Written on Week 4 August 11, 2013
Priorities shift when you hear you have cancer. What’s important, what’s not. How you spend your time and with whom. Close friends and family get your attention. People you like. It becomes simple. It’s amazing how much is not important, doesn’t actually matter. However, sometime a complete stranger becomes important. I’m surprised by the utter connection I feel to everyone and questions I have about their lives. They are questions about my own life, perhaps. The difference is I sometimes make time to ask now. I slow down and see the people I’m walking past. At least on the good days when I have energy. On the bad days I’m more directional and see mostly myself and look for the shortest way home.
A woman younger than me sits on the concrete slab in the empty parking structure pay station where I feed my visa into a machine. Her dirty blond hair is clean but unruly. Her shoes sit to her side, her feet are black. She pulls a hand mirror out of one of many plastic bags, wets her index finger in her mouth and tries to wipe away the mascara that has smudged under her eyes. She’s been crying. She’s a junky. I’m tired, having just left an event early to go home to nap, but as I watch her from the corner of my eye I wonder who she is and how she got to the street. Suddenly nothing is more important than talking to the woman I would normally walk past and avoid. “Hello,” I say as she looks up at me standing over her. “Why are you out here?” I ask. Blunt, I know, but that’s my question. “I’m an addict and my family won’t take me in any longer,” she replies just as matter of fact. My heart sinks in recognition. Would he say this? Blame us? I immediately sit down next to her and take my shoes off. My feet are also dirty. She stares at me now. She’s sizing me up. “Um, I may be like your family and you may be like one of my older brothers. Can we talk?” I ask. I ask her to tell me about her family, her path, her life addicted to heroine. I’m torn between being fully present and on alert that I’m making myself vulnerable by just being with her. Being present wins out. I’m listening and she continues to talk. Her narrative rambles and yet there’s wisdom and truth in the chaos. She misses her daughter. I know my brother misses his, too. I try to understand how a drug can become more important than a child. How it can skew a mind. She tells me there’s nothing that sets her free and takes away the noise in her head like the drug does. Nothing. I start to see the evidence of her noise and the relief she must feel. She was clean for six years after prison, but doesn’t want to get clean again. She doesn’t want to be saved and I’m not trying to save her. He recently said the same thing to me. He doesn’t want rehab or a lawyer, we don’t understand him, have kicked him to the curb because we no longer give him money and instead offer rehab…. I know these are the ramblings of a warped mind, meth-induced reality, but I can’t help but wonder how he, or she, could fall so far from what is reality. To be in a place where everyone else is wrong and only their skewed visions and addictions are the truth. This isn’t the brother my family once knew, yet it is our current version of him. We love and miss him.
A policeman comes. He looks at her, then me, then at her. He’s confused. “You can’t sit here, you know,” he says to her. She pretends she doesn’t know and makes an excuse. “Can we stay here for five minutes and talk?” I ask him. He’s even more confused now. “Yes,” he says and walks away. “He was much nicer than they normally are,” she says. I imagine her life, being asked to leave everywhere she sits. Sitting places no one else sits. Where do you sit when you don’t have a place? Under the Burnside Bridge outside of my photography studio, I suppose. We ask them to leave there, as well. It’s not good for business, or our safety, you know. I realize I wouldn’t talk to her there.
I tell her I have breast cancer. I see both shock and immediate acceptance in a flash of her eyes. We talk about our bucket lists. She tells me she has something to say to the world. She’s waiting for a sugar daddy so she can put it on billboards. I ask her what it is she would tell everyone. She isn’t sure, but it would be big and meaningful and the billboards would allow everyone to see it. It would really reach people that way. Noise in her head. I think she’s crazy, and yet I wonder how often we all think that way. Someone or something is going to sweep us off our feet and then we are going to do something big. Say something important that moves people. Have an impact. Make a difference. We’re just waiting until that time to figure out what that really is. She tells me her real name is Diane, but everyone on the street calls her Sunshine. When I get up to leave she asks me not for money, as I expected, but for a hug. I ask if I can take her picture with my phone and she’s embarrassed, asks if it’s okay if she looks away. “Yes, I just want it to remember you,” I say.