Had it not been for the kindness of strangers, Henry McCain would have died the way he led much of his adult life: cold, alone and without a blanket to cover his feet at night.
Instead, McCain left this world not a nameless drifter but with dignity, a sense of belonging and a last sip of his beloved ice-cold Coca-Cola.
On the morning McCain died, Pastor David Ziler and his wife, Andrea Ziler, went into the hospice room they had created at the homeless shelter they run, gave McCain his medications, cleaned him up and sat his weakened body up in bed.
“Henry looked at my wife and asked if he could have an ice-cold Coke, so she got him a straw and dropped it into his mouth, and he said, ‘That’s enough,’” Ziler explained.
McCain then rolled over and went to sleep.
“Fifteen minutes later, we came back in and he was gone,” said Ziler. “All the way to his last, dying breath, he was wanting ice-cold Coke.” Andrea Ziler, a registered nurse, said that Coke was one of several odd food choices he requested in the waning days of his life, as his liver cancer rapidly progressed through his body.
The money for food and for his casket, funeral service and tombstone all came because Pastor Ziler posted a fundraising request for McCain on the Union Rescue Mission Facebook page a couple of weeks ago.
Within minutes, the fundraising goal was met and then some. McCain never would have gotten all that had he not wandered into the Union Rescue Mission this past year.
McCain’s other dying wish was a desperate plea for his body not to be sent to the state mortuary to be cremated and buried with the other nameless homeless in the state.
The homeless often die long having been separated from their families, without anyone ever saying or knowing their names. Sometimes, their lives end in violence and injury, sometimes by their own hands. In places like Maryland, where temperatures can dip into single digits, they can perish from hypothermia.
The homeless population in the state is estimated to be more than 50,000, with deaths more than doubling from 2007 to 2017, from 72 to 196.
Homelessness happens for a variety of reasons that stretch from poverty to abuse to sudden reversal of fortunes to drug addiction to mental health issues. Most of the homeless find themselves either falling between the cracks or walking away from systems designed to help and support them.
McCain found himself on the wrong side of the law when he attempted to rob a home in the dead of night. He was charged with numerous infractions, including reckless endangerment with a weapon — his intended victim took the knife from him. He pleaded guilty to two of the charges and eventually was released from commitment.
McCain never told the Zilers or any of the staff who lovingly cared for him why his life went sideways. The family he had lost touch with found him through the Facebook fundraising post. Family members told the Zilers he always was welcome home and that there never was an incident that separated him from his nieces and nephews; he just had drifted away.
The good news, said David Ziler, was that his family came and sat with him and visited before he died.
This past year, the homeless shelter provided nearly 80,000 meals to those who were in need. It currently houses 55 people, with an additional 20 in the cold-weather shelter. Union Rescue Mission is a faith-based organization that does not take government money but instead relies on small donations to house and serve the homeless.
Pastor Ziler asked McCain to go to Adams Funeral Home a half-mile down North Front Street from the mission to make his own funeral arrangements. McCain told the funeral director he only wanted two things: a blanket on his feet and for “The Keeper of the Stars” to play at his service, a nod to the faith and friends he found at the end of his life.
Two weeks ago, the staff and Andrea Ziler petitioned Pastor Ziler to allow McCain to enter hospice and stay at the Union Rescue Mission until death. Ziler said he pushed back, but Andrea and the staff prevailed.
“She had been basically coordinating his medical treatment the whole time, making sure of his doctors’ appointments, making sure he made his doctors’ appointments and we had staff drive him there,” he said. “I didn’t think we were equipped to handle this, but the staff volunteered their hours and their pay for the 24-hour care he needed.”
“He spent his life alone; I didn’t want him to die alone,” Andrea simply said.
Henry spent his last two weeks visiting with his family, newfound friends and the staff, singing songs, cracking jokes, eating ridiculous food and living in complete peace.
Often, we talk about the virtues of a purpose-driven life. We might never know how dark Henry McCain’s life was, or whether he saw a purpose. Yet, there is a strong argument to be made that his journey touched the lives of all who met him, particularly those at the Union Rescue Mission.
And there’s a strong argument to be made that his purpose was not that of a drifter, as people might have identified when crossing him in the streets, but as a man who gave greater purpose to and shaped the lives of those who met him.
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner.
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