How I found my long lost sister in the cold snap
by Madeline Strong Diehl
It's not like I'm crazy. I would have stayed inside like everyone else.
It was the second day after the "polar vortex" hit us. The wind chill was something like forty degrees below zero, and the police were asking people not to go out. But Fourth Avenue Birkenstock had bravely stayed open, even though a huge percentage of its stock is sandals. And my daughter, Amelia, insisted on walking a mile there from our house to work her shift, and she got away before I learned how cold it was. Then my son, Zachary, insisted on walking there, too, to buy sandals--he was leaving in two days to spend a semester studying in Toulouse, France, and had to have them.
So I found myself walking along beside Zach, muttering under my breath that maybe I regretted raising them to be so stoic, with such a strong work ethic, and also trying to forget that Toulouse is vexingly close to the Mediterranean.
Zach headed straight home after making his purchase, but I went to the People's Food Co-op for some groceries. Outside, two men were huddled over cups of joe as always--one a Groundcover News vendor, the other an itinerant political pundit and panhandler. "Oh, we can handle ourselves," they replied when I asked them what they were doing out in this weather.
At the corner of Fourth Avenue and Huron, I found myself suddenly exposed to the full ferocity of the wind. For the first time in my life, I discovered what forty degrees below zero feels like. It didn't hurt my face so much as the bones beneath it. (I found out later this was because the skin on my face was partly frozen.) It felt like someone was punching me hard in the face, repeatedly. I covered my face with my mittened hands and peered through a small opening between them, wishing I had a balaclava. Every time I took a breath, it felt like I was swallowing
a scalding sip of coffee (and I don't even drink coffee!). And I still had twenty more minutes to get to my house.
At Fourth and Washington, I was shocked to see another Groundcover vendor, wearing an inadequate-looking coat and gloves. I walked up to him and said: "Hey! What are you doing out here? Don't you know this weather can kill you!"
"Hey," he said. "I'm working. What about you?"
I didn't feel like telling him I'd been buying sandals for my son, who was going to the Mediterranean, so I got all the money out of my wallet (I only had $3) and bought three papers. "Promise me you'll get to shelter soon," I told him.
"Only if you promise me the same thing," he answered.
I had gotten to know some Groundcover vendors over the years--one woman was writing a book of poetry. One was saving enough money to start a business. I thought about them and wondered if they were safe. I would pass very close to the Delonis Center on my way home, anyway, so I decided to stop by.
I remain haunted by what I found. It was like a dystopia of the future--but the future was now.
The lobby was filled with men waiting to take Breathalyzer tests. During the cold snap the shelter relaxed its rules to let people with blood alcohol levels of up to 0.2 into the night shelter, twice the usual limit. That night, all seventy-five beds in the center were filled, and another sixty-five people slept on mats on another floor that was opened for the emergency.
That day, I asked a shelter worker if they needed help. She quickly listed off a dozen needs, which I posted on my Facebook page as soon as I made it home. Many of my friends offered to help, and I called the shelter and posted regular updates over the next three days. I became obsessed with the idea that I did not want a single homeless person to die in our town. I couldn't stop thinking about them--especially the independent, stubborn ones, who usually refuse to come in out of the cold.
By Thursday, the temperatures were more normal, and they were out on the streets again. I began to understand the source of my obsession when I saw a woman in her fifties sitting in front of the downtown library clutching a backpack as if it held all her earthly belongings--which it probably did. Her eyes had the look of a tourist who has run out of money, lost her passport, and can't get back home again, to where the rest of us live. She looked stranded in time.
It's a look I know well. My older sister Ruth has had it for about forty years, ever since she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and began to lose functioning. Ruth--not her real name--is not homeless, but she has barely escaped that condition at least twenty times in her life, and it's getting worse: she has had to move about ten times in the past three years. Only the repeated intervention of another sister, who lives closer to Ruth, has kept her from falling completely through the safety net.
Seeing the woman in front of the library reminds me that I have not been able to regularly talk or visit with Ruth for about twenty years. I feel a need to fix all her problems--and know I can't. There's a lot of guilt involved, too. I know it's only a matter of luck that I'm living a middle- class life with a husband, family, and career. It's not like I did anything to deserve my good fortune--and Lord knows, she doesn't deserve her difficult life. I know if she had been able to enjoy the same stability that I have, she would not be so sick.
Most people who are homeless do not suffer from a diagnosed mental illness. But people with a diagnosis are more likely to become homeless, because they often need a lot of emotional and practical support to function. That day after the storm, I asked myself: How is it I can spend three days providing support to the homeless people of Ann Arbor, and yet ignore most of my own sister's phone calls?
When I got home, the first thing I did was call Ruth up. She sounded so happy to hear from me. "Madeline!" she said, overjoyed. "Why are you calling?"
"Ruth. I just want to say I love you. I'm so glad you're still alive."
[Originally published in February, 2014.]