A widow endangers her own life while providing help to those who are down and out.
A towering figure stands in a dark crumbling doorway. Martha's heart is racing and her lungs feel like they are bursting. With her eyes full of blood, she can't make out his features. Raising her arm, causing searing pain, she wipes her eyes with the sleeve of her jacket.
She can hear a very pregnant young Dusty crying hysterically.
Martha takes a chance and cries out.
"Magic, is that you?"
She feels for the gun in her pocket. Someone musta took it.
It was him! A criminal that would do anything for her. Her heart rate slowed down.
"Get help now! My phone is here but I can't see!"
"What happened? You bleeding like someone gonna waste ya. Whose laying there?"
Magic dug through her coat for the cell phone and dialed 911.
"Is that Dusty? She having that baby?"
Martha feels like she is fading from the scene. Magic is talking to someone about their location saying Dusty is pregnant and "dying?"
"Where ya bleeding from? Ms. Martha? Can ya hear me?"
Her head spinning; she knew someone had hit her from behind but was more worried about Dusty's wounds. Martha knew Dusty had been struck in her belly, big with baby, now bleeding vaginally. She was about seven months along.
Martha was here because some guy had told her Dusty was in trouble.
What had she been thinking?
Imagine an old woman in a cavernous warehouse where garbage, rats and dirty needles litter the floor. Stupid! She should have called for help to begin with.
Martha: Journey from Wife to Widow to Volunteer
Martha's life could have been defined as a suburban homemaker whose chicks had left home. She and her husband, Bobby, were looking forward to grandchildren and retirement. He had five more years to work as a West Coast Sales Manager for a major computer company. He had been with them thirty years.
The sharp buzzer of the alarm went off, jolting Martha. She reached back to shake Bobby's arm. It was ice cold, startling her. She got up on her elbow and looked at him. He was gray-blue; a body that had been without oxygen too long. She had worked as an Emergency Medical Technician years ago. At this point, she was in that mode. She even called the Coroner instead of 911.
"Excuse me, Mam. Did you say you are his wife?"
"Yes, he's been dead for hours. All you have to do is look at him."
"How did he die?"
"I don't know. He was healthy, ran every day, cholesterol was fine, no medical problems. That's why I called you."
"Is someone else there?"
"No, why? It's six in the morning. Our children are grown. It isn't a murder. Looks like death from natural causes; no blood anywhere, maybe a heart attack, stroke or aneurysm. I should tell you I was an EMT."
"Look, lady, we are on our way. We are going to call an ambulance though, okay? Don't you want to call a neighbor, relative or friend to help you?"
Martha thought she was handling things well. When she got off the phone, her knees collapsed. When the ambulance got there, she was suffering from the shock of reality that her husband was dead.
According to the Medical Examiner, Bobby had died of a massive heart attack about midnight so he was a corpse for six hours before Martha woke up.
That was the last time Martha held it together for quite awhile. The Social worker called her neighbor and best friend, Rose Owena to come to the hospital to pick her up. Rose and her husband, Edwin, had played cards and bowled with them so they were in shock also. They were all in their early sixties and Bobby could run circles around any of them.
Martha had three children from her first marriage. They cooperated and made sure all the phone calls and service arrangements were made. They called her frequently at first and then less so. Martha always made sure she sounded like she had it all together. After all, they had their own lives.
Each morning at seven o'clock, Martha opened the bedroom curtains. The sun was at war with her eyes. She squeezed them shut, just another day.
'Where was the peace she ached for, why couldn't she get it right?'
She had tried to fast and pray, thinking that was the answer. She bought self-help books and stood in front of a mirror saying affirmations.
'I love you, you are worth happiness'.
He had been gone over a year now. It was true when they say the heart is where love lives. Hers was broken and she was afraid it would never heal. Bobby had been her best friend. He had accepted her children as his own. They didn't have to be making love or even getting along. When she needed comfort, a place to lay her cares, a sounding board, that warm body curled around hers each night. Now he wasn't there.
Bobby had left her well off. She had family, friends, insurance money, a lovely home and was fairly healthy.
She joined a widows support group and the women spent their time reliving memories. Eventually they started smiling because they were moving forward. She left the group when she had been there longer than the current leader.
She remembered being pregnant with her sons. She would rub her belly as the babies swam. Carrying life was a rich reward. Those memories triggered something in her. She couldn't have more children but that maternal instinct was still there and she had plenty of love left to give. It was time to change, stop feeling sorry for herself.
The next morning she dressed warmly, walked through the fresh fallen snow. She let the sun bathe her. Every day we all make a choice to love or be loved. Surely someone needed her love.
When had she last appreciated the beauty around her? At the hospital, she filled out volunteer forms. She followed the woman in pink to the nursery.
The nursery volunteer handed her a warm bundle. Martha hugged him to her chest, heart to heart.
He had beautiful soft chocolate skin with brown eyes that twinkled. His little body jerked constantly from the drugs his Mom had used to fill her emptiness. Martha's tears christened that sweet head and her heart lifted.
Martha looked up at the volunteer, "What happened to his mother?"
The woman shook her head, "All we know is her bed was empty when the nurse made rounds. We think she needed a fix. You know the mothers can leave the babies here and they won't be prosecuted. It really is for the best."
She worked in the nursery area for six months. Most of the normal deliveries kept their babies in the room with them unless they wanted to sleep undisturbed or they had a fever.
Martha would lovingly feed a healthy infant but her heart was touched by the babies born addicted.
She worked there long enough to see how she could make a difference in this world. Her next stop was to go to a detox clinic and sit in on Al-Anon meetings. She also spoke to one of the therapists who gave her books about Addiction so she could learn as much as she could. Finally she knew the streets would be the true test.
A New Way of Life
This wasn't a Starbucks neighborhood. It was a frightening place to most people that didn't have business here. The regulars knew the two older women were here to help. Joan had gone to the one convenience store to get some coffee. The morning was brisk, Martha could feel the chill deep in her arthritic joints. Usually one of the women would bring a thermos but it had been a busy morning.
Filthy tenements that used to be rental apartments had become shooting galleries where a group of drug users would use together. They were frightening places with old mattresses that had urine, semen, blood and vomit on them. It was a breeding ground for disease. In spite of this most addicts feel it is safer to use together. If someone overdosed, there would be someone alert enough to save the person with nasal Naloxene or call 911.
“Magic" stopped by their little "free supply hut". He wore his usual dirty leather pants, a turquoise silk shirt and fringed vest. He was at least six feet, once a promising athlete but now just skin over bones weighing possibly one hundred and fifty. He had a large dark KS (Kaposi's Sarcoma) lesion on his forehead. He had been HIV positive for a few years and now had AIDS. He was a real sweetheart and watched over the women. The cops also rode by but kept their distance because they knew their presence would shut the operation down.
"How are you doin,' pretty lady?"
"Just great, Magic, how are you feeling?"
"Hangin' in there, ya know."
"You need some help, Magic?"
"Just some safe stuff."
"OK." Martha had learned not to push. She filled a bag with some of everything.
"You be careful out there. Take care of you."
Martha dug three dollars out of her pocket and handed it over.
Joan touched her arm. She had seen the exchange.
"One, I shouldn't have left you alone. That's on me. Two, never, never give money. It goes in the vein. If you gotta do it, buy the food. If you start, they'll expect it. Three, don't let anyone know you carry money."
"I just want to help."
"I know. But, honey, you have never been hungry for drugs."
"You mean food."
"No, I mean drugs. Food doesn't mean anything. Addicts have been known to kill family members for drugs. I am serious."
Joan and Martha were at the corner of Fifty-fourth and Forest Ave. In this area of town you were either buying or selling. Joan was a retired RN and Martha's mentor. Martha was proving to be a quick study. She had the advantage of being an EMT. Once her accreditations were current, she could teach basic lifesaving skills with American Heart Association Basic Life support.
They were fortunate to have some shelter because a construction company had given them a small shed. It wasn't safe with only plywood siding but they wanted to be where people could see them. They usually sat outside unless the weather was terrible. The other problem with the shed was it could easily be broken into. They didn't leave anything there.
The cops that came through knew what was going on whether the PTA approved or not. After all addicts weren't quitting and prostitution or free sex was happening all around. The two women were on a mission in Satan's playground.
Martha usually sat on a folding chair with either a paperback or textbook. She was studying for her Masters in Social Work. Beside her was a box of condoms. They had various names, colors, ribbing, lubricants and were free. She had even gotten the companies to give them to her for free.
There was a price to pay if one wanted her free wares. You had to take pamphlets and listen to a short and informative lecture.
"I'm Martha and I just want to help. You don't have to tell me your name. Just promise me you will use these, leave some room at the top or it might break, doesn't matter how big you are. You even need to use them if you are going down on somebody. That way you can be safe and not swallow the stuff, you know?"
"These will protect you from HIV, STD's and pregnancy. Just because HIV is treatable, it still means many pills every day with some bad side effects to stay healthy. You never feel good and must always tell your sexual partners. Then if you become positive for AIDS, it can mean an early death. There is still not a cure. You don't want to have anal sex ever again. It has become too dangerous. If you do, use at least one condom. You can ask me about anything. Drugs, sex, AIDS, gay sex, if I don't know the answer I will find it out."
Then there was the box with individually wrapped insulin needles. That one they kept under lock and key for those who listened and answered the questions. They also kept gloves and airways available. You just never knew what people might be talked into keeping around to save a life. Most were homeless unfortunately. They were trying to get Narcan to reverse the effects of opoids just like what was used in the ER and many people had at home now that were on certain drugs. There was a brand that had a dose ready that could be given through the nose.
"The needles are for IV drug use. You need to use a clean needle every time because that is how HIV and hepatitis C is spread. Always remember you never know what the drug is being mixed with. This time might be the last time. I am not a preacher, I care. You will never be able to get that high again, not like the first time. You will want to use a higher dose and more often. You are just chasing the dragon for a lot of money. When you start mixing it with other drugs to get a better high your chance of death just increases. This is a lifestyle that ends in death if you stay on it. It also usually means jail, broken relationships and sometimes, another persons' harm or death. You can get clean too, just let me know when you are ready. I know people. It will be the start of a new wonderful life, I promise. That's the end of my lecture!"
There were Priests, neighborhood clinic volunteers and even undercover cops that addicts and streetwalkers got to know. It sure wasn't your average neighborhood but it was one of a kind. If you had a seizure, most of the time someone knew you. You might have a street name like "Libra" but you were known. No one turned anyone in.
Business was picking up as snowflakes swirled in the air. The snow would cover up the trash baptizing this area where fairytales didn't come true. Occasionally one of the girls that turned tricks mentioned the older movie "Pretty Woman". Julia Roberts (as a hooker) and Richard Gere (a wealthy businessman) had fallen in Hollywood love making an impossible magic. The girls would joke about it but it was a laugh echoed with tears. Martha gave the movie credit for the hooker showing condoms but it was a fairy tale.
The two older women alternated between talking about their own families and the people that had become their family.
Dusty came by. She was pregnant, about fifteen and was still turning tricks. Dusty's eyes were a deep blue, like the sea. She had long dirty blonde hair with innocent plastic bow clips to hold it back on the sides. They clashed with the outfit that showed her young body off, advertising all she had in the world.
She picked up condoms and like a kid, the colors and packages thrilled her. Perhaps they were like Christmas presents. At Dusty's age, Martha remembered sitting under the sparkling tree looking at tags on presents. She had a crush on The Beatles and had gotten a promise ring from Johnny Gotham. Some people never have the kind of loving home and now some walk away from it due to the lure of heroin, meth, fentanyl or one of the many other drugs out there. Most were known by street names and they would fill a small dictionary.
The first time Martha met Dusty, she shyly smiled,
"Made a mistake riding without a saddle. Now I'm goin' to have a kid ... don't even have a job."
She was smiling now, "Guess what! I took the HIV test.... it's negative!"
"That's great!" Martha was so happy for Dusty and the baby.
They had been after her to get an HIV test since she announced her pregnancy.
Dusty wasn't ready to stop using. You learned to be grateful for whatever positive behavior was demonstrated. She was going to the clinic, eating at the shelter, using clean needles and had tried Methadone. She didn't like it. They wanted her to go to the Recovery Clinic but that didn't work out. They have to make money so they can use. Making money is selling drugs or sleeping with guys. So you try to make it safe and not preach.
Soon it would be dark, too dangerous to stay out. It was just when their supplies were needed the most. They had to stick to the rules. They also decided if one of the two ended up hurt, became sick or even died, business would have to move but continue with someone else. Like a couple of young girls in a club, they cut their pinkies and put them together.
Business continued as usual with new customers which the two women chalked up as positive. Martha found herself going home with a good kind of tired so she slept well.
A new problem presented itself from the local government. The new Mayor felt strongly that the women were in danger engaging in this business. He and the Police Chief decided they didn't have enough staff to watch over them so they had thirty days to shut their business down. They made the statement that Planned Parenthood, Rehabs and the Emergency Rooms were the places these "drug addicts" needed to go.
But that didn't solve the problem with clean needles, no one would do that for their clients. They knew that service alone stopped the spread of HIV and other diseases. So they decided to go underground. They even had their own security, hiring Magic and one of his buddies to watch over them.
Martha and Joan had just packed everything up.
Joan's cell phone went off. She looked upset. "Baby, are you sure you are okay? Look, I will be there just when I can."
"Martha, I need to take off now. Susan says she's in labor....two months early!"
"Hon, I am sure it 'll be okay. This is your daughter ... she needs you. Go on...let me know."
"But I don't want to leave you alone."
"I have my cell..Magic is usually close by."
So Joan took off and Martha gathered everything up. She had it all in the car and was about to climb in.
"Lady, hey...... you know Dusty right?"
The guy was small but wiry, dressed in filthy clothes. He reached for her car door.
It was dusk. Shadows lurk around boarded up warehouses with shattered windows and overflowing bins of rotting garbage.
The area appears like a stark black and white horror movie.
"I don't know you," Martha said. She was pulling on her car door.
"But ya know Dusty? Her ole man lookin for her. He's mean and packin. Says that baby ain't his and he goin teach her a lesson......called her 'lyin bitch'!"
"What can I do? I'll call the cops?"
"Yeh, lady, you dumber than dirt. He's goin kill her!"
"I don't know where she is." Martha was sweating and had to urinate.
"Ya know, I don't care but if you don't find her, she be one dead ho!'"
She couldn't call the cops. Dusty was probably staying with her friend Lily, another prostitute. Should she stop there?
Then Martha made a decision that would change her life.
She drove by the building where Dusty used to shoot up. She saw the coat that she had brought Dusty from her closet. It was covered with blood.
Martha thought about those babies in the nursery. Then she thought about her own life and how blessed she had been. She parked the car and opened the glove compartment removing the gun. She put it in her pocket. Her cell phone and rosary were in the other pocket. It was so cold yet her armpits were sweating.
Martha heard someone crying. She moved toward the sound through garbage as the stench of human waste was making her sick.
At the end of the hallway Dusty lay shivering and making noises like a wounded animal.
Martha moved toward her and then she felt pain in the back of her head. She reached to touch the area and it was sticky. Then it was hard to see. There was blood in her eyes.
Then she saw a tall angel. She knew he would be there when she needed him.
She reached out for him.
Martha was trying to talk but she couldn't hear the words.
"Help me, Magic. Lay Dusty down so I can check her out. "
Magic seemed to know what she had said. He laid Martha's coat out and carefully put Dusty on it. She wasn't crying now.
The siren was coming closer.
Magic was moving away from her. There was nothing he hated worse than the sight of cops.
"You be fine, Ms. I can''t hang ya know, I'll catch you later!"
She understood and didn't question him. What a change her life had taken.
She could feel herself fading away and at first it was dark. Then the curtains parted and the golden sun was peeking through. Bobby was smiling with his hand stretched out for hers. It was a promise that took the pain away.
By Kathie Stehr