The last time I saw Jeanne, she had just unlocked her front door and turned to wave goodbye. It was early March and we had just come from a memorial gathering held on a bridge on the southside of Milwaukee. The night before, a homeless woman had been killed by a speeding car as she crossed the street to get food and supplies from the Street Angels bus. Jeanne and I were both members of the board of directors of Street Angels so, to me, it was an obligation to attend. To Jeanne, it was organic. There was no other place she would be. And I was her driver.
Jeanne could drive but she preferred not to. We didn’t talk about it much but I knew she was concerned about traffic, about driving in the rain or in the dark. She’d had a stroke several years ago and, though she was still capable in every way, her gait was halting and slow. So if we went on outreach together or to a meeting or event, I picked her up. And it was on our drives to and from places in the past two years that we became friends even though we’d known each other for thirty years.
When I first met Jeanne, she ran a homeless outreach program focused on mental health. She was plain, always dressed in durable clothes that could handle street outreach and many washings. She never wore a lick of make-up and her hair just settled like a cap of soft curls on her head. Her smile, though, was huge and electric. If I were to envy a smile, want it for my own, it would be Jeanne’s. But there was so much behind Jeanne’s smile that I didn’t have – wisdom, fearlessness, humor – and an edge that not everybody saw. She seemed like Mother Theresa but she could smell a lie or a jerk a thousand miles away. She just never fussed about it, just tucked her perception away for later use. She was sly that way.
When we first met thirty years ago, I was like the too loud and over-confident cousin. I was deep into funding proposals and emergency shelter plans and she was all about helping actual people. Her work was legendary – she could talk anyone off a ledge, they would say, jokingly. Have a terrible mental health crisis? Call Jeanne. She would soothe the most fearful and frantic, settle the people who terrified everyone else. Me? I wore blazers with padded shoulders and high heels so pointy, I could sever arteries with a kick. More than that, I was closely associated with someone she didn’t quite trust. So she was wary. Still, we connected and when we both got older and shed some of the politics and agency affiliations of before, we were able to become friends.
We had lunch. And we talked. We always went to small restaurants and she was always there first. We would talk about the people we knew, the ones we loved, and the ones who’d done us wrong. We laughed. We grew to trust each other.
When I joined the board of Street Angels, I immediately thought of Jeanne as an addition to the board. Her skill as a psychiatric nurse, her long, long history in the homeless community, her solidness as a model of compassion – she was an oak of compassion, that’s how strong and good she was. So I asked her to come on the board and she did. And it was like she was coming home. Street Angels with its fearless improvisation, humor, total commitment to people, was heaven on earth to Jeanne. And, still, I was her driver.
In the six or seven months between when her husband of 47 years died in the fall and our last trip to the memorial gathering, our drives took on a different character. She’d become a widow. At first, when I asked her how she was doing, she would say only “It’s hard.” But then she would say more, relating stories of her husband’s last days, telling me about the many stories he’d written that she’d just discovered. She wondered out loud about what her life should be like without him. “Who is Jeanne now?” she would ask. And I would tell her only to be patient, that who Jeanne would become next would become clear. And, frankly, I felt then like I had become the Jeanne to someone who was suffering, like her compassion and patience had ever so slightly worn off on me on our drives.
I don’t know if she said it or she sent me an email or a text but I know that after that last drive, she told me that I had been a good friend to her. If I was, she taught me how.
I will miss Jeanne in this world. I really will.
My friend Jeanne M. Lowry died last week. Her great work is summarized here.