It was such a cold day
Connie remembers the memorial service for Zaki Holder, a 39-year-old homeless veteran who froze to death.
I almost didn’t go to the funeral.
It was such a cold day — barely 26 degrees at noon — and snow was beginning to come down. Not much snow, flakes not larger than midges, but nothing I wanted to be outside in.
Plus, I had pulled a muscle in my back and was lying on a heating pad covered with quilts and my cat Isabelle sleeping on my chest for extra warmth. How pleasant it would be to lie there through the afternoon, dozing and reading a book.
But I willed myself out of bed, took another Extra Strength Tylenol and shuffled through my closet for the warmest sweater, then for thick tights. Which pair of boots would be best for slippery streets? I turned up the heater in my car as I drove to the service. Maybe I’d stop for lunch at a restaurant later.
All of these indulgent details came back to me when I remembered that the memorial service was for Zaki Holder, a 39-year-old homeless veteran who froze to death on a downtown street outside a towering hotel. I knew him from the years I worked at Iron Gate, a downtown soup kitchen.
Such a crowd was gathering, I had to park a block away. People were walking from every direction toward The Merchant, a street-front religious organization. What stopped me short and brought tears in my eyes was the line of honor guards on the sidewalk. They were holding American flags and wearing jackets, vests and ball caps thick with military patches. They had been standing there so long, their heads and shoulders were white with the fine snow.
These, I found out, were members of the Patriotic Guard Riders, veterans mostly, and uniformed representatives from the American Legion. I recognized the uniform of one Navy veteran. Maybe a VFW chapter was there, also. I don’t know for sure because there were so many, I couldn’t get a clear look. Then, too, it was so cold I was hurrying inside.
Every chair was full, people were standing in the main room, in the foyer and spilling outside onto the sidewalk. It was the most diverse group of people I’ve seen in a long time, all come to remember Ish, Isaac and Zaki — the names and nicknames he was known by. His first name was
different on his birth certificate, we were told; he chose the name Isaac for himself because it is a Biblical name that means “he will laugh.” And laugh he did. Almost everybody mentioned his sense of humor and joy. His only stronger characteristic was his love for his late wife and his daughter.
Homeless people spoke. Social workers spoke. Family and lifelong friends spoke. Some people spoke through heavy sobs. Others had remembrances that made us laugh. They said how funny he was, kind, genuine and stubborn. They said how much they loved him and how deeply they will miss him. An American flag was unfurled, saluted as taps was played, then refolded ceremonially and presented to his daughter. She was thanked by a grateful nation for her father’s military service. Scripture was read. Prayers were said. A man in a red fleece jacket played the guitar and sang a religious song.
This service was in the midst of the federal government shutdown, when politicians and citizens were spitting at one another in such rancor the air was sour. That was outside. Inside, a great mix of people came together to make a memorial service for a homeless veteran. I thought there was a stronger sense of American community inside that plain little church than most anywhere else across the country.
His memorial service was held, ironically, the day after the nationwide Point in Time count, which enumerates the nation’s homeless. Last year, Tulsa’s one-night count was 851, but for the whole year it’s about 5,800, according to the Community Service Council. Now we have one fewer homeless man to count.
Throughout the long service, I could hear a dog barking somewhere. Barking outside in the cold. I wished someone would let it in.