“Good morning, Mr. Wright,” said Sarah, one of the nurses as she knocked and entered the room during one of our visits. “I’m dropping off your meds for today. I’ll leave them here on the counter.”
Bob responded, “‘Mornin’ Sarah. Thanks.”
Sarah continued, “Oh, and the van will be here to pick you up to go for your appointment in about 30 minutes. Is there anything you need before I go?”
“No, thank you kindly,” said Bob. Got everything I need.”
In spite of this new, secure and supported living arrangement, he never felt totally safe. He had told Jonathan prior to his move that he was very apprehensive about moving to Ruggles, but Jonathan thought it was good that he was at least expressing his concerns. Bob said he made a point now of always sitting on the side of his bed or in a chair facing the door, so that he wouldn’t have to watch out for anyone coming up behind him.
In early October, 2008, I had some hard news to share with Bob. He had ventured into town this particular day, and I met him on his corner at the Park Street Church. Just a few days before, I had learned that our friend, Sue, had passed away.
“Hey, Bob...how goes it today?” I said as I approached him.
“Ugh...my feet hurt,” he said and lit a cigarette. Just then one of his friends walked up to him looking for a match to light his cigarette. It took him a number of tries to light it since the wind was so strong that day and kept blowing out each he lit. He finally succeeded and the fellow walked away.
“Hey, Bob,” I continued, “I have some hard news that I have to tell you.”
“Yeah?” he responded suspiciously. “What is it?”
“Sue’s been pretty sick lately,” I started. “She didn’t let a lot of people know about it. I guess she wanted to live life on her own terms. She had had cancer some 30 years ago and said the treatment she had for it was really horrific. She hasn’t gone back to a doctor since. But, she said she made a bargain with God to let her live long enough to see her children grow up. Her kids are all married now, and some have kids of their own. So I guess that’s just what she did. She’d been ill for a couple of weeks and then finally went to the hospital over the weekend. She died on Monday,” I concluded cautiously.
Outraged at the news, Bob stood up and, leaning on his cane, walked around and whipped his arm in the air as if punching it. “Shit...see...everyone keeps leaving me!” he yelled. “They all leave me! They just leave me! You can’t trust anyone...! Shit...they just leave me.”
Interrupting him, and trying to deescalate his rage, I said, “Bob!! Bob, listen! She didn’t die to leave you! She was very, very sick. She didn’t do it to leave you. She was just very sick.”
Bob calmed down a bit, sat down and lit a cigarette. “Yeah...OK,” he said as he took a drag. “Yeah...OK.”
Later that year I received some hard news of my own. It was a Wednesday, Christmas Eve day. I was in a treatment room at the hospital sitting on an exam table, accompanied by a close friend, to find out the results of a recent biopsy. I should have been more suspicious; with prior biopsies they called me on the phone to say that everything was fine. This time they wanted to give me the news in person. While a nurse stood by, the doctor entered the room carrying my chart and put it down on the counter. Putting his hand on my shoulder, he announced the verdict.
“Christina,” he said directly, but with compassion, “this is breast cancer.”
I was stunned and burst into tears, and was immediately consoled by my friend.
He continued, “We discussed the case at yesterday’s tumor board. The cancer is contained, and while there’s an outside chance we may be able to treat it successfully with a lumpectomy and radiation, we all feel the most effective treatment needs to be a total mastectomy. It’s because of how extensive it is and where’s it’s located. My colleague at Faulkner has agreed that this would be the best treatment for your cancer."
I tried to regain some composure (as it is my practice not to deal with anger very directly, if at all). I asked, “OK, so what do I do...I need to know what this is, I need to know all I can about it ... and ... what can I do?”
The next day, later in the morning on Christmas day, my son and I kept our plans to visit Bob at his apartment. When we arrived Jonathan was already there, and Bob had the NASA channel on the TV. We gave Bob a DVD player and some DVDs that we purchased together as a gift for him. I also brought him a homemade turkey dinner which he put in the refrigerator for later. We sat down, and after we visited for a while, I told Bob and Jonathan my news.
I started, “OK...so...there’s never a good time to tell you this, but I need to tell you both. I just learned that I have breast cancer and...”
Visibly angry, Bob erupted again and started yelling at the world, “See what did I tell you – they always leave me! What did I...”
I interrupted him. Leaning over in my chair to reach out to him, I said, “Bob! Listen, Bob! Bob, I’m not going anywhere. I’m still going to be here. I’m not going anywhere.”
Bob calmed down some and realized what he said.
“The doctor said it’s early and it’s treatable,” I continued, “but I have to be home for a while after the surgery – like six weeks or so. But we can talk on the phone, and I’ll write, too,” I reassured.
Picking up a jacket, Bob said, “Yeah...OK. I need a cigarette. Let’s go out back.”
We all went out to the patio in the back of the center so Bob could smoke. It was a warm December day, and we sat outside with him until he finished his smoke. We laughed at the silly antics of the cat that lives outside in a make-shift cardboard box shelter.
After a while, I said to Bob, “Well, we need to get going. I’ll be around during January if you’re still going to Park Street; I can see you then. But you can also call...you have my number.”
“Yeah,” Bob said. “And I’m still going to the church. It’s actually easy to get there on the Silver Line bus from here. It’s not for the same reason anymore, but I really miss the kids and the regulars. I gotta see ‘em.”
Jonathan and I kept in touch with him in the weeks after my surgery. We spoke on the phone a couple of times and I sent some notes, too. He had this wonderful way of displaying cards that he had received earlier from Sue – and now mine as well – on two rawhide shoe laces that hung from a couple of nails on the wall in his apartment.
I made it a point to visit the week before I went back to work. During the visit he proudly told me about how he had gotten permission to use the common kitchen at Ruggles to bake a blueberry pie. Using some of the money from his “collections,” he bought all the ingredients at a local market, baked the pie and, as the residents were finishing up dinner one evening, Bob proudly produced the homemade pie for all of them to enjoy. There were smiles all around as the staff affirmed his generosity.
In June Bob had to be seen more frequently because of the damage to his kidneys caused by the diabetes that had been uncontrolled over so many years. A van from Ruggles House would take him to and from the health center for his appointments and tests. He took them in stride – a necessary evil.
Then during an appointment one day in August, his doctor began, “Mr. Wright I wish I could give you better news, but, the fact of the matter is that your kidneys are no longer functioning as they should. I know we’ve talked about this before as a possible complication of your diabetes; I’m afraid we’re at that place now.” As Bob became agitated, the doctor continued, “And we talked before about your diet. It’s going to be more important than ever that you follow the meal plan we gave you, and by all means no alcohol. Your kidneys just can’t handle that.”
“So...I gotta keep coming here like two or three times a week to stay alive? Depend on some machine to live?” Bob challenged. “What kind of life is that?”
“Mr. Wright, I’m sorry, but this is our only option,” the doctor firmly concluded.
One evening later that week, with just the light from the outside streetlight shining into his room, leaning back against two pillows on his bed, he stared out at exactly nothing in particular.
The next day I received a call at work from Jonathan saying that Hearth staff called to tell him that Bob had passed away in his sleep. We were both stunned and couldn’t quite comprehend the tragic news. I called the building manager at Ruggles to hear it directly myself. Later Jonathan and I talked some more and agreed that there should be a memorial service for him. It should be at the Park Street Church. We contacted one of the ministers at the church and a memorial service was arranged in the visitors’ center on August 20, 2009 at 12:15 p.m.
We tried, but failed to locate any family – Bob always said he didn’t have anyone anymore. But, sadly, it wasn’t until a year and a half later on New Year’s Eve that Jonathan was contacted by Bob’s niece, his brother’s daughter, who was living in Florida with her mother. Her mother had finally shown her the obituary for her Uncle Bob, and she wanted to know if Bob ever spoke about her father. She wanted to know more about him. We told her he did, indeed, talk about his brother and said how he had loved him; about how sad he was that he was gone.
He was to be buried in Fair View Cemetery, in what is called the “Lot for the City Poor.” The Commonwealth of Massachusetts covers the cost for burial services for the poor in what is their final resting place, adding further insult to injury as they are assured of being forgotten — there is no accommodation to place a stone on their graves. There’s just a number placed on the ground with a name on a corresponding list in the office.
Despite this, one of the members of Hearth’s Board of Directors managed a funeral home. She helped us make arrangements for a small graveside service. There were some restrictions at the cemetery. “The state agency that oversees these burials,” she explained, “has a regulation that prevents the public from going to the actual gravesite itself. But, like you, I don’t want to let Bob’s passing go unnoticed. I’ve been able to make arrangements for some of us to go and offer a short graveside remembrance at the cemetery. It will be near the place where he’ll be buried. I’ll talk with your pastor about the details. We can do this on the 19th. Why don’t you plan to call the office next week for final details and to get directions?”
The day before the graveside service when I called to confirm the arrangements, I found the staff hadn’t been told that we were coming.
“You can’t go there, they don’t let the public go. You’re not allowed to go,” insisted the office attendant on the other end of the phone.
My heart sank when I thought there would be no opportunity to say goodbye. I started, “But I spoke with the funeral director last week and the arrangements have been made and...”
“No you can’t go, it’s a rule and the public can’t go,” came the voice more insistently.
On the verge of tears, I asked, “OK, listen, would you please let me speak directly to the director?”
“Yeah, wait a minute,” was the surly response, “she’s here in her office.”
Relieved to hear the director’s voice, I began, “I’m a bit puzzled. I must have asked the wrong person in your office about the arrangements for tomorrow. They said I couldn’t go, that the public isn’t allowed to go.”
Reassuringly she said, “Please don’t worry, Christina, everything is still all set. I probably hadn’t spoken to enough people about it and my staff didn’t have all the information about this special case. As I told you we can’t go to the actual gravesite where he will be buried, but we can have our service in the cemetery near there; that’s what’s been arranged.”
There were no dignitaries there in the cemetery the next morning, save for the ridge of distinguished evergreens keeping watch on the rise in the distance. A simple, stark, roughly constructed plywood box rested in front of us on the grass. The word “TOP” was written with a black marker on one end with an arrow pointing toward that word. As we stood together on the grounds of Fair View Cemetery in Hyde Park under an azure August sky, the morning mist filtered through an opening in the trees where we could see the Blue Hills dressed in summer’s finery. A red-tailed hawk — a fellow mourner — circled in the sky above.
As the temperature rose steadily toward 90 degrees, a handful of us shared memories of a friend who not two weeks ago passed away during the night at the age of 59. The only comfort was that for close to two years at the end of his life he was housed and cared for in Hearth’s Ruggles House assisted living center.
While we couldn’t mark Bob’s grave in the cemetery where he was buried, I learned that (not coincidentally) someone from my home church had donated a marker in our church’s memorial garden for “anyone who needed it.” In the fall during a brief outdoor service of remembrance, an engraved stone — Robert G. “Bob” Wright 1949-2009 — was placed in the memorial garden right near Sue’s marker while church friends and members gathered around.
The day after the burial service the memorial service was held in the Park Street Church visitors’ center. Jonathan and I thought there would either be just two of us or the place would be packed. Well, packed it was. Friends, who came to know Bob as they walked to work each weekday morning, as well as church-goers who had befriended, and who had been befriended by Bob Wright packed the Visitor Center at Park Street Church for the service that lasted for over an hour. Bob’s obituary took up one-third of a page in the August 16th Sunday Boston Globe Metro section along with two other distinguished Bostonians:
For the unenlightened who passed him by each work day on the corner of Park and Tremont Streets in Boston, he was invisible; he was just another guy looking for a handout, living among society’s forgotten. But, to those lives he touched with his kindness and hard-earned wisdom, he left an unforgettable legacy, not the least of which included his admonition: “SMILE: It’s the Law!” He is remembered.
There’s more to the story…
While publication of Park Street Angels is where my journal ended, finding housing for Bob was not to be the end of my story. Sue and Jonathan, my son and I continued to visit him in his new digs from time to time – sometimes for holidays, sometimes for no particular reason. Our folk group, “Earth Harmony,” played for the residents there one Sunday afternoon and Sue came with us – she loved hanging out with the band! During our visits staff would come in bringing his medicine and check to see if he needed anything. They would also wash any dishes he had, took care of his cleaning and laundry, too.