It was a warm morning. June. I sleepily pulled a filter from the cabinet and it occurred to me: this is the last coffee filter. Normally, this would signal nothing more than a (begrudging) extra trip to the store.
This was different.
Six months prior, she’d come to our house for the weekend. I’d made homemade chicken vegetable soup, thinking she could use both the nutrition and the soul boost. I’d picked her up at the train station and we went directly to the grocery store. I wanted bread for the soup.
Wendy had $15 on her food stamps card, but she insisted on purchasing some “good, crusty bread” for us. I wanted her to use that impossibly small amount of money to survive on the remainder of the month, but she wanted to contribute to the meal. To the weekend. I didn’t have the language to convince her that she’d contributed by coming – by letting me in just far enough to accept my sincere welcome across our worn doormat. She was a native New Yorker, so she didn’t hear the word “No” well. She bought the bread.
When we were in the aisle that was home to the coffee filters, I grabbed by rote the package with the largest number of filters. They were white.
“You can’t get those.”
“You can’t get those. They’ll kill you. Get the natural ones.”
I put the white ones back, and grabbed the natural ones, never really taking my eyes off of her face. She was dead serious.
See, Wendy wasn’t only homeless (like that’s not horrible enough), she was dying of cancer. She seemed attuned to every single thing on the planet that had nutritive value, or – truth or myth – the potential to cause or contribute to harm. Stereotypes about feisty New Yorkers aside, I wasn’t going to disagree with a dying women’s demand about my choice of Death Paper.
She let me do her laundry, and she lingered in the shower as I’d hoped she would – treating herself to the luxury of hot water and a clean (and unhurried) place to let it run. She slept in a bed. She ate at a table. She had conversation, and, for a little while, was surrounded by people who looked her in the eye and called her by name. For a few hours, she was a someone again. She smiled a little.
Her abdomen pained her the next morning. She pointed to the chalky lines in the early morning sky and blamed those. I just nodded.
When I saw her off at the train station that afternoon, I knew in my gut it was one of the last times I’d see her. I thanked God that she had come – for her sake and for ours. The next and last time I would see her was in the hospital, after she’d learned that her cancer was everywhere and she had about six months to live. June. She was overflowing with venom. She had been angry and bitter already, so the rendition of her now lying before me was, in a way, the very worst version of the woman I knew.
Her cart was on the other side of her Upper East Side hospital bed, stuffed with everything she owned in the world, and reminding us both how likely it was she’d die on the street. And alone. She wouldn’t look me in the eye. She didn’t yell at me like she did everyone else who came into the room (and some who didn’t), but she wouldn’t talk to me either, other than to let me have it for not texting her a picture I’d said I’d send and forgot.
I sat awhile, just to be with her. I wanted more time with her in life, and I wanted her to know she was worth being with – even when she was truly being ugly. I wanted to remind her sans words that she had value, even though most everything in her crumbling world begged to differ.
She turned the TV up after a while even though it was silent in the room, and I took my cue to depart.
I got outside on the 77th St. side of the building and started to bawl. I knew in my core it was the last time I’d see her – not because her days were numbered, but because she had, rather violently, closed up shop. All of the doors and windows were barred, and there was a huge sign in her angry brown eyes declaring her “Out of Business.”
She did respond to texts a few times in the weeks following because I was trying to bring a mutual homeless friend up to see her. I told her I’d stay outside if she didn’t want to see me, but that he really wanted to see her. The afternoon we were finally on our way, she told us not to come.
And that was it.
My family and I prayed for her every night at dinner. That she wouldn’t die on the street, or alone, and that God would keep sending people into her life to show her kindness.
The large pack of brown filters lasted just over six months. When I realized I held the last one in my hand, I had a feeling she had died. I am not superstitious and I don’t read into everyday occurrences by practice. Honestly, it just really felt like a nudge from God. Some off-brand type of closure. I had learned months prior, through aforementioned mutual homeless friend, that she’d been in a hospice in another borough. At least she wasn’t on the street or alone, I consoled myself. There were likely to be kind people in her path. I Googled the borough name + “hospice,” narrowed the options down, called the likely facility, and – BINGO – got a room number. I made plans to take M to her, and he backed out the day of because he’d never seen someone dying before and couldn’t face it – death – or her.
The last coffee filter ushered in a sadness as heavy as a lead apron. I sat with it a while, and then called the hospice again – asking for her room number (as an indirect way to see if she was alive or not) – and it was true; she was no longer there. Sure, I guess it’s possible she’d been moved to another facility – or, knowing her, that she could’ve signed herself out. But you and I both know it had been six months, she had cancer all over back in January, and – out of her own mouth – she was afraid of dying on the street.
I tried reaching out to her daughter through a hospice contact after that but never heard back. Not that I blame her. I just wish I could’ve told her how proud her mom had been of her – how, the few times I saw her smile and watched a sparkle dance briefly in her troubled eyes, were when she was talking about her daughter and her grandkids. She loved showing me pictures of them, and she cried every time after when she brought up her phone being stolen; it contained all the pictures she had in the world of them.
Life on the street is a special category of cruel.
I still have her travel size tube of hair conditioner in my medicine cabinet. She left it in the shower, and I kept it because it links me to her. That, one selfie, and the Visitor sticker from my jacket the last time I saw her. It’s why it hit so hard when I realized I was using the last filter – it wasn’t just that I felt like it was symbolic of her having moved on, but that every day we had grabbed a new filter, there was still a “fresh” piece of her in our house. My life.
I think of her when I buy “good, crusty” bread for soup – the kind she picked and insisted on paying for with what little she had. I think of her every time I pass through Penn Station. It’s nowhere to live, but it was her home for a time and the place where we met, where we had some heart-breaking conversations, where we ate together, where we hugged, where I gave her a Giving Key, where she made sure I got safely on my train after I threw my back out ……. I think of her when I buy the brown coffee filters (and you know I’ll never buy anything else ever again). And I think of her when I am in a hurry and don’t necessarily have time to stop and chat with anyone who’s homeless and trying to rest their weary soul in one of the nation’s busiest transportation hubs. I think of what she taught me, without knowing it, about how everyone on the street has an extensive story that led them to their undesirable station in life. I think of how angry she was that people – fellow humans – treated her as though she was invisible. I think of how lovingly she treated her dog – her only friend, and one that ultimately did not survive life on the street. I think of how well, despite all of her anger and all that’d happened to her, she loved and how generous she was in her heart once you got beyond the fierce and feisty guards. I think of how her presence in our home humbled me, taught me a lot about myself and how I make my way through the world (and don’t), and challenged me to be the best possible version of myself.
I looked at Wendy many times during our months of abbreviated visits, promising her in my head that, somehow, I would make her visible. Make “them” – our homeless neighbors and their stories – visible. To be honest, I’m not sure what that even looks like just now, but it’s one of the reasons I’m returning to my keyboard; they deserve a voice.
We all have a story. We all have a complex set of experiences, memories, scars and core beliefs that inform who we are, how we got Here, and how we move from one day to the next. Most of us are just doing the best we can. We need to relate to others with this in mind.
My mission is dedicated to Wendy, who had more moxie than almost anyone I’ve ever met. And, it’s dedicated to finding the courage and guts (i.e. “moxie”) to be our truest selves, and to seeking to understand people’s stories.
I hope you’ll choose to come alongside me on this portion of my journey as I attempt to find and use my own voice, and give one to others.