Andrea* was one of the most focused people I have ever known. From the first time we met at the Women’s Center at St. Francis House in Boston (she kindly participated in a five year project following the lives of women who have struggled with homelessness or incarceration) she clearly articulated her goals in life: She wanted an apartment of her own and she wanted to work in order to “keep busy.”
Andrea never liked lazing about, but the unfortunate combination of chronic heart disease, an employment landscape not suited to people with any sorts of disabilities, and dependence on social service bureaucracies that lacked the resources and the flexibility to help her find a long-term job placement kept her stuck in a cycle of short, dead-end, job training programs. “I have to stay focused,” she told me. “I’m forty-six. I don’t have time for [messing around] anymore. When you are sixteen or seventeen, bee-bopping around – that’s fun. But not at forty-six.”
Andrea was born in Mobile, Alabama, and moved to Massachusetts as a child. Raised by loving grandparents, she attended a school for kids with developmental disabilities. Andrea loved that school. One of the first times we met she told me that, “I wish I was back there now.” Looking back, I think she was longing for the sense of community and of having a place to go every day. Many times during the first years of our acquaintance she reminded me that her mother and grandparents had died and now she was alone. “I had four funerals in a row,” Andrea reiterated.
Andrea never seemed depressed, but she often felt sad or frustrated. “That is because my housing situation is messing with me. I don’t feel like myself. I’m lonely, discouraged. I sit down and cry and I see other people here [at the homeless shelter] get to leave and go home or go to different programs and I say ‘when am I going?’ I have nowhere to go. I pray to the Lord everyday to help me.” One time I asked her whether God gives her what she asks for. “He does, but on His timetable, not mine. But if I ask politely then I will get it, ‘ask and ye shall receive.’” I also remember her asking me to pass her concerns along to Mayor Menino. She was sure if he could hear her problems he would help her get housing!
Over the eight years that I knew her, Andrea completed numerous job training programs. Typically, these consisted of her being sent to work as a dishwasher or chambermaid for a few months, until the “training” ended. Then, after a waiting period, her social worker would send her to another training program. For the most part, Andrea saw these trainings for what they were: boring, somewhat exploitive, dead ends. But I recall one program that she loved. She worked for a few months in the cafeteria of a school for disabled children. She told me how much she liked going to work each day where people knew her and said good morning to her, and she liked asking the kids what they want to eat and serving them. “I joke around with the kids and they joke around with me.” Like her other job training programs, this one did not lead to a “real” job. Still, for the months the job lasted she felt “lucky to have this job. I’m not bored.”
One of my favorite memories of Andrea came early in our acquaintance. Though she never was a drug user, she had been sentenced to drug court because someone staying in her apartment was arrested for selling drugs. The drug court protocol involved regular attendance as well as documentation of participation in Narcotics or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. At drug court graduation each member of her drug court class was asked to stand up and say a few words. One by one, the others thanked the judge, parole officers, counselors, AA, family members and God for helping them in their recovery. Andrea, going last, thanked herself “for making it through this court.”
A few years ago Andrea finally moved into a studio apartment of her own. Still, she kept her eye on the prize – she wanted a “real” apartment, a one bedroom so that she could invite friends to sit in her living room. But in the meantime she loved being able to watch television in her own space. Andrea was an avid exerciser and loved working out with exercise programs on television. She also loved to make up her own exercises, and often urged me to exercise more (she was quite right about that!) Back when she was in school she was quite an athlete: She even ran relays and hurdles in a local Paralympics. Up to the weeks before her death, Andrea continued to take great care styling her own hair and manicuring her nails. My own lackluster grooming was a frequent source of amusement to her!
As her health deteriorated, Andrea began to spend lengthy stints in the hospital and in nursing homes. I remember that one of the last times I visited her in the hospital she told me how much she liked being there: “They take good care of me. The nurse even said that if I’m bored I can come and sit by the nurses’ station.” Andrea explained that she loves the food: “I can ask for whatever I want in my salad!” And while she rarely had a visitor, “the woman in the next bed told me that when I smiles it lights up the whole floor.”
A few months ago when I called her she told me that she was in a nursing home. “I hate to tell you, Susan, but my heart and lungs are not doing so well, so they brought me here. There’s nothing they can do for me at the other hospital. But I’m fine – I’m holding my own. I can still tell jokes and whatnot.” A few weeks later she was sent back to her apartment. “No more hospitals. They can’t do anything for me. But I’m all right, Susan.” That was the last time we spoke.
Of all of the women who participated in our research project, Andrea was the most consistent about calling and staying in touch. Despite struggles with literacy and the lack of secure housing, she never lost my phone number or forgot to make the monthly call to arrange a time to meet. Still, I don’t think I ever really got to know her. Andrea craved social relationships yet was an intensely private person. To this day I do not know whether she saw me solely as a hoop she needed to jump through in order to get the T (mass transit) passes we distributed to participants in our study, or whether she actually liked having the opportunity to chat with someone who really wanted to listen to her. I don’t know why it bothers me so much not to know, but it does.
Andrea left behind a brother, a son, several nurses who gave her excellent care over the years, and a few close friends. I do not know if she counted me among those friends, but I do know that I will never forget her.
*”Andrea” is a pseudonym. In consultation with the Institutional Review Board at Suffolk University, I maintain the confidentiality of study participants who have died.
Click here for more about Andrea and the other women of Can’t Catch a Break. Also see “Eulogy for Junie” “Eulogy for Nicole” “Orange Frosted Hostess Cupcakes (Eulogy of Linda)” “Eulogy for Elizabeth”