Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Old Lady who Muttered

One summer day I was taking a leisurely stroll around Granville Island in Vancouver, with my family. I was studying the storefronts, minding my own business, when I heard a voice. It came from an older woman, dressed in a black headscarf, and battered garments. She was tiny, stooped over and appeared frail. She was muttering something over and over. I cocked my ear to listen because I was curious to know what she was saying. What she was saying surprised me, and so I wrote her words down on a scrap of paper, then tucked it into my purse. I still have that scrap of paper today. This is what the woman was repeating to herself, “No one understands or gives a damn about me. No one understands or gives a damn about me …”

The old woman looked totally out of place among the cheerful crowd; couples holding hands, children chasing pigeons, young people in brightly colored shorts and t-shirts. I wondered what she was doing on Granville Island. And then I wondered even more things. How did she get to that place in life where she believed that no one cared? No one. Not a relative, not a grown child, not a friend. Who was this woman? What was her life like? Did she grow up in Canada? Did she grow up with siblings? Did she marry? What was her life’s work? What were her dreams? Although I wanted to know more about her, I walked past her. We all walked past her. Every one of us. The couples, the families, the children. We didn’t stop to offer help. Were we afraid? Maybe. Was she mentally ill? Maybe. It was so much easier to move on. To leave her be, to turn away.

The elderly people I am acquainted with eat delicious meals. They stop for a cup of tea in their day. They receive phone calls from family and have visits with grandchildren. They sleep in warm beds in cozy rooms, with pictures on their nightstands. These are the kind of seniors I know. The kind that make me feel comfortable. This one was too much like others I had seen before. Like the kind lying on worn blankets in downtown Victoria. Like the kind I saw on holiday in Italy, begging, with babies in their arms. And even like the kind I’ve seen right here, holding up bits of cardboard at intersections, “broke, hungry, anything will help.” We’ve seen so many of this kind that we no longer really notice them. We’ve seen so many that we no longer view them as individuals, with lives, with histories, with childhoods. Really, we just don’t give them much thought at all. After all, we’re busy. Heck, everyone’s busy. We’ve got jobs to get to, grass to cut, and banking to do. Who has the time to think about a withered old lady muttering to herself? Our worlds don’t mesh. They may run alongside each other, but they don’t mesh. Sure, we may run into people like this old woman, once in a while, loitering on a sidewalk, walking aimlessly. But that’s their world. Their world is too raw, too real for us to enter. The only way our worlds collide is when we silently give them a few coins. And even then, we don’t particularly want to look at them. We’d rather avert our eyes. And we certainly don’t want them to talk to us. We don’t want to invite interaction. Not really.

So why did this one get to me? Why did I feel compelled to write down what she had to say? When I reflect upon that question, the only answer that I can come up with is that the contrast got to me. The stark contrast between carefree shoppers going about their day and this low-spirited woman who was conveying to the happy visitors, “I’m lonely. I’m sad. I wish someone cared about me.” I remember thinking that day how much more welcoming we might have been to a lost dog. We could have handled that. We would have felt capable of helping. But this old lady. I don’t know … She made us feel uncomfortable. And, so we all acted the same; by not acting. We took turns turning a blind eye.

As I stare down at the piece of paper today, I’ve kept so long, I wonder to myself: how far back in time would I have had to go to find people willing to help a troubled old soul. To say, “Come my friend, come and sit a spell.” A lonely representative from another fabric of society crossed into my world when she spoke. I would never have noticed her if she hadn’t. But she did speak. And all I could think to do at the time was write down what she said.