I was driving down my street when I spotted her strolling, shakily, down the sidewalk: A strange, old woman with a walking cane, dressed in a long, strapless, black velour dress; metallic gold, high-heeled shoes; straw hat and a beaded necklace. She carried white, plastic grocery bag in her left hand, but I was certain she hadn’t just come from the store, because that’s a two-mile jaunt.
I pulled into my garage as she was nearing my house, her heels and her cane click-clacking in an odd sort of rhythm. It was the dress, though, that led me to believe something wasn’t quite right with her. It was Saturday afternoon and the temp was in the mid-80s; the season for velour was still three months out.
Right before she reached my driveway, she crossed the street and headed to a neighbor’s about three doors down. She walked up their driveway, and I lost sight of her behind the bushes. I heard some voices and figured they knew who she was. Wrong. She was soon click-clacking through the cul-de-sac to another house.
Weird. I went inside to put my purse down, grabbed the phone and headed out to retrieve the mail. There this old woman was again, right next door. Looked like she was trying to explain something to one of the teen boys, but he wasn’t even making eye contact. Soon he shook his head no, and she started to leave.
I’d seen enough. “Lady, are you lost?”
Her name, she said, was Doris, and she’d run into an old friend last week at the drugstore. The friend said she lived here in my subdivision, but Doris forgot to get her address. So, she was out trying to find which house was hers.
Doris had no teeth. Her clouded eyes kept moving to the right and the left as she spoke, as if she were trying to retrieve some memories. Right then, my daughter pulled up and parked in the driveway. I asked Doris if there was someone I could call because she shouldn’t be walking around lost in the hot sun (in that dress and in those heels). She said there wasn’t anyone. I asked where she lived. She said she lived in a group home not very far from here.
I asked Doris to sit in the car and offered her a drink. She said she wasn’t thirsty. My daughter, God bless her, didn’t miss a beat. She understood we had a bit of a situation, and insisted on staying in the car with Doris while I moved out of earshot.
The 911 dispatcher said they’d send someone right away. Twenty minutes later, Sky and I were still outside keeping Doris company. She said she had two children, one who graduated from high school last year. (High school? Last year?) Doris also said she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986 when she was 32. I told her my sister has MS while I was doing the math in my head: That meant Doris was maybe 56 years old. I’d had her pegged for at least 70.
For 17 years, she said, she could neither walk nor speak, just sat in a wheelchair, her hands shaking, unable to hold up her head. Then, she had brain surgery, and could walk and talk after that.
She talked, testified and praised, tears coming to her eyes. She talked about the various homes she’d been in, and that she didn’t like cops. One daughter sounded fairly successful. I wondered why Doris wasn’t living with her.
I was running out of topics, so Doris said she’d just walk back, saying it wasn’t far. She named the street. It was the next street over. I told Doris I’d drive her home.
Except it wasn’t the next street over. It was several streets away, but still in my subdivision. Doris pointed out a blue house with the wheelchair ramp. I pulled up, and started to get out. Doris asked that I not come to the door with her, because she’d get into trouble.
The cop showed up shortly after I pulled back into my garage. He apologized. I told him I understood, because it wasn’t a life-or-death situation. I then asked him to look in on Doris, make sure she didn’t get into trouble. I was certain she had, but was more concerned about her again wandering around the neighborhood, knocking on the doors of strangers.
One other thing: Doris told me that before her surgery, she weighed more than 200 pounds. I didn’t ask why she brought up weight. I can only guess, and it certainly doesn’t matter.
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. ~ Dalai Lama
Leslie J. Ansley is an award-winning journalist and entrepreneur who blogs daily for TheRoot. She lives in Raleigh, NC.