The voice was polite. The call came in late the night before:
Do you think you could write about something besides poverty? With all the news of the Haiti earthquake, could you write something ... the voice paused ... happy? To give the readers a break?
They call it compassion fatigue — or, maybe these days, Haiti fatigue, or recession fatigue. One more story about a person whose life has not worked out as planned will wash over and drown us.
The next call was from an 86-year-old woman. Her 65-year-old daughter, who lives with bipolar disorder, is homeless in Hartford. The older woman's landlord won't let her take her daughter in, so the older woman drives from her Colchester home to the capital city to sit up all night with her daughter in a heated car until a McDonald's opens at 5:30 a.m., and then they go get coffee.
The woman is too old to sit up in her car all night. She's given her daughter her last dollar for food, and now she has to wait for her check so she can afford to drive back up. Is there a program somewhere for someone like her daughter, who isn't taking her medicine, who accepts her mother's donations, but refuses to remove the frightful blond wig she wears? That wig makes her daughter look crazy, the mother says, and then she laughs quietly at the incongruity of worrying about her daughter's looks when the rest of her life is so distinctly dire.
I've offered to take her to get her hair styled, the mother says. Isn't that silly of me?
That woman, too, was eminently polite. She wants to move north to be with family, but she'd like to get her daughter situated first.
Could you write about something ... happy?
A happy story would wind itself through a series of phone calls, and end with the daughter placed in a warm bed. Happy would be the woman plugged in to the services she so desperately needs.
Happy would have been even finding the daughter during Thursday's weekly homeless outreach, where a small cadre of dedicated volunteers crawl under bridges to hand out sandwiches, socks, gloves and hats as they try to bring the hard-core homeless into an already-overburdened shelter system. This past week, team members found the regulars — the wild-haired, well-spoken heroin addict, the smiling immigrant — but no daughter.
They know she's out there. The mother drove to Hartford to meet her on Wednesday, and Tina Inferrera, psychiatric service coordinator at South Park Inn, sat with them and worked out placement.
The women left for coffee, the mother dropped her daughter back off later, and it looked like the street would be minus one 65-year-old woman with a bad wig. But the daughter called her mother later that night, back out on the streets. Maybe she was overwhelmed. Maybe her well-honed survival skills worked against her that night, and she ran.
Inferrera was part of the outreach team Thursday morning. She says about maybe a third of the people they find are women. She says the daughter is welcome to sit and get comfortable in the shelter before she checks in. There might even be an apartment for her.
Maybe that's what President Obama meant when he talked about our great decency and great strength in Wednesday's speech. The cameras swing to a new catastrophe, and we all pitch in because it's what we do. Meanwhile, everyday catastrophes explode all around us.
So, Caller No.1? Life is exhausting and even disheartening, sometimes. Haiti is buried under rubble, and this 65-year-old only has to reach out her hand for someone to grab her — but she has to reach out first. Writing that donation check might feel like a drop in the bucket, but it's something.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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