It is the story of a homeless veteran, a hospital that provides one of the most admirable safety nets in the country, and the end of a life given the dignity every human being deserves.
Please take a moment to link to this touching article written by Kevin Fagan. Facing an election where one candidate would see to it that our most vulnerable citizens would have their safety nets endangered to the point of total collapse, it is a reminder of just how much is at stake.
It was just before sunrise when Bernie Kern wheeled himself to an outdoor plaza at Laguna Honda Hospital for his usual morning cigarette. He'd been living in the hospital for five years, but four decades of homelessness before that had left him with an enduring affection for the early morning chill and quiet.I'm very familiar with Laguna Honda. I know every smoking nook in the place. The reason I am so familiar with the hospital is because of the friends I know who died there. In response to the AIDS crisis, Laguna Honda developed one of the earliest and most important programs in the country. My most recent experience with them came when my best friend in the whole world came very close to dying from AIDS two years ago and was brought back from the brink by the remarkable people at this remarkable facility.
The cigarette was done in a few minutes. It was his last.
I knew Bernie Kern. To be more accurate, I knew of Bernie Kern. He was one of the many, many homeless people I recognized by face who roamed the streets in my part of town. The article describes a man who sat everyday on a milk crate listening to his little radio at the corner of Octavia and Hayes streets, right around the corner from where I lived. I immediately recognized him from his picture in the article. He wasn't an aggressive panhandler like so many of the other desperate people I encountered every day. He merely sat on his crate and watched the city go by. To my deep regret today, I never stopped to talk to him. I knew other homeless people by name and would stop and talk or exchange pleasantries if I was rushing to work. But Bernie kept to himself, just another elderly homeless person blending in the San Francisco tapestry, tattered threads.
But I learned in this article Bernie Kern was loved.
He left behind a Hayes Valley woman, her daughter and her grandchildren who met him on the street and had come to adore him, and a staff at the hospital that grieved so hard for Kern at a memorial service last week that many could not speak through their tears.And here is the most important lesson to be learned from this man. There was at least one neighborhood woman who saw the value of his life and made sure her family saw it too. Her grandchildren will surely grow up looking at the most unfortunate among us not as unsightly rags in the landscape, but as their fellow human beings deserving our compassion, deserving our help. When he finally did receive that help from a staff of people who are accustomed to levels of human misery most of us will never see, his spirit touched them so deeply that they grieved his passing not as just a patient, but as a friend. All of these people organized a proper memorial service for him and a dignified burial at sea.
The service was about to end when one organizer said she had a surprise. She popped a CD into a stereo - and out poured Kern, singing the 1940s-era standard, "On the Street of Regret," not long before he died.I will be contacting Kevin Fagan with a link to this diary. I want to thank him personally for his tribute to Bernie Kern and the larger lessons about the dignity inherent in all humanity.
His rendering was shaky, but in tune. He sounded happy as he lingered over the words:
"When you're alone with your dreams of the past, and you realize what love means at last,
"Just remember the glory of love's sweet story, when you're alone on the street of regret."