She was sprawled on the sidewalk, her head flung back and her mouth wide open – a real life rendition of The Scream. I couldn’t hear her cries from inside my car but it was clear she was in great distress. I noticed her as I drove out of the hospital parking lot. It was Sunday morning and I was on my way back to church after visiting a friend.
I said a quick prayer under my breath and continued on my way. It was still early and I figured I could catch the tail end of the sermon. We were in the middle of a series about Neighboring.
That’s when it hit me.
Go back! Your neighbor’s there on the sidewalk. Church is here!
I made a quick U-turn and pulled over. As I approached, I could hear her howling, the sound like an animal stuck in a steel trap.
In front of me was the figure of a woman in obvious agony. My presence barely registered with her. Her creased leathery skin was toasted a deep brown from years spent living out in the California sun. Her long auburn hair was tinged with streaks of gray. With every wail, she brushed the back of her sleeve across her dripping nose and into the tangled mess.
Bending down, I assessed her physical appearance to see if she was injured. She slumped to the side, leaning against a large white plastic bag filled with clothes.
“Are you okay?” She shook her head and wailed even louder.
As I looked closer, I changed my initial opinion of her. Her nails were freshly polished with a deep purple lacquer and there were beautiful silver rings on her fingers. Her brown leather sandals were new. She wore a pretty lavender cardigan that matched her nails and, with the exception of the snot smeared on the sleeves, it was clean.
Her plastic wristband and bright white scrub pants indicated she had just come from the hospital. She was a paradox.
I sat down beside her and touched her gently on the shoulder. “Are you in pain?” She whipped her head up and down in affirmation. “Do you need to go back to the hospital?”
Her swollen, hooded eyelids popped open at that question and she spit out the words. “NO! They kicked me out!” Her mouth contained a line of rotted, stained teeth.
I need to mention at this point – the most distinct thing about her appearance. The smell. She looked clean and bathed but her whole person reeked as if she had been pickled in a vat of whiskey. The alcohol seeped out her pores and the odor emanating from her was palpable. I could taste the alcohol in the air and long after I left, the sensory memory of it burned at the back of my throat.
I plied her with questions and she shared her sad story between gasps and tears. “I have cancer. I’m dying! There’s nothing they can do for me so they kicked me out.” This triggered a fresh round of tears.
During this time, I kept my hand on her shoulder and tried to console her but I finally decided a firmer hand was needed and said, “You have to stop crying now. I want to help you but we can’t talk if you’re sobbing. Take a deep breath and let me help you.”
She hiccuped and breathed deeply. When she regained some composure I asked her name. “Patterann,” she mumbled.
“Pat or Ann?”
“No. Patterann. Ina Baptist preacher.” She spoke as if her mouth was filled with marbles.
“I don’t understand. Is your name Ann?”
She lifted up her head and looked me squarely in the eye. “Ann*. Ann! Angela! My name is Angela and ina Batist preacher! They call me PASTOR ANN!”
With every word, the volume and intensity increased until she was spitting out the words like bullets.
“Okay, Ann. It’s okay. My name’s Karen. I’m here to help you.”
At this, she slumped her head forward and lay down in my lap with another flood of tears. Suddenly, something in her clicked and she bolted upright, screaming and ranting and clutching at her necklace. She grappled with the beads, struggling to turn them around. I saw the cross that had been hanging down the back of her neck. She yanked the necklace off and threw it to the ground.
I didn’t know what to do. She was deeply intoxicated and in such emotional turmoil that I just stroked her back and began to pray. I reminded Ann (and God) that she was His precious child. There was nothing she had done or could do to be separated from that love. I prayed for peace. I prayed for strength.
I ran out of words and just repeated a solitary name.
I chanted that sweet, holy name and prayed that in it she would find some small measure of comfort.
Finally, the tension released in her shoulders. I asked if she wanted me to get someone from the hospital. She did not. I asked where she was going. She said she was homeless and lived in Huntington Beach.
“I just want to go home.”
“To Huntington Beach?”
“Yes. I need to go there.”
“Do you have any family? Any way to get there?”
At this question, she sat up and the faintest shadow of a smile crossed her face.
“Tom. My son. Tommy!”
“Do you want me to call him?”
She gave me his number and after a few rings, a deep voice answered. “Hello.”
“Hi. My name is Karen and I’m here with your mother. I…”
“Is she conscious or unconscious?”
His words were a blow. The deeper meaning behind them was clear. This was not the first time he received this type of call. He spoke slowly with a heaviness that revealed a weary heart. I choked back the tears as I imagined my own sweet son being placed in this position – the child as the parent, unable to help, yet called on time and time again to do so.
I reassured him that she was okay but in distress – explained where we were and asked if he could come take her home.
“Let me talk to her.”
I passed the phone to Ann. Her words were incomprehensible as she sobbed and whimpered her story to her son. I understood one word that she repeated over and over again – “Mommy”. She referred to herself in the third person – “Mommy is…” and used the endearment as though this word would somehow lessen the impact of what was happening or bring her son a measure of comfort.
She finally passed the phone back to me and Tom, apologizing, told me that he was at work until 4. “There’s really no way I can leave. Are you able to help her?”
I reassured him that I would. My mama’s heart wanted to say something to comfort his fractured spirit but all I could offer was the assurance that I would find a way to get his mama back to Huntington Beach.
As I hung up the phone, I noticed a bus drive by. “Do you take the bus? Do you want to go back home?” She nodded yes.
I grabbed her bag of clothes and helped her as she stumbled to her feet. When we got to the corner, she waved wildly at the bus driving past. The driver pulled over to the side of the road and waited for us to cross the street.
We climbed in and I asked if he was going to the Huntington Beach Pier. Pam’s condition was obvious to the driver and everyone else yet he treated her with respect and spoke with kindness when he said, “No. It doesn’t, but there’s a transfer.”
“I can help her get her transfer,” said a voice a few rows back.
“I’ll make sure the other driver gets her where she needs to go,” reassured the gentleman behind the wheel. “We’ll take care of her ma’am. She’s in good hands now. God bless you.”
I gave him her fare, stepped back out of the bus and looked through the window at Ann’s tear-streaked face. She waved at me and yelled “Thank you!” over and over again as the bus pulled away.
As I walked back to my car, I saw it lying there among the flowers – her necklace – a rosary with a string of black beads and a solid black cross. I picked it up and ran it between my fingers. This will be my reminder to pray, I thought to myself – the first Catholic rosary I’ve ever owned, probably given to Ann the Baptist Preacher by someone else along the way, attempting to bring comfort to her troubled spirit.
That’s it. No happy ending.
I called her son and let him know his mom was heading back home – ‘home’ being a park bench somewhere down by the pier. He thanked me softly and told me he would see her on Monday at the Starbucks where they usually meet.
I drove back home and hugged my own son a little bit tighter than usual.
I recorded this narrative a few months back and have been troubled ever since, with the nagging feeling that I should have done more. What could I do?
Since that day, I’ve begun working with the homeless in my own city and the more I become involved, the more conflicted I become – the more I feel as though it’s not enough or that we’re putting bandaids on gaping wounds.
The rate of homelessness in Orange County is climbing with every passing year. The causes of homelessness are complex and include overpriced housing, insufficient shelters, low wages, drug addiction and mental illness. But it seems to me there’s an even deeper cause that statistics don’t show. A lack of connection and deep-seated loneliness. So, how do we cure that?
I admit, there are moments I wish I could go back to the time before I noticed, before I cared. But now I see it. Now I care. What do I do?
What would you do?
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
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