(Image: Irish Examiner)
Homeless and Alone
Never had I seen a figure of such abject loneliness and dejection. He stood at the edge of the path in Henry Street, Dublin with a suitcase on the ground beside him, looking absolutely desolate, staring into space. Even after many years, I can still see the sad and lonely figure, in my mind’s eye. Yet, as I was to discover over time, he was not unhappy.
He wasn’t begging, so I hesitated to offer him money, but I couldn’t pass him. I walked over to him and asked: ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ ‘I’d love it’ he answered. We happened to be right beside a Kylemore Café so we got tea and buns and chatted. His story was a strange one. He didn’t divulge much about himself at first. In fact he was a very private person just telling me that his name was James and he had recently returned from Canada, knowing he was very ill. James was wearing a little woollen cap which shifted slightly at one stage revealing a dreadful sight. In the place where his ear should have been was a mass of infected tissue. ‘Oh my God James’ I exclaimed, ‘What happened your ear?’
He told me he worked in the uranium mines in Canada and had contracted Cancer. ‘But the pain, what do you do for the pain?’ I asked him. ‘I get paracetamol’ was his answer. He wouldn’t tell me where he was staying- said it was a bit rough. But after further chat he agreed to come with me to my GP the following day. The news was not good. It was indeed cancer and there were many more growths in his throat. This wonderfully kind GP Dr Brian Daly, RIP contacted a friend of his in the Ear, Nose and Throat Department in Beaumont Hospital, who admitted James on the condition that I would get him a bed in a Hospice as soon as possible. They did a great job in Beaumont, cleaned up his wound, gave him pain relief and fed him by tube. It was Holy Week.
Another great friend, Mary Marren visited James with me daily. We explained how ill he was and that he need to be in a special hospital for the care he required. He agreed to allow us to collect his belongings from a locker in Busárus, while not, as readily, permitting us to dispose of old and soiled clothing, keeping only his personal papers. He had a good friend in USA, Martha, who looked after his pension and sent him weekly fund through American Express. Most of this went on ringing Martha who seemed to be a very caring person.
(Image: Helping the Homeless of America)
Once he knew he was dying, he opened up a little. He told us his name was John, not James. He’d call himself James because he said everything else had been taken from him, but he was determined his name would not be taken.
‘I have things on my mind’ he informed me one day, ‘and I would like to get them fixed up.’ Well John’ I said, ‘I don’t know what religion you are, but in our religion we have a sacrament of Reconciliation and you can talk to a priest about any problem and it can never be repeated to anyone ever.’ ‘I want that’ he said. ‘Can you get me this priest?’ We got the chaplain, but John didn’t take to him. ‘He wants to talk to me about Canada’ he told me. ‘I don’t want that. I’m in a hurry.’ He certainly suffered his own passion in Holy Week. On Easter Monday he moved to Our Lady’s Hospice in Harold’s Cross, dressed like a gentleman he surely was in a beautiful outfit Mary had got from her uncle. He was very impressed at the welcome he got in the Hospice. Dr Keaney examined him and told me he’d give him a week to ten days and that was how it was.
It was a happy week for John. He was looked after so lovingly and he relaxed completely. All the fear and distrust of people he had been suffering left him. The Sister, who’s name escapes me, dressed his wound herself daily and anything he wanted, he got – like mushroom soup that had been sieved, and ice lollipops to suck. I told Sister about his wish to see a priest and she brought one along, but again, John didn’t take to him. Sister got another priest from Mount Argus and thankfully, this was the answer. When he came out from John he told me he’d left John at peace and ready to go. I told Father I’d no idea what religion John was. Father replied: ‘It doesn’t matter what religion he is. If I was as close to God as that man is, I’d be very happy.’
During the next days John told me something of his life. He’d been brought up in a children’s home in Wicklow. His mother was from Belfast and visited him for a while. He never succeeded in finding his father. Life was hard in the home and he gave me some upsetting examples, but never named the home.
Having qualified as a mechanic, he emigrated to Canada. Once he visited his mother who was now living in England, married to an army man with two grown up children. The visit made him very happy. He wrote to her from Canada sending her his first week’s wages. To his great sadness, she returned it to him and told him not to write again.
On his way back to Ireland to die, he visited her again and God help him, she closed the door in his face. My heart broke for him. ‘Oh John’ I said, she might not have recognised you, you look so ill.’ ‘No’ he answered quietly, ‘she knew’. He told me he went down the road and slept in a barn and when he got to Dublin he wrote to her and put no address on the letter so she couldn’t return it. It was so very, very sad.
We used to bring him out around the grounds in a wheelchair, to see the daffodils and new growth. The month was April. He enjoyed the little trips. Another place he liked us to bring him was to the oratory and explain the Stations of the Cross and let him sit before the Tabernacle. So often he said: ‘Oh I would like to be in Heaven and see those gates opening and my mother walking in.’ ‘And you will, John’ I would assure him.
Over and over he would say: ‘Tell me about Jesus. Do you think He will be happy to see me?’ ‘Happy to see you!’ I would say. ‘He will be waiting for you with open arms. ‘Here you are John’, he’ll say, ‘my John who shared the passion with me.’ He’d smile his little lopsided smile –lopsided because of the disfigurement of his poor face – and like a child he would say: ‘Tell me again.’
He worried that he’d be put down in a hole in the ground like he’d seen happen in Mexico. We convinced him that would never happen. I rang his friend Martha in USA and told her John was dying and asked her to forward whatever remained in his account. Another friend, John O’Carroll ran a pub quiz to make up the deficit. There was a lovely Mass offered for him in the hospice and Fanagans provided a brand new hearse at rock bottom price. We had been fortunate to obtain a plot in Dean’s Grange that was only for one person. John O’Carroll’s wife, Ula, a Polish artist, donated a beautiful granite headstone for the grave.
We put notices in the papers saying simply:
John Hubert Kerr, Born 12th Nov. 1933
Died peacefully on 20th April 1988
In Our Lady’s Hospice, Harold’s Cross, Dublin