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It seemed impossible, improbable, never-to-be.  In the dark, dusty, gritty, gutted building on that April morning in 1995. Since our beginning in 1992, we had faced so many obstacles and problems and difficulties that we were often simply afraid that Miriam’s House was impossible, improbable, never-to-be.


But we lit a candle, and we sang a song, and we prayed while we held hands in that improbable space.  Then we took permanent markers (PERMANENT markers!) and scattered throughout the building.  We wrote on the wood studs and on the dusty, gritty floor.


We wrote prayers, hopes, dreams, for Miriam’s House that seemed impossible, improbable, never-to-be.  Permanently we wrote in the gutted dark. Gathering again, we stood in silence.  One of us said, “Next year in Miriam’s House.”  Next year, we prayed, we would be standing in Miriam’s House, a loving home for homeless women living with AIDS; a sanctuary to which they could come to live out the final days or months of a disease that – at that time – was a sure death sentence.


How impossible, how improbable!  Yet, sure enough, by the next April, studs and sub-flooring had been replaced by painted wallboard and carpeted and tiled floors; dark replaced by light fixtures and curtained windows. There we were, living, serving, participating in life at Miriam’s House, welcoming our first two residents on February 29, 1996. 


And even now, when we find ourselves, as we often do, in the dusty dark, we call on the faith that has brought us here …


Words from Linda… 

“I have been in the dusty dark. I have been in need of prayers in my bones.I was on the streets for 16, 17 years; started off with crack cocaine and alcohol.  Soon I was sleeping on park benches and in alleyways.  I was not accepted in houses anymore because I stole.  I did the necessary things to get my drugs.  I became homeless when I became homeless. I have two children, and the insanity was that I was not a very good mother but no one could tell me that.  Finally, my sister came to get them. I just went and got high, couldn’t remember where they were. I got into the Park Road Shelter, and that’s when my addiction really took off.  My family took the kids away.  The shelter facilitator gave me a choice: go to detox and he would save my room and my stuff, or get kicked out of the shelter.  Turns out he was lyin’ – even though I did go to detox, he threw out all my stuff anyway.  I had nothin’.”    



And from Charlene… 


 “My dusty dark time was not so long ago, and I remember like it was yesterday.I’d been on the run a long time, even by the time my sister – who raised me after Momdied when I was ten – died of breast cancer.  In July of 2003 she died, and in October of 2003 I got my HIV + diagnosis.  I remember those days before … before I had surrendered to my powerlessness over so many things.  My sister’s death kicked up a lot of old memories.  I went on a binge but nothing was taking the pain away, yet I didn’t know how to stop.  Everywhere I turned was drugs – that was my life … all my friends.  I thought that everybody in the world got high. I’d wake up in abandoned vans, in crack houses, not knowing how I got there or how long I’d been there.  I was using so much… I was too afraid to do the deed – to end it all – so I was doing it slowly.” 


As long ago a compassionate Israelite community waited for a cursed Miriam, sister of Moses, to be allowed inside the community again, so Miriam’s House waits for today’s Miriam who is made to stay outside, or who puts herself outside.              


For Linda, who lost her young children and her family’s trust, who lived on benches and slept in alleyways, we waited.  For Charlene, who woke up in abandoned vans, and for whom life became so burdensome that she could only imagine using herself to death, we waited. 


For the woman whose family, out of fear of HIV, makes her eat off paper plates and live in the basement; we wait.  For the woman – for Miriam – whose life of abuse at the hands of those supposed to protect her has led her to mistrust everyone; we wait.  For a Miriam who is dying with AIDS, for a weary Miriam who is living with AIDS; we wait.  We say, “Come along home.” 


 It might sound crazy, but I thank God I was arrested on that bench warrant in 2004.  I was on my way to the soup kitchen and I hadn’t used yet, and the police stopped me and arrested me.  It was a Thursday.  I was by myself in the cell.  All I could think of was that I didn’t have to use again.  I knew it was only God who brought me this far, and all I could do was thank Him, over and over. I went to court Friday, and the judge looked at my long record and asked me about my druggin’, and then mandated that I be released to 90-day treatment.  After that I went to S.O.M.E., and from there I came to Miriam’s House.” 


“Yeah, while that liar was throwin’ my stuff away, I was tryin’ to get into detox.  They didn’t have room, so my sister took me in for a week.  It is so hard to get a place in detox – you would not believe it.  I had stayed sober at my sister’s, but the law says you have to be high to get into detox, so to get in, I rinsed my mouth with beer.  I had to pretend to drink alcohol again to get in detox!  It was the worst experience.  I thought I was a cut above because I didn’t use heroine.  Then I was supposed to go to a treatment program, but there was no room, so I went back to my sister’s, who didn’t trust me.  She moved her purse, locked down her watches and jewelry. Finally got into treatment, then moved into an apartment and stayed five years clean.  Then I had a stroke and learned I had HIV.  I lost my Safeway job, had two bouts of pneumonia.  My case manager suggested I come to Miriam’s House.”


So here sits Miriam’s House, with its plan to be a “sanctuary for women with AIDS, where they can live out their final days or months:” that was our vision, our plan for Miriam’s House, before we opened.  Here we were, ready to be like a hospice, when along came wonderful new drugs that prolong and improve quality of life for persons living with AIDS. 


Beautifully, wonderfully, improbably, we realized that we did not have to be only hospice, we could serve women who were regaining health and sobriety also.  But how to offer both choices under one roof – to stay until the transition to independent housing, AND to stay until the transition through death?  How would our residents feel about this?


We remember when our first resident died, “little Mary”, we called her, so as not to confuse her with the other, tall Mary in the house.  We were fearful, unsure.  Someone said she felt a dark cloud over the whole house.  We began to think we were crazy for trying to maintain a home with both dying women and women striving to get well.


For her last few days and nights, as the health care staff gave her loving care, others of us remained beside her bed.  We sat with her – simply, quietly, lovingly present to our sister; simply present as she fought, then accepted; quietly prayerful as she labored, then calmed; lovingly aware as she breathed her final, shuddering breath.  So little Mary died.  And so we combed her hair, washed her, straightened her clean sheet, put on soft music, and placed a large, lit candle on her table, with tea lights near it.  Residents and staff came in to pray, light a tea light and sit with our sweet friend.


And residents said to us, “Now I get it.  Now I know why you all let Mary stay here.  I see the love.”  Some said, “When it comes to be my time to pass, I want to be here, too.”   


So now, here we all are, living and dying, intentionally and lovingly present to it all.  We discovered that, if we are going to do this right, we simply must develop a solid structure for supporting recovery from addictions.  You know who taught us that?  The residents that swore on their dead mothers’ graves that they were sober, a few hours before their anxious Moms called to find out where they were; The residents who suddenly developed a bad case of asthma when confronted with instructions to blow into a Breathalyzer unit; The resident who told a staff member that it costs $25 to get into line at the ER and she needed the money RIGHT AWAY.

As they emerge from their own dusty, gritty, dark places into the light and space that is Miriam’s House, we become a community, a family together.


"Yeah, as in ---- who stole my eggs out of the refrigerator?  And, don’t you be lookin’ at MY man like that! Or ---- girl, if you don’t turn that radio down at 5:00 in the morning, I’m gonna rip your … 


Miriam’s House is like a family.  And not without some of the typical issues that a family deals with. And some fun things, too …


"Yeah, like Bingo nights!  Remember how intern Elizabeth’s Mom used to send those great prizes?  And how mad Theresa would get when she didn’t win? No, the trips to Six Flags are the best.  I remember Juliana breaking her back wheeling me all the way up that ramp to go on the roller coaster, then finding out they had to go all the way back down and get in line. Was that the same trip that you ended up rolling backwards down the hill at the water ride? Probably!"  


A family, a community, filled with the same highs and lows that any family has.  Miriam’s House is no different, though sometimes we think the highs are higher and the lows lower than we have ever experienced before.


 “ANYWAY … we might bicker like sisters but when push came to shove we stick together like glue.  And the older ladies in the house gave me wisdom. I said to myself, “I’m safe here.”  Not like on the street, sleeping with one eye open.  I had a sense of peace, calm. In the winter, the wind blows rough; at Miriam’s House, it blows, but it’s like a spring wind.  And it gets easier, you understand you don’t have to watch your back all the time. I got to know staff as well as they know me.  I got hugs when I needed hugs.  Even when I didn’t need a hug, I got a hug anyway.” 


 “When I came to Miriam’s House, I’d already been in 90-day treatment and then 7-month transition.  After all that, I get to Miriam’s House and there’s this 90-day contract to start.  But I knew that my thinking was getting me nowhere, and the contract didn’t feel like punishment.  It was a suggestion to do something different.  I didn’t feel like I was forced. I felt like I was important for the first time.  I was part of the plan, so it was not hard to welcome the new way of life.  I had learned from detox and my treatment program that HIV was a symptom of my disease – which is addiction – and so the most important part is my recovery. I got to know myself, got to know the other women.  I found out about my mental health issues and the underlying reasons for my staying off balance.  I learned that I had been looking for other things to keep me on balance.  In therapy, the fog started to lift, and I began living life on life’s terms.” 


 "The staff holds my hand, and then I can hold others’ hands." 

"I now accept myself, love myself; God put me where I could grow and then be of most help."


When a woman comes in our door, we don’t know how she will go out.  We hope and pray that her emergence from the dusty dark will take her to better health and a new home, like it did Linda and Charlene.  But like so many things, that is out of our control.  We don’t get to choose whether a resident’s health will improve OR even influence much the choices she will make while she is with us. 


The lure of the street culture and addiction to drugs and alcohol is terribly strong.   We lose some women in this way, and how we grieve when they leave us!  Because even if her stay with us has been short, we have been given the gift of a glimpse of the woman that is there, under the addict, and she is invariably strong and beautiful and gifted and proud. 


We pray that she will come to believe in what we have seen in her; we pray that she will return one day.  We pray that we have planted a seed. We pray that we have written a prayer in her bones.


Sometimes, the intensive medication therapies prove too toxic for a woman’s already frail health, or the opportunity that Miriam’s House affords to finally take these medications has simply come too late in the progression of her disease.  And once in a while, a woman says to us, “I’m so tired.  I want no more pills, no more hospitals, no more needles.” And so -- sadly we watch a familiar face sink into a skeletal mask; we walk with our beloved one as she slows; we accompany our sister toward and through her death. Let us remember.


 “Coming to Miriam’s House showed me how strong I am, how to be humble.  Coming in here, I have found out that it is unnecessary to go toe-to-toe with people all the time. I have learned that family don’t necessarily mean bloodline and that everything that shines is not gold. And now I take it with me.  I will never forget.” 


 “At Miriam’s House, I found out that I can deal with life outside the “safety zone” I can trust myself to do the next right thing on my own. It was my time, my season.  My gratitude for Miriam’s House has done nothing but grow. You all loved me’ til I learned to love myself.”  


The journey of these women, like life, is cyclical.  Someday, we know, we will again be thinking “impossible, never-to-be.”  And soon thereafter, we know, we will be moving toward recovery and hope, even as have Linda and Charlene, whose generosity of spirit and heart embody the best of Miriam’s House.   


We hope that perhaps a prayer has been written in your bones – a prayer that will breathe through your days.  So that, perhaps in a never-to-be, dusty, dark time of your own, you will feel the prayer in your bones and remember the courage and life of the women of Miriam’s House.  Perhaps you will be uplifted and inspired, as are we. 




-Carol Marsh