I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time, but was never sure how to begin. So I’ll begin where it feels right and hopefully it will all make sense to both of us at some point. I mentioned my friend that was diagnosed with cancer in the post entitled One Disaster Away a few months ago. Please read that post to understand and fully grasp the balance of this post. Go on, I’ll wait.
For the impatient readers like me, I’ll provide a brief synopsis: my coworker was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer and did not have the financial means to support himself through this disease. My office rallied around him and provided financial assistance for him though our own personal resources. Well, my co-worker died on March 1, 2011. His name was Raymond, and he was my friend.
I didn’t write this post for months because, quite frankly, I didn’t know what I wanted to say, but he has influenced this blog and my writing for a few months. When I wrote about the importance of fathers, I thought of Ray. When I wrote about life insurance, I though of Ray. There are a few people that cross your path in life that will influence you in ways that you could never imagine when you first meet. Ray was that person for me. I called him Raymundo, and he called me “big sis” no matter that he was 20 years my senior.
My office supports a program that helps to rehabilitate and reintroduce low level offenders back into society. These are usually people with drug problem that are otherwise non-violent offenders. They believe in giving people a leg up so that they do not end up back in jail. Raymond came to us through this program. He was supposed to gain some exposure to an office environment, work for up to 2 years, and leave with work experience and a decent job to put on a resume. Raymond instead made the job his own. Raymond greeted everyone with a big boisterous “hello,” always happy to greet someone coming through the door. Whenever it was someone’s birthday he would ever so embarrassingly sing the Stevie Wonder version of “Happy Birthday” to you, however off-key it was. He became, in a word, family to me.
I taught him how to open a checking account, how to pay his bills, helped him search for an apartment, gave him advice on his new found love life and generally chatted with him about reintegrating back into society. He taught me how to give. I mean to genuinely give of yourself not because it was expected of you, but because you wanted to and giving enriched your own life. He volunteered with at-risk youth teaching them how to play basketball, he helped to clean parks and made himself available to do anything that anyone needed help with.
When he was diagnosed with cancer he had no clue what to do. He was barely sustaining himself, getting by on a week-to-week basis. As I mentioned, we all rallied around him, putting money together to take care of him while we hoped he recovered, but a select group of us knew that the chances were incredibly slim that he would recover. From the very beginning of his diagnosis I steeled myself for his death. When the time came for him to move into a hospice I became his advocate. I visited him every single weekend, bringing him food, puzzles, news of his favorite basketball teams, and generally, company. We all did. One of the attendants stopped me in the hallway one week to ask if he was someone important because he received so many visitors of all races, all the time. Of course, I had to say yes. He was certainly important to me.
I wasn’t the nicest person to the people at the hospice when I thought that he was not being treated well. Cancer slowly robs you of who you are and he did not have the strength to fight for himself. Since he had no close family, we fought for him. We fought for better treatment, better conditions and most importantly, that he be treated with the dignity and respect that he deserved. The fact that he was in a state-run hospice should not have mattered to anyone whose job it was to make him comfortable in his final days.
As it became apparent that the end was near I continued seeing him, but found it harder and harder to do each week. It is incredibly hard to literally watch someone slowly die in front of you, but I felt that I owed it to him and to myself to see him through the end. It seemed so unfair to me that someone who had worked hard to turn his life completely around should die alone, but I knew that I could not and would not blame myself if I didn’t make it through to his final week.
The last time that I saw him alive, I knew that it would be the final time for me. I snapped a photo to remind me of my friend and told him good-bye as I walked out the room. No hysterics, no drama, no show. I was at peace with my decision to not return. Please don’t judge, but when I was told that he had passed away, I said a silent thank you because his suffering was over…and suffer he did. This big, booming, basketball playing man had dropped from roughly 210 pounds down to about 90 pounds. He was in constant pain and every single breath that he took hurt. His pain then was over, and I was happy for his release.
As expected, his very non-existent family popped up out of the woodwork once he died. Guess what they were after? Yep, money. We found it hilarious that they were looking for money as we helped his girlfriend of about a year plan his funeral. I absolutely refused to give them one single penny of the money that my co-workers had donated to help Raymond. Help to me extended into death since Raymond did not have life insurance and his family was unable to pay for a funeral. We, his coworkers, paid for his entire funeral from the coffin to the flowers. All his family had to do (after at least 10 phone calls asking about money, life insurance policies, jewelry, etc.) was show up.
Now, why am I telling you this story? Two weeks ago when I asked a few personal finance blogger friends what they would do if they suddenly inherited $1 million, many of them listed donations to charity. It never even occurred to me to give to charity when I wrote how I would spend $1 million. It wasn’t until someone else pointed it out that I realized that I had completely left out charity. But for me, charity is much less about cutting a check – which is important, believe me – than it is about random acts of kindness that can change someone’s life that may or may not involve money.
Last week on the Long Island Railroad there was a very tall, very skinny, very hungry looking kid on the train standing in front of the bathroom. As his eyes flitted from left to right looking around, I realized that he was trying to figure out where the conductor was so that he could duck into the bathroom and hope that the conductor passed by without collecting a ticket from him. Well, he timed it wrong because he came out of the bathroom just as the conductor was passing by. I was close enough to hear the conductor asked for a ticket and the kid say that he didn’t have one. “Then that will be $11,” the conductor said. But, of course, the kid did not have the money. What usually happens in these cases is one of two things: 1) you hand over your ID and get a written summons in the mail or 2) the police meet you a the next stop and write you up a ticket for failure to pay.
Now, as I sat there watching this unfold I felt like I knew that kid. Oh, I didn’t know him personally, but I felt like I had been him at one point in time. I reached into my bag, pulled out a spare ticket, handed it to the conductor and asked if that ticket would cover his fare. “You better thank the nice lady,” the conductor said, as he walked away. The kid, ashamed, head down, managed to whisper a thank you as he tried to disappear back into the train wall. I didn’t do it for gratitude, I did it because it was the right thing to do. It was the same to me as when Raymond died and my coworkers all expressed their gratitude for everything that I had done for Raymond. I did not know how to respond. It was something that I was compelled to do and thanks was unnecessary.
Charity for me, is a very face-to-face, one-on-one kind of thing. Yes, I do write the occasional check, but it has less of an impact to me and my life than if I know that I have really made a difference in someone’s life. A check feels so much more impersonal to me, and what lesson would I have learned from the other person’s experience? September 11 is to be a National Day of Service. Consider not writing a check this year and instead volunteering somewhere. Your presence, your smile, your effort can make a difference in someone’s life.
This was the lesson that I learned from Raymond. He was my friend. And I miss him.