I was out walking in the front range, a day in early fall, clear. And a woman there and I was there and she and that was all. She waved me down across our paths and I walked over to her and she was shaking.
“I’m having a heart attack, I think,” she said, she said, “I’m having a heart attack.”
But she wasn’t having a heart attack. At least not the sort she meant.
“Let’s sit down here,” I said, and we sat and I watched her for a while and she told me where she had been staying in a group in a tent with a man who seemed to me not so much a man, but a fearful animal prone to fearful violence. And I asked her if she had people somewhere and she said, yes, a daughter and a son, and they had tried to get her to stay with them to take care of her, but she wouldn’t.
And we looked at the grass and the trees together and her breathing got slower and she began to talk about the mountains and the police and the animals and the city and she was shaking less and less. She asked me for a cigarette.
“Are you sure?” I asked, “It would seem like an awful thing to do to a heart in need of medical attention.”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” she said, and I looked and only had one in my pack, so we shared it.
About the end of the smoke another fellow came walking by and seemed he knew this woman a little, just to see her and say hello, and as he came toward us the woman started breathing heavy again and told him she was having a heart attack. She needed to go to the hospital. The man took out his phone and dialed some numbers and asked for help and sat down on the other side next to the woman and told her help was on the way.
“I need to go to the hospital” she kept saying. And she wasn’t having a heart attack.
But I had no doubt that she needed help. That she needed medicine of some sort or other. That she needed care.
The police arrived a little ahead of the ambulance. Two officers stood over this woman, shouting at her like she was deaf. “You don’t need to go to the hospital,” they kept saying. And they smirked at one another. Probably they’ve met her before, I thought. Probably they know her. Probably she does this a lot, she panics in need of help and can think of no other words to say than that she’s having a heart attack and needs to go to the hospital. The other man with us was offering alternatives. Maybe there’s a shelter she can go to instead, she clearly needs help. No, insisted the officers, she needs no help. She’s fine. And refused to speak to me or the other man again on the matter, and continued berating the woman—who needed help. I kept thinking maybe they get this a lot and that’s why they think they know better. Maybe they see this kind of thing all the time and have come to think of it as a nuisance—they might be helping folks willing to be helped. They could take her somewhere but she’d just be out again tomorrow calling ambulances. Must be this is why. But I still couldn’t understand, why speak to her as though she wasn’t a person. Must be it’s part of the job. Any job. Like a restaurant or a bar or an office or whatever. You get used to the rhythms and forget where you are with people and you start to think about what you need to get done before going home and how the person in front of you is just making you do extra work and you stop trying to see what they must be going through or that they’re just trying to take advantage of you.
But the one thing I knew. That it ached to know. Was this woman was in need of help and that she was asking for help, and nobody knew how to help her.