She slept with her partner on an inflatable mattress that they carried around with them. They had their own blankets, too.
When I came to the homeless warming room in the morning, they would always be set up against the wall, same spot every night. He would be up and about, busy folding their blankets and seeing to getting her coffee and food. She would be sitting on a metal folding chair, sometimes on the seat of a walker.
She was heavy and unwell-looking. Her look was so fierce that I avoided her. I never once went to talk to her. I talked to some of the men, the friendlier ones, but mostly kept to myself and my task of folding blankets and cleaning up. I steered clear, having it in my head that she would ask me for something I didn’t have. It was a worry that came out of nowhere and was just attached to her. I don’t know why.
Earlier this week, I was told she had died. She’d had a terrible cancer just diagnosed on top of her other problems, many of which caused her constant pain and probably explained her fearsome countenance. It is very difficult to smile when one is hurting badly. I might have known that had I asked but I didn’t. I just assumed that she was a mean character.
Now I’ll never know what she was really like.
There is a memorial service for her in a couple of weeks. If I go, I’ll probably learn more about what she was like as a person. And I’ll probably kick myself for being scared off by a mean look. It was a rookie error. I want to think it was a function of being new, not knowing my place, not knowing what to say. Next time will be different, though. I know what to say now. I’ll say hello, how are you, tell her my name, ask how I can help, chat about the weather. I learned how to do that from her, even if we never spoke.