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Help of a Sort

I failed her.

As I was walking to work this morning, as usual rushing because I’d left at the very last possible minute, I passed a woman in the street.  I saw her long before she reached me–shortish build, short hair, disheveled, walking in a line that was not precisely straight.  But the most noticeable things about her were the bright red welts on her face, and the black eye.  Not much detail at first glance but enough, even at a distance, to show me that here was someone in need.

I had the feeling she would address me.  I ran through the short list of things I could do that might help her as the space between us dwindled.  And suddenly there she was, right in front of me, asking for my help.  In those very words: “Sorry, but I need someone who can help me…”  And I just kept on walking, muttering a quick “Sorry” in my wake.

Why did I leave her?  I hadn’t gotten ten steps before I regretted not stopping for a moment.  Yes, I suspected she wasn’t going to plead for help contacting the police or getting to a hospital but rather that she wanted funds, and yes, stopping would have made me late for work.

But equally, the whole universe had conspired from its inception until that very moment to bring me and her together, the collision of a soul in need and, well, me. There was she, bumbling unsteadily along, and there was I, at the peak of all my powers with a brand new job and a big shiny degree and everything coming together in the very model of steadiness, of settledness, of grown-up-ness.  And in this moment, I who have everything couldn’t give even a second to she, who had welts on her face.   I probably couldn’t give her what she wanted, but I could have given help of a sort.

And then the moment passed and whatever opportunity I had to be even the slightest breath of good in this person’s life passed with it.  I can volunteer at a soup kitchen, I can give money to homeless charities, I can sign up to train the computer illiterate to meet the challenges of the internet age.  But never, ever again will the chance to help that person, whatever form that might have taken, come my way.

Seeing her face, her raggedness, her unsteady gait, this woman brought to mind one of my great fears: homelessness.  I fear homelessness, and I hate it, and it disgusts me.  And I like to think that if I found myself ejected from the snug little life I’ve built for myself, if I found myself without shelter in the wide sharp world, that there would be people.  There would be people who would care for me, who would find me and look after me and keep me safe.  I like to believe that if some sort of sudden catastrophe befell me, if I were in a car accident or were getting mugged in an alley, people would intervene.  People would help.  But how can I believe that of the world when I can’t even do it myself?

There is no happy ending.  I haven’t even learned anything.  I just failed, failed to be what I would wish I were, were the situation reversed.

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