To Be or Not To Be There for Another
Her name was Machina (ma-sheen-ah). We didn't know that until after walking with her for forty-five minutes. We didn't know much about her other than she desperately needed help.
As my husband and I made our way down into and around the maze of concrete passages (known as Le Metro in Paris) to catch the next train, we eyed an elderly woman holding two large bags ahead of us. Something wasn't quite right. She seemed a bit unsteady on her feet and those bags swung a bit precariously from her hands. As we got closer to her, she stumbled and she likely would have fallen, had I not caught her arm just in time.
"Excusez-moi, Madame. Puis-je vous-aider?" I asked her, which means in English - "Excuse me, Ma'am. Can I help you?". She laughed and said "Non, non. Merci." as she tried to become more upright. She failed at this. James was immediately by our sides and as I told her in my very limited French that we could help her, that we would be happy to carry her things, James gently took her bags. I think I saw a bit of relief appear on her face. I think I also saw a bit of embarrassment, but she acquiesced.
No longer weighed down by whatever was in her bags, I figured we'd more easily make our way to the train. Not so much. Every few steps, she'd stumble and I would keep her on her feet. I couldn't figure out what was causing her to lose her balance. I looked down at her shoes, but no, two inch sandals normally don't create that much wobbling. Maybe it was just sheer exhaustion from hauling those bags for so long. She was trying to tell me something, but rather than trying to understand her, I was paying more attention to her movements instead of her words. Together, ever so slowly, we made our way to the platform with James and her bags in tow.
There were a few minutes to wait before the next train arrived. She kept asking if I spoke Portuguese, but I kept shaking my head and saying "Juste Anglais et un peu de Francais." She leaned against the wall, shook her head and smiled. And that's when James said, "She's absolutely tanked." When I confirmed James accurate assessment with her, that's when a big ol' grin appeared on my face. So, that's what she was trying to tell me!
"Avez-vous beacoup de verres du vin?" I asked, which was my best French for "Did you have a lot of glasses of wine?" and she nodded her head vigorously. Well, at least now I knew what we were dealing with. We just didn't know at this point who we were helping.
The thing is...it didn't matter what her name was. What mattered was that we were there to be there for her when she most needed it.
During the train ride, she was content to just lean on the window. I noticed there were people noticing her and noticing us. And that's when I got out of my heart for a few moments and went completely into my head making up stories. I wanted to tell everyone we were helping a drunk woman get home with her heavy bags. I wanted to make sure people knew we weren't some crazy American tourists taking advantage of her. I think the woman sitting directly in front of me heard the thoughts going on in my head because when our eyes met, I felt like she really saw me. A little compassion and understanding go a long way to bridge the language gap. I asked her if she spoke English. When she said yes, I'm sure I uttered a huge sigh and the angels watching over everyone on that train clapped enthusiastically.
I first told her what had already transpired and then I asked if she could let the inebriated woman know we were there to help her off the train and would continue to escort her until she arrived safely at home. I watched the two of them converse in French and while I understood the gist of the conversation, most of the words were lost on me. I just wanted her to know she was okay with us. That we would take good care of her. Through her drunken grin, she smiled at me and again, I think I saw a look of relief appear on her face.
James and I walked with her for half a mile through the streets of her neighborhood. She still kept stumbling every few steps and I began to worry we weren't going to make it to her apartment before she either couldn't walk any more or she threw up. Beads of sweat had appeared on her forehead and she was breathing harder. I kept telling her it was okay to walk slowly, but she just kept charging on.
I had utter empathy for her when I thought of the last time I was silly drunk. It wasn't pretty and it was a bit embarrassing. Think about the last time you were wasted in a public place. Once you reached the point of complete intoxication and you tired of whatever party or situation you found yourself in, all you probably wanted to do was get the hell out of there, go home and have a quiet lie-down. I remembered that's what I wanted to do and that's likely the reason she was moving as fast as she could because she knew she didn't have long before she was going down for the night.
James and I were beginning to wonder if she remembered where she lived because it was beginning to feel like we'd been trudging along for quite awhile. Amazingly, she kept in fairly good spirits despite her intoxicated state. Every so often, she would ask me if I spoke Portuguese and I would tell her I still didn't and we'd both laugh. I kept telling her what my name was and asking what hers was and after almost giving up on the question, she pointed to herself and said quietly, "Machina."
Machina. The lovely drunk Portuguese woman who spoke French stole my heart on that walk. She also reminded me we can choose to either be there for another or not. I don't like to imagine how the story could have taken a turn for the worse had we not helped her.
The story doesn't quite end there. We finally arrive at her apartment only for her to discover she doesn't have the keys. She rummages around her large purse and shakes her head. She continues looking as we're standing outside her apartment's building. Another tenant comes out and so in we go. She's not quite in her apartment yet, but getting closer. I ask if I can look through her purse, completely aware that the voice in my head is talking loudly again, wondering what other people think. I find a set of keys, hold them up and say, "Ici, votre cles! (Here, your keys!") and she shakes her head no. Feeling at a loss of what to do, James and I look at each other and I know we're both thinking the same thing - how else can we help Machina at this point?
This is when two more angels appear in the apartment's lobby as young women who speak fairly good English. We relay the tale of the train, the drunkenness and the lost keys and ask if they know how they might be able to help her and us. Over the course of the next half hour, these lovely ladies speak to Machina about her options (stay with a friend for the night until the apartment manager comes in the next day, stay at a hotel, call a relative) and end up using one their phones to call Machina's son and tell him everything we've just told them. They then extend the phone to Machina so she can speak to him. Rapid Portuguese is now being spoken and I can hear an annoyed voice on the other end. After a few minutes, Machina hands the phone back to the gals. They tell us that her son is coming into the city from the country with another set of keys to let her into the apartment. All is well. Well, almost.
This is where in the story that James and I bid au revoir to Machina and where she tells us thank you and how kind we are. It's also where the question needs to be asked which is -
When and under what circumstances are we there for another?
Especially when it comes to strangers and especially when its with people we might not normally engage with or want to be in relationship with.
If, as the photo suggests above, Love is Us, wouldn't the answer to that question be, all the time and in all circumstances? I wish I could say that was true for me, but it's not. However, the next time there's an opportunity to be there for another and I hesitate to offer help, I will remember the unexpected evening we spent with Machina and how the experience made me feel. She helped us, too.