I lasted 18 months before a client saw me cry. If you work or run a nonprofit, you know this day. I mostly stay in my lane, doing the big vision stuff, the employee and board stuff, the much easier stuff than the direct service staff's stuff. I cry, but tend to do that in my office or after everyone has left. But yesterday, our Legal Director, Sheryl, asked me to sit with her and our very elderly, terminally ill client. He was confused and desperate. You see, back in September, Sheryl convinced a judge to postpone an eviction so long as he agreed to move out by the end of February.
He has spent the past six months looking for an apartment for himself and his 95-year-old mother on his $1000/month budget. His only goal was to die inside.
Yesterday was February 11, and he has not found a place. I sat across from him. I listened. I acknowledged his frustration. I validated his fear. I held space for his desperation. And then I took his hands in mine. His age and disease have left him severely disabled. I don't know if I have ever held the hands of a stranger in such a familiar way. I spoke slowly and clearly.
"We won your case, but there is nothing left that we can do."
He looked confused. I repeated, "We have done everything we can."
He still didn't understand.
"But I am dying," he said. "I really don't need much more time, just until I die. Please". He said this with a mix of resignation and fact.
I took a deep breath and said, "We have tried everything."
And then he understood.
Tears rolled down the side of my face as I grasped for an option, my mouth open, but no words came out. Staff buzzed around us, getting referrals and phone numbers, grasping at straws for a solution we know doesn't exist. We are the very last stop. There is no more safety net.
For a minute, we were both silent. He was holding my hands as much as I was holding his hands. I did not look away. We just sat there, one young and healthy, one slowly realizing he was out of options. And we cried.
I don't have a happy ending. I have deep grief. I have boiling rage. I have immense gratitude for this calling. Gratitude that he trusted us to witness his heartache. I won't forget his hands. I won't stop doing this work. The grief and rage and gratitude fuel the endless hours, the hidden (and not so hidden) tears.
You may never see the work we do. I don't need you to see this work. Please hold my hand so I can hold theirs. We can't do this alone.
Please support us, make us a priority in your giving life. Volunteer, donate, tell your friends, and attend our events. Hold my hand. xoxo
- Mary Ellen Ball