This morning I went to a memorial service for a woman who went by the name Shorty though her given name was June. She had been homeless many years when she died although it probably wouldn’t be fair to say homelessness caused her death but surely sleeping outside on the ground night after night, year after year, hadn’t helped her many chronic health conditions.
Shorty was extremely small, wiry, very animated. She moved with a group of friends who came together into the warming room where I volunteered last winter. I steered clear of her, like I did almost everyone, still being so much inside myself about my hearing issues and unwilling to risk mistakes. I kept to myself and my morning task which was gathering and folding blankets that had been slept on the night before in the cavernous gymnasium of a Lutheran church.
The service today was in the same Lutheran church. I had never been in the church’s sanctuary before; its lobby was mid-century modern, angular with square-cut sofas and glass partition, the sanctuary was sweeping and majestic with all the light centering on the urn containing Shorty’s ashes and an array of red and white flowers. The pastor had already begun, his voice loud because he was using a mic, but mashed a bit for me, the words often lumpy and indistinct. I watched him hard with all my heart. I wanted to know what he was saying and be completely present in that moment.
Everything about the service would counter what you might think about people who have been homeless a long time. Her friends, homeless themselves, described Shorty as generous, kind, and stubborn, so stubborn, the most stubborn person I know, one said. And I remembered being told she had refused an offer of supportive housing because her dear friend couldn’t come with her. Those of us out here, in the housed world, probably think that’s crazy. I would have thought so a year ago. But I don’t anymore.
She loved her friends and didn’t want to leave them. And it was clear today that they had loved her; they’d created a family that was probably as strong and resilient as any family living on this block, this street, this town. They sure seemed to grieve as deeply as any of us might if our own kin died.
The memorial service was arranged by Street Angels, a group I work with and a group that knew Shorty well from years of interacting with her, bringing her meals and hand warmers, and spending time getting to know her. I envied them their knowledge of Shorty and her life but realized I’d cut myself out of knowing much about her because of my own stubbornness. Shorty was the second woman from the warming room to have died in this past year and I hadn’t let myself know either of them. I regret that.
I am glad that I went today. It’s a good thing for people who’ve lost someone they loved to turn around at a funeral and see people who cared enough to show up. I had nothing to offer but being physically present and listening. And I listened hard, as hard as I possibly could.