Years ago, my husband Peter asked me to exercise extreme caution when offering help to strangers. I understood his concern for my safety so I agreed, with a few caveats. If I pass someone in need who is elderly, pregnant, handicapped or has a small child, or if the weather is blisteringly hot or bitterly cold, I cannot, in good conscience, drive by without offering help.
I’m not sure which category applied to Angela.
I was pulling out of the Stop & Shop parking lot when I spied her. She was thin and disheveled, in baggy clothes, and she was trying to flag down passing motorists.
I ignored her. I had one minute to get to a nearby cafe where I was meeting friends. I couldn’t be late, right?
Unfortunately, the light turned red before I could escape, leaving me stopped right next to the gesturing woman.
She began calling out for me to help her. Maybe if I didn’t look at her, she would go away.
My conscience gnawed at me. Finally acceding, I rolled down my window.
“I’m 65 years old and a cancer patient and I live in Manchester and I need a ride home,” she said in one long breath. She was ghastly thin with just a hint of peach fuzz on her scalp. She couldn’t have weighed more than 80 pounds.
“Umm, well, umm ...” I stammered unintelligibly. “OK, I’ll give you a ride.” My friends wouldn’t mind if I was 10 minutes late.
She climbed into my car and strapped up. Introducing herself as Angela, she explained that she lives on a small fixed income and the social worker is trying to get her additional funds, but has not succeeded, so Angela had no food at home.
Angela was funny and needy and self-deprecating and blunt. She told of being spat upon when she asked people for help. She told of being ignored. It made her feel invisible.
I wondered what she was doing miles from home without a ride. Did she really have no food? How much of her story was true and how much was a con?
It gradually occurred to me that it didn’t matter. For those few minutes in my car, Angela was treated with dignity. We talked and laughed. Mostly, I listened as we drove to her apartment.
I gave her a bit of cash and tousled her peach fuzz hair. She hugged me and we said goodbye.
As I drove away, I wondered if, to Angela, my life looks perfect. I was wearing clean clothes, driving a working car and had cash in my pocket. Perhaps she pictured me returning to a clean, tastefully decorated home with homemade chocolate chip cookies on the counter. Maybe she thought my biggest problem is deciding which mall to shop at this week.
She would be wrong. While I am incredibly blessed, I have known great hardship. I’ve suffered catastrophic illness, severe financial pain, miscarriage and hunger. My family endured 20 years of my sister’s drug addiction as she dealt with homelessness, incarceration and shame. I know what it is to have life fall apart around me.
As I mused about these things, it occurred to me that it was the anniversary of my sister’s death that day. I recalled her gorgeous, chestnut brown hair and that crooked grin that always made me smile. Perhaps helping Angela was an appropriate way to honor my sister.
I was more than 30 minutes late when I caught up with my friends. What I missed was so little in comparison to what I’d gained.
Regina Cram is a writer, speaker and author. She and her husband live in Glastonbury and have four children and seven grandchildren.