Last night, as I sat at my computer, an unholy stench came into the house and offended my olfactory nerves. It smelt of sewage, and something worse, but it seemed to come from outside. We have skunks in the neighborhood, and raccoons, so I assumed one of them had died or otherwise made some kind of mess. As it turns out. it was something far worse, and profoundly sad.
A few minutes ago I learned that Ernie, the crazy hermit who lived across the street, died some time between Wednesday and yesterday. I’m betting Wednesday or Thursday, judging by the odor. The coroner had to be called in after a neighbor called the police to check up on him. Ernie had been a shut-in, one of those mental cases that collects shit, unopened mail, and assorted garbage over the decades. It was likely Ernie’s corpse I smelled last night as the process of decay took hold-though according to my mother it was more likely the stench of Ernie’s collected feces. Funny thing is, the coroner didn’t arrive until after midnight, and by then I was asleep. I tend to be woken up by sirens and flashing lights, but I guess the sleep of ages had taken hold of me because I dozed right through it. They all must have come right around the time I turned in for the night, which was after eleven.
I imagine this shall make the newspaper: “Crazy old guy dies in his own filth on Cleveland’s West Side.” What a depressing train of thought. This man, who probably should have been institutionalized decades ago, instead lived in the same house he lived in with his mother and became that most awful of social outcasts, the sort that just becomes the harmless yet deranged individual that maybe a neighbor treats with compassion and sympathy, but everyone else ignores.
How low have we sunk as a society to let this go on? How many Ernies shall die, undiscovered for days, weeks, months-perhaps even years, having spent their entire lives in squalor and the hell of mental illness? How long will the Ignored be forced to go without the care they need, before we wake up and start providing it? They are the Outcast, the Ignored, the Least Among Us. They are the people Jesus implored us to look after, for we are judged by how we treat them. Jesus…what would He say to us if He were to return today? This country, which lies to itself that it is a Christian nation, what would Christ Himself say of us?
But we’re not supposed to ask ourselves these questions. We’re not supposed to acknowledge just how cruel, unforgiving, depraved, greedy, selfish, without compassion, apathetic, materialistic, and oblivious we are. Because if we do, then we accept that at some point we must take responsibility for our crimes, and for those who cannot take care of themselves.
In the meantime, Ernie-and all those like him-go on, needing help but not getting it. We let them die; we let them expire alone, unloved, uncared for. We are all guilty of this form of societal murder.