by Danny Stephens
Neal Roesky and I had pretty much the same conversation every Friday for the last three months. He would spot me coming around the corner with a set of keys and say, “Going to Kentucky, Danny?” While nodding my head and winking at him I would say, “I’m headed south to God’s country, Buddy!” He would smile while giving his head a sharp turn, wishing he were healthy enough to go with me. “Have a good weekend; see you when you get back,” he would respond. I would shake his hand and make sure he didn’t need anything before I left, and together we would hope that we would hear something from the housing authority about the apartment he hoped to move into soon.
Our conversation on August 6th was a little bit different. Instead of driving to Kentucky, I was driving down to Lynchburg, VA. This especially excited Neal because of the Civil War graveyard there and he told me some things to look for. He was a huge Civil War buff and knew a lot of the history. I have never seen Neal without his Yankee hat and vest. We used to spend a lot of time talking about the Civil War. Neal admits his fascination came from stories his father used to tell him years ago. After his father died when he was young, Neal kept studying about the Civil War.
Neal lived his last three months in our emergency shelter at Volunteers of America (VOA). He was in poor health and his goal was simply to obtain an apartment at Riverview on West 25th Street. This was close to the location where his father died and where Neal was born and raised. Neal also wanted to die in that area so that his spirit would be close to his father’s.
Neal had gotten diabetes some years ago, which eventually led to his chronic heart failure, along with other health problems. Neal was in the hospital at Metro for a while after an open-heart surgery. When he got out, his landlord had rented the apartment out from under him. He was walking down the street and got robbed and beaten with his own cane-all for a few dollars and a handful of pain pills. Sister Corita, at St. Augustine’s was kind enough to give him another cane when he came to the VOA. We helped Neal by giving him rides to the doctor and pharmacy, finding personal items and clothes, assisting him with CMHA and Social Security paperwork and continually advocating on his behalf.
People would sometimes make fun of Neal because of his appearance, saying such things as, “The war is over, Buddy.” Nonetheless, Neal kept going. He was often in a great deal of pain but we rarely heard him complain.
Neal died in bed at the VOA during the night of August 8, 1999. During my weekend in Lynchburg, I thought about Neal as I walked through some of the Civil War graves. I couldn’t help but see him in full uniform, his face proud and dignified and without apology. I’ll miss our Friday conversations and talking with him about the time he was a drummer in a band. There will be several people in Cleveland that will miss him as well.
One time I asked Neal if he wanted one of those new baseball hats out of the donations. He said, “Got no use for it; I’ll die with the hat I got!” He was right.
Neal Roesky was my friend. May his soul rest in peace.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #37, August-September 1999