The Bag Woman

A couple of days ago, I was putting groceries in my trunk when this lady comes hobbling about with bags and all.

Can you help me please- she says. I’ve got both my eyes stuck in the trunk so I don’t look at her in the eye and catch empathy. That’s an expensive emotion. I play that internal monologue that gets me a ticket out of guiltsville- “There are shelters for the homeless, services for the destitute, soup kitchens for the hungry, and if I spare some change she’ll just buy the next drink to self-destruction.” It works. I’m ignoring her just fine.

She doesn’t give up. As she speaks, I recognize she’s from somewhere in Africa. She also asks for something very specific. “I need $9.47.” I’m now looking at her, because what beggar asks for $9.47? I’m used to “gimme a quarter.” She volunteers the rest of the information. “I need to get my medicine from the pharmacy because my insurance card has not arrived and my friend cannot pay for it.” The story was stitched together desperately, tearfully, with shame written all over her face.

I ask her what pharmacy and she points to the Rite Aid right across the parking lot. We walk together. I don’t trust anyone. At the counter, sure enough, the pharmacist confirms her meds are there and he brings out the prescriptions. The total cost is more than the lady had asked for. She’d gone out begging only for enough to cover the pain medication which was exactly $9.47. I can tell she’s in a lot of pain by the way she’s walking. I pay for all the medication.

As we leave the pharmacy, I ask her if she has food in her house and she says yes, she has a little rice left that she’s been eating for three weeks. We go to an African store close by and she picks West African foods- kenkey and stuff. She’s happy as can be. Having your people’s food in exile is always the next best thing to being home.

I ask her where she lives and as I drive her there, she tells me her story. She’s from Ghana. She’s also a US resident who had completed her nursing course and soon after suffered a stroke, worked briefly at a food store and got laid off on account of her inability to stand for long hours. She was now surviving hand-to-mouth, sometimes simply went out to beg. Her two housemates were tired of bailing her out, and deep depression had become her daily companion.

What about family? I asked. She said she had five grown children, land and a husband back home in Ghana where she had been a teacher before winning the Green Card lottery. Yes, she was free to go back any day, but she dared not think about it because they had lovingly nailed her to the cross of expectations and placed on her that thorny crown of American dreams that forever pierced her flesh. The blood of festered hopes, desolation and failure dripped down her mahogany face and caked up at her tired feet. Over the years that she had spent crucified on that cross, it had become extremely painful to bring herself down from it as the nails of a clan’s misplaced needs had burrowed deeper and deeper.

She was a mother bearing an impossible burden on her broken shoulders, for a family thousands of miles away. Yet she still wanted to hang on to the hope that her Jesus will work it out and she’ll be able to bring two of her kids to college so they may have a brighter future. I told her I believed her kids had a better shot at a bright future right where they were in Ghana. This American dream is like the imperial Jesus- syrupy sweet, addictive and eats your brain slowly until you have nothing else to think with.

I tell her she must find the strength to go back home, no matter how broken she is. I try to assure her that those who love her will forgive her and take care of her. But she is still too terrified of her perceived failure, and of being a source of great disappointment.

We arrive at her apartment. As I help her with the groceries, she says to me, “You must understand this is no ordinary encounter. This morning, I had reached my wit’s end. I prayed for three straight hours with great anguish. Then I decided to just go out like an animal in the wild. I needed my pain medication desperately. When the pharmacy would not give it to me, I cried and cried, and that’s when I went out and saw you putting away your groceries. I took courage, carried my shame with me and approached you. Don’t you see, you’re the angel my Jesus sent. May God abundantly bless you and your house.” She wept saying this. Oh dear. If only her Jesus knew the truth- that the only reason I had upgraded this do-gooder opportunity from the careless sparing of a dime to taking care of a fellow sojourner on this earth was purely out of bias: that she was African. Oh well. I picked up my wings and flew on home.

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