I saw her through the window at Starbucks as I was getting my coffee that morning. I hadn’t noticed her when I walked into the Safeway, so perhaps she arrived after I did or perhaps I was oblivious in my morning rush to secure coffee. I was waiting for my coffee, looking out the windows, when I spotted her sitting at the small round table on the cement outside.
She had a cigarette in her hand, and she was visibly shivering. My reaction was immediate and instinctual. I suspected she was one of our homeless population although I did not recognize her from my visits to the Centre of Hope. New to the city, perhaps, or just passing through as transient homeless occasionally do. She wore what appeared to be a new coat, clean and looking like it would be warm, but I knew that such a coat did not mean she was not homeless because new clothing is often given to those who find themselves freezing on our streets. It was not the coat that made me think she was homeless, or the cigarette – it was the way her body shook, the way her slender and frail hands shivered.
For some reason I was instantly uneasy, too. I just had the sense that something was terribly wrong, and I couldn’t help but be afraid that something bad had happened to her. There was something in the way she was shaking that troubled me, and it upset me, too. I found myself struggling with what to do. Should I go outside and ask her if I could help? Take her a warm coffee? Or just go on my way and assume that I was wrong and that she was simply someone who had stopped at a convenient spot for a cigarette on a chilly morning?
They called my drink at that point, and I turned to collect it. Only moments had passed before I had the coffee in my hand and the lid secured but when I turned to the windows she was gone. I could not see which direction she had gone. It was like she had simply vanished, disappearing into the streets as the homeless here often seem to do. And as I walked to my car I continued to feel uneasy and unhappy because I felt I had failed.
You see I think I should have walked out the door and asked if she was okay as soon as my instincts said she was not. I should have asked if I could buy her a coffee or some food. I should have followed my heart that said she was in trouble and not listened to my head that led me to doubt myself. I was terribly, terribly disappointed in myself that day, and I continue to be.
Perhaps she was not homeless at all and my instincts were wrong. But something tells me that I was right, and that she was in some sort of distress. I have not seen her again although I return to that Starbucks every morning and watch for her. If I ever do see her again I will offer to buy her coffee, even if her hands are not shaking. And if I never see her again I will not forget her, either, because she reminded me that sometimes one needs to simply follow their heart and not allow that internal debate to deter you from action. She reminded me that I am not perfect, and that I can do more, and do it better. You see I think we all have a responsibility in this world, and it is to each other. I think about how if she were my daughter or sister I would want someone to ask if she was okay, to extend an offer of help even if was not needed. Next time I will not disappoint myself, and next time I will not debate. I will follow my heart and place a cup of warm coffee in those shaking hands, and offer assistance. Next time I will follow my instincts, and let my heart lead me.