Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Woman in Red

Today is the eleven-year anniversary of my sister Michelle's suicide. In some ways, it's hard to believe eleven years have passed. Other times, the painful memory is as fresh as if she died yesterday. I've written several times in the past about her battle with mental illness and my relationship with her. Today, I've asked my sister Teresa to share a few thoughts instead. This is her story. 

Woman in Red
The woman stood so close to me, I felt her breath on my face. She spoke softly, making it necessary for me to lean in closer and ask, "Pardon me?" She repeated in a very low voice, "I hope you get everything you want for Christmas." It was a hot July evening as I helped feed the homeless at the Plaza in downtown Gainesville, Florida. I regained my composure and said, "Thank you. God bless you." She smiled and walked away with her plate of food. She was such a tiny little soul, not weighing more than 100 pounds.

In 2005, six months after I buried my husband, my sister Michelle ended her twenty-year battle with mental illness. Too much for me to process at the time, I tucked my feelings about her death away neatly in a corner of my mind and continued trying to rebuild my life. Ten months later, as I walked into Publix supermarket after work, I began crying. Wiping my face, I left the store and sat in my car, trying to understand what had happened. Then, I spotted a bell ringer. It was Christmas time and he was happily ringing his bell and calling out, "Merry Christmas!" Michelle had been a bell ringer outside of that same Publix, before they offered her a job in the store. Memories flooded over me as I sat there in the parking lot and wept. There were a lot of tears that Christmas, as every store I walked in had a bell ringer.

Michelle loved her children and her family. She loved the Lord and studied her Bible daily. She had a heart for others and would help anyone, if she were able. Although she didn't understand why she had to suffer with this disease, she had a strong faith. She hoped one day her life would change. And, we all prayed that that would indeed happen. Jesus was her Savior, and I have no doubts that she is now with Him in Heaven.

Even with expressing all of that, I realize through my work with the homeless that I have unresolved issues with her death. The mentally ill are out there, some on medication, some obviously not. It's sad to realize that these folks are plagued with nightmarish thoughts and voices only they can hear. These same people are shunned and sometimes even beaten and robbed by others who are stronger.

Recently, when Pastor Lem began his brief message to the line of hungry faces at the Plaza, a muttering began in the crowd. As he quoted John 3:16, a woman in red began cursing and pacing. Suddenly, she spat at my feet as she rolled off more obscenities. Uncertain of what to do, I stopped recording and began moving toward the serving line to take my place. Pastor finished his message and blessed the food, speaking louder to drown out the filth still being spewed in the air. The Woman in Red came through the line muttering, grabbed her fork, and disappeared. About thirty minutes later, we heard her shouting and screaming and knew she had returned. She continued her tirade for quite some time.

I thought then of my sister and the troubled life she had lived. During the periods of time she thought she didn't need medication, it was a disconcerting time for our family. Do not misunderstand. She did not run around shouting obscenities at a pastor. But, she did have some disturbing behavior. When she was on her medication, she functioned fairly well. This illness causes immeasurable suffering to those who endure it and to those who can do nothing but pray and watch their family member suffer.

I've asked God what He wanted me to see with this parallel of women. He encouraged me to question how strangers may have treated Michelle when she was off her medication. Were they compassionate? Did they shun her? Were they empathetic? Did they laugh at her? Did they take the time to listen to her? Were they kind to her? Did they love her as God instructed us to do in 1 John 4:7-8? "Let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."  Verse 12 continues with, "if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us." 

Those are powerful words! "His love is made complete in us." It was never intended to be an emotional love, but something much greater. The love God has for us is undeserved love; we did nothing to earn it! The same love God expects us to show His people: the widows, the orphans, the elderly, the incarcerated, the veterans, the alcoholics, the addicts, the runaways, the prostitutes, and the mentally ill. They are all out there, in need of His complete love.

God also reminded me to be aware of what we all do in His name. Are we going through the motions of our “Christian obligation?” Or, are we sharing His complete love with these people? 

"If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing." 1 Corinthians 13:3

Who was the Woman in Red? She was that tiny soul in July who had quietly wished me Christmas blessings.

Have you ever encountered someone that society considers “less than?” If so, what was your reaction? How did God speak to you through the encounter?

© Photo of "Woman in Red" and post by Teresa Alfieri (originally shared as a Facebook note)