February 23, a friend and I were talking about a deceased man, and the letter P., his middle initial, came into the conversation.
?That is for Patrick. He was born the day after St. Patrick?s day?, said his sister, one of four surviving siblings.
Between us at the table in the suburban restaurant was a death certificate for the man, who died at 64. Name of his father and mother, ?unknown?, nothing about siblings, spouse, children?.
Home at time of death was ?under highway bridge? at mile marker 4 on the eastbound lane of a midwest Interstate Highway in another state.
Date of death: Three years earlier, May 24, 2009.
He was homeless. Two articles in a large nearby city daily newspaper headlined ?Question lingers long after body found? (Jan. 17, 2010); ?Next of kin search comes up empty? (Feb. 2, 2010).
P carried his draft card and social security card at the time of his death. He had been living under the bridge for a long time, perhaps as long as ten years. A local store clerk remembered him frequently coming into the store; trainmen recalled waves from him as they passed nearby; the people who mowed the ditch saw him often, and he was pleasant.
He had no police record that could be found, compounding tracing problems.
And here I sat with his sister, trying to help her process it all. Just a few days earlier, the siblings had learned about their brothers death three years earlier.
In his youth, P had not been an easy sibling to live with ? anger; when he disappeared there may have been almost a sense of relief from his siblings. But he was, still, their brother. And this was not a normal death, where the deceased passes on ?at home surrounded by loving family and friends?.
Dying homeless under a bridge is not quite like that.
I?ve been friends of P?s sister for many years, and occasionally his name would come up in conversation.
I never met him.
Between us on the table was his high school graduation photograph ? from a city high school, class of 1963.
He excelled at athletics, in all sports. He was so good that he got a full scholarship to a college with a strong national reputation in a major sport.
He had dropped out the first year because, he said, it was a ?rich kids school?, and he didn?t fit in. He was a poor kid from a poor part of a working class neighborhood.
His mother convinced him to go back. He graduated, on time, in the mid 1980s, apparently with honors. The family valued education. They?re all well educated.
But there were noticeable changes in his personality beginning in his last year of college.
After college everything went to hell, and there were only sporadic contacts, and except for occasional attempts, the siblings got used to his having disappeared, and were almost relieved.
There was no mention of his ever having had a job.
An autopsy showed that P died of heart disease. He was a big man, 250 pounds. He seems to have been a loner, and to have survived by scavenging pop cans and returning them for deposit.
Now the family faces the dilemma often faced in situations like this: what, if anything, to do to memorialize, to remember. His passing would be noteworthy in at least two cities, because of his athletic prowess in high school and in college. He seems to have had no friends, as we define that term. But, as he is in this blog, he probably will remain anonymous, including in the city where the newspapers wondered about him.
In his own unique way, I?d guess, he can teach us all a thing or two, if we care to learn.
So P leaves behind long ago memory, ashes somewhere, and his last description is that entered by the coroner: ?white, 5-foot-10 and 250 pounds; hair, short, brownish gray and balding; no identifying scars or tattoos.?
He is at peace. Others aren?t.