Namaste Wanda. I see you

Seeing beyond the surface and truly seeing a person is a blessing, but it also feels like a purpose in life. And no matter what, act and speak and intend kindness. 

Namaste: The light and love in me is the same as the light and love in you

Wanda Bishop died July 25. She was 60.

She was found in her boarding room. She was known around town for being more or less a vagabond and beggar. She drank and did substances. She could be seen talking to herself or walking in the middle of the street (she had a diagnosed mental illness and had a case manager with CMH). She had no teeth.

That’s the quick view, the surface.

I’ve known Wanda for close to 8 years. And most of those years it was on the surface, or only as deep as I was willing to dig into my pockets to give her some money.

Wanda, strolling away from my house with new shoes and socks, September 2020.

She had a shuffle to her quick-moving feet.

She had some bold energy behind her voice, “Hey beautiful! Can you help me out with….”

I came to know her name from a bartender. She came to know mine because I shared it with her. And she remembered.

Seasons passed where our “relationship” was an exchange through my car window of coins and sometimes bills. I have changed sides of the street I’m walking on to avoid her. I’ve sped up my pace to duck her. Usually, to no avail: “Hey girlfriend! Belinda!”

I’d stop. I’d do the exchange. I’d ask how she is. Maybe, her hair looked nice today. Or, where’d you get that blouse? Good color on you.

Winter of 2018 she started knocking on my front door in the middle of the night. It was a little disconcerting. I realized she knew where I lived. She stood on the porch, humming or mumbling to herself. And knocked again. I told her to go away. She came back. 

“I just need to get me something to eat.”

“I need money for the bus in the morning to go to CMH.”

I relented depending on how cold it was. Some coins. A few bills.

I softened. 

But after March 2020, Wanda and I became friends. While there was still an exchange, it was no longer one-way. She’d stop by in the mornings and have coffee on the porch. She was barely together in the mornings before 10 a.m. She couldn’t figure out how to get in touch with her case manager at CMH. She needed a new bus pass. And why does she need a mask?

Wanda, back row on the left.

The pandemic shut some people in and shut others out of the vital care and routines that kept them safe.

I learned Wanda’s last name so I could help her make phone calls or call on her behalf.

She asked for money for cigarettes and beer. She knew that was a no-go for me. But I did get her some cigarettes and doled them out to her over the week. I started a small weekly budget of $20.

She started to ask for toilet paper.

Then I knew she wasn’t scamming. Hard to pawn toilet paper.

Then she wanted soap and cleaning products, socks…

I softened some more.

Throughout much of last year, we had a daily routine. I had a sign on the front door to let her know if I was livestreaming a yoga class. I’m sure there are a few where I jump up from teaching for a minute to ask her to come back later and come back to teaching some pose or another. 

She never asked about what I did for a living. She’d just say, “you working? I’ll come back.”

She had a sense of honor, her own code of respect. She tried her best to stick with it.

I had a cooler for her on my porch with her “groceries.” Bread, sandwich meat, soups in a can, Coca Cola, chips, something chocolatey. She had a stash of magazines – Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Vogue.

I made a makeshift salon on my porch one summer day and washed her hair and cut it for her. She cried as I massaged jojoba oil into her scalp.

That was the first time she gave me a hug. I hugged her back.

We chatted about where we were from: Gadsden, Alabama. My people were from West Virginia and Virginia. We shared stories of the South. She remembered her grandmother’s farm fondly with chickens. She was not fond of “Crackers.”

We talked about family: 12 sisters (not quite right, she had brothers too; and never told me about others) I was an only child for 10 years, then my brother came along.

We talked about painful memories: Her mother was killed. She said a sister too. And the act of remembering was painful and confusing. She had schizophrenia. I told her I missed my mom too. She passed in 2005.

We talked about joy: We both love music. She loved any kind of music. I even gave her a radio. She loved Aretha Franklin (she could remember exactly when she died). She loved modeling and fashion. She had wanted to be a model. I was amused.

We talked about right and wrong: She was angry at some domestic abuse in her boarding house. She wanted to protect women who were being beaten or “done wrong.” I told her I work with trauma survivors and I appreciated her heart but to stay safe out there and not try to involve herself in breaking anything up.

I hadn’t seen Wanda much this year. Around January I cut off her cooler on the porch over an incident. I still gave her money and stopped and saw her on my dog walks or driving through the neighborhood. She came back on her birthday this March. We bumped into each other just a few weeks before she died.

It would be our last.

A neighbor came to say, “I think that woman who used to come to your porch passed away.”

For some reason I chanced to looking to see if there was an obituary. And there was! And there was a funeral, the next day. 

That was last Saturday. I went to pay my respects. I wasn’t expecting many people. But she had family! She has a grown daughter, Monica, who has two children herself. She flew up from Alabama. She has surviving brothers and sisters. There was beautiful gospel music, and testifying, and big beautiful photos of Wanda over the years presented so lovely.

An old photo of Wanda in her wedding gown, her daughter Monica shared with me

Was a daughter of a big family. She was beautiful. She was married young. She had one daughter. She was in the choir at her church. She also had schizophrenia

Decades of emotional and mental turmoil are hard to manage. Comes to find out, family members checked on Wanda regularly at her boarding room. She just didn’t share it or remember. Her daughter would call her – had actually spoken about three weeks before she passed away. She was trying to figure out how to come up to Michigan and see about better care for Wanda. Family members were aging and starting to pass away. There was less network to keep tabs on Wanda.

I don’t envy Monica on trying take on trying to convince Wanda to move to Alabama. Wanda was stubborn, and ill. 

But Wanda was loved.

That’s the gift I feel Wanda shared with me. Love.

She was loved. 

I got a chance to soften and open myself to share love and I received it back in seeing love in her and around her.

She grew enough to ask for help and receive it. I grew enough to offer help with no strings and truly give it.

No buts. No conditions. No reservations or caveats.

Her daughter and I shared a lovely long conversation recently. Seeing beyond the surface and truly seeing a person is a blessing, but it also feels like a purpose in life. And no matter what, act and speak and intend kindness. 

Namaste: The light and love in me is a reflection of the light and love in you

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