A circle of helping

    Whenever I read stories about people helping out others who have fallen on hard times, I am heartened. Whether it is the simple act of two people handing out bag lunches to homeless people in a park, or a full-scale citywide organizational effort to help others, these acts give comfort to those of us whose own families have had to rely upon the kindness of strangers.

    If you are part of a family that has never been affected by a family member who has been addicted to drugs or alcohol or had other severe psychological problems, then you should count yourself lucky. There are a lot of phone calls you don’t want to get, and one of them is your 14-year-old niece calling to tell you that her mom (your sister) is being evicted right that minute, and they have no money and nowhere to go. Also, your sister has no car and no job and no husband and no prospects, and the phone card is on its last minutes.

    This, fortunately, is a situation that can be fixed with a call and a credit card number to a local motel. An e-mail transfer of cash to their local Western Union, and you have temporarily kept them afloat. This is not a permanent solution for anyone.

    The problem in having a family member with addiction issues and destructive behavior problems is that you will do anything to “fix” them and it will never be enough. You will love them until your heart is wrung out, you will be a cheerleader for their efforts, you will listen and love them even more, and it will never be enough. That is where the kindness of strangers comes in.

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    Fast forward several years from the eviction incident (and there were many more of those to come). No one has heard from my sister for several weeks — one thing we have made her promise to do is e-mail one of us, or use one of the phone cards we regularly send her. Miraculously, my sister’s three children are young adults now and living on their own. It turns out that with her myriad problems, my sister was really good at the one thing that mattered the most — being a mother.

    Now with her alone and taking the bus from one homeless shelter or rehab facility to the next, up and down the West Coast, we simply don’t know where my sister is, or if she is even alive — we don’t want to say, in those long pauses over the phone.

    In my last conversation with her, she told me she had just gotten a job at a fast-food restaurant, and was even able to rent a small mobile home. She liked where she was, and things were going well. Then nothing.

    My first kind stranger (I will call her Saint Cindy) worked at the same fast-food place (this took some sleuthing) and knew my sister. She was renting her the mobile home. My sister had not been in to work for a few weeks, citing a painful shoulder injury. Nor would my sister open the door for Cindy when she had stopped by.

    Saint Cindy knew my sister had gone to some AA meetings and gave me the name of a woman (Saint Rhondelle) there. Walking a fine line, due to the anonymity of the group, Saint Rhondelle and Saint Cindy agreed to check on her and call me back. I had extended conversations with both of these kind women, who didn’t know me from the man in the moon.

    The thing is, everyone has always loved my sister and wanted to help her. Of the six girls in our family, she was the most beautiful. She had a flawless Grace Kelly look to her — creamy skin and the famous McDermott blue eyes — and an infectious giggle. Grace Kelly is gone now, but occasionally the giggle still surfaces.

    So, I understood these women when they said, “We’ll round up some other women, and we’ll go check on her.”

    It turns out that there are a lot of Cindys and Rhondelles in the world. I knew this already from volunteer work I had done as a board member for a domestic violence shelter. This volunteer work, raising funds for the shelter, was the only tangible way I could think of to help someone else’s sister. That way, when my sister needed help, wherever she was, someone would be there to help. In a convoluted way, this way of looking at the world makes perfect sense.

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