Whenever we have unusually severe winter weather, I think about my friend of 15 years ago. I lie awake remembering her and how invisible and worthless she felt. I recall how shocked I was when she told me what it was like to have no home for seven years. I am haunted by the thought of having no door between myself and the world at large, no windows to close against the elements. I remember her describing finding a bridge to sleep under when there was no money for a room and no man interested in buying her a room. She was aging, no longer so pretty, her teeth rotting out from the crack, her hair ragged and brittle, the look of a woman unloved.
There in the brilliantly lit prison visiting room, hot in summer and winter alike, she told me that the fourteenth arrest was rather a pleasant change, what with the regular meals and a bed to sleep in, the drugs just as available as outside. It was a better place to be pregnant for sure. The guard sitting outside the delivery room, the utter lack of compassion during a very difficult birth, the stripping away of her little companion, these things pained her excruciatingly. She fed her 1 week old baby a bottle of formula while her own milk dripped down the orange prison jumpsuit. The regrets shadowed her life and made her cry as she handed her beautiful baby girl back to me at the end of the first visit.
I grieved over the little girl who was raised in pleasant middle-class circumstances, the beloved only daughter with five big brothers, her father in the police force. I was sad when she said the drugs started in the junior year at high school, bad choices followed by awful choices in the need to support a habit. I felt so helpless to do anything except cherish her child for her. And when she got out, I prayed that she would find strength to say no, to stay in her therapy, to live a different life, become fit to be a mother. Three times there was the cycle of in and out to the streets and then in again. “Never again,” she would declare. “I have been clean for 54 days now. I am so sorry I messed up.”
There was no address except the prison. Her family had long given up on her, closed their doors on the disappointment that was Sue. The letters went back and forth, and once a month there was a visit. The chaplain would call and tell us if she wasn’t there. The intervals on the street were usually very short. And then all my letters were sent back, stamped “return to sender”. Just like that, she was gone, the homeless girl with the sad, sad life didn’t even have a prison address anymore. I had no way of finding her, but I am grateful that she shared her story with me, the naive, unbelievably blessed and sheltered girl who lived four hours away from the big city. It still haunts me on the bitter cold nights. I lie wakeful under the warmth of the covers and I pray for her and all the others who have no homes. Sue, you can never be invisible to me again.