Thursday, January 14, 2010

Liz's Sister, Part II

A wonderful woman, Angela Jackson, comes to YANA sometimes with her coworkers from People's Community Health Center to talk about AIDS and related health concerns. We had a moderate crowd of listeners, including a few women I'd never met before, and I sat in the back, enjoying another of Angela's smoothly-run lectures and discussions. Shortly into her presentation today, though, a tiny, strange looking woman entered the room. When I got my first, partial view of her, I thought I was looking at Liz, though when she turned to look in my direction, she looked quite different. I wondered why I thought of Liz at all.

The strange little woman sat up front near Angela, talking, interrupting, almost trembling with freakish, random, small waves of agitation. At one point, she got in some cross talk with another client and then said she apologized. Immediately, she said she apologized again. In about another half second she said again that she apologized, this time sticking her face forward and grimacing until it looked like the exoskeleton of an insect.

At one point Angela asked if anyone knew how Hepatitis A was spread. The strange woman said it was from using the bathroom and not washing your hands. She said that's how her dad got it since he had never used drugs. This particular revelation seemed to leave her momentarily relaxed and amused, but as Angela followed up on the spread of Hep. A through feces, the little woman's haggard face continued its rotating display of tics and sags.

At the end of the talk, the little woman made her way to me, said, "I'm Liz's sister! She's in the hospital, and I'm so worried." Then she fell into my arms, making crying noises without actual tears. Samantha was, indeed, a real person, and, at long last, I had met her.

There isn't too much to tell at this point. I took her back to talk to Sid and Angela, and Samantha immediately began interrupting again, explaining that she had brain damage. Soon Angela needed to talk to Samantha alone about some health questions. The good people from Community Health Center agreed to follow up with Liz's hospitalization, and I had to get back to the larger group. It seemed to me, though, that if you grew up loving Samantha, you would have to keep on loving her. She seemed so obviously brain damaged, so incapable of being anyone other than who she was, so far beyond any rational criticism or rebuke.

To my mind, one of the worst things you can say about anyone is that he or she can never be expected to do anything differently or better. It's condescending. It's saying the person is hopeless, saying she's doomed, and I have learned long ago that those poor, helpless people can prove you wrong every time. Probably, I tell myself, there's a lot more to Samantha than I've seen in this one little meeting. But, still, my God. It's actually disorientating to think that Liz must be the healthy one in the relationship.

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