Lately, we have been so wrapped up in our stress, that I can only describe what we have been going though as a feeling of drowning. Every now and then, we come up for air and float for a little while, but before too long, we get pulled under again. There are some possible things lining up for us, but right now, things are still uncertain. I wouldn’t wish this kind of financial stress on anyone.
At times, over the last month especially, I have felt selfish for how wrapped up in everything I have been. I feel like I haven’t been as supportive to my friends, and I haven’t been in touch with everyone as much as I need to. It’s just so hard when things aren’t going well to be all the things you want to be and do all the things you want to do.
Earlier this evening, my husband and I decided to take a walk into town to get our mind off of things and splurge (a whole $5.00) on frozen yogurt. The walk was a pretty good hike each way, and it gave us time to just enjoy the amazing weather and connect and talk.
On the way home, as we passed a little restaurant, I noticed an elderly woman struggling to hold the door and get herself inside. My husband was closer so I pointed her out so he could help. What I thought was a walker was a cart, which apparently held all of her belongings. She looked to me to be at least 80 years old, and her coat and clothing were worn and dirty. There was a definite odor around her and her possessions. She quickly thanked Shea for his help and ushered herself inside.
I was so upset as we walked away, I could barely keep my composure. I always hurt when I see people who are homeless, but when they are elderly, it absolutely tears me up. It breaks my heart to think of anyone at that point in their life, all those years lived, and now here they are in this situation. As we walked away I wondered how she had ended up like this, where she would sleep tonight.
It was a jolt of perspective and a reminder that my situation could be worse, but more than anything I just ached for her. I was upset that we aren’t in a different situation where I could have given her money, made sure she had a meal, and I don’t know what else. I have not been able to get her off of my mind, or the look on her face as we saw her-- really saw her situation-- this look of shame on her face and the way she hurriedly thanked us and moved inside.
The fact is, that especially where we live now (in comparison to other places we have lived) there are more people in this situation. I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago for a meeting in an area I hadn’t been in before, and as I was navigating my way off of the subway and around a few corners to my destination, the sight of so many homeless people sleeping in breezeways and on benches literally slowed me down. I had forgotten how prevalent it is here.
I don’t want to be one of those people who looks away and does nothing. Over the years, so many of my friends have cautioned me about being too tenderhearted, too sensitive. And to be honest, there have been a few times when I have reached out to someone and the situation went sideways. An example: over 10 years ago, while I was working in a pretty big city, I noticed a man every morning as I drove into work. He was using a rickety step ladder as a walker and struggled to slowly make progress heading down the sidewalk. The more I saw him, the more it ate at me. For the first time in my life, I was making decent money, and I felt moved to stop and offer to buy him a decent walker. I had been warned by people in my office about doing this…that you never know how people will accept offers, and to be careful.
Determined, I finally pulled over one afternoon and approached him. It was a busy street and all kinds of people were nearby. I asked the man if he would mind if I helped him get an adequate walker. I explained that I had been through some tough times in my life, and that friends and strangers had helped me in different ways, and I would like to, in a sense, return the favor done for me.
He looked at me as if he was trying to understand what I was saying. I was uncertain for a moment if he understood what I meant. Then, he raised his wobbly stepladder over his head and yelled at me to “mind my own business—that he didn’t need any help, he didn’t ask for it, thank you very much”. He then proceeded to swing the stepladder at me a few times. Luckily, he was slow, and I made a hasty retreat to my car.
After a few “I told you so’s” from the people I worked with, I finally got over the shock and embarrassment. A friend reminded me that if I wanted to help, that it was better to work with an organization and give my time/money that way. I have stubbornly forgotten this advice several more times in my life, and I can honestly say, I have had some bad experiences.
It hasn’t changed that gut-wrenching emotional moment when I see someone like the elderly woman I saw tonight. I am glad I haven’t become so cynical that I can’t feel that.
But, there is a small part of me that wishes this feeling didn’t hang on and bother me so much. I keep looking out my sliding glass door tonight, wondering if she is sleeping outside somewhere in the darkness. I wonder if she has family or if she is alone in the world. I wonder if she is a grandmother. I wonder if she is mentally ill or painfully cognizant of her life right now. I wonder if I could have or should have done anything tonight.
I wonder if I am losing my mind.
All I can do is wonder right now, and try and get some sleep… and be thankful that at least for now, I have a bed to sleep in, a roof over my head, my husband next to me, and a 100 pound dog who will likely try and take over most of the space on our mattress tonight. Not insignificant things at all, and things I try to never take for granted.
Tonight, I definitely won’t.
The artwork pictured is by Fanny Allie and is part of an installation called "The Glowing Homeless". Click here to learn more about the artist and her work.