A few weeks ago my friends and I went on our annual trip to Portland. My partner Nancy calls this group of friends my "Bossy Posse." We go to Portland every year to do all of our holiday shopping in one efficient weekend. We also have a "YES" policy on this trip-- everything everyone wants to do gets a resounding "YES!" Last year that meant we ate three dinners one night.
This year there were six of us. We piled into my friend Jenna's Toyota minivan equipped with ample snacks, reusable shopping bags and comfortable walking shoes. We were ready to party (in the way only middle-aged women without their kids can party!)
We rented a gorgeous apartment in a turn of the century building in Nob Hill with a fantastic balcony, plenty of beds for all of us and a great living room with comfortable spaces for all of our middle aged bodies.
On Saturday morning we planned to go to Powells first, about a mile walk from our apartment. I am always the first one awake and ready to go. I was ready well before the rest of Bossy Posse so I told them I'd meet them outside. Even though it was raining, it wasn't cold and I wanted to get some fresh air. I walked down from the second story apartment through the small vestibule into the drizzle and noticed a woman draped in a piece of black cloth wearing red pajama pants with white hearts moving erratically on the sidewalk in front of the building. She was barefoot and moaning. Before I could figure out what was happening she looked up and saw me and started to make her way towards me. I panicked. As quickly as I could, I made a b-line for the little vestibule of our building. I pulled out the keys to our VRBO and let myself in. The woman followed me into the vestibule and started banging on the glass door, pulling and pushing the doorknob, all the while screaming something I couldn't understand.
I scurried up the stairs to our apartment to talk to the posse, to figure out what to do. Among the six of us, three of us have Masters Degrees in Counseling or Social Work and another works for an organization specializing in grief and addiction services. We are all parents of teenagers. But in the face of this poor woman's plea for help, we all became momentarily lost. None of us knew what to do for this scared, cold, confused young woman.
Eventually Jenna opened the vestibule door and talked to the woman. She was still yelling and crying. She wanted water and socks. She was speaking nonsensically and the therapists in the group diagnosed psychosis, possibly drug induced. We got her some warm socks and food and water and called the non-emergency 911 service to come assess her further.
I thought about that woman all day. What had I been afraid of in that moment? Was I afraid that I couldn't help her? Was I afraid of how like her I am? How, without the support of my family and friends, without the benefits of my education and my privilege, I might have been like this woman? Was I just simply frightened of how out of control the situation felt?
As we wandered around Portland that Saturday I saw lots of people who needed dry clothes, food, water. The image of the barefoot, crying, yelling woman in the vestibule running like the baseline through all of these other images. I felt plagued. What happened to me? Why did I turn my back on that poor woman for even a moment?
And then this week we lost a student. A woman. Cece. She was just 40 years old. She died of a heart attack and when she did, the hearts of hundreds, maybe thousands, in our community cracked open a little bit. The outpouring of sadness, of love that flowed like a rushing river in the studio for one woman, one special beautiful woman, brought me back the image of the woman in the vestibule. Who cries for her? Misses her? Everyone is special and perfect in her own way. Cece was that and more. All of us who knew her were touched by her goodness and her light.
And that woman in the vestibule, the one just like you, just like me, was special and perfect too. I'll never know what happened to her, if she got help, if she found a place to be held and loved and cared for the way we cared for Cece and she cared for so many of us. I wish I could have, would have done more for the woman in the vestibule. I take momentary comfort in the light and love that surround Cece in her end of life; in being a part of a community that is so full of generosity and goodness, but I still think about that woman in the vestibule every day.