This is a story I wrote about a woman in our church. There was always a struggle in my heart concerning her; her life was painfully awful but she honestly tried my patience. Here is our story:
It was the day everyone empties out their sheds and cellars and puts on the curb everything that would be sold at a garage sale if they existed here. The Gypsies would come around with wheelbarrows and giant sacks to gather up their findings. Others drove from street to street and loaded into their failing cars an old cupboard missing a few doors and even more paint, or perhaps a few tires brought out of retirement. Every year I wished I had a truck, and more than that, an excuse to drive around town rummaging through the piles. Such articles were ancient junk to my neighbor, but a commentary on European history to me. Today, most of all, I wished I had a truck.
Martha was sick. As we approached her house we noticed her pile. She had a few odds and ends, things that only held value in parts, not as a whole. Martha wasn’t old, but tired and her parts had no value, and were barely a whole person. The rusty things she put on the curb were of more use to people than Martha was. She would have been the hidden treasure, overlooked by the Gypsies and those in their cars and would have waited to be hauled away by the men in trucks. I never actually saw a garbage truck come by; everything seemed to dissolve before it could be collected. Perhaps Martha would have just sat on the curb, with her hollow eyes, taut skin, emaciated body, and simply died there.
She lived in a house her family owned, but they only came over to visit her and her daughter when they were drunk, angry and ready to beat her. She talked incessantly, with a conversation made up of apologies, memories and nonsense. This I found far more trying than her squalor. Her house was dark and smelled of cold and poverty. Her daughter’s toys and books were strewn in the smoky shadows where light barely made its way in through the covered windows. She was ashamed of her house, as if we had expected more. When someone is just existing, you don’t expect more than four walls and frowns. Her shame had a way of embarrassing me and made me ill at ease and anxious to leave. Had she only been poor, I would have gladly spent the day, but her poverty was that of wits and reason. She hadn’t been up for a few days and her daughter traipsed around the house in an unmatched outfit and wore the face of a child who had no idea what it meant to be a child. She wanted to play, but it was late; she was bored and her mother no longer had the energy to answer her. This child had stolen her last fire or whatever smoldering embers she had remaining. She was a woman broken many times over and was now only a shell of God’s intent. The girl had lived with her mom for her few years on earth and saw her dad whenever he found his way back between drinks. Her world was built of sadness, pain and the desire to escape it all. I was certain she would in a few years; when she was old enough to find her own way, she’d escape and avoid her mother on the streets as her older siblings did. Martha was her scorn, her shame and she’d forget her as soon as she could.
We sat with her and prayed. It was hard to pray when you knew she was staring at you with the blank stare of vacancy; her soul had moved out years before. I tried to pray, but knew that to her it made no difference; she would start the same conversation all over again once I’d finished. Even in the midst of suffering, I found the despicable ability to shut the door. Had I only met her once, she would have been a tragic memory, but because she was a staple in my life, she was an annoyance. My insincerity sickened me, or perhaps I wished it did. I talked and listened and thought about heading home to my house, to my husband and to sanity: a continent she had perhaps received postcards from, but never dreamed of visiting. After praying she would draw closer and gaze at me with such an invasive stare, I was sure she would take a spoon and dig deep inside me and hallow out a new home for herself.
Somehow the interview ended and I instinctively punched my mental timecard and placed it in my back pocket until another week or so or perhaps until another beating or sickness warranted my necessity to visit her. When we left we carried traces of her with our every part. They stood at the window and waved like two disappearing ghosts, the curtain waving behind them in the breeze. The consolation of the poor is that once they’ve let you into their homes, they’re no longer alone in their suffering.