mario doing on parole to begin with? What harm could he cause? He could barely walk!

And that’s how we fought these battles, Mr. Mario and I. We would take one thing at a time because there were so many problems. And when we would win a battle, he would come to my office and proclaim, squinching his eyes, his face radiant with gratitude, “Mr. Eddie! You are the best, best, best, best friend I have! You are so good to me, Mr. Eddie!” He had this way of screwing his eyes shut and expressing this total gratitude that would make me forget everything-- all the battles, the injustices.

The ladies at the doctor's office loved him. Working together, somehow we managed to get Mr. Mario much-needed treatment before we were able to resolve the problem with documentation. The girls advocated for him and between all of us, we were able to get his Medicare.

Eventually we were able to get his social security and that was a whole other battle in itself. I didn’t want him walking around with cash in his pockets, so we had his check direct-deposited. I taught him how to work an ATM, but he could never really remember all the instructions, though I had him write it down. So when he needed money, he would come to my office and make me walk with him to the nearest ATM and withdraw money for him.

That was a battle… Eventually, he would learn to work the machine. He would take so much pleasure in the little things. Like the time I bought him a slice of pizza. He told me he hadn't had pizza in so long, he forgot how it tasted. He really liked pizza...

One day, I promised Mr. Mario that we would organize a trip and that I would take him and several of my other participants to the movies. He hadn’t been to a movie for more than twenty years. Imagine that... I remember how happy he became, screwing his eyes shut and telling me how much he would love that. Sometimes Mr. Mario would show up at my office because he had nowhere else to go, and eventually, we got him to join with a senior citizen club, but he didn’t like that too much.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to deliver on the one thing Mario most wanted: to have his parole relocated to Florida where his elderly parents still lived. His mother was a retired academic, his father a retired doctor. We tried different strategies: using my parole contacts with the higher-ups, drafting letters to different state departments, meetings with his parole. No matter what we tried, or who we called upon, nothing ever happened. We couldn’t get Mario’s parole relocated to Florida even though his parents owned their home and his brother and family would be able to take better care of Mr. Mario.

It was very frustrating for me and it was a cause of much stress and fear for Mr. Mario. That was the last battle and while we weren’t doing too well on that front, Mario would never tire of reassuring me that we would succeed. Then I didn’t hear from him for a few days. I became worried and when I called, I was informed by his cousin that Mr. Mario was moved to a nursing home. Apparently, Mario started a small fire when he forgot to turn off the stove. 

I was devastated.

A few days later, a social worker called from the nursing home asking me if I could come visit. It seems that Mr. Mario’s condition worsened and he was falling into a depression. Could I please come by, she asked. He was telling everybody I would help him.

A few days later, I went to visit Mario and as soon as I walked into his room, Mr. Mario did that thing he always did, scrunching his eyes and that fuckin' smile, as if his savior had come into the room. I sat and talked with him for little while and all the time he was plotting a strategy to get out of the nursing home. “We can do this, Mr. Eddie!” he hushed.

It was one of the saddest things. To see a man institutionalized yet again. For Mr. Mario, the nursing home was prison all over again and it was the cruelest act, the hardest hit. I had to look at Mr. Mario and let him know that I probably couldn’t help him. As I sat there, I remembered with a deep sadness that we were never able to go to the movies... I couldn't possibly fathom how Mr. Mario felt.
I didn’t see Mr. Mario again for about a month or two. I couldn’t bring myself to see him at the nursing home because a part of me knew that it was offering him a false hope. We would talk on the phone occasionally and all he would talk about was the possibility of his living his last years with his parents in Florida. I couldn’t crush his hope, but I couldn’t honestly tell him that I could help either and that’s what he wanted hear.

Time, as is the case, passed and then one day one of my co-workers rushed into my office and informed me she had seen Mr. Mario nearby. After work that day, I passed by his cousin's house -- I was sure it was a case of mistaken identity. The last time I spoke to the social worker, Mr. Mario had taken a turn for the worse, suffering another stroke and his depression had deepened.

Well, when I inquired -- fuckin’ Mr. Mario! -- I don’t know how or when or why, but he somehow managed to get his parole relocated to Florida after all. At least that’s what his cousin told me before slamming the door in my face.

I stood there laughing like a lunatic. Mr. Mario had pulled it off! He became free -- at least for a little while. All I could think of was Mario basking in the Florida sun, squinching his eyes and that look of total gratitude on his face.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

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