Hannah arrived by taxi at Utah’s Place seeking her lost infant. She was an older woman, quite short and rather squat, as though she had been stunted in childhood by a heavy load placed on top of her head. Although she kept her eyes focused meekly on the floor and seemed excruciatingly vulnerable, something in her manner commanded attention.
“Is Joseph here?” she whispered. “Have you seen my baby?”
Under no circumstances would Denise, our staff monitor who had greeted Hannah at the door, violate Hospitality House policy by divulging information about a guest in the shelter without his or her permission. In the case of children, anyone under 18 staying at the shelter must be there with an adult, whose permission would be required. Denise began politely to explain this policy, but Hannah interrupted her.
“He’s my baby.”
Denise paused to consider. Hannah, who appeared to be in her late fifties or early sixties, was too old to have an infant. Perhaps she was tired and confused, or frightened, as so many people are when they first come to a homeless shelter. Denise ushered her into the small office where interviews with new guests are conducted and offered her a seat.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “Would you like some coffee and a sandwich?”
In her swivel chair, Hannah’s feet barely touched the floor. Denise took a seat facing her, where she could see Hannah’s face. It was a pretty face, softened with large, liquid brown eyes.
“No thank you, I’m not hungry. I’m looking for Joseph.”
“Tell me about him.”
Hannah told her story. She had lived in Grass Valley previously, but for the past three years had been residing, by her own choice, in a psychiatric hospital in the Bay Area. The day before, without a goodbye, she had packed a small bag and made her way to the bus station, stopping only to collect the money in her savings account, which amounted to almost $400. When she arrived in Grass Valley hours later, she found a cab and took a $350 ride around town, eyes glued to the window in search of baby Joseph. Finally, having run through her money, she asked the taxi driver to take her to a homeless shelter.
With Hannah’s permission, Denise called the Bay Area hospital to let the staff there know where Hannah was and to find out a little more about her background. She learned that Hannah was withdrawn but cooperative, and delusional concerning the existence of a baby named Joseph. No amount of treatment had ever been able to shake her belief in him or diminish the urgency of her desire to find him. In addition, she had diminished mental capacities that, combined with her delusional disorder, severely hampered her ability to function “normally” in society.
Hannah remained for several months at Utah’s Place, where she did surprisingly well. She had a special sweetness about her that endeared her to everyone, and though she continued to seek Joseph, she lost the air of desperation she’d had when she first arrived. The structure of the daily and nightly routine anchored her, and she relished performing simple chores around the shelter like sweeping, dusting, and wiping doorknobs with a disinfectant cloth.
During the morning when the shelter was closed, she walked slowly through town, looking for her baby.
A Tragedy on Top of a Tragedy
Western Sierra Medical Clinic http://wsmcmed.org/ is a local medical center that provides extensive on-site medical care for our guests. Hannah visited the clinic mobile medical van when she complained of pain in her breast, and was subsequently sent to the hospital for a mammogram. The news was bad: she had breast cancer and would have to undergo treatment immediately.
Several people have undergone chemotherapy while staying at the shelter: a tragedy on top of a tragedy. Our social worker Jodi Benson, working with the county Behavioral Health Department https://www.mynevadacounty.com/nc/hhsa/bh/Pages/Home.aspx, was able to get Hannah into a small local recovery home for people suffering from mental challenges.
As various agencies collaborated to look more deeply into Hannah’s history, they made a discovery. Thirty years ago she had indeed had a baby, and his name was Joseph. Joseph still lived in Nevada County. When they got hold of him, he agreed to meet his mother, whom he hadn’t seen for many year
Please catch my next post to learn what happened when they met. You can do that by signing up in the right-hand column.