“I can be very frugal, you’ll see,” she muttered with shaking lips and swollen eyes, like I’d asked her to perform some miraculous feat for my own well-being.
She’d failed to grasp this morning’s grave news.
Each of her 84 years sat across from me with sticky, cataracted eyes that began welling last evening in anticipation of our early morning meeting. Though her dignity is intact, by April or sooner she will be another statistic in a sad, lonely and forgotten column. I did the math several times, either because she didn’t believe me that she wasn’t going to make it, or perhaps because I didn’t want to believe it myself.
Each time was the same. A budget difference of -$123 a month, with nothing left to cut out but food.
Breaking the news to a poor old woman who’d worked 60 years of a hard life that she will soon be homeless because her meager income and more meager expenses will outpace each other within a few short months was heartbreaking.
I packed up my things at the site where, twice weekly, I am their savior.
I try to help fixed income seniors in crisis make it to the next day, the next week, the next month, and into the next birthday if they can last that long.
I overshot the right turn to my office to go somewhere to be with my thoughts and worries for this widowed woman long since abandoned in this desert by her family to “retire.”
“I’ll have the lemon chicken with steamed rice,” ordering from Jone, the tiny Asian waitress at my favorite Chinese hole in the wall on Water Street. I couldn’t return to work just yet with a wet, puffy-eyed face like this and a story like that, so this was my safe house for 30 minutes or so.
She knows me. I’m there a few times a month at least. She asked if I was okay. I said yes. She asked how my mom was doing and I said she was good, too. She brought my won ton soup and crunchy noodles and a Sprite and thought it best to leave me alone in my unusual condition.
I wondered if it is easier for a doctor to break the news to someone with a catastrophic illness that would eventually take their life than to break the news to someone that they won’t actually die, but will soon be spending their remaining years somewhere cold in the winter, hot in the summer and without an address.
Lunch arrived, saving me from the next blubbering wave of awareness that sometimes, I’m no savior at all. I can only do so much, and sometimes, in a rare instance, it’s not enough.
I re-lived her pleading face across the table as I picked at lunch, wiped my face and mouth, and composed myself to get back to the office to staff this situation with my bosses in hopes that together we could arrive at some solution, if not at least temporarily.
The $8.60 check was $13 with a generous tip to Jone for letting me be for the half-hour lunch. I laid the cash on the check and unwrapped the fortune cookie:
“You will be happy with the results of your work today.”
It could have easily read:
“There is a Savior, Don, and it’s not you.”