Humble Pie

Humble Pie

One

lit match and a believer

Papa

ImageI am an Army veteran, and one of the benefits of being a veteran is receiving healthcare from the Veterans Administration (VA). On May 7, 2012 I had an appointment at the Birmingham VA Hospital to get my hearing checked. The Sheffield Disabled American Veterans (DAV) have a van that transports vets back and forth from the Shoals to Birmingham, and the day of my appointment I met at the designated spot for a ride. There I met a very old, very distinguished gentleman and we struck up a conversation. We found out that we were both writers, and that cemented our friendship. We chatted nonstop the whole way there and back. I learned that his name was Charles Snell, that he was 91 years young, that he served in World War Two in the Philippines (he said he once had a Japanese bullet bounce off his helmet) and earned a Bronze Star. He was a natural genius when it came to math and electronics, so his career was spent improving early computers, inventing such things as the remote-controlled meter reader device, and top secret programs with a sub contractor of the military developing what was then advanced systems. He told me with pride that he was in the 1988 Who’s Who of California. He was also a painter and a poet. I had not only met a true Renaissance man, but a new friend.

He told me that day that he lived alone in Tuscumbia, that he had lost his license after being involved in a couple of recent accidents, and that he was being fleeced by a neighborhood woman who charged him $20 every time he wanted to go anywhere or have her help him. I drove him home that evening when we returned and found his home to be almost devoid of groceries (he was a small, very gaunt man) and his surroundings somewhat disheveled. It was easy to see that he struggled to take care of himself, but he was fiercely independent. I promised to help him, and in my heart adopted him as my Papa. He said that he had one remaining son who lived in Puerto Rico but that they had a very contentious relationship. Papa said his son wanted him to move down there and live in a nursing home, but he adamantly refused for all sorts of colorful reasons. His son would later tell me that his father had been a strict disciplinarian, and that he had left home as soon as he could and never looked back. The two were basically one insult away from disowning each other.

I began visiting Papa every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, taking him where he wished to go, helping him prepare his meals and chipping in wherever I could. At first he insisted on doing everything himself, and I respected that, but his vision, hearing and coordination was seriously failing, and he knew it, so ultimately he allowed me to help him more often.  I learned that Papa could not paint anymore because his hands had grown too shaky, but the work he had once done was beautiful. He had also written seventeen books but had never tried seriously to get them published. Well, he did have three published, but they were all from vanity presses that charged him hundreds of dollars. Over the next year I personally edited, prepared and successfully published his books (his pen-name is Selrahln Dsomeijda, of all things) and even created a website for him to sell his writings: www.selrahlndsomeijda.weebly.com . We slowly but surely developed a close father-son relationship.

In October of 2012 his son sent Papa and I two tickets to Puerto Rico, and even though Papa didn’t want to go he knew I would enjoy the experience. Once there, I could tell that there were deep scars between them that they did not want to reveal or heal. The visit was strained and muted. Papa and I had more fun on the trip there and back than the two weeks we stayed. His son wanted me to help try and convince Papa to stay, but I couldn’t. All three of us knew it wasn’t going to happen.

Once back, Papa and I settled into our regular routine again. I began to notice that he seemed more tremulous, less sure of his footing. He also became upset easier, his usual political rants became more vehement and he began to complain bitterly about the state of the world. I worked harder during my visits to try and keep Papa from getting into those moods, but it grew more difficult as time went on.

Then late in the evening of February 12th Papa called me and said he had fallen and dragged himself to the phone to call me. I rushed over there and found him still on the floor in obvious pain. As I dialed 911 the fear that he had broken his hip filled me with dread. X-rays did not reveal a fracture, thank goodness, but he was kept overnight for observation. The next day while still in the hospital Papa had an episode of atrial fibrillation and was moved to the cardiac floor. After a week of care he was sent to a nursing facility that also had a rehab dedicated to returning seniors to their homes. Papa thrived there and became able to ambulate with a walker, and between the nursing staff and myself we began preparing for his return home. Two days before his discharge, however, Papa fell and this time broke his hip. The surgery was successful, but from the stress on his body and mind, it was evident he would never return home. Papa agreed to let me be his power of attorney, and over the next two months I worked to have him eligible for Medicaid, which meant jumping over countless hoops, including letting his home go to forclosure and moving all his belongings into my home. When I told his son that Papa had broken his hip, the man said “Just let me know when the funeral is.” I was literally on my own, which was ok by me because I felt it was a supreme honor and blessing to become part of Papa’s life.

Papa’s health continued to deteriorate and he spent about as much time in the hospital as he did the nursing home. Then on Friday, June 14th (flag day, ironically) Papa finally passed away. The hospital said I had to choose a funeral home to pick up Papa’s body, and after consulting a neighbor decided on one, then waited for them until they showed up and took him. I had no experience with after-death procedures, let alone what to do with the reality that he had no insurance and no money. His son would not help, either.

I knew Papa always told me he wanted to be cremated and his ashes spread over his beloved wife’s grave, so I told the funeral home his preference. Later that evening the funeral director called and said that a cremation would cost $2700 up front. I was floored. I am on disability and am barely above to keep food on my table, so the price might as well been two million dollars. I began calling other funeral homes and eventually found one that would cremate Papa for $600 down and $1,300 in payments.  This was a far better price, so I allowed them to bring Papa’s body to their funeral home. Now there was just the matter of raising the money. Without the funds, Papa would be buried in a potter’s field in an unmarked grave. I could not let that happen. Both the VA and Social Security told me he did not fit the criteria for help from them, and the county government said they would normally help defray the cost of Papa’s cremation, but because he had a living relative they would not help.

An old high school classmate, Lea Weathers, told this story to her Facebook friends that weekend, and numerous people pledged to give what they could to help. A woman even said she would donate a burial plot in Roselawn cemetery.  Then Sunday, a love offering was raised by the members of my church for $270. I began to think it might actually happen. I just had to find a way to let these good Samaritans help pay for Papa’s cremation and rescue him from obscurity, knowing that any extra money would be used to pay it forward by helping another indigent war vet whose family might be in the same situation. On Monday morning I went to Compass Bank in Muscle Shoals and was helped tremendously by Ms. Nancy Brakin, who said that while starting a trust fund required a process which took time and effort, I could open a debit account and give it a unique name so that people could go to any Compass bank and ask for money to be deposited. Since it had to have my name, I called it the Jay T Harding Papa’s Fund and put the love offering in.

After notifying the others that they had a mechanism to donate, I sat back and waited. That was yesterday (6-17-13). Papa’s body is still waiting to be cremated, and if people are true to their word I will finally be able to honor this brave soul whom I came to call Papa.

I believe no indigent, homeless war veteran without a family should be placed in a pauper’s grave and forgotten just because of money. Organizations like SS or the VA or county governments or funeral homes must have money to grease the wheels of a consumer based economy, but because of this there are men and women that once faced death daily in war to secure our freedoms who are tossed into shallow, unmarked graves all over this nation, and who are simply forgotten. I believe a trust fund can be developed to keep this from happening to our brave patriots; I understand that I may not be able to raise the funds to have Papa’s final request honored, but regardless of whether this becomes a reality for his legacy or not, I want to light a fire in someone’s belly to match mine so that we might be able to save others in the same situation.

By the way, Papa has not been cremated yet. I had to spend $245 of the $270 my church gave me to the funeral home just for transporting Papa’s body from the hospital to their facility. I am $575 away from giving Papa his wishes. Still, his body lays untouched unembalmed.

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