CUMBERLAND, Maryland — 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 as a nameless drifter but as a man 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, 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, a registered nurse, said that the Coke was one of several odd food choices McCain requested in the waning days of his life as his liver cancer rapidly progressed through his body.
“He ate tons of hot pockets, butter pecan ice cream, sour cream and onion Ruffles, cold Hormel chili, right out of the can with hot sauce on it — oh, I don’t know how he ate that, but he loved that — and, of course, drinking ‘ice-cold’ Cokes,” she explained.
The money for the food, as well as his casket, funeral service and tombstone, things he would have never experienced had he not wandered into the Union Rescue Mission last year, all happened because David posted a fundraising request for McCain on the Union Rescue Mission Facebook page a couple of weeks ago.
Within minutes, Ziler explained, the fundraising goal was met, and then some.
David said 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. “He also specifically requested an extra blanket be placed around his feet in the casket because he said his feet were always cold.”
The homeless often die when long-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 the temperatures can dip into the single digits, they can perish from hypothermia.
The homeless population in the state is estimated to be over 50,000, with deaths more than doubling here between 2007 and 2017, going from 72 to 196.
Homelessness happens for a variety of reasons, including poverty, abuse, a sudden reversal of fortunes, drug addiction or 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.
“As peculiar as it sounds, oftentimes, there isn’t a specific cause that led to homelessness but a series of situations in a person’s life that has put them on the wrong road in life,” said Andrea.
McCain also found himself on the wrong side of the law when he attempted to rob a home in the dead of the night. He was charged with numerous infractions, including reckless endangerment with a weapon — his intended victim took the knife from him — and he pleaded guilty to two of the charges and was eventually released from commitment.
McCain never told David or Andrea or any of the staff who lovingly cared for him at the end 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 was always welcome home and that no incident had ever happened to separate him from his nieces and nephews. He had just drifted away.
The good news, said David, was that his family came and sat with him and visited before he died.
Ziler said last year that the homeless shelter provided nearly 80,000 meals to those in need. It currently houses 55 people, with an additional 20 in their cold-weather shelter at the Union Rescue Mission, a faith-based organization that does not take government money but instead relies on small donations to house and serve the homeless.
“When we told Henry he could be at peace because the money was raised, he teared up and said, ‘Thank you,'” said Andrea. “He was a man of little words and emotions, so that was incredibly meaningful.”
David asked McCain to go to Adam’s 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: that blanket on his feet and the playing of “The Keeper of the Stars” at his service, as a nod to the faith and friends he found at the end of his life.
“After he had his arrangements made, Henry asked the staff if we thought the people who paid for his funeral would be upset if he continued to pray for a miracle,” said David. “We assured him no one would be upset if we had to wait a few years for a funeral.”
Two weeks ago, the staff and Andrea petitioned David to allow McCain to enter hospice and stay at the Union Rescue Mission until death. David 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,” said Andrea simply.
Instead, McCain 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 may never know whether Henry McCain saw a purpose, and we may never know how dark his life was. Yet, there is a strong argument to make that his journey touched the lives of all who met him, in particular at the Union Rescue Mission, and that his purpose was not that of a drifter as people may have seen him as they crossed him in the streets, but that of a man who instead gave greater purpose and shaped the lives of those who met him.
Salena Zito is a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between. To find out more about Salena and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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