Photographs by Mother Jones, RN

A bag lady is talking to herself as she sits on a park bench. She hears and sees things that you and I don’t hear or see. She looks strange and tattered as people rush by her, barely noticing her existence. A Chicago policeman pulls his car over to the curb. It is ten degrees below zero outside, and she willingly gets into his car when he asks her if she wants to get out of the cold. She doesn’t speak. The voices are telling her to stay quiet, and she complies with their commands. She is brought to the hospital, and I am her nurse. Strangely, she reminds me of an abandoned house. Like the dilapidated Victorian houses that line the streets where she lives, the shopkeepers and other residents of her neighborhood view her as an eyesore, but if you look closely, you will see her beauty and strength. Once gracious and handsome, her frame is now weathered and old, and yet, even after many years of neglect and adversity, she is still standing on a strong foundation. She has not crumbled away.

She sat and stared at me as I tried unlocking the secrets of her life. Trying to get inside of her head was like trying to crack open a door that was bolted shut. She wouldn’t let me in. I had no idea what the voices were telling her, or what wisdom she had learned out on the streets. I thought that perhaps she was refusing her medications because she didn’t want the voices to go away. The voices may have been her only friends. I knew she had a history, and maybe a family, but now all of that was lost in time.

She followed me closely as I made my rounds on the unit. Her dark brown eyes tracked my every movement. Perhaps I reminded her of someone, a daughter, a sister, or a friend she once knew. She also liked sitting in the unit’s kitchenette. I wondered if she had enjoyed cooking at one time, and that by sitting there, she was transported back to a happier time. Sometimes she responded to the voices by calling out names. “I said stop that, Hank. Sarah, come here! ” Once I thought I heard her calling her children to come into the house for supper. One morning she came to me and pointed to the unit door. The weather was starting to warm up and she wanted to leave the hospital. The doctor wrote a discharge order, and the social worker gave her a token for the bus. I gave her my sack lunch. She smiled and patted me on the cheek before returning to the streets. I’ve seen so many other bag ladies throughout the years, and every time I look at them, I see another abandoned house with a story waiting to be told.