41 years and an umbrella

Posted: July 31, 2014 in Uncategorized

I am certain they never thought they would end up right here. In an empty church parking lot huddled under a tree praying the forecast was wrong. Storms were coming and the local forecast was calling for high winds, thunder, lightening and flash flooding. Things were uncertain and it must have seemed like a cruel end to a difficult few days.

Earlier that day, Brett had met this couple during his weekly clinic hours at the soup kitchen.  From across the room, he could see that they were worried. They had slept on a park bench in front of the church the previous night but their tattered clothing and unkempt appearance did not look to be purely from last nights rough sleeping. The husband was nearly frantic about where they would sleep tonight. They had braved a mild storm last night and  had taken turns holding the one umbrella they had over themselves. Now, they came to the soup kitchen in search of a meal, and more importantly, a plan. It was learned that the day before, this married couple of 41 years had been evicted from their apartment. They said there was a bed bug problem that the landlord had blamed on them. While the couple disputed whose fault the bed bug problem really was, the end result was the same: eviction.

Of particular concern was the health of his wife, a wheelchair bound woman with multiple medical issues. Her husband was her sole caregiver and because she traveled only by motorized scooter, simple taxi vouchers were of no help to them. A variety of idea were tossed out. Because the Lehigh Valley does not have any shelters that accept couples, it was suggested that the couple split up into the men’s and women’s shelter. The pair wouldn’t hear of it. He worried that no one else would know how to care for her like he did. In a nutshell, they would rather sleep on the street but be together than be sheltered and be apart. This may sound crazy, and maybe it is, but this is not an isolated story. We often see couples or even just close friends who refuse shelter because there is only room for one of them. When you have few possessions, you will do anything to preserve a relationship that has never shown you abandonment. Last winter, on a particularly icy evening, two of my patients had nowhere to sleep. They had wondered the streets together during the day ducking into businesses for a few minutes before going back outside. When one of the men was offered a bed for the evening, he refused saying he could never sleep that night knowing his friend was alone and cold. Instead, they spent the night huddled up against the back of the local YMCA.

The question was then raised, should the wife be sent to the hospital? While there may not have been anything obviously medical necessitating an admission, there was a chance that someone would recognize the situation an admit her for social reasons. But the couple was worried that someone would try to put her in a nursing home (frankly, not a bad idea looking at the situation) and then they would be separated forever.   While the Area Agency on Aging was unable to help , there was a sympathetic employee there who stepped up to try to find a hotel as an anonymous person volunteered to pay for a hotel for a few days to buy some time. She called several places but the only motel with a vacancy was miles away. Without transportation that could accommodate a scooter and no batteries left in the scooter, the couple wasn’t able to get to the motel.

That evening, they were last seen sitting under the tree, this time with two umbrellas.

One days like this, the stark contrast between lives is almost enough to make you cry (or scream). On this same day, our daughter was turning six.  Birthdays to children are like winning the lottery. The excitement about being a year older was rampant in our house and she could hardly wait for today to come. As we were sitting at the Chinese buffet, filling our bellies and singing happy birthday I couldn’t help but notice the sharp contrast in scenarios. Guilt swept over me. But as the rain pounded down and the thunder crashed, I comforted my two older children who felt scared and vulnerable with the passing storm. Just like the couple sitting under the tree. Suddenly I realized the similarity-  Unconditional love.

As a good country song says “Love’s the only house big enough for all the pain in the world.”


  1. Jim Withers says:

    So true – when we can’t see our way to a better place, love is always the place to start. Thanks so much for these wonderful windows on your lives.


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