I'm going to write about something that's haunted me for a while. I haven't written like this for a long time, and details in this story will be changed for privacy reasons.
It was last fall or winter -- chilly, but before the bitter cold came. I had stepped into the street to wait while several friends were finishing their shopping. One of those friends -- I'll call her Alex -- was already waiting outside. Alex is the young, excited type; happy with everything, friendly with everyone. This time, Alex was crouched on the sidewalk talking with an older woman who had a battered backpack, a cardboard sign asking for money, and a paper cup with coins she'd been tossed. She introduced me to the woman -- I'll call her Lisa.
Lisa was about my mom's age. As we talked, we learned she had kids about my age, and grandkids. Hadn't seen them in years. I got the sense there had been some sort of conflict with her kids, and contact broken off -- and she wanted to reestablish it, but they didn't want to be associated with her and the state she was living in. There might have been regret in her voice, but there was also gumption and pride. She was just homeless for a few days -- her caseworker had messed up, she said, and didn't pay her rent, so she had been evicted from her old place. Had to wait a few days to get an appointment about getting a new one. Was sleeping on the streets in the meantime, but it was all right; it wouldn't get too cold in the next few days.
Suddenly, Alex asked: "Lisa, what size shoes do you wear?"
And then: "Try mine."
It took some persuasion -- Alex finally pointed out that she had other shoes at home, she'd switch to them tonight, she wouldn't miss this one pair and besides she'd got it at the clearance section of REI for $20 -- but Lisa finally agreed. When she pulled Alex's sneakers onto her feet, she sighed in delight. So nice, to have warm feet without the wind cutting through them, she said. To know that they'll stay dry.
"I got them last month, they're not new," said Alex. "But they'll at least keep your feet warm." Alex pulled Lisa's shoes onto her feet and wiggled her toes experimentally -- you could see her socks poking through the soles, which had been worn completely through in several places. Alex laughed, but I grimaced; I'd worn shoes down like that, back when I couldn't afford new ones, and walking through the cold, wet streets that fall had become a constant hidden reminder of that poverty. Not being able to afford warm feet.
We asked Lisa to be our dinner guest that night. Nothing fancy; student-budget food-truck fare, something where we could afford to say "order whatever you want, take as much food as you can." She asked what we were doing, and I told her about school, and she said good, stay in that, complete your studies. She said she wished she could go back and learn so many things, but it was too late now; there was no time left for her.
No, I told her. Not too late. Plenty of older people go to college; there are scholarships and grants, and if she wanted, we could help her find one to apply for --
Alex left for the restroom in the middle of my diatribe. Once the Young Excited Happy Person was out of earshot, Lisa pointed at her plate, which had been hardly touched. "I can't eat very much," she said. "I'll take this home, but you'll notice I have a hard time eating." Indeed, I had noticed that Lisa had been occasionally silent and still along our walk to dinner, and wondered out loud if that might be pain.
Lisa glanced around to make sure Alex wasn't back yet, and dropped her voice. "I'm sick," she said. "I really have no time left. The doctors say I have less than a year to live, maybe even 6 months." I don't remember what it was, but it was somehow stomach-related. Cancer, maybe. "So I really can't go back to school," said Lisa. "I wouldn't live to finish a degree."
Alex came back, and we abruptly switched our conversation to happier topics -- her grandkids, the upcoming holidays, what Alex and I wanted to be when we grew up. I noticed Lisa tucked her food carefully into her bag, largely untouched except for a few spoons of rice. We bade each other a good night, gave Lisa a big hug, and off we went; Lisa to wherever she was sleeping for the night, and us to the discount department store, at my insistence. I told Alex in no uncertain terms we were going to put another pair of sneakers on her feet, right now, because those old shoes were making my feet cold just looking at them.
Alex looked happy, running through the shelves of marked-off discount shoes, looking for the cheapest sneakers that would fit her. "Look, I only had to wear those shoes for what, a mile?" she laughed as she peeled the soggy rags into a garbage can. "And now Lisa has good shoes. They're only a month old, and a good brand -- they should last her for at least a year."
She'll die before those shoes wear out, I thought, but didn't speak that thought out loud. Instead, I smiled and paid for Alex's new shoes. "My treat," I said. "I know what crappy shoes feel like; besides, you paid for dinner, so we're even now."
Alex still wears the shoes I gave her. They are starting to wear through. She showed me her shoes recently, and joked that they were turning into Lisa's shoes; there aren't holes yet, but the soles are wearing thin and smooth and it's only a matter of time.
And that's when I remembered. It's been nearly a year now, and I wonder: how is Lisa? Is she still alive? If so, are Alex's shoes still keeping her feet warm? Or maybe Lisa and the doctors were right; she's dead, maybe months dead from whatever sickness was killing her, and those shoes were the last shoes that she wore. Or maybe -- I don't know. But I realized that Alex's shoes were what reminded me occasionally of Lisa, and that I might not remember Lisa once those shoes were gone.
So I decided to write this, because I want to remember: I want to remember the woman, and the evening, and the conversations, and the dinner, and the shoes -- the spontaneous act of kindness, and the warmth of dry feet, and a reminder to myself to never take comforts for granted (I've been able to afford dry shoes for years now). I told Alex, and she's ok with me writing this; she was sobered when she heard of Lisa's illness, and we prayed together that Lisa might find peace somehow, wherever she is now.
"Peace and dry feet," Alex added.