It was a beautiful day today, mild and sunny. The winter weather that people expect from Phoenix. My walk was longer than usual, thanks to the weather. Because it was walking meditation, I had no money, no phone, no water with me.
About two miles into my walk, I saw a large pile of trash in the bike lane about 75 yards ahead of me. Trash bags, clothing, shoes. The pile was close to the hospital emergency entrance, and employees in scrubs crossed the street, not noticing.
As I got closer, I saw it was not trash, it was a woman. She was lying in the road, not on the curb, surrounded by her possessions, all stuffed into trash bags. I ran over and touched her shoulder. She was confused, but awake. Once she was on the curb, out of traffic and leaning against a lamp post, I asked if I could get her something.
“Water,” she said, “A cup of water would be nice.”
The emergency room required clearance from a security guard. With no identification, there was no hope of my getting into the emergency room. An employee scanned herself in and I followed on her heels.
I spoke to a nurse, telling her there was a woman who had fainted (it was the easiest explanation) and could I have a cup of water for her. The nurse looked at me, taking in my sweatshirt and casual pants, running shoes and no purse. Then she asked, “Is this for that woman in pink sweats?” I agreed it was. The nurse looked at me and said, “She doesn’t need water and you don’t need to bother with her.”
I don’t know what kind of day this nurse had experienced so far. Surely it is hard to deal with the wave of people who arrive in an emergency room. The stress and empathy overload must be awful. Still, her curt language pained me. I wasn’t asking for free medical treatment or medication.
The nurse picked up a tablet computer and walked away. I straightened my clothes, stood up straighter and approached a different nurse. “I’m sorry to bother you. I’ve walked about four miles. I’m diabetic and I didn’t think it was this warm. Could I trouble you for a cup of water, please?” The nurse looked at my sincere face and asked if I needed my blood sugar checked. “No, thanks, I just didn’t bring any water and I have another mile to go before I get home.” She nodded, asked me to wait, and returned with a cup of ice and a bottle of water.
“I didn’t bring my wallet on my walk,” I apologized. The nurse smiled at me and said, “Exercising is good for you, and you are welcome to the water.” The term white privilege flashed through my mind. Still, I now had the water. I thanked her and left.
The woman was still on the curb, hospital employees in scrubs were still walking by, ignoring her. I sat on the curb next to her and held the cup so she could drink. She might have been a drug addict, an alcohol abuser, a thief. What she really was, was thirsty. She had gotten to the hospital by ambulance. She didn’t have insurance. They let her stay for a while, then told her to leave. Her speech was slow and halting, but her eyes were clear.
I had nothing to give this woman. No money, no food, no way to help. Just water and my company. I sat with her and did the most difficult thing: I witnessed her life. No prying, no questions that would shame her. She talked a little, but nothing that made up a life. She asked if I had a cigarette. Damn, I hate providing bad things for people. But it wasn’t a drink, drugs, or sugar, so I walked over to the smoking area and again, bummed something in my name. I walked away with a lighter and a cigarette. Sat down next to the woman again and handed them over. She looked at me as if I had produced a roll of cash, and stowed the treasure in her bags.
She drank more water. Still not knowing what to do, I finally said, “Is it OK to hug you?” She looked at me and said, “Why would you want to hug me? No one touches me.” Knowing that this scene would haunt me for months, I hugged her. She put her head on my shoulder. It was all I had to give her.
I’m not a Bible-quoting person. But on the doorpost of my house is a small scroll that contains two prayers. One of them says, “And if a stranger sojourn with you in your land, you shall not vex him. But the stranger within your gates shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And to do less than offer comfort to this woman would have been to treat her as a stranger. The least I could do was hug her and tell her that she was a good human being and I wished her well.
It wasn’t a lot, but it was all I had.
—Quinn McDonald has been a stranger many times. Now she is a witness.