That night while I watched muted TV commercials with my husband I told him about her. I talk to people in her situation a lot -- mothers with children about to get evicted from pay-by-the-week motels, working people who live in their cars, disabled people whose caregiver has just died -- yet it’s rare that I bring those conversations home. Staring into the dark night and my reflection in the window, I wondered where in the world she was. She said her name was Connie. Instead of saying "Okay" she said "Praise the Lord" in a way that made me want to believe in Him. She thanked me profusely. That was in October.
Around Christmas she left me a voice-mail message. "It’s Connie," she said. "I’m okay. I just wanted to thank you. Praise the Lord." For a while we played a rude game of phone tag, she always "it." Finally, we talked. She told me that since she first called she’d camped in the woods, gotten a staph infection, spent the holidays at the hospital and was now living in her own apartment. She was calling to make sure she was on the list for that housing.
We talked a lot. She told me that she used to work for an animal shelter. She said when she got out of this thing, she was going to help other women. Praise the Lord. She said sometimes it was wine and sometimes it was that her MAP card ran out and she didn’t have her meds. She said she had bipolar disorder. I told her my best friend was diagnosed with that ten years ago and now she’s a dean at one of the best private high schools in the country. I said anything’s possible if you take your meds.
Connie is lucky. Because she worked before her circumstances changed, contributing to Social Security, she receives $755 a month from the federal government. That’s a lot. A church worker helped her move into her own place and got her furniture and clothes. Connie was paying over half her income for rent but she was just down the street from her future home. She was the first one on the waiting list for the supportive housing community we were helping to build.
We adopted her. We got her boxes of crackers and cans of soup from the Food Bank. We chipped in and bought her tulips and Oprah magazine and clothes detergent. Our social worker made the deliveries -- all of this entirely outside the bounds of our jobs, or even our organization’s work.
But just as quickly as Connie emerged whole from the woods, she disappeared.
After a few weeks, the church lady called us; Connie had given her our number. The man seen in her apartment, who said she was sleeping and couldn’t come to the door, was her abuser and she’d had to escape. She was hiding out with a friend.
A month passed, maybe more, then I got another call.
"I can’t go back on the streets," she pleaded, words slurred from the drugs they were giving her at the psych hospital. "You’ve got to help me."
We racked our brains. There was a program that we offered, usually to families, in which a church paid rent and provided volunteers for a temporary period. We were still five months out from the new project opening, but the church agreed and in two days Connie was moved into one of our apartments.
I finally met her when I brought over a few groceries she requested. I brought her scented hand soap in a purple bottle, because I knew it was her favorite color, and a bowl and plate in bright colors because she had none. She was a tall woman, at first bent over sharply with pain, and later just tall, with shoulder-length hair and brown eyes. She wore make-up now that she had it. She wore t-shirts and purple sweat pants and a coat of many colors. Her narrow eyes reminded me of Angelica Huston.
I saw her a lot. In the car she told me she’d camped across the street from the cemetery where her parents were buried. Her father had been an attorney and once she brought home a monkey from work and it tore up his office. She laughed.
At the hospital I learned she was 48, just eight years older than I. I noted her July birthday.
While I helped her sort through donated clothes, she told me her first husband had committed suicide, her second one had been abusive, and she used to live in the hilly wooded neighborhood overlooking the lake that has its own school district and mayor. While I helped her with her papers, she showed me a card that said "Jesus Loves You" that a child had given her when she was out "flying a sign" for money. She showed me a snapshot of a boy, her son, standing by a swimming pool. I saw the soccer patch that said "Kenneth." She said he was in college now and they didn’t speak.
She slept with the phone and ate vanilla frosted wafers in bed.
I gave her my radio and she asked me to turn it to the same station I listen to. I held up a donated swimming suit and she said, "Definitely." I told her I swam several times a week. I said when it got hot I’d take her to Deep Eddy, the spring-fed pool by the lake. She said she used to take her son there.
It’s hot now. A lot has happened. She’s gone to the hospital about six times for various things, been chewed out by EMS, gone through about $2000 but hasn’t paid any rent or bills, gotten a lot of prescriptions filled, made friends wherever she’s gone, suffered incredible loneliness, caught up with old friends, made long-distance calls, given her phone number out, cancelled a lot of appointments, welcomed back into her life the people who steal from her and lie to her. She tells the church lady some things and our social worker others. She’s like Vietnam. The church pulls out and so does the church lady. Other women need the help.
It’s July and when the rent
comes due she will choose to pay it and have a place to live until the
new project finally opens up. Or she will choose whatever else that’s
speaking to her. It’s her birthday. I told her she’d never be on the
streets again. She showed me a key on a ribbon that she found when she
was camping and I watched her hang it on a nail in the bathroom. I
believed it. Her electricity is about to go dead and it’s 99 degrees
outside. Her phone will be cut off soon. I swim at Deep Eddy nearly
every day, the cold water hurting my bones until I get used to it. I can’t
get used to the idea that sometimes wanting something good for someone
is not enough -- they have to want it more than anything they’ve ever
known before. Praise the Lord.