I hear her before I see her. It takes a moment to recognize the sound of shouting above the clamorous noise of the Main Street traffic.
When it finally registers, I, like several other nearby pedestrians, raise my head and start looking around.
She is halted in the crosswalk, half way across, hollering back over her shoulder to a young boy behind her. She is staggeringly overburdened. With one hand she pushes a baby stroller overflowing with piles of clothing and loaded bags hanging from it. A huge duffel bag is strapped across her back. With her other hand she drags a large suitcase, minus one of its two wheels. And dangling from the front of her is a baby sling holding a blonde, curly headed child, so still that she almost looks like a doll. She jerks once, proving otherwise.
The young boy she is trying to urge along is laden with a back pack, and drags an impossibly large suitcase for one so small. There in the crosswalk he stopped to reposition a blanket that had fallen from the top of his load. Succeeding, he then grabs the handle and starts pulling again. The enormity of their challenge brings me to a momentarily bewildered halt. Then I run.
I make it to the corner the same time they do. What do you say? I look at her face and ask, "Can I help you?" Crystal blue eyes look back at me from a face so full of weariness I can hardly bear it. And there is something more -- a haunted, cold, hard edginess.
"No. I don't need help," she says bluntly from a mouth of several broken teeth.
I can't just walk away. "Where are you going? Can I help you get there?"
"I'm going to the shelter," she says determinedly, her one-wheeled suitcase scraping the ground as she passes me, heading to the nearby train station. The shelter is just two stops away, so she is close to her destination. Her son passes me, dragging his case, his skinny shoulders bent under his load. I look at him. He stares back and mumbles something incoherent, more to himself than to me.
My mind races, trying to figure out how to help someone who appears to need it so much, but stubbornly refuses it. I have a few dollars in my pocket, but that seems ridiculous compared to the vastness of their need. What I really want is to know her story: where she came from; what has happened; why she and her children are staggering through the city laden with their world's belongings like this, headed to the shelter; and how she made it this far. My desire to know isn't borne of a morbid curiosity. If I know, then maybe I can help. Perhaps there is something more I can do than uselessly stand there, hands at my sides, watching extreme need pass me by while I try to figure out what to do.
And then I learn.
An ordinary looking fellow, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, stands up from the station bench and walks to her. She flinches as he draws near, but he carefully bends down and gently lifts the handle of the one-wheeled suitcase from her hand. In a similar way he lifts the handle of the other suitcase from the young boy's hand.
"You won't be able to get on the train by yourself," he says simply.
She stares at him. He smiles back. On cue, the train draws up to the station. He is right.
It takes both of them to lift that unwieldy stroller onto the train. He lifts both suitcases on while she and the young boy struggle up the steep steps with their other burdens. He climbs on too, I suspect to help her disembark when she reaches her destination.
The doors close. They are gone.
So that's it. Sometimes I don't need to know all the details, nor do I need permission. Like the man in the T-shirt, I need enough insight and love to move beyond a desire to help and just give it so gently that even someone with her back to the wall won't say No.
I hope I live long enough to learn all these lessons.
You can contact D. Louise Brown at email@example.com.