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first person

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Illustration by Rachel Wada

Love your neighbour. Show mercy. Do the right thing. Be a good Samaritan. We know this as a cultural trope if not as a moral directive.

Something happened to me recently, however, that summoned my best compassionate impulses but left me feeling depressed and depleted, more like a “So-So-Samaritan” than a good one.

My home abuts a city park, and late one afternoon I saw a young woman, maybe in her 20s, flop onto the park bench nearest to us. It was one of those hot summer days, where the sun competes with humidity to make life miserable and potentially dangerous; people often used this shaded bench to escape the heat. I watched the young woman rustle through her shopping bags, before lying on the grass behind the park bench, just a metre from an asphalt path. She rolled a few times, but then lay still. Dozens of park visitors passed and a few looked askance, though no one stopped (or, rather, stooped). After a half-hour or so my wife and I checked on her, given the day’s heat and her seeming immobility. We called to her and nudged her arm, but she lay snoring loudly.

That continued for several hours as the sun dimmed, the heat abated and more people passed. She slept, rarely moving, her dark hair splayed over the yellowed grass, her black, long-sleeved T-shirt rising and falling over her thin belly, her dark jeans unbuttoned, her shoes untied. We checked on her a few times but she continued to sleep. I called my sister, a former paramedic, who recommended asking for a police “welfare check” (an informal assessment; more than “Are you all right…?” but less than “You’re coming with us….”). I tried that a few times, but after 35 minutes of police department phone-tree hell, I hung up.

Finally, as the park darkened, the young woman stirred and through the window we could hear her sobbing. We headed out with cold water, a box of tissues and a piece of fruit.

“Don’t tell her where we live,” I whispered to my wife.

“Why?”

“Because she’ll think we’ve been spying on her,” said I, in full panicky stupid mode.

“But we HAVE! For four hours!” said my wife, and of course, we had, but I was still figuring out the Samaritan protocols.

We approached the young woman, who wiped her nose and watery eyes with a grass-covered sleeve.

“Are you all right? We’ve been worried about you,” I said, standing near the bench and proffering a tissue.

She grunted and looked around the park. “Where is this place?”

I told her the name of the park.

“No. Like an intersection,” she added. I told her and she nodded.

“Do you live near here? Can we call someone for you?”

“Where am I again?” I told her, again. She paused and then looked to the heavens saying, “Do you see the economic realities of the inner cities? I’m wondering if the taxation theories are worth the trouble, you know, like where do people go for work … do you wonder about that? Like, where is this place….” Ironically, earlier that day, I’d been debating the merits of guaranteed annual income with a friend, so this kind of esoteric discussion didn’t surprise me entirely.

My wife returned indoors, while I remained standing. “I think maybe you’ve had a bad day. And it’s really hot,” I said, “What’s your name?”

“Samantha.”

“Is there someone we can call? Do you want some help?”

She seemed to assent but then rooted through her shopping bags, weeping and mumbling.

A neighbour came by on his 10 p.m. dog walk. He chatted amiably with Samantha, with a side glance at me. “Careful. The dog might upset her,” I whispered to him.

“No. He’s fine,” said Samantha, “He’s a good boy,” sipping water and rocking on the bench. She pulled her shirt up over her face and began to cry again.

This was still not an emergency – she seemed neither a threat to herself nor to others – and I didn’t know if her state of mind stemmed from heat exhaustion, drugs or an organic illness. All I could tell was a) she seemed distressed, b) I didn’t know how to help, and c) parables in the Book of Luke about the good Samaritan offered little counsel.

Ultimately I called 911 and chatted with Samantha while I waited for the ambulance. She was clearly intelligent, reciting detailed brain anatomy (she knew all 12 cranial nerves) and chatting about social economics. But she also feared “the men in the trucks,” mumbling as she burrowed through her grocery bags. My neighbour left the scene as I placated her, preparing her for the coming ambulance, though I wondered if anyone could truly help her.

I know something about mental illness from past experiences with family and friends (likely, in these fraught times, we all know something about mental illness). Situations like this flummox rather than scare me. But, after the ambulance attendants arrived, I withdrew, feeling that my presence complicated rather than helped. That felt wrong; maybe I should have stayed to advocate for this anonymous, fragile gamine in the park, asking the EMTs to take her home or to somewhere safer than a dark public park. But I didn’t and from my living room I watched Samantha joust verbally with the EMTs until I got ready for bed. When I peered out again, they were gone.

The next morning I continued to worry about Samantha, unsure about what I could have done. So I called some mental health agencies and, while I found some tips, there was no single protocol or run-of-play. I could have contacted a local mental health “street outreach” group rather than 911. Rather than standing over her, I could have sat near her or crouched down to talk at her level. And, if she was okay with it, I could have stayed while she talked with the EMTs; it might have made her less frightened and more open to their help.

The broader task of helping Samantha, however, would have involved changing entire social, political and administrative structures, forcing “the system” to engender a better life for people with mental illness. There were many things I imagined I could do, but each task made me feel like King Canute challenging the waves with a handful of pebbles.

When I pass that park bench, I still wonder where the forces of administration deposited this brilliant, wounded soul. I also wonder how I will handle the next time, and whether the original good Samaritan felt that same doubt.

John MacMillan lives in Toronto.