It was the afternoon of Monday, December 11, 2017. The phone was ringing, from a number in Pittsburgh that seemed vaguely familiar, so I picked it up.
“Hello, I’m looking for the family of Francis [Hard-to-pronounce Polish last name with lots of awkwardly placed consonants and far too few vowels] said the voice at the other end.
“His name is Sam. His family calls him Sam,” I said. The same reply, for the umpteenth time, to the same query. Oh, there was a time in my life when I used to equivocate. I’d try and get clarification first: “There are two people by that name,” I’d say. “Are you calling about the father or the son?” But, quite quickly, such questions became superfluous. They were never asking about the one. Only about the other.
They were looking for Sam’s family. And we are Sam’s family.
“His name is Sam.”
“Hello, this is the Neurosurgery ICU at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center,” said the disembodied voice on the phone.
One day, I will tell you the story of his family’s decades of life with Sam, who suffered from chronic, severe and incurable mental illness, and who was diagnosed with, among a myriad of other things, paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. And I will tell you about the insurmountable obstacles the families of people like Sam face when dealing with “the system” and trying to help their loved ones. And about why I call the government, the courts, the hospitals, the doctors, and most of the social service agencies, “Accomplices to Insanity.” Because that is what they are. But today is not the day for any of that.
“Hello, UPMC,” I said with a sinking heart. “What can I do for you? How can I help Sam?”
“What is your relationship to Sam?” asked the voice.
“I’m Sam’s stepmother,” I said.
“I’m very sorry to tell you this,” she said. “Your stepson was assaulted three days ago, on December 8, and he’s in the Neurosurgery ICU. He’s in critical condition.”
Apparently, somewhere between the police report and the hospital registration, Sam’s last name had been misspelled and the hospital couldn’t find his next of kin. The situation was rectified the next time the police went to check on Sam’s condition, the research was done, and the phone call was made.
”We’ll be right there,” I said. No point in asking questions. No point in wasting time. Just go.
When we got to the hospital, we found that Sam, who’d been broken mentally for almost all his life, was now irretrievably broken physically as well. He never recovered consciousness. His brain, which was described as similar to that of an infant with “shaken baby syndrome,” was just too damaged.
He spent the last seven months of his life at a nursing home close to where we live so that his dad and I could visit easily, and on July 23, his family authorized the nursing home to discontinue his artificial life support. It was time.
And today, he died. He turned 53 years old last Friday.
Because of the circumstances, he’ll be autopsied to determine the “cause of death.” I’m expecting that the Coroner will indicate that “vicious thugs” were responsible for extinguishing his life.
Two are currently awaiting trial on charges of “attempted homicide.” Those charges will be now be refiled as “homicide.” If they’re convicted, I hope they suffer the severest penalties allowed under Pennsylvania law. Not going to say any more about that today, either.
All I want you to know today is that we had a Sam in our family. A kind Sam. A gentle Sam. A loving Sam. A Sam we moved heaven and earth to protect and to save. Because, love.
But nothing we did was enough.
We couldn’t protect him.
We couldn’t save him.
All we could do was love him. No. Matter. What.
So we did.
So we do.
Godspeed, Our Sam. You’re in a better place. Say hello to your brother and your mom for me. Peace out.