Loving the unlovely
The following is a story told by Dave Andrews in the book Australian Stories for the Heart.
Some of our most marginalised neighbours are people who have been institutionalised. They have been put out of psychiatric hospitals in the hope that, by being placed in a community rather than in an institution, their lives will be normalised. When our family started visiting the hostels, it became painfully obvious that the vast majority of the people living there had no significant reciprocal relationships with people living outside the hostels—other than with those, like case workers, who are paid to relate to them. So Evonne, my daughter decided to try an befriend a few people in a local hostel.
Rita was pretty much friendless because no one who knew her wanted to be her friend! She was difficult to relate to and I confess I’ve occasionally described her in jest, as “the grumpiest woman in the world.” I first met Rita when she came up behind me and pushed me off a chair saying, “That’s my chair mister!” – even thought there were 60 or 70 empty chairs. When I took the people from her hostel out on picnics, I noticed that no one wanted to sit next to her on the bus, maybe because she would scream at them, push them aside and barge her way though. It was not uncommon for outings to begin or end with the bizarre ritual of everyone chanting, ‘We hate you, Rita! We hate you!”
Now Evonne has always had a love for stray dogs, and indeed for underdogs of all kinds and because everyone we knew avoided Rita like the plague, Evonne went out of her way to get to know her. Rita wasn’t impressed until Evonne invited her out for coffee and cheesecake. Rita loved cheesecake and I think that is how Evonne won Rita’s heart.
They made an odd couple: a happy twenty-year-old girl with a bounce in her step, walking down the street with a crabby seventy-year-old woman shuffling beside her, muttering every step of the way.
On occasion Rita was known to jump the gun and grab a slice of cheesecake sitting temptingly on a plate in front of another customer at a nearby table. Evonne would then have to restrain Rita while trying to calm the irate customer whose cheesecake had been eaten; but as time went by, Rita began to trust Evonne. If Evonne said Rita’s cheesecake would come, it would come – Evonne would make sure of it. So Rita started to relax and learn to enjoy her coffee while waiting for her cheesecake.
As the weeks passed, bit-by-bit. Rita began to share her story. When she was nineteen she was sent to a local psychiatric hospital where she was confined for the next forty years, loosing all contact with the family and friends—the only one she could count on to look after her was herself. So she learnt the skills she felt she needed to survive. To push and shove, to fight and grab. Suddenly, everything made sense. Evonne understood, and Rita knew Evonne understood, and they became good friends. Rita even learned to smile again.
Evonne and her sister were with Rita when she died a few years later. A few months after the funeral, Evonne and I went for coffee and cheesecake for old times sake. As we walked in, the waitress greeted Evenne like a long lost friend. She said, It’s so nice to see Evonne again. We miss her so much. When she used to come we love it, because she used to bring her grandmother.”
Obviously Evonne had related to Rita with such reverence that everyone in the café believed that Rita was actually a respected elderly member of our family.
And so, I guess, she was.