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On Tragedy and Healing

The person in the dark denim jacket was collapsed on a table in the dining room.

Another worker went over to check on them. I thought to myself, “How unusual. I haven’t seen a heroin addict in here for a long time” assuming they were nodding off. At that point, I was more concerned with the fact that there were two small children eating in the house of hospitality that day. It always hurts when the kids come in.

I continued to do my work: scrubbing the sixteen burner stove, washing dishes, clearing tables, greeting people. Then I saw the same guest collapsed across the counter near the salad station. I walked over, leaned in and said quietly and gently: “I need you to move.” Turns out they felt sick. They were nauseous. I asked someone else to get extra help. Asked the person if they needed a chair. Understand, I needed to help them, and I needed to get them off the food counter. We finally got them in a chair. Did they need us to call 911? Yes.

On the phone, the question came, does his stomach hurt? I asked. We asked. The person was hunched over and rocking by this time, in pain. “I’m female” came the voice. I leaned down. “What’s your name?” She looked up at me, eyes blood shot, clearly in distress. I could see then, a butch woman who had been living hard on the streets. We had all mis-gendered her, seeing only the short tousled hair, the loose denim, the hard planes of the face, the missing teeth. “I have HIV and haven’t been taking my meds.” Back to rocking.

When the paramedics came, they asked her a few questions. She requested that she be able to take her food to go. I quickly packed up some bread and salad, but couldn’t find an extra jar for soup. Some other guests at her table helped. When I returned with the food, the paramedics were getting her up, one on each side. This next part is what killed me, and is the reason I’m writing this down:

She immediately put her hands behind her back, wrist over wrist, awaiting handcuffs.

One of the paramedics said, “You don’t have to do that. We’re not the cops. We’re paramedics.” I followed behind, with her food bag, talking with one of the women holding a clipboard. I explained about the HIV and meds. I gave her name. The entire time I walked behind her, she held her hands in that handcuffed position. She had asked for help the only way she knew how –  by laying across the food counter. She had wanted the paramedics to come. Yet part of her knew, just knew, she was being arrested.

Hands behind her back. Wrist over wrist.

It felt like a tragedy to me.

What sort of life has she lived so far that even in asking for and receiving help, she expected punishment?

And how do we do this to ourselves? What boxes are we living in? What shadows? What do our bodies know that we can’t even speak of? What punishment, or rejection, or pain waits coiled inside?

How can we help ourselves heal? 

Philosopher Michel Foucault tells us that we have become our own jailers. He was right. We can also, however, help one another to become free.

What is your story, of pain and imprisonment?  What is your story of healing?  How are you learning to unlock cell doors?

We need to listen and to look, in order to change. And yes, the implications here are large.

Later that day, a blind man sat at the piano and played for us. It sounded wonderful. The dining room shook with applause.


Thank you to everyone who gave me a birthday present by donating toward ceiling fans for the soup kitchen! You helped a lot – $325 worth – and three fans are now installed.

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