I first saw her struggling at the desk at my local YMCA. She was signing up her family for a scholarship that the Y reserves for hardship cases. She had two children in tow, one brown-haired, sweet-looking girl I pegged as eight or nine, a bleach-blond son four or five and an infant in a car seat. I remember sympathizing with that car seat. There had been nothing more annoyingly heavy and uncooperative than lugging my daughters in that seat when they were babies. I had complained about that seat to everyone who would listen--and many who wouldn’t-- hoping that my complaints would somehow result in the invention of a new, less Draconian contraption. When the girl walked away from the desk, her left hip triangled out to carry the load more effectively, I felt for her even then.
I turned back towards my mother who was seated quietly in her wheelchair beside me, still wet from the shower I’d given her in the locker room. My mother’s been in a wheelchair since her tumor-removing brain surgery left her paralyzed on her left side-- and my house built in 1925 is anything but handicapped accessible. So the Y was the safest place for her, as it is for many—its walls giving shelter to inner city kids and recreation for poor seniors throughout its history.
When I looked at my mother’s face, I noticed her eyes staring vacantly in front of her. I was looking at her and searched for my mother, my real mother, the one from before the surgery, the one who was always there to support me, but she was too far away for me to see her, too wrapped up in her own misery to notice the misery of others. So I pushed her in her wheelchair out the door, my two children bantering behind us.
It was June in Florida which meant a heat and humidity so oppressive that it became overwhelming almost instantaneously. As I pushed the wheelchair out the automatic sliding glass doors, I connected with the woman I’d seen at the desk earlier, my mother’s wheelchair nearly as much of a burden as that carseat.
“Mama, the ground is really HOT!” my youngest daughter suddenly screamed out.
I looked over my left shoulder as I pushed the wheelchair forward and saw that her shoes were not on her feet; they were also not in her hands.
“Where are your shoes?” I yelled at her, incensed.
“I left them inside,” she answered back matter-of-factly, as if it were so obvious that it was just plain silly to ask.
“UGH! Ana! Go get them!” I yelled.
“BUT!”And the demon mother poured out of me from my eyes and mouth. She obeyed instantly.
By the time she and my oldest daughter returned, my mother and I were struggling to get into the car, her left foot failing to cooperate with her brain’s instructions. Finally, exasperated, I used my foot to aggressively nudge it further, and she slid uneasily into the front seat. As I walked around the back of the car to get to the driver’s side, I took inventory of my body. My tank top was wet all down my back and underneath the arms, my hair damp and frizzy. I bent over before getting into the car and piled it on top of my head in a bun. When I got into the car, I blasted the air conditioner.
“Whew! It’s hot out there!” my mom said. I looked over and noticed her eyes, bright and in tune.
“I know!” I said gratefully.
As I said this, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, the same woman I had seen earlier at the counter. I swept the bangs from my eyes and focused closer in on her face. She was standing on the sidewalk with her three kids, and she was crying.
“Hold on a second, guys. That girl’s crying over there. I’ll be right back,” and I jumped out of the car, leaving them behind to wonder.
“Is everything alright?” I asked when I reached her, her kids staring blankly at me, no tears on their faces.
“My boyfriend,” she said in between sobs. “He left us,” another sob, “and we have no way to get home.”
“Well, can I give you a ride?” I asked quickly.
She merely nodded her head.
When we got closer to the car, she cleared her throat and said, “thank you.” By this time, she had wiped away her tears, and plastered on a smile.
When we all piled into the car, her son on her lap, we introduced each other. I tried to keep the conversation light, so I asked her kids what schools they went to. I told them I was a teacher, trying to make them feel more at ease in my car. The woman seemed like she appreciated this, her smile widening with each mile we drove.
I took the cue and continued, “And what do you guys like to do in your free time, when you are not studying hard at school?”
The little girl, very seriously answered, “I do ballet,” and her chin rose just an inch higher.
Before I could congratulate her, the little boy yelled out, “I like to eat bugs!” with the biggest smile I’d ever seen escaping from his ears.
My mother in the front let out a large, boisterous laugh at this. I turned to her, and we smiled knowingly at each other. But his mother didn’t think this funny, and the embarrassment showed in her face, “You don’t eat bugs really; it was just that once. Geesh…” she said to him. He looked as if he wanted to say something else but then thought the better of it and stared out the window.
I quickly asked the woman where she had gone to high school, wondering if maybe she had gone to the high school where I teach, so we could have something in common-- and then, as if she were just waiting for this moment the whole time, she opened her mouth wide and began to tell her story,
“I went to school in the country in Georgia for most of my life, and then my parents came here, and I finished at Pinellas Park. Well, I didn’t actually finish, I had this one over here,” and she nudged her chin towards her oldest daughter.
“I did get my GED eventually, and when they are older, I’m going to go back to school,” she finished.
“For what?” my mother asked looking ahead, always ready to encourage someone’s dreams of the future.
“Well, I think like dental hygiene or something. Teeth always did appeal to me,” and she smiled a large smile, and for the first time, I saw her teeth. They were big and straight and bright, contrasting with the subtle dullness behind her eyes.
“Can you get someone to watch the kids while you go to school?” I asked.
“Not really. My mom is back in Georgia, and my boyfriend works a lot, so I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Going to school with three little kids would certainly be a lot of work—that’s for sure.” I said immediately.
“Yeah, but they will grow up soon, and I’m not having anymore!” she said definitively. “I got fixed!”
When she said those words, my heart sank. I had never heard a woman refer to herself as having been “fixed”. “Had my tubes tied”, yes, but never “got fixed.” We were silent for a few moments as I thought about this, saw her as she maybe saw herself in that phrase, a mere breeder, an animal. I imagined her boyfriend yelling at her after finding out about their last baby, “You gotta go and get yourself fixed!” And, instantly, this became less about a woman I was taking home to a guy who did an awful thing leaving his family during a fight. I was possibly taking this woman home to an abuser. It hadn’t hit me before that word, but now, to me at least, it seemed obvious all along. Here I was, a Purple Dot Yoga Project Ambassador, activist against domestic violence, after hearing countless stories of the catastrophically violent things that can happen to women in abusive relationships, and still delivering this woman home to a potentially horrible situation.
And yet I felt like I had no other choice but to take her home.
How could I speak to her about it in the car, with her children here, with my children here? How could I broach the subject with her when I had absolutely no proof, just an intuition? What solution would I suggest? That I’d take her to a shelter? To my house? How could I keep her safe? I knew of all the resources and yet… She was only twenty-five for God’s sake.
I tried to continue our conversation, but all I could think about was what I was about to do, how I was going to leave this woman, and all the terrible possible outcomes rushed through my head.
And then, reluctantly, I found myself turning off the main road to her house and pulling up to her one-story concrete block house, no car in the driveway.
“Is daddy home?” the little girl asked as we pulled up to the mailbox that almost stuck out into the street.
“No honey, not yet,” and I couldn’t tell whether there was a sense of relief or a sense of disappointment behind her words.
We said our goodbyes, and I watched walk toward her home with her children. I felt very much like I was doing something wrong, something very wrong by just letting her go.
After we pulled away, my mother turned to me and said, “That was a very nice thing you did, Kristie. Most people would have left her there crying in the street.”
“You wouldn’t have,” I said.
“No, I wouldn’t have, but I can’t do anything good anymore, so you have to do it for me,” she said sadly.
“Honestly, I don’t think I did enough,” I said staring at the empty road ahead.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, I have a bad feeling that that woman was being abused, and I should do more.
Maybe I should leave a note in her mailbox telling her where she can find me. But what if her husband gets it and beats her for it? Maybe I should go knock on her door another day, and try to get her into a shelter,” I said.
“Yeah, maybe,” and as she said that, she looked off into the distance again, the light extinguishing once again from her eyes, both of us knowing that I wouldn’t end up doing a thing.
Kristie Dowling, Native New Yorker turned proud Floridian, is a site editor and blog contributor for the Purple Dot Yoga Project. When not blogging, Kristie is a high school teacher, writer, college professor, wife, mother of two rambunctious children, and a developing yogi. She’s seen the power of yoga decompress her body and mind after a long, stressful day and encourages others to try yoga and be able to live the benefits as well. Kristie enjoys cooking a wildly different meal every night, shopping on Etsy and trying different varieties of teas in obsessive amounts. Her dream is to journey to every single National Park before she dies. So far, she’s visited the Everglades, Mount Rainier and Glacier Bay, so still has a ways to go.