When I was an undergrad, I took a course in Social Dynamics of Poverty. I still remember the lessons I this class, and my instructor Dr. Shirley Lord…both course and instructor left a lasting impression. If it were taught today, it would carry the “service learning” designation that has gained popularity. We were required to volunteer for at least 40 hours during the semester at a social service or community based program which provided direct services to people living in poverty. The year was 1990. Deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities was at its peak. I chose to volunteer at a former YWCA that was now largely occupied by people released from the state supported psychiatric center a few blocks away with no where to go. Their SSI was sufficient for a low rent room at the former Y. Low rent and no frills. My two bedroom college apartment shared with three other students seemed luxurious in comparison.
I had intended to fulfill my 40 hours as a general program volunteer and check those hours off as quickly as possible. However, the housing director informed me that if I wanted to be truly helpful, I would commit to being a mentor/companion to one of the residents who needed something more than the system could provide. She told me I had to stick with it the entire semester. I agreed, although I admittedly felt a sense of dread. It seemed too hard, too much of a commitment. But I felt bad saying no. The need was evident. So, I was given a room number and a first name. I went to the third floor and knocked.
“Ruth??” I knocked again, “Ruth…my name is Sarah…I am a volunteer.” She cracked her door. She was barely 5 feet tall, even in orthopedic shoes with platforms. She was an older woman with silver gray hair that looked like she had cut it herself using a bowl and a pair of dull scissors. She had piercing green eyes. She looked me up and down through the door crack. “You’re young. I’m old. Come back Wednesday.”
Dejected, I went to the housing director and asked what I should do. She looked at me as experience looks at naiveté and said, without changing expression, “Sounds to me like you should come back Wednesday.”
On Wednesday, I came back. I knocked on Ruth’s door again. This visit lasted approximately two minutes. It concluded with, “Come back Wednesday. Next week. We walk to coffee.”
My weekly visits went on and on like this. We walked to a greasy spoon diner where 50 cents could buy us both a cup of (bad) coffee. At first, it was hard to find anything to talk about. She didn’t like to be asked questions. She was very suspicious. She would eventually begin to tell me about people. Then events. Later, memories as best she could recall them. She had been on psychiatric medications for so long that she had a characteristic shuffle, like many other of her apartment dwelling peers. She had very little connection to the issues and current events of the larger world around us . She often smelled terrible and wore clothes with food spilled down the front. Her teeth were yellow. Sometimes, although rarely, she would smile.
When I started visiting Ruth, I was marking off my required volunteer hours in tiny little fragments. Accruing 40 hours seemed like an eternity. But, I kept showing up. And so did Ruth. We had let each other in.
Two years later, Ruth and I were still having our Wednesday visits. Sometimes she didn’t feel like getting out of bed, and she would tell me “Go away. Next week.” Other weeks, we would walk the city streets together and talk, and I would get a glimpse of an entirely different world in which Ruth lived. Our visits had changed me. Her world and her person became very real, and very respected.
One of the last and most memorable visits we had was on the occasion of Ruth’s 75th birthday. I told her we would have a party on the sun porch and she could invite her friends. I arrived with a cake I had baked (because I myself could not afford to buy one from a bakery…I could only afford a cake mix, on sale. But, I had an oven). I brought a big glass jar full of lemonade with lemon slices floating in it. I bought her a ballon and a bunch of daisies in a vase. She sat at the table, inviting people over, eating cake and drinking lemonade together until every bite was eaten and every drop consumed. She took her flowers and balloon and shuffled off to her room. “Best cake I ever had. Bring lemonade again. I never had a party before. First one. Very nice.”
It was her first birthday party, and her last.
Ruth had many more days after that when she couldn’t find motivation to get out of bed. She went to the hospital, and later, to a nursing home. She didn’t recognize me any more by the summer I left for my MSW program. But our visits have remained with me as a point of light, simply for what they were. Authentically human. Life, in the present.
Keep showing up. Light will emerge.