Water and Blood by Jean Lee

Written by Jean Lee, translated into English by Veronica Liu               

Click here for Chinese language version 點擊此處可見中文

There was a middle age African American woman in my flower shop looking at flowers. She looked exhausted, has  not slept well and is not dressed warm enough.  I approached her, “Hello, May I help you?” “Oh, I am just browsing.”  Even her voice was weak and inaudible.

She came back after a week, and I decided to chat with her a little bit more.  I found out her name is Shirley and she lives in the neighborhood.  She looks a little better this time, more energized.  She told me that she used to be a masseuse.  I wanted to know if she was telling the truth.  So, I asked if she can come back next week on Tuesday at 10 to give me a massage.  We have a patio across the shop.  She agreed happily.

Under the partly sunny sky, she gave me an hour of massage.  She is good, 1st class.  After that time, every other week after work, I would travel to her apartment for a massage.  Her fee is reasonable.  And when she works, she is very attentive.  She lives in a single room in a government-subsidized building.  There is no kitchen, the building has about 30+ tenants.  There is a security guard in the lobby.  When a visitor arrives, he will call up to the tenant and the tenant will come downstairs to bring the visitor up to his/her room. When I leave, Shirley walks down with me to show me out.  The rules are very strict.

Shirley had asked me not to let the guard know that I am here for massages.  Her room is very tidy.  Every part of her wall is covered with a picture of an older Indian man.  There are so many pictures of him in different poses, standing, and sitting, lying down, in profile or side view.  In one corner, there is incense and a vase of fresh flowers. “Who is this?” I asked Shirley.  “Oh, he is my teacher, a world renowned yoga teacher.”  No wonder she wears Indian clothing all the time, now I know it is because of his influence.

Our relationship grew closer to the point that we can talk about anything.  She smiles more these days.  I thought I should claim some of the credit for this change.  One time, I was lying on the massage table; I playfully sneaked and open my eyes to watch Shirley.  I see that her eyes are closed, 100% concentrating on giving me the massage.  She said “I have never seen anyone whose head has so many bumps.”  I wonder if she knew that I was watching her.

Another time, I was on the massage table and I woke up screaming, “Shirley, where are you?”  “You passed out.  When I stopped massaging your head, it woke you up.  Try to relax.” Shirley comforted me.

One day we went out for tea.  Shirley told me that her mom left her an inheritance and her aunt has been safeguarding for her but said that she is going to return it to her since she is not getting any younger.  “How much?” I asked.  “About $3,000 and a piece of land.  My aunt wanted the land.” Shirley said.

I thought her aunt was greedy and said as much.  Shirley continued to tell me that she had asked her teacher how to spend the $3,000.  I did not understand why she would ask other people how to spend her own money, but didn’t say anything. Shirley said, “My teacher thinks I should spend it on myself.  Next Saturday is my birthday, my friends and I are going to a restaurant in the city to celebrate.  Why don’t you and your husband come too?  I agreed and she gave me the address. Shirley said, “With my birthday coming up, I have been thinking about mom.  I remember one time I was sick for a month and did not eat properly.  Mom applied SSI for me, to ensure that I am taken care of.”  “Did you go to the doctor and are you taking meds?” I asked. “People with schizophrenia has to take meds every day.  I see the doctor once a month,” she said.  I understand that if she only goes to the doctor once a month, then her illness is not as severe.

I asked, “Do you want to make some money other than giving massages?” Shirley replied that once a week she goes into San Francisco and work in a restaurant (affiliated with her teacher) to peel bags of potatoes, in return for some food.  I thought it was hard work and asked if they pay her some wages.  She said no.

Today after the massage, Shirley told me that her teacher had passed away.  I was concerned that she would fall ill, so I said, “you should find a new teacher then.”  I was afraid but seeing that she looks her usual self, I was a little relieved.  She said, “No, it is not necessary.”

I went home and told my husband that I am afraid.  He agrees that she might not be able to handle this loss.  After 2 months had passed and Shirley seems to be doing fine, I felt really relieved.  When it was time for me to get a massage, I called, but there was no answer.  Even the day of the massage, I still could not get a hold of her and it continues after a week.

One day, I received a phone call from one of the woman I met at Shirley’s birthday party.  She told me that Shirley is in the hospital.  “What’s wrong?”  The woman said she had an argument with the police, and they took her to the hospital.  It’s good that she is there then, she can get treatment and rest.

After some time had passed, I figured she should be home. I tried to contact her, but still was not able to.  I realized something must be wrong.  On Tuesday, I took a day off to go to her house.  The doorman told me that Shirley had moved out.  I was shocked, “Why, what happened?”.  He said Shirley had told him that someone is stealing her stuff, stalking her, eavesdropping on her phone call.  She felt unsafe so she decided to move.  I knew these are symptoms of her illness.

The doorman told me that she moved out last week.  I asked why didn’t he notify her friends.  He said it was not his job.  He had given her time to move her belongings too but she didn’t move them. I asked him where her things are, he said he tossed them out.  I informed him that her computer was newly installed by my husband, her organ, and her massage table are all usable.  He talked in a subdued voice, like he was afraid, “I don’t know where they are.”  I asked if he had sold them, and he said no.

I told him that I have to go to work and next week I will come back.  I will not give up.  All of a sudden, I remember her SSI checks that comes in monthly.  So I asked him about that and to make sure that it will continue.

He went inside and brought out a small tin box.  Inside the box was Shirley’s ID, a few small pieces of paper, and an envelope.  The SSI card was nowhere to be found.  I don’t know why he showed me all these useless things. I went home and told my husband that no matter what, we have to get Shirley’s stuff back.

The following Tuesday morning I went back again to Shirley’s apartment.  As it happened, the social worker was there too.  I told her about Shirley’s missing belongings, etc.  She was very impatient, rolled her eyes and said she can’t help at this point.

I turned around and left.  If a social worker is not even willing to help these patients, what can I do? I am greatly disappointed in this useless system.

My husband and I went everywhere to look for Shirley. We went to the city, to the park, but was not able to find her.  I told my family and friends to watch out for her, and make sure that she comes to see me.

One day Shirley showed up at my shop.  She was dressed in many layers of thin clothing, her neck was adorned with many layers of necklaces.  She looked calm, relaxed and has a big smile on her face.

“Where are you staying now?” I asked. She said, “On the street, I like the fresh air.”

I took her to the cafe across the street and asked her what she wanted to eat.  She ordered a sandwich and bottled water.  I asked her if she is taking her medicine.  She turned to me and said, “Are you?”  This is very normal; other patients asked me the same thing too.

“Do you want to find a place to move in?” I asked.  Shirley said, “I can’t afford it.”  I saw some customers going into the shop, so I told her that I would be right back.  When I return, she is gone.    She left a big mess on the table: napkins, left over food and the water bottle.  She is no longer the same Shirley that I had known from before.

One day my daughter and her friend Allison saw Shirley in the city.   She wanted to go to the movies with the two girls, but my daughter said she didn’t want to go with her because of her body odor.  Allison, her friend gave Shirley $40.

The next time I saw Shirley was another few months after, she doesn’t look as healthy as she did before.   Again, I asked her, “would you like me to find you an apartment?  I can put down the deposit for you and you can re-apply SSI?  Shirley said, “I want to move to your house.”  I told her that I have to check with my husband.  And later on that night I talked to him and he said, “definitely not. We both work during the day, what happens if she burns down the house? Where will we live?” I suggested putting a tent up in our back yard.  He said no.  Shirley is very sensitive, she never came back.

At that time, I was taking care of two people that have mental health challenges.  It was actually quite exhausting for me, I don’t think I can handle another one.  However, thinking back, if Shirley were my daughter, I would have asked her to move in, hire someone to help her get better.  The only thing that she would have to do is to see a doctor and take her meds regularly.  Since we don’t have that blood related relationship I lost the chance of helping her.

This lesson with Shirley taught me several things: A person that has mental health challenges should have a relative or good friend info on file to contact for emergency purposes; The county should provide more services for them;  Perhaps a social worker can extend extra help?  Being a good friend like me, should have treated Shirley as if she is a family member, blood related.  I believe water can be as thick as blood if I try.