We don’t live in a big city but I find myself in these booming metropolitan centres more often than I do my own home. What’s rare is when I’m walking a big city street with my husband Peter. We’re in Vancouver and found ourselves doing a little city walk to explore a new part of town to us: Kitsilano.
My limited knowledge understands this area to be named after a First a Nations Chief Khatsahalano, my friends from the Squamish Nation tell me this was their territorial land. Every time I’m in Vancouver, the beat of the Squamish and Musqueam Peoples drum is heard loud by my heart.
So us small mountain town folk walked this neighbourhood with curious eyes. We live in a mountain town bubble with no visible poverty. Not that income inequality and struggle ceases to exist, it’s just not in your face. It’s important to leave and see the reality of the prosperous world we’ve created. The human toll of struggle visible in many who have stories of their own. I have to admit, when I walk city streets, I often feel my heart bleeding for the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons I see toiling an existence of barely scraping by. And those who have gone over the edge and wander in addiction and illness. My heart hurts.
I also wonder how long it would take for me to desensitize to the human cost of all this wealth. How many days/weeks/months until I stopped seeing the struggle. Most of us become numb to the struggle of others because life takes so much energy to live, whatever form ours might be. Or perhaps I’d be one who never lost sight of the sightless, voiceless and vulnerable.
I don’t judge because I don’t know what I’d become if I walked these streets daily in my own rush.
So yesterday when we walked along 4th street and noticed a woman on her cell phone and what I thought was a bundle of clothes on the sidewalk ahead. I focused my eyes to pass the former and realized the bundle was a human. Face down. Crumbled into concrete and grass. A very small woman we could see. The lady on the phone was calling 911. We stood there not knowing what to do. We stayed to do I don’t know what.
The emergency operator on the other end asked the strangest questions. Seemed to be in no rush. Or perhaps it was the calm lady who called in who left us feeling uneasy about the lack of urgency. Methodically, the lady who called answered where she was, what’s she saw, gauged the age and appearance of the face down human in front of us, ‘not sure if she’s breathing’, ‘roll her on her back?’, and on and on and on.
I crouched down and put my hand on the black sweater below. Spoke to the lady asking ‘Miss are you okay? Miss can you hear me? Miss are you hurt? Miss we are here to help.’ I could not tell if she was breathing. Could not tell if she was alive. I did was I heard was told and rolled her gently on her side.
We all saw her little face peacefully asleep. We could se her side moving up and down as she seemed to have started to breath again. I could see she had a little medallion of grilled steak in her hand. Her shopping bag lay crushed under her with take out containers of food. Her purse beside her. She was clean and did not smell of alcohol.
What was her story?
Who is this person?
What happened to this lady who could have been my Mom, your Mom, who ended up face down on the sidewalk like this? Who is someone’s daughter, someone’s friend?
Well, we will never know. She sat up and put the chunk of steak in her purse. Then decided to put it in the leftovers bag. She grinned and shrugged at Peter when she did so. She looked up at me and asked what street we were on. She said something about a taxi and running out of money. Then grabbed onto my shoulders and heaved herself up.
We heard sirens coming and saw the massive fire truck slow to a stop. Four superhero-like firemen came out of the truck with gear and focus ready to revive. They got the lady sitting down again and asked us what happened as another questioned he lady. We told them what we knew, they said thanks and sent us on our way.
Blocks away we heard more sirens blaring then coming to a silent stop. We assume to pick up the lady.
I think about my Dad and his last years/months/days of freedom in his dwindling state of dementia. I think about how many people helped him. How kind the police were to him so many times when he was lost or escaped from the hospital making his way home only to be found and brought back again. I think about this busy world we’ve created that isolates and divides. That creates the anti-community where you protect what you have and move on your way. That creates and illusion of community for those who can afford the price of admission.
I’m not saying I’m any better nor am I more compassionate than others. I know clearly there are people in cities day in and out making a difference and seeing the human side of the struggle. I just wonder how it is we live in a way that most of us can forget.
We will soon return to our mountain town bubble but will do our best to not to forget. Ever. Because the reality is this struggle is what we all connect to. We are rooted in the human condition as one. One persons pain is felt by another whether you like it or not.
So let’s all do our best to live and love and at the very least acknowledge each other as humans on this great planet earth.