“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.”
– Sydney Smith
I saw my father crossing the sidewalk this morning on my drive to work, and the image of his frail body has been branded on my mind all day. I have wanted to start a blog to chronicle my experiences, thoughts, and feelings as I try to help my father. It is a constant struggle having to accept that I cannot force a person to change, while pushing a system that is slow in mobilizing resources and assistance when it is needed. I find it ironic that thousands of dollars have been spent fattening the pockets of campaigns trumpeting solutions for the homeless, while the money never seems to “trickle down” to the individuals who could directly benefit it. Don’t get me wrong — I believe in the philosophy of teaching a person to fish, instead of just giving them fish; but I would prefer that it didn’t take hundreds of thousands of dollars and sound bytes to get the right person elected so we can finally implement “the plan” to solve the homeless “issue.”
It’s not just an issue — my father isn’t an issue. He is a person. He is a human being. He is not perfect, and at this very moment he is sleeping in the shadow of a doorway in Honolulu. He is homeless in paradise because he was evicted from his apartment by his landlord and the building manager. He was evicted because he had not been bathing for months, and was a ‘nuisance’ to his neighbors. He was not bathing because he suffers from a severe mental illness, and continues to hear voices in his head telling him to not bathe. I have no idea why or when he started to hear these voices because I frankly didn’t grow up with him around. But, what I do know is that somewhere along the way his illness became bigger than himself. Somewhere along the way, he became less functional in this world and lost touch of his day-to-day purpose in life.
I will never forget the day I saw him on the street after I had returned from my Fellowship in D.C. I had serendipitously run into a homeless services director while working in D.C., and was able to gather tidbits of my father’s health status and living arrangements. I had learned that the Legal Aid Society was not able to provide services to assist him with the fair housing issue. His case must have somehow fell through the cracks. So, on my first week back in Hawai`i, I braced myself for the worst as I drove around looking for him. I found him standing at the corner of a busy intersection staring into the asphalt. His hair was matted and his head rolled in small circles. My throat felt like it was on fire, as I stood paralyzed behind him. I inched closer towards him feeling a sense of uncertainty, and finally found the courage to call out to him. He didn’t hear me. He couldn’t hear me. I slowly stepped closer and mustered up the courage to tap him on the shoulder. Still nothing. He didn’t look up. He didn’t turn around. By now there were a couple of pedestrians who had noticed my efforts, and I could feel their eyes burning into my back and face. I could feel their curiosity pierce through the space between my father and I. The vast emptiness between us was broken by a woman who approached me and said, “Don’t bother, he has been standing there for days.”
At that point I felt as if I had swallowed a golf ball. I couldn’t breathe. A part of me wanted to scream at this woman, and the world, for being so callous. I wanted to yell that he was my father, that she was a heartless person to not care. But I realized that none of that would change the circumstances. So instead of screaming at her, I faced her and said, “I have to try.”
I have to try. I have never been so afraid to try something because of a fear of failure. The thought of writing out my experiences in this format elicits a strong sense of fear. But when I ask myself why I feel this, I realize that it’s because I am afraid of sharing a story that does not have a happy ending. I am afraid because I know I can’t change him. I am afraid because I know that people will judge me, my father, and frame their own views based on their experiences. At the same time I recognize that this could also reach so many others who are having similar experiences. We have to try. I have to keep trying.