Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My hard heart

A block down my street lives a woman I'll call Jenny. It's hard to tell her age, maybe 35, maybe 45. Her face is ravaged. She's a heavy smoker; she's had a stroke, and now she lives in supported accommodation. As far as I can tell, the stroke wiped out mood inhibitors, as well as some motor control. Jenny spends her days sloping along the streets, bent like a question mark, muttering. She repeats phrases obsessively, 'need money, need money, need money' for blocks on end. When she sees a passer-by, she stops in their path and, almost incoherently, demands change. She uses it to buy more cigarettes. On bad days, she shrieks and wails and moans as she walks. Some days, she sobs.

My children are terrified of her. For all my words about illness, and acting with sympathy and kindness, they tense up when they see her, hide behind my leg, and beg to cross the road. Jenny's clothes hang in loose folds around her warped and skinny little frame. When she sees the kids, she swoops towards them like a slow ungainly bat. She stands too close, way too close, and jabbers her almost unintelligible demands: 'money, money, money'. No wonder the kids are frightened; she scares the bejeezus out of me.

Sitting at home, I hear her go past shouting, shrieking, sobbing several times a day. This is a wreck of a woman, physically and mentally devastated, driven to pound our footpaths and scab cigarettes.

And do I have pity? No, I do not. Instead, I think, For goodness' sake shut up already!

My hard heart frightens me. Jenny frightens me. Every major faith tradition tells us to love our neighbour, and care for the outcast. I find this easy enough with the retired midwife across the road: she's playful, sensible, and she gives us lemons. But the neighbour who stands at our gate, wailing and moaning? Who veers her path to intersect ours and block our way? Who curses me when I say 'no' and refuse to open my wallet? Who makes my children cry?

What do I do with a neighbour like this? How do I love her? Give her money so she can smoke herself into oblivion? Invite her in for a cup of tea? Or, as a warm hearted woman at the tramstop once said, do I 'sedate her, and give her a great big cuddle'?

Instead, 'No, Jenny,' I say. 'No.' I don't want to give her change and thereby cigarettes; my kids are anxiously hanging off my legs; we have places to go. But I hope that one day, maybe when my children are older and I don't feel so protective, I can find a way to become less scared and more open, and turn that 'no' into a 'yes'. For now, however, the best my hard heart can manage is to look her in the eyes, say 'no', speak her name, and move on.

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