At Christmas I witnessed a death. I only know his name, Christopher, and age and I presume the cause was cardiac arrest or perhaps, more likely, organ failure.
Though my mum works in palliative care as a Health Care Assistant, I myself have rarely ever been in such close proximity to death. I visited my grandad in hospital the day he died, though he passed away, my mum at his side, while my sister and I were in the hospital cafeteria complaining about the soggy chips and cold baked beans. We returned to find his body in a foetal curl, facing towards my mum; his sallow skin beginning to grey, speckled with yellow and purple tinges; the distinct aroma of bodily fluids circulated through the stale clinical air.
When I looked at Christopher I saw my grandad. His visceral frailty resonated as much as the palpable sense of peace gently emanating from his face.
Christopher was homeless. He died at approximately 11am on the 24th of December 2017, in front of me and a handful of volunteers and guests, in the sleeping area of a shelter set up specifically for the Christmas Holidays. The wrist band he was wearing only provided his name and age. The only other fact that I was informed of about him is that he had a preference not to sleep on the designated camp beds, instead finding the floor of the enormous sports hall a more suitable location to rest his head. My heart wrenches and I numb a little inside when recollecting this sad truth.
Soon after, my partner and I decided to leave our shifts early, feeling our presence a little useless and unhelpful as the gravity of the experience started to sink in and the numbness began to dissipate. The image of Christopher lying dead on the school hall floor was slowly etching itself into my mind. A barrage of questions impaled my thoughts; how long had Christopher been homeless and why? Did he have any friends also staying at the shelter? Was he known to the organisers as a regular? Did he have any family? Did he know that he was dying? Could we have done more to help him?
A pang of guilt bubbled up in my chest as I replayed the scene, could I have done more to alleviate his pain and discomfort in his dying moments? It all happened so quickly; time seemed to go into overdrive, propelled by a strange combination of adrenaline and confusion.
Eventually I sat down, melting in to the sofa, I called my mum and explained what had happened on my shift. She comforted me in her instinctively maternal and caring way. Though I felt that pang of guilt rise up again, only this time imbued with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. After spending time with those who are so bereft of love, barely surviving, on the margins of our society, to have such a wonderfully supportive mother, so loving and kind, felt as much a blessing as it did unfair. We discussed death and homelessness, the collision of two enormous societal taboos, and those in a similar situation to Christopher who are occasionally admitted to the Hospice in which she works.
She also highlighted the potency and symbolism of his name. Christopher was the patron saint of travellers, who carried the weight of the world upon his shoulders.
The painful symbolism stung my heart and a river of pent up indignation immediately gushed out. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I spoke words of crushing familiarity about the blatant injustices we are facing as a society at the hands of an emotionless and negligent Tory government. A government who have done nothing over the last 10 years but dramatically exacerbate the plight of our most vulnerable members of society. Their callous indifference to maintaining and sustaining our crucial welfare systems makes me sick. My stomach twisted and turned even further when I recalled the news headlines I read earlier that day which were fixated on the government’s trivial obsession with changing the colour of the British passport to an alarmingly ‘nationalistic’ Blue. Alas, this is not the time to speak about the nightmare that is Brexit.
Christopher’s death, and the stark reality of poverty and homelessness it hammered into me, seemed like a cruel and poignant juxtaposition. Those at the top deliberate aimlessly on the colour of a little book diverting the media and public’s attention away from the wealth of poverty that permeates our streets. People like Christopher would be better protected, and likely prevented, from the iron clamps of poverty and suffering if we had adequately funded social services to effectively support them. Unfortunately, the current government is so far detached from the everyday reality of (disadvantaged) people in this country, it’s as if they don’t even exist. Or perhaps they simply just don’t care enough to help. If they are able to keep such prevalent social issues relatively invisible to society through incessant media ploys and gimmickry (the cosy conjugal relations between our government and mainstream media cannot be underestimated), how can we expect to effect any distinct changes?
Then, I think of my Grandad. My family. I think of all the volunteers and guests at the shelter. I think of all the Support Workers, Nurses, Doctors, Teachers, Councillors, Fire (Wo)men, Police Officers, Activists...
All the beautiful souls out there who are dedicating their time to the service of others; their combined and determined benevolence aiding the creation and cultivation of a more loving and more compassionate society. Embracing and understanding human connectivity as both a blessing and a privilege. Standing shoulder to shoulder with such incredible individuals enables us to hold onto glimmers of hope in the darkness of the iniquity and inequality that surrounds us all.
Rest In Peace Christopher, 1950 - 24th December 2017.