When Your Heart Hurts

My grandmother has that bag. That black canvas one with National Geographic sprawled in white and a yellow stripe down the side. Inside it holds her lunch, water, and ID as she heads to her second shift as a nurse. Some mornings groceries line the inside. That bag is always full.


The skin on her fingers was thin and course, her brittle nails broken, but beautifully shaped with pearly white tips. She fingered her way through the bag on the chair next to her, taking long sighs and wiping the hair from her face. Her plate sat full with a styrofoam to-go container of corn bread to the side. I'd never met or seen her before. 

It was Friday and lunchtime at the community kitchen. Like the other days, we sat and ate with clients. Sometimes talking, sometimes not. I sat with two older gentlemen already deep in their conversation. They nod and smile and continue talking with heavy ebonics. Picking at my green beans, I try to politely listen in, make some kind of connection. Eh, maybe not today, I think to myself and take my plate to the counter, wiping it clean into the garbage.  Not hungry.

A cloud of defeat creeped in. Great. Now they think I don't care. Just another interaction I can't gauge like a normal person.  Looking at my watch, it's been 15 minutes. Sigh. Okay, let's give this a try again.

She reminds me of my grandmother. Hair a dirty blonde with tints of grey at the roots. A fierce determination in her demeanor masks the sorrow in her eyes. I sit. She ruffles through her National Geographic bag.

Are you looking for something, ma'am?

My prescriptions. She doesn't look up. Inside her bag is a folder, two rolls of toilet paper, a plastic bag holding her pocket book and calendar. Some gloves are poking out of the side with the yellow stripe.

Have I met you before? I ask, hoping she will look up. She does. Oh. Um. I don't think so, this is my second day here. My name is T. 

Well it's nice to meet you and I'm glad you're here. My name's Jess. Are you not hungry?

T looks at her plate and then takes a cornbread from the styrofoam container. Would you like one she asks me. Oh, no thank you. I'm just not very hungry right now. Finishing her cornbread, she stacks her full plate, fork, and cup and stands up to take it to the counter.

The cloud came creeping back -- hurt from something I look personally earlier in the morning and feeling unable to connect with clients. A pathetic moment of self-pity. Snapping out, T is walking back to the table, her body shaped like a 7.

T asks me if I'm a member of the church here. No, I don't go here, but I am a member of the Church and attend a congregation here in town. I'm actually an intern at AM; we run this kitchen. Have you been to our office? 

Oh I'm baptist. This is my second day here. 

That's right, you said that. Where were you before you were here?

Slowly, T begins to speak. Released from a hospital an hour away and with no where to go, she came here, hoping to stay with her cousin until she finds a place of her own. She doesn't want to intrude on said cousin and so is just waiting for him to call her back. Last night she stayed at the shelter. But I need to find my prescriptions. Her fingers ruffle again through the bag.

I begin to help. We pull things from the bag onto the table. T transfers the last cornbread into the plastic bag that held the pocket book and calendar. She says nothing. Flipping through her calendar, she hopes the papers are in the pages. They are not. I notice in the calendar squares of days -- appointments, phone numbers, remnants of a life. How did she get here I think to myself.

T pulls the folder out, going through all the pages. She finds one prescription that needs to be filled. I ask how many more? She points to a packet, neatly tucked into the right folder pocket. Discharge papers. I see the list of medications.

Cancer. Heart Failure. Pain control. She should be in hospice.

Disbelief. Woah. She really needs to find these. Maybe someone stole them at the shelter? A heavy lump swelled up in my throat and tears muddled at the corners of my eyes. Blinking them away, I try to think what to do next.

The kitchen would be closing. T had been allowed to sit at her table between breakfast and lunch so she could stay warm. But she would need to go somewhere now. Grappling for an idea I suggest that she come down to our office. It's about three blocks away. We can walk. You can use the computers or phone and I can help you figure out what to do next.

We packed up and started outside. The sweater she wore at the table was all she had as we stepped into the 20 degree wintry mix Georgia decided to send our way this week. We begin to walk. T's head and chest slump down and the bulked National Geographic hangs off of her shoulder. Would you like me to carry that for you? T replies, I've got it, honey. She stops. We've gone maybe a block. Through deep breaths she asks, how much further?

Just two more blocks, that way. Pointing ahead, my stomach sinks. The dots are connected. This woman, who is without a coat, is dying of heart failure and I'm telling her just two more blocks and pointing to our building that is up there. Uphill. I'm asking her to walk uphill. 

Let's keep going, honey. I'm okay. We take a few more steps. She pauses. A few more steps.

Arriving, I help her inside. She's breathing heavily. I offer her some coffee. Honey, I can't eat eggs and I can't drink coffee. Trying to stay calm and reassuring, I offer T water. I'd like that. Thank you.

Where to begin? 
-Call the cousin. No answer. 
-Explain to T that she could go to the pharmacy and take her discharge papers that includes a list of medications and the doctor's contact info and request the prescriptions be sent there.
-T tells me she needs to stop by the bank. Unlike many of our clients, she has an account. 
-At 4:00 she needs to call the shelter to secure a bed for the night. And she will need to arrive by 4:30 or else they give the bed to the next person.

On any other day, with anyone else, my heart wouldn't feel heavy as I print out a map of the downtown, highlighting our office, the bank, and the shelter. About eight blocks total. The three to get here were almost too much. Would you like me to walk with you, T? Thinking that perhaps being beside her would somehow make it easier. 

No. You need to stay here. It'll be okay. 

Just like my grandma I think to myself. My mind flashes back to her bag. Realizing I can't I swallow down the lump, I write our office number on the map should she need anything and we slowly walk to the door. 

T left, bundled in her sweater and with that National Geographic bag slung over her shoulder. As she walked away, bent like a 7, Bubba's words repeated in my mind. Jesus would've given her His coat.

Any of us could be T. The majority of society are just one unfortunate turn of events from being right where she is. That says a lot about the humanity of the people we see walking slowly down the street. They've got stories and brokenness and are just trying to get somewhere -- like you and me. 


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