She is walking towards me deep in conversation with another woman. She is animated. Expressive. Her whole body engaged in her conversation. It is a warm October afternoon but she is dressed for colder weather. Toque. Mitts. Big heavy winter jacket. Blue with a fake fur collar. Khaki pants tucked into the tops of laced up black walking boots, the kind you’d picture if someone said, “your mother wears army boots,” in an attempt to dis you.
As we pass she looks at me. I smile. She stops. Calls out. “Hi! How are you? Haven’t seen you in awhile.” She darts between two passers-by and comes to a full stop in front of me. “Where do I know you from?” Before I can answer she blurts out her response. “The Women’s Centre! That’s where.”
I start to correct her. I’m not sure I know her but perhaps it was the shelter where I used to work, but her words keep rattling out towards me like a woodpecker digging into bark. “You still there? I sure hope so. You stood out. You always do. It’s why I noticed you on the street.”
Again I attempt to correct her, to tell her I don’t think we’ve met and then I let it go. Sometimes, people just want to be heard.
She tells me about her husband. ‘The abusive bastard’. They put him in the ground three years ago. That’s how she says it. Put him in the ground. I wasn’t there. No f*cking way, and her expletive is loud enough it startles someone walking by. They skirt our little tableau where we stand at the corner of the avenue where the C-train rumbles by.
She tells me the story of how he kept her locked up on 149 acres. Sixteen years I suffered, she says. How she’s lost a son to suicide. Hung himself. Why would he do that? she asks.
I hope she doesn’t expect an answer from me. I don’t have one.
She’s lost another to cancer and the third, well, the good for nothing, and again she inserts a loud expletive, is in jail. Just like his father. She says. And she shakes her head making her salt and pepper curls bob up and down. “How come I couldn’t do nothing good in the world?” she asks. “Tell me that? How come?”
I am grateful she keeps on talking without waiting for an answer. I don’t have one.
She shares more of her story. Dates. Places. Names. They are written on her memory, streaming out in a continuous tide of re-telling. She animates her conversation. Bounces from one spot to another in front of me. One moment up close, almost whispering in my ear, the next stepping far back. “You stay there,” she says. And I wonder, does she mean me or is the statement part of her story.
She talks about the Catholic school she attended as a child. The abuse. The nuns. The priests. She points to two tall brick buildings down the avenue from where we stand. “Big as those,” she says. “I had to walk in and tell them I was there to demand an apology for my sister. She was one pound when she was born. You could hold her in the palm of your hand.” And she cups one hand holding it out towards me like a child begging for alms. “She was that little. I had to protect her. I had to get her away from them.”
She breathes and I look into her eyes and say, “It sounds like life was very hard for you.”
“You don’t f*cking know the half of it,” she sputters and continues on with her story. Jumping from her sister to one of her other 10 siblings. “Only 8 of us survived the first years of our lives,” she says. “There just wasn’t enough to go around.”
“I seen my sister just before she died,” she says. And she moves in real close to my right ear and whispers. “I walked up to her bed, she was so sick, so close to dying, and I said, ‘Terry’, real soft like. She knew it was me. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She knew it was me.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. It is all I can think of to offer her in way of comfort.
“Nah. She’s better off dead.” And she continues on re-telling stories of her life. A 1963 GrandAm she once owned. A shotgun that belonged to her husband that he used to threaten her with until she gave it, along with his other 20 guns, to the police.
“He told them he was a collector. Insisted they give them back. I got away though. Took the bus to Edmonton. I’m a registered LPN. I’m not stupid you know. They tell me I’m bipolar. F*cking baztards. What do they know? I’m 74. Of course I have moods.”
Another C-train rolls by and I know I have to go. Ellie the wonder pooch is waiting for me at home. She’ll be anxious for her dinner.
“Hey! I’m glad I saw you,” she says. “You listen good but you gotta speak up good too. For others. Will you do that for me? Speak up? Get us some justice? I got a place now but ya’ know, there’s so many who don’t. Will you make sure they get a chance?”
“I’ll do my best,” I tell her.
And we part and move in our separate directions and I carry her story with me. I wonder how she got so lost. How life could have been so difficult and still she clings to it, fights for it, and others.
And I wonder, what is the best for someone who’s needs are so complex, whose mental health is so fragile that they would reach out to a relative stranger and tell them their story standing on a street corner? How can my best do anything to offset the demands of a life lived on the edges?
And I know, Not having an answer to homelessness and abuse and lack of support for mental health issues isn’t good enough anymore. We can’t keep pushing the problem along, sweeping it into shelters or someone else’s backyard. We’ve got to speak up, give voice, stand up for those who have been beaten down so far they no longer have the strength to do it alone. We gotta do it together. All of us.