They were three women. Native. A family. Grandmother, daughter/mother, granddaughter. The daughter/granddaughter looked to be in her mid twenties. The mother huddled with her daughter behind the wheel chair where the grandmother sat wrapped in a worn blanket. Between them, they passed a bottle of alcohol. Deep blond. Golden liquid.
I was a woman walking down the street. Walking from a meeting I'd attended downtown towards the shelter where I work. Warily I watched them as I moved closer. I couldn't cross the street. They were in direct line with the shelter, at a point where the roadway curves upwards onto the fly-over out of downtown. I didn't want to cross the street anyway. I knew I had nothing physical to fear from them. It was my thoughts I feared the most.
I felt sadness permeate my pores as I saw the bottle move from one grimy hand to another. Daughter to mother, mother to grandmother. They laughed and chortled. The mother held the bottle out towards her mother, the grandmother. The grandmother looked furtively around. For a brief moment she watched me walking towards them. She laughed. She turned back to her daughter. She grabbed eagerly for the bottle, knocking her granddaughter's hand away as she tried to tuck the blanket back down into the side of her grandmother's wheelchair. Both hands gripping the bottle, the grandmother tilted her head back, took a long swallow. She smiled toothlessly. Smacked her lips. Quickly tucked the bottle beneath the dirty blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
I kept walking by. I didn't know where to look. I looked ahead. They ignored me.
Three women lost on the street. Three generations of abuse. Of loss of pride. Loss of dignity. Three generations with little hope for a better tomorrow.
I carried on.
I wanted to stop and tell them to stop. I wanted to take the bottle away -- not because it is illegal to drink on the street. Not because the sight of their drinking in public made me angry. I wanted to take the bottle away because I know it's killing them. Destroying whatever hope they have of a better tomorrow. Eating away at their internal organs. Tearing apart their minds. Ripping apart their family circle.
Those three women have haunted me since I witnessed that tableau early last week. I want to go downtown and find them. Talk to them. Plead with them. Coerce them into looking at their lives.
And I can't.
I haven't earned the right and, they cannot hear me.
They are lost.
It is perhaps the hardest part of working at a shelter. Every day I see human beings lost, desperately hiding their pain and fear beneath the drugs and alcohol they abuse in order to forget their pasts. In order to forget themselves.
I cannot take away their pain. I cannot erase their pasts. All I can do is accept them exactly the way they are, without judgement. Without condemnation. And work to keep them safe until they find their courage to face the demons that haunt them. It's what we do every day at the shelter where I work. We keep hope alive for the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and cousins who have been lost to the street and cannot find their way back home.
Do I agree with what they're doing? No. But that is irrelevant. What they are doing is nothing compared to what happened to drag them to this place where all they crave, all they believe will help them, is a bottle tucked beneath a blanket, surreptitiously passed around the family circle.
It is tragic. It is sad to watch three women stand exposed on the street, their pain visible to the naked eye.
Helpless. Frustrated. Frightened. Abused. They guzzle greedily from the bottle in a desperate attempt to mask their symptoms beneath the golden elixir flowing into their bodies washing away the dreams they once had of a life far different than this.
No one chooses to live with such indignity. To live with such sorrow. By the time the degradation takes hold, they are too lost to see what might have been had they not taken that first sip, that first toke. By the time the bottle becomes their best friend, they've lost the ability to recognize it has become their enemy.
I can't change their lives. I can change my perceptions of what they are doing. I can change my point of view about them. I can be less righteous and more forgiving.
The question is: Can you?