THE COMPASSION THING
A gentle snow is falling and you are walking down the street. You are
slightly exhilarated -- the effects of caffeine. Your step is full of pep,
your belly full of breakfast, and you're thinking "It's almost Christmas."
You have a full pack of cigarettes in your pocket, boots without holes in
them on your fet and enough money "exactly" to get you through
the week. Even though you don't have enough work to get you through the
next month, you have a working TV, a library and a Y nearby. Most importantly
of all you have friends. You are not lonely. You swing a white plastic bag
gull of groceries jauntily from arm to arm, thinking, "It doesn't take
much to make me Happy." and that's usually when IT happens -- a multi-headed
creature of monstrous proportions rears its ugly head at you from the street,
destroying your self-satisfied reverie and once again you find yourself
face to face with the COMPASSION THING.
Desperate, starving and next to naked, it lies in wait for you on street corners, doorways of doughnut shops, in indoor bank machines, in stairwells, in the subway, in the public libraries and in hospital waiting rooms, veteran, the runaway, the displaced new Canadian citizen. It lunges after you, after that quarter, that cigarette, that coffee, that belly full of breakfast, that bus fare, that money to feed two children...and it is inconsolable, no matter what you give it, because it seems that you can never give enough, or often that you have nothing to give...at least materially.
We all know that the streets have become a kind of Gethsemane (in which a compassionate figure like Jesus this time of year walks among the forsaken in spirit only), but the Compassion Thing is something that I find popping up in my personal and business life more and more.
Sometimes it's easier to show compassion for a stranger (a quarter can go a long way toward making somebody's day, but a three hour heart-to-heart talk with a self-pitying old friend can be expensive in other ways). Where do you draw the line with that friend, who has become so needy, emotionally and financially, through no fault of their own, because they've, say, lost their job and their self-esteem has plummeted to an all-time low? When their cable is cut off do you let them sit on your sofa and watch TV all day? What do you do with that affectionate, lonely friend, who calls you once an hour because they can't afford to go out and meet people any more? I'd like to have all of my friends over for dinner every day, but it's just so impractical. I'd participate in Kathy Ryndak and Gordon Riddell's "Where I Stop and You Begin -- Setting Boundaries and Conflict Resolution," a workshop being held at the Transformational Arts Centre that promises to teach you such things as "How to Say No," except I can't afford the $130 registration fee. I loaned more than that to my friends last month.
The Compassion Thing can literally door-crash into the party that your life must be ... as happened to a couple of friends of mine the other day. Convinced their home was being broken into (again), they rushed to their front door to discover and elderly drunk guy on crutches splayed on top of the door in the storefront that serves as their living room. Broke, and unable to get any information from the guy except for the fact that he, too, was broke, they disposed of his presence by loading him in a taxi, without telling the cab-driver that his passenger was fare-less. They were counting on the cab-driver's compassion to get him home; there's no way of passing the buck, when nobody has any bucks to pass.
Helene Lacelle, a local artist, and Peter Evanchuck, a local filmmaker, first became friends with "Scotty," a "regular" at The Paddock tavern, about five years ago. "Scotty wasn't a bum," says Evanchuck. "He was just bored. He was witty, charming, full of interesting stories -- and all of his life, he wanted to be an actor so I put him in a couple of my films (Rent and Hoax)." At 72 years old, Scotty was being allowed to realize his dream -- to be on screen. He was also a poet (see above): a real orator who prided himself on his "way with the ladies."
Exactly a year ago, Peter and Helene went away on a trip and when they came back, they realized Scotty was missing from his usual haunts on Queen St., such as the Duke of Connaught and The Paddock. They went to his apartment on Portland St., where the landlord barred their entry. Peter called the police, who broke into the room. They discovered Scotty on the floor; both of his lungs had collapsed.
When he recovered, Peter and Helene, who live in a small one room studio, took Scotty into their home. They were faced with the Compassion Thing, whether to let the public health nurse looking after him place him in a home for drug addicts and crazy people ("It was place where anybody could just drop dead looking at it," says Evanchuck) or whether to give him a chance to recover with people that he considered to be his family. Scotty lived happily with Peter and Helene for the next year, trying to stay alive to see the release of his movies, (including a documentary about Helene called "Nomade," which aired the day after he died).
During that time he suffered a few bad falls, fracturing vie ribs. This fall, when his intestine ruptured, it became apparent to Peter and Helene that Scotty was in serious trouble. He died about a month later.
When I asked Peter Evanchuck whether he resented Scotty's sudden intrusion into their busy lives, he responded by saying that he was more resentful of a society that could not provide the services to take care of Scotty's most basic needs. "Scotty was a buddy of mine and he has given me something very valuable, not only his wisdom, but also his performances in my movies. A year is a long time, and we were worried about how much longer we could take care of him. We were surprised he died. We thought he would get better, but he didn't."
I hate coming face to face with the Compassion Thing. I, like most people, fear it. I want to somehow recognize Peter Evanchuck and Helene Lacelle, however, for the courage, compassion and sense of humor they mustered up to take care of Scotty during this last year, and who in these rough times refused to let themselves be cornered by fear.
In fact, Scotty often told me, that because he was raised an orphan, he was never so happy in his life.
THE LONG WAIT
It is cold and dark in my room
Just a candle -- on a table
Flickers through the gloom
Closing doors--silent corridors
The distant fragment of a tune
Stings the heart
Reminds me -- will I ever
Will it be soon?
Tired and sad -- I lie down
on the bed
As I always do
From where I lie I only see
a bit of sky
Sometimes a cloud drifts
Then one night I saw a
The brightest star
I have ever seen--
A star I called the Star of Helene.
Forget the cold
Dream of warmth
in the hollow of smooth arms
Forget the pain -- Dream
Of cool fingers -- soft hands
Dream of all things
Morn will come -- then
Will come again
But never you.
ALAN SCOTTY McLAUCHLAN
Poem first published in THE NEWSPAPER, U of T. Photo of "Scotty"courtesy of Helene Lacelle.
|Alan "Scotty" McLauchlan born in Dundee, Scotland, April 24, 1918, died in his sleep at Toronto Western Hospital, Nov. 27, 1992.|