The sight wasn’t all that uncommon – an unkempt person standing on the corner holding a cardboard sign.
But the number 80 written in bold black print caught my attention.
I peered at the face of the woman, partially obscured beneath the brown and cranberry tartan blanket draped over her head and shoulders. Wrinkles and sun spots testified to the words on her water logged billboard: 80+ year old woman.
At the same moment I considered pulling over, the traffic light turned green. So I instead led a trail of cars past her onto the busy highway lanes of life.
I frantically searched for solutions that would justify turning around.
I could drive the woman somewhere safe, at least momentarily shelter her from the rain. Take her to a place where family in search of an elderly woman who’d wandered off could find her.
Perhaps family had tired of caring though or turned out the woman who’d abused them from youth. Maybe stretched to breaking, with no reward in sight and surrounded by messages that those who cannot produce are expendable, they’d washed their hands of this woman.
Perhaps she’d fled a nursing home that reeked of neglect and maltreatment, or fallen prey to conspiracy theories sometimes suspected by those feeble and afraid.
Endless scenarios ran through my mind, accompanied by a single solution that appeared frailer than the bones I sought to secure: a beat up brown blanket retrieved from the trunk and wrapped around the woman’s body to warm her, absorbing any soiling while I drove her somewhere – anywhere safe and warm.
Echoes of my mother’s warnings rang in the air – conspiracies of my own creation abounded involving a wrinkle-faced mask, a bully luring me in.
Excuses abounded. The fuel gauge read empty and I wouldn’t do an old woman much good if the car puttered to a stop. I needed to get to dinner with new neighbors I had a far better chance of building relationship with than with an itinerant, senile old woman.
The sky suddenly opened to a deluge of rain.
The tartan blanket surely streamed water by now.
My heart ached as the most familiar elderly woman’s face I knew took the place of this stranger’s. Bedraggled hair dripping with pain and fear framed the portrait.
Other faces flashed through my memory from an assisted living home where I once volunteered.
The leathery skin of a towering man bedecked in turquoise jewelry who sought the heart of a small, quiet woman with blonde-dyed, bobbed hair. They’d flirted like teenagers while I turned the Bingo wheel and served ice cream.
Other days I played chess with a man who taught me champion moves, his hands shaking with Parkinson’s between each play. I never won a game against him.
It wasn’t right that any one of them should stand in the rain begging money for who-knows-what. Though the elderly are not nearly as innocent as children, they are still largely defenseless and vulnerable.
“She may have made choices that led her there,” a friend reasoned over the phone as I sought options.
I knew offering her a ride wasn’t a wise solution – for her or for me. But I couldn’t listen to the many voices that told me to keep driving on, to not get involved in other people’s lives and misfortune.
I was already involved. I walk the same earth, created by the same God.
I recalled lines I’d recently read from the fourth century preacher John Chrysostom:
The poor man has but one plea, his want and his standing in need; do not require anything else from him…do not judge him, do not seek an account of his life, but free him from his misfortune….Need alone is this poor man’s worthiness.1
There was a time when I reached out to and maybe even cherished the homeless. I knew money could be used for ill, so I celebrated Valentine’s Day by driving from one corner to another offering hot chocolate, oranges, and a red carnation.
My heart toward the homeless had changed as I came to understand the extent of problems and the likelihood of enabling dysfunction and dependence. Individuals entered deeper into the shadow of systemic solutions until I could no longer see the person before me.
The parts had become less valuable than the whole.
If I was going to recognize the value of the parts again, it would be with an 80-year-old woman standing in the pouring rain.
Ill equipped and uncertain, I finally decided to dial the non-emergency police.
“There are so many of them,” the woman on the other end of the line said after I explained.
“I know. But she’s so old it seemed different,” I replied. “Maybe she wandered off from somewhere and doesn’t know where she is.”
“Did she seem to be having trouble standing?”
I couldn’t answer accurately – I’d only seen the woman for a fleeting moment. “Yes. She had a walker by her.”
“We can’t do anything unless she’s putting herself or someone else in danger.” The dispatcher paused briefly. “We can only do a wellness check.”
“That’s great. Would you do a wellness check?” I asked.
“I’ll send someone out. You said the intersection of Glisan and 205?”
“Yes ma’am, that’s right.”
I hung up the phone and drove away from the gas station without further thought – I had done what I could and wanted to leave the problem behind. It didn’t feel like enough, but it was all I knew to do.
Do you have any ideas for the next time I find myself in such a situation?
1 The translation used here is different than that of the linked source. St. John Chrysostom: On Wealth and Poverty, trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1984), pp. 49-55.
Can Human Rights Survive Secularization? Part II, by Nicholas Wolterstorff