Lives we didn’t plan to have

A throwback post. This week I was packing a suitcase, which always makes me think of a woman I knew and her backpack.

. . . . .

Here are some categories of people I once thought of as having always existed in some alternate world from mine:

Parents.
Cancer patients.
Old people.
Homeless people.

I was kind of shocked when I was pregnant that I didn’t just magically have time in my schedule for things like prenatal yoga and lots of medical appointments. I knew these were the kinds of things pregnant people did, but I did not enjoy the transition from non-pregnant person’s schedule to a pregnant person’s schedule. Somehow it hadn’t really clicked with me that I would have to actually drop things from my schedule in order to have a pregnant person’s schedule.

Having seen people develop serious illness likewise made me realize that it’s a part- to full-time job. The time it takes to wait on hold with the insurance company, go to 9 million appointments, to not be able to work today — that was not time that was just available before. That time used to be filled with hobbies, dates, work, projects. Those things had to be swept aside.

I still catch myself thinking this way about old people. They are like a separate life form, one with back pain and segmented pillboxes. The rational part of me understands I may one day become this life form, but I still catch myself thinking they must have been doing it wrong and surely it won’t be like this for me.

. . . . .

“Homeless people” are perhaps the most extreme of this category. Until I became a social worker, this category contained only people I did not know and never planned to know.

At the jail, one young woman described her backpack routine. When she was not in jail she was homeless, and all her belongings were carried in her backpack. She packed it anew every morning, folding every item before it went back in. Her life might have fallen apart in every other way, but her socks would never be unfolded. A crack erupted in my sense of what made “regular people” and “homeless people” different.

Another client, a self-described germophobe, told me about his process for settling down for the night when he was on the outside: he’d find a porch with an electrical outlet. He’d get out his bottle of bleach or ammonia, sanitize the porch, then plug in his electric blanket and make the best of a cold night. He refused to stay in shelters because of the stench of other residents. “I may be homeless,” he hissed, “but my feet don’t stink.”

. . . . .

Those categories? It’s a person like you in there. They weren’t always like this. This wasn’t their plan.

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