I’m occasionally accused of writing only about our Micah friends who die.
So let it be known that this is not a story about one that died, but one who lived.
By the time I knew her, she was “the last.” The last, of a core group of chronic homeless that once affectionately called themselves the river rats—named for the piece of earth they mutually claimed as sleeping quarters each night.
One by one, over the years, she had watched members of that street clan die before her. A gentleman the police found dead in the woods after a tragic injury. Another who became so ill that his friends were pushing him around town in a wheelchair just before a massive stroke landed him on life support. And most memorably, her own long-time boyfriend, who battled terminal cancer. She cared for him in his final days in an apartment a community church had rented so that he did not have to die on the street.
Before the Hospitality Center, before the Residential Recovery Program, and back when the cold weather shelter was a simple thing a few churches pulled together every year, this woman and her friends had survived in our woods on the backs of each other.
As it would happen, her own days would be shortly numbered. She was diagnosed with cancer—aggressively growing in her right tonsil.It would spread to her jaw and down her throat. It would take over such that eating was a multi-hour task and she could barely lift her head to take a bite. But while the rest of us were counting down her days, she was adding them up.
The doctors talked feeding tube. She went to Subway, Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
We talked process and programs. She spoke of Goolrick’s Steve, a particular police officer she thought looked good in a pair of jeans and other community favorites that she knew would help her get what she needed.
Simple things became a challenge. But she walked to the store, cleaned house and wandered with no plan for where she was going.
We engaged conversation about settling her affairs. But she wanted to talk about her recent baptism, plans for lunch the next day, and when a particular Micah volunteer would be taking her for a ride on his motorcycle.
There was something about that feeling: speed on her face and wind in her hair. And I don’t just mean the thrill of riding on the back of a motorcycle. She cruised through life with the top down, basking and enjoying everything she could from the given moment. Perhaps it had something to do with the scenery. Maybe she just liked the thrill. But whatever the reason, her ride through life collected her a “great cloud of witnesses.”
When she got sick, there was someone to help her with a disability application. When her money came, there were people to help her find an apartment. As she sought treatment, there were countless caretakers who toted her to doctor’s appointments and spent time understanding her care.
Volunteers spent hours delivering her favorite meals, fetching her medicine and sitting with her in the hospital. Our staff scoured the country for her family, found them in California and Minnesota and made arrangements for them to reconnect after 20 years. And when the day came that she could no longer hold her head up, a bed was waiting for her at Micah’s home for the sick and dying.
She may have been “the last” of those “river rats,” but she was the first to have so many walking with her in that journey to the grave. We know from Hebrews 12:1 how important that cloud of witnesses is in the race that God has marked out for us. And that is the very thing our Micah family strives to be for all those races we witness every day.
The only guarantee for any of us is that we all cross the finish line, some perhaps more gracefully than others. But as a cloud of witnesses looking out upon the races run by others, it is our job to help each other run the best possible race we can. It is that love for one another, the cheers, the tears and unconditional care that gives us all the opportunity to throw off all that hinders us and ride with the top down, all the way to our final breath.