When I worked at a health clinic eight years ago as an outreach coordinator, I met a middle-age woman who made a lasting impression on me. Cherubic with a round face and body, and pleasantly mild-mannered, it was hard to write her off as just another public health case when her son was admitted in the hospital yet again. The woman's eleven year old son had chronic asthma that doctors suspected was a result of his living environment. Concerned, the doctors at Kings County wanted an investigation done on the family's living situation. I had to make my way to this woman's apartment as the asthma outreach coordinator. From what I understood then, there could be repercussions if a parent's living situation was found to exacerbate the child's chronic asthma despite doctor's warning. But what I understand now, is that if an alternative is not given, then how fair are these repercussions? And what's the use of a public health intervention without such alternatives in place for those who cannot afford any better?
It was mid-December, 2006. The steel gray sky threatened snow. Lots of it. As I walked the long, dimly lit corridor of the building, I heard the sounds of life behind those grim doors: Babies crying, music seeping under doors and into the hallways like the smells of cooking, people talking over noisy television that carried their favorite daytime talk-shows. Life was contained within these hallways.
Somehow it turned out that I was the only one who showed up at the apartment. I rang the doorbell and waited on the welcome mat that said "Home Sweet Home", spying a door with bullet holes across from where I stood. This was in the projects, in a place I would come to know as Brownsville, Brooklyn. I was fresh out of graduate school in Michigan and new to New York. I was also new as a city worker. I knew nothing about Brownsville. I knew nothing about the projects. And I knew nothing about what I would walk into when the woman opened that door to let me into the apartment. Ceiling, furniture, light fixtures, uneven floorboards, kitchen---all were infested with cockroaches. They fell from the ceiling like the peeling paint; and the woman, seemingly oblivious or just used to it, offered me water from a glass. Perhaps she thought that my twitching came from some form of neurotic spasms and not from roaches crawling out of every crevice inside the apartment, landing like ninjas on the coffee table and couch. Her welcoming demeanor, like that of many of the low income homes I visited during my tenure as an outreach coordinator, struck me as tragic. Because though those individuals might have been aware of my and my colleagues' discomfort, I could tell that they tried hard to make up for it by offering us something to eat or drink. Of course, as strangers, we stood in the middle of their space, ominous figures with our city ID's, capable of casting shadows of judgement on things they had no power to change. So in those moments, it seemed as though they went out of their way to remind us of their humanity. And ours.
My new case gestured toward the couch for me to sit, again, as though oblivious to her situation. "Least you can do is make yourself comfortable," she said, coughing. Her cough then subsided into a low wheezing. I politely insisted on standing. She watched as I clumsily pulled out my brochures on asthma and handed them to her, eager to get out of the apartment. I had planned to write a report for her to get on an expedited list for low income families that live in poor conditions. But my feet could not move fast enough. As I got closer to the door, a Christmas tree caught my eyes. I was so distracted with dodging cockroaches that I didn't notice the tree, about six feet, standing there, glowing as though all the light we lacked on that dull day had been trapped within its pines.
"This is nice," I said, not really sure why I stopped. I guess being new to New York City--a place known for its fast-pace and stoicism, there was something about seeing a Christmas tree inside someone's home. In fact, I was reminded of Home. At the time I was running away for many reasons; and being inside of that roach infested apartment, staring at that Christmas tree, brought me back. The woman's face transformed as though I had uttered the possibility of her living in the Governor's mansion until she got her situation sorted out. She lifted a chubby hand to her chest and smiled. "Thank you."
"You decorated it yourself?" I asked, feeling myself relax in her presence.
"Yes." Her eyes fell to the floor as if finally, searching the crevices of the parquet floors for the fallen roaches. "Despite everything, I make the best of every situation," she said. "I decorate our Christmas tree and the apartment, because I won't let NYCHA take my joy. They don't do shit around here, but I won't let them take my joy." Her eyes met mine again. "I hope you have a Christmas tree."
I told her no. I didn't have one, because at the time, I was single and living in a cramped space with two roommates. At the time I was also depressed, because I felt so disconnected and discombobulated in this new city. But this woman reminded me of something I thought I had lost: Internal joy. Somehow she kept hers despite her situation.
"Go buy a Christmas tree," she said. "Do it for yourself."
"I have no one to celebrate Christmas with, so what's the use?" I said.
"Do it for yourself," she repeated. "Joy comes when we find it within ourselves."
That day, I left with more joy and optimism than when I entered that building and stood in the grim hallway. I didn't buy a Christmas tree then. I didn't buy one the year after or the year after that. Finally when I bought one, it was one of those dwarf trees from Kmart that came with decorations and lights already attached.
This is the first year that I actually ever decorated a Christmas tree. This is the first year that I have ever been mindful of creating and sustaining my own joy as I diligently placed each and every decoration on the pine branches. And as I stood back, gazing up at the tree in my living room, I realized that the woman was right: Joy comes when we find it within ourselves. I exhaled thinking about the bursts of joys I've had in my life: Marriage to an amazing woman; and this year alone gave me even more to be grateful for--two Pushcart Prize nominations for my fiction, writing fellowships, job offers to lecture at various colleges and organizations, starting my own business, and much much more. But before all those things, there were moments, journeys I had to make. I might have gotten my share of lousy dates and rejection letters and jobs that made me question my purpose; but in those moments were the joys of living. Each and every one of those moments served its purpose; each one prepared me for other moments, other opportunities. God gives us little blessings to see what we do with them; for then S(H)e decides if we'd be ready for the big ones. As we walk towards our goals and dreams, we must not forget to be mindful of the beauty of each moment. It was this woman, a stranger, who made me realize that I should treasure the journey, pay attention to the flowers and the trees in the garden on my way, and let the joy within light my path.
When I stood back and gazed at my Christmas tree last night, I remembered that woman in the Brownsville projects. I never saw her again. I didn't know what ever became of her. I left the job shortly afterward (and eventually, public health altogether to pursue writing), and so I lost touch. But I will always be grateful for what she offered me that day. An offer that I did not resist. And just like she offered me light, I wish the universe has returned the favor.
Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn