brian & sarah’s story
“I’m dying, I’m in the last lap. I’m not religious, so this is it.”
Brian comes to Ace of Clubsevery weekday. When it’s closed, he hangs on the street with friends, drinks beer and sometimes places a bet. Brian has been an alcoholic for most of his adult life, which he sees as something he can’t and doesn’t really want to heal from. “When I feel it’s going off the rails. I’ll be off drink for a couple of months, but I know it’ll come back, it’s like a recurring illness.” Brian’s alcoholism is the cause of a serious heart condition and has been the main reason that he’s never been able to hold down a job or a relationship for long(“I always seemed to cock it up”). Brian also has prostate cancer and will start radiotherapy soon. Brian has four children with two different women, but he doesn’t speak to any of them. He knows he might have grandchildren, but he doesn’t know how many and has never met them. Even though he hangs out with a group of friends on a daily basis, Sarah is the person he opens up to. He talks to her about everything. “I don’t believe in a religion, but Sarah is an angel.” Brian has lived in the same house for 20 years. It is a vibrant place, filled with pictures of art and clocks. His house reflects his mood – when it’s a mess, he knows he has to get back on track. This usually includes a trip to a Drugs and Alcohol Service.
Sarah has worked at Ace of Clubs, a support centre for homeless and vulnerable people, for the past seven years and volunteered there for sixteen years. She says, “It’s very tough. But I love it!” Ace of Clubs is open every day from 12-3pm. During this time, they serve delicious food, give advice and support, deliver health care, and organise events and workshops. But Sarah’s role goes way beyond this. She regularly goes to court, police stations, hospitals and hostels. She organises funerals, wakes and memorial services. She lives and breathes this place – nothing would happen without her. Many people who come here are probably still alive because of Sarah.
“I’m dying, I’m in the last lap. I’m not religious, so this is it. I’m not happy it’s coming to an end. It’s the last chapter … I feel like I haven’t done enough with my life. Never really figured out what I was good at. I’m afraid of missing out when I’m dead; all these millions of years that will come after me! So much already changed since I was born.”
Fear of being forgotten
Brian has a fear of death. He’s had it his whole life, but it’s got worse since turning 60. It’snot the act of dying itself that frightens him, but the feeling of not having accomplished something of which he can be proud. It scares him that life will continue after his death and he won’t be part of it in any way.
“Life is short term for these guys. When someone doesn’t come back, they’re easily forgotten. No one asks for them anymore. It’s assumed they are either in the hospital, in prison or dead. They become a rumour.” - Sarah
“When I have to arrange a funeral, I’d love for the priest to be able to say something personal. They haven’t always sat on a bench, they’ve done stuff! But getting them to say anything positive about themselves is difficult. The worthlessness they feel.” - Sarah
“I help them look forward, not look back. We did this great CV workshop once. Some of them came out and said: I haven’t realised I did so much in my life! Can we do the same for them to tell their story? It should be something they’re proud to be remembered by. To have a positive view on life, is having a positive view on death.” - Sarah
Struggling to see purpose in life
Brian isn’t in touch with his family, because he doesn’t feel he’s worthy of being in their lives. He thinks they are better off without him. Sarah tells us that many homeless and vulnerable people feel worthless and ashamed of the situations they got themselves in. They don’t want their loved ones to see them like this and so have pushed them away. This makes them more likely to be isolated, but also less likely to improve their situation.
“It makes me think aboutwhat I’ve lost. I believe I have a few grandchildren but I don’t see them. I tried to get in touch – I sent a friend request on Facebook. But my son never accepted it. What else can I do? I’m not going to try more; I’m not worth it.” - Brian
“I’m a smart guy! If I were middle class I know I would’ve been successful. I needed more leadership. It all went away when my dad die [when I was twelve]. I’m apathetic and lazy.” - Brian
“To be honest, every day feels like Groundhog Day. Have you seen the film? I’m just sitting out my time. Can I tell you something personal? The meds I have to take for the cancer gets rid of my sex drive. It’s a blow to the body – my sex life is over. I don’t feel like a proper man. Just trying to keep afloat.” - Brian
Living with so much loss
Brian’s father died when he was twelve. It had a huge impact on him. He lost his role model. He left home a couple of years later because he couldn’t get along with his mother’s new partner, and started drinking heavily from then on. Since the loss of his father, other deaths have affected him less, including the death of his mother. Death and loss have become common features of relationships for Brian. Every week or two he hears about another good friend who has died.
“My dad was the family. When he died, it split the family up. We found out he was running two families. I had an extra three brothers I found out about! Don’t talk to any of them. They’re all cold people. People say to me: ‘You go on about your Dad!’ But I just feel it’s gonna be me one day. Why bother with life? Dust to dust.”
Not too long ago Brian went to a funeral of a friend. The experience hit him hard and made him contemplate his own death. “He was proper homeless. They found him in the carpark. They put funerals on the notice boards at Ace. I was the only one there, nobody turned up! The priest asked me if I wanted to read a prayer; I felt I had to. Is this what it comes to? There were no flowers, it was glum. Eventually some other guy showed up who was drunk.”
Sarah has known Alex, a homeless man, for years. He is one of her favorites, and he’s currently in the hospital with liver failure and has just a couple of months left to live. She is wondering how to plan for his death, especially how to tell his closest friends. “I know they can’t cope with these things. They’ll say they’ll go visit him, or go to the funeral, but they won’t do it. His friends don’t want to admit he’s dying. It’s facing reality. He went into hospital because he drinks too much. The people he hangs around with drink too much as well. One of his best friends, they sat on a bench for years together. They’d just sit and drink. I told him to go visit him. I said, ‘You don’t know how long he’s got left to live and you’ll regret it if you don’t go.’ He didn’t want to go, said he didn’t like hospitals. But last year another friend of his was found dead on the pavement. He took that really bad. He did go. And, well, he stopped drinking! It could’ve gone two ways: He was either gonna drink himself into the grave, or he was gonna stop. And he did: he shaved, cleaned himself up.” - Sarah
“Their deaths really upset me. I think ‘If only I’d done more…’ But when I think rationally, I know they’re grown-ups and should be responsible for themselves. But still.” - Sarah
Who will care?
Sarah is much more than a manager to themen who come to Ace of Clubs. She is often the closest thing to family that they have – or at least the only person who sees them regularly and supports them. When you listen to Sarah’s stories, you begin to understand that she is a carer to so many people at the end of their lives.
“Frank collapsed on the street when I was trying to get him to his hostel. I took him to the hospital. He died alone – got a fit when he went to the bathroom. He always had fits, and had developed brain damage from the many falls on the floor. When he died, his mum was most upset about the fact he died on his own. That has always stayed with me. He was a lovely guy – a loner, very intelligent. He would sit on the street with a cup in front of him, but always reading a book. We’d have long chats about what he’d like to do, where he would go.” - Sarah
“I’m their mother. Sometimes their wife. It’s a very maternal role; reminding them to take their meds, but also that they have lives worth living. Mainly it’s just about sitting there and listening to them. I don’t judge. They tell me about their drug dealers, their experiences with police, anything they like.” [Laughing] I’m the next of kin to quite a lot of them! Maybe a dozen? What supports me? My faith. I talk to people in my church. But mainly I don’t like talking about what I do. Don’t want to brag. I just do it. The guys I work with are the same as the rest of us. But they need my support – they have nothing and no one. If I have a meal and they have nothing, I have to be the giver. I don’t think about it.” - Sarah