(By Marcy Perkins)
Zella was one of God’s Little Ones, a unique being who made us laugh and cry and rant and rave. She was both vulnerable and indestructible, intelligent and erratic.
To the casual eye, she was a crazy street lady, even after she secured independent housing. She was somewhat scary to those who didn’t know her and she was unpredictable to those of us who had known her for years, even decades. Disruptive, demanding, argumentative and, at times, out of control, she was a tormented soul who heard voices and battled with them every day. She was known all over Wilmington, at least by homeless service providers and by the “authorities.”
Yet every now and then there would appear glimpses of a gentler spirit. She never held a grudge against us for putting her out of the Women’s Center when she lost control. And, likewise, we didn’t hold a grudge: it was just Zella. She was who she was. She was a spiritual woman who kept the High Holy Days (often borrowing money from us so that she could keep the feasts). She sent money she couldn’t afford overseas to Save the Children or a similar charity because her heart was touched by the plight of suffering children.
So many of us began our relationship with Zella trying to rescue her: trying to get her to Mental Health (“No, there’s nothing wrong with me!”), trying to get her clean clothes (wrong color), trying to find her housing (wrong neighborhood). She resisted all our attempts. A survivor, she made her own way through the world. As the song says, she did it her way. On the rare occasions when a staff person would give her a ride, we were instructed what route to take and woe betide the person who didn’t follow her instructions! Ultimately we realized that her rigidity was her way of battling the chaos of her life and those tormenting voices.
When Zella became ill this last time, the Women’s Center Staff were her “emergency contact.” We followed the bouncing ball that was Zella from one hospital to another to a nursing home in Delaware back to the hospital to another facility in Delaware to several more facilities in other states. Her travels were partly her own doing and partly because she just didn’t fit anywhere. She was too mentally ill to be in a nursing facility and, apparently, not eligible for state facilities.
Eventually, we lost touch and had no idea where she had been placed. We fretted and worried because we didn’t know if she was alive and what was happening to her. But it seems our part in Zella’s story was done. It was time for another set of people to look after her.
God always provided for Zella. She lived a life that would have killed me within months. She was strong minded, strong willed and somehow she made it through with her integrity intact. Yes, she worried the life out of us sometimes, but she never surrendered, never gave in to the pressure to conform. Perhaps that is mental illness; perhaps it is also total dedication to one’s own spirit. Not something we often see in this world of masks and manipulation.
The best gift Zella left us was her acknowledgement of our friendship. We will not forget Zella ending one of her last phone call with the words, “I love you,” a rare and precious admission. She taught us that we are called to be companions, not saviors. We walked with Zella, stumbled with Zella, pulled our hair out with Zella. In the end, we were part of her story, just as she is part of ours but we were not her whole story. We intersected and hopefully learned from one another but she is God’s Child and God was with her through every part of her living and dying.
I will miss Zella, but I am grateful we were part of one another’s story and I am so glad that our friend is at peace now with her God.