A couple of years ago I was shopping at Walmart - nothing new - and I had to go to the ladies room. I remember it was a really hot summer day in Brampton, the kind of hot day requiring nothing but shorts and a tank top and the cool relief of air conditioning. And I remember how hot it was because of a woman who was also in the restroom at the same time as me. She was tall and quite thin and wearing none other than a sweater and long pants! The sweater was purple and black, a funky print like a pink and white one I had in grade 5. Some sort of synthetic fibres probably, not natural or very breathable, particularly in such extreme heat. Her pants were the long track pants with the elastics on the bottoms, much too short for her long legs, and with white sports socks sticking out between them and worn running shoes. This woman was wearing big round glasses, the kind you look back and laugh at your friends for wearing in the 80's. Her hair was long and scraggly straight, the colour of straw that reminded me of my Aunt Francis. She had in her possession one of those small "old-lady" carts, the metal ones on wheels pulled by a handle kinda like a shopping buggy, plastic lined, and filled to the brim leaving you curious about what could possibly be buried deep down inside.
This woman was giving herself a sponge bath!... in the bathroom... at my local Walmart! Her purple and black sweater sleeves were pulled up past her elbows. She was pulling out paper towel after paper towel and filling the sink with soap and water, washing under her arms, around her neck, her face, her back.
Looking back, it seems like forever that I was staring at her. I must have seemed incredibly rude. Truth is, I just wanted to say something, anything really. Questions like, "Do you have a hair brush deep down in the recesses of your old lady basket?", "What about some deodorant?", "Can I take you by the hand and carry you down pharmaceutical aisles of Walmart and stock you up on all of the hygiene products I take for granted?".
I was assuming, of course, that this lady was homeless. And I was speechless, not a word escaped my mouth. Just a passing stranger I felt a great deal of sympathy towards. What could I really say? What is she really wasn't homeless and I made a fool of myself? I walked away in a physical sense but I never forgot that woman.
And then about a year ago I was shopping at Michaels on my lunch break for scrapbook supplies. Going down the aisles, back and forth, was this woman. She was still the same except it was raining and she was wearing a black windbreaker, the kind that looked like she could fold up and roll into a little pouch to attach around her waist should the weather clear. Her hood was still up but I could see some of her straw-coloured hair peaking out from beneath. Ironically, there was a Walmart bag in her cart. She didn't look up, she didn't seem to be looking at any items in particular, simply seemed to be seeking temporary shelter from the bad weather. I watched her down a few aisles before it was time to go back to work. I moved on.
It had been a while since I thought of her.
Until yesterday - I left work a few minutes late. I had stopped at a traffic light, waiting for a break to make a right turn North on Kennedy Road. I took a moment to check for pedestrians crossing before I eased out. And there she was. She was the pedestrian I stopped for, waiting, waiting, waiting for her to cross so I could make my right turn. I watched her intently, every slow step she made across that intersection. It was a freezing cold day. She was wearing a black jacket, thankfully, although it was worn. The hood was up, straw hair hanging down. Her glasses were the same. My eyes went to her hands, like a concerned parent, to check for mittens. Check - they were beige/off-white coloured (dirty?) but actually had the look of real wool. Warm I hoped. Her pants looked the same as before, track pants with the elastics, too short for her legs. And the running shoes with the white sports socks. If the wind was against her, I'm sure her legs would go numb walking against the chill with so little protection. Her cart was lined with plastic and I thought it no longer looked like a separate object but more like it had become a constant extension to her body.
My heartstrings felt a tug. I felt as though I should stop and ask her if she needed a ride someplace. Traffic was lined up behind me. The light would be changing soon. And besides, how ridiculous would it be to stop a complete stranger in the middle of the city to ask them if they wanted a ride? We don't do that here! Not in this day and age! I don't know this woman! What am I thinking? I shook my head and drove on.
But what if God himself was speaking to me, the pulling on my heartstrings His still small voice asking me to be the whispering hope to a woman in need. What if I'm wrong? Would God ever speak to me in such a way? What if I couldn't recognize the voice of God even if it was in audible tones, let alone just a "feeling"?
We live in such a cynical world, full of despair, full of doubt and pessimism, full of pride, full of "there's nothing I can do", "What difference can I possibly make?" and "you should never talk to strangers". We have been programmed in a way to keep to ourselves and mind our own business and turn a blind eye. But what if I missed my opportunity? What if God keeps bringing her to me because it's my duty to take care of "the least of these", as the Bible says? What's a girl to do?
And so I will pray - I will pray that this woman will safe, warm, fed, and that she will feel love in some small corner of her world, whatever her world may consist of.
And I will pray for me too - that God will allow me to know his voice, to understand when he is speaking to me. I will pray for the wisdom to know when a step of faith is required to be that whispering hope, helping to make a "heart in its sorrow rejoice".