We have been having flu at my house – first me, then my daughter – and this has made me think again about the problem of homelessness and the children Bob Gamble works with who live under the streets of Odessa, Ukraine. What happens to these children when they are sick? Who takes care of them when they have flu? Who drives to the drugstore, gets them cough drops, brings them hot soup on a tray, and calls the school to say they won’t be attending today? Who e-mails their teacher to make sure the homework assignment that was due today will be received even though they are not there to turn it in? Who asks them “How are you feeling?” feels their foreheads and takes their temperatures, keeps track of when it is OK to get another dose of acetaminophen? Who stays home with them and keeps them company?
Maybe their friends. But their friends are also children, and there are limits to what children can do for each other, as competent and as tough and as doggedly realistic as children can be when they have spent a long time learning how to live in a harsh real world.
Maybe no one.
Maybe someone from The Way Home – that’s the idea of a program that reaches out to kids on the streets, and works to meet their pressing needs. It’s the idea behind their patrol project, that includes a health care worker, someone with legal experience, an educator, the idea that what these homeless children need is to get some of their needs met, and one of the needs that is unlikely to be met otherwise is the need everyone has to be taken care of when ill.
I forget, over and over, even now, at my pretty advanced age, that I am not invulnerable. It was even easier to forget that when I was younger. And then, sickness happens. I get sick, feel tired, find I can’t do everything I thought I could and had planned, have trouble getting through a normal activity or two, need to lie down, need to take a nap, could really use a hand or just need someone to do something . . . then I remember, or rather, can’t help remembering. We are not self-sufficient, perpetual motion machines. It doesn’t even take that much to knock us down, or out. We need help, support, places to rest, people to take care of us. We all need that. And some of us have much too little of it, or none of it.
The care of the sick is a women’s issue, and a complicated one! Women have traditionally been associated with caring for the needs of sick people, and especially sick children. Once again, the traditional association and its implications make for some complicated issues. We may not want to reinforce the customary, presumptive linking of women and the care of the sick. On the other hand, we don’t want the traditional association of women with the care of the sick to (a) devalue the care of the sick [why, after all, should a traditional association with women have any tendency to reduce the value of an activity?] or (b) prescribe an immutable role for women – as if caring for the sick became something that defined women as such, that women were required to do because of their woman-ness, or that women are imagined to have some special competence for, which they then are somehow required to use. On the other hand, we don’t want to suggest that women shouldn’t care for the sick, as if refusing to perform that vital activity on principle, or shirking this human responsibility along with other, more powerful members of the society, would be some improvement. Instead, “who takes care of you when you are sick” needs to be raised, again and again, as a question with a complex gender dimension. It’s a question that receives different answers, from men and from women, from children and from adults, from children with parents and from children without them, from those with reliable care-givers and from those without. Whether the Who who takes care of you is someone you know, live with, love, care for when sick in turn, must pay, a stranger, someone really good at it or someone barely competent at it, someone who cares about you, or someone who doesn’t matters.
The answers to this question generate an index of the extent to which there is good news for our neighbors, and for us, in our world.
You can hear more from Bob Gamble of This Child Here on the subject of the needs of children who live on the streets of Odessa, Ukraine, at a special service of worship Thursday night, 2/21, 7:00 p.m., Hundley Hall, and at lunch Friday, 12:00 – 1:30 p.m., in the Women’s Center. If you are interested in speaking at greater length with Bob Gamble, please contact Courtney Hoekstra, Women’s Center Student Coordinator, to reserve time on Bob’s schedule for conversation in the Women’s Center, Friday, 2/22, 2:00-4:00 p.m.