Letting New Family In
Don Brown died Nov. 14, 2011, at Bailey-Boushay House.
Don Brown surprised a lot of people at Bailey-Boushay House — including himself.
He entered outpatient care in 1999 with a feeling of doom. He had no family. He'd lost his longtime partner Reggie to HIV/AIDS. And HIV-related blackouts forced Don to give up working.
"I thought coming to a place like this meant you were a goner," Don recalled later.
But his expectation took a 180-degree turn.
"I cried walking in the door of Bailey-Boushay," he said. "It turned out to be the best thing in the world for me."
He lived another 12 years. He found a great buddy in fellow client Keesha Bailey. And when he died at age 70, Don had become a quiet leader in the community that he embraced as his family.
"It's hard for a lot of people here to let new family in," social worker Cherry Johnson says. "They've been hurt too much. But Don was able to do it, despite his long history of losses. And it made his life so much richer."
Everyone who reminisces about Don seems to smile with a bemused shake of the head. His friends describe him as stubborn (very) and generous (extremely). He was reserved and fiercely independent.
"I thought he was an old curmudgeon, till I talked to him one day," says a younger client. "I'd call him a gentle soul."
Don's social worker, Jeff Matheson, agrees. "He was generous to a fault. And I never heard him bad mouth anybody. He would let go of [grievances] without saying anything mean or spiteful."
He's famous here for a bootleg entrepreneurial venture. Don resold (at a small profit) cheap cigarettes from American Indian smoke shops to other clients living on tight budgets.
"He would front people until they had money, and he knew exactly what everyone owed him," says one former customer.
Another client adds, with an admiring smile, "If staff hadn't found out, Don would have worked it till the end."
Don had a way with people. For years he played cards at the same table (taking one day off a week for his chore worker's visit). And many a volunteer driver was persuaded to take routes that passed his favorite ice cream and coffee shops.
Occupational therapist Angela Brock still marvels at Don's social influence.
"We all had to watch 'The Price Is Right' because it was his favorite TV show," she laughs. "Who else could have that clout and respect here?"
Not even terminal cancer could sway his resolve. "Don was not going to say uncle. He was planning to be 100," his social worker says.
Don quit smoking to be eligible for admission to the BBH nursing home. But he also kept his apartment and his old truck to the end.
Against staff advice, he checked out of residential care for weeks to be home with his beloved cat, Squeaky.
"He looked really bad when he'd come back," recalls a client.
But Don did things his way. And he outlived his oncologist's expectation by two years.