Her name is Angela. She was wearing a black knit cap, a hoodie, jeans and glasses missing one of the side ear hooks so that they were supported only by the other side. The sign in her lap asked for food, clothes or money. Beside her was a cigarette and a pile of pennies that she had clearly been gathering for some time.
I asked her if she smoked as I took out my wallet. It mattered to me. She told me she did, but she was trying to quit. She wanted to quit for her mother, a nurse who was having her own health problems and who was getting sicker from the people smoking around her than those with the cigarettes in between their teeth. She said her mother had pneumonia last year. She thinks it was from exposure to the smoke, said it was like sucking on a cigarette without a filter.
I tell her about my father smoking and then quitting, in hopes that she knows it really can be done by more than one person. She asks if I have any warm clothing or blankets I can offer her. I am carrying a blanket with me, one that I just bought for my sister, one which, with its purchase, was supposed to donate a blanket to a homeless shelter. I decline, telling her that it is a gift. After that, I silently hand her one dollar from my wallet and let her continue.
Most of Angela’s family smokes, but her cousin quit. Now, she said, she is trying to quit. Her grandfather has esophageal cancer and just had nodes removed recently. He’s strong, though. Cancer probably won’t be able to take him away from her. Having had her son in the past year has made her want to quit, too. She is family oriented.
As she speaks, I pray that she doesn’t notice my hands shaking. My blood sugar is low, I can feel it. But, I am the person who stopped. The one who spared a dollar and is willing to listen, and shd knew it. She spoke in one fluid sentence, not risking a pause long enough for me to leave. But I was not going anywhere. I wanted her story, so I waited as she continued.
Angela is worried about her children who are with grandparents while she is out. She worries about her younger sister who she says is one step away from being in Angela’s own situation. She said she feels like she is supposed to be able to protect her younger sister, but she just can’t right now. She kept saying she was worried, that cigarettes terrified her.
I really feel my blood sugar now and silently curse diabetes as I begin to cut the conversation short. She mentioned God at one point, so I ask her if we can pray together. She says yes, and I sit down beside her cross-legged on the sidewalk and ask how she prays. She tells me it is first for others, for their health and safety, and then for herself.
I begin in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We both fold our hands in our laps.
I thank God for the good things, small though they may be compared to all the struggles in life. I thank him for people who will listen to stories and for unlikely people from which we can learn things. Then, I pray for the health of Angela’s family, for her to get to enjoy her children, for cigarettes to disappear from their lives completely. This is when I learned her name. We say “Amen,” and I get up.
“God bless you,” she says to me as I stand. She repeats it.
I tell her to have a good night, and she tells me to do the same. Then, I turn and walk away.
I could have cried as I left her. All I gave her was a dollar and a prayer. I can only hope that it will be enough for now.