"Ma'am? There a lady over at the table there, I think she needs help."
I wouldn't have noticed her. We had close to two hundred residents in that shelter and when dinner was delivered, most of them passed through the serving line and into the dining area.
She was elderly. Late 70's, early 80's, I guessed. Her hair was white and carefully curled, and she was wearing an old fashioned broach on her green sweater. She sat in front of a half eaten meal, quietly sobbing.
I sat next to her and asked if I could help.
"I'm sorry. I don't mean to make a fuss."
"Can you tell me what's wrong?"
"I don't like it here. I want to go home."
Her name was Jackie and she was alone. A widow with no children. She'd been evacuated to one shelter before Sandy hit, then transferred to this one. She wasn't quite sure where she was, the neighborhood was unfamiliar, and she didn't know anyone here.
At first I thought she was "confused" (a polite term for early dementia) but as we talked I realized she was simply overwhelmed. She did fine in her own well-ordered world. She had a nice apartment and she took the bus to church or to go shopping. But here, in this over-sized room full of cots and strangers, she didn't know what to do.
She gave me her home address and I asked one of the local volunteers where it was. One of the areas hardest hit. I didn't have the heart to tell her. She said there was a cousin who came by and helped her sometimes but she hadn't been able to reach him.
I did what I could. I asked her if she'd talked to the FEMA people yet? She didn't know she was supposed to. All those announcements had made no sense to her. A local social worker came through and I made her aware of Jackie, but the next day someone different came. I made a point of talking with Jackie everyday, making sure she understood what agencies were there and what paperwork she needed to fill out to get help.
Our shelter was getting smaller. We had a mixture of evacuees and those who were simply without power, and as the power was restored our population dwindled. Soon this shelter would be closed and merged into another. Who would look out for Jackie?
Then she was gone. I'd been out delivering hot meals in one of the neighborhoods that was still in darkness and when I came back, her cot was turned on its side, signalling she'd checked out. I asked another volunteer what had happened.
"Oh, she finally reached her cousin. He came and picked her up."
I wish I'd had a chance to say goodbye.
Quote of the Day: It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little - do what you can. ~Sydney Smith