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“Bettina” was turned away by the triage nurse in the hospital’s emergency wing. Bettina looked strung out and hungry, her long skirt and bouclé jacket stained, hat tipped at an odd angle. She’s only looking for nighttime shelter, the nurse decided. This is not a hotel.

Bettina struggled back to the abandoned house in Northeast where she had been camping for a couple of months, and the next day while waiting in line for food at the church across the street, she blacked out. This time, the arrival of the ambulance with lights and horns gave her authenticity, and the hospital staff admitted her. So she had clean sheets and painkillers the last three days of her life.

Bettina was 51 years old, a heroin addict, a prostitute, and a homeless woman. She died of complications from AIDS.

Bettina abandoned nine children.

Well, the District took them away. After all, she refused to send them to school when they didn’t have warm coats in winter. She refused to let a social worker know that she had no coats (and, truth be known, no shoes) for them. She refused to let a social worker in the door of the abandoned building where they lived because there were only mattresses on the floor and one plugged-up toilet down the hall shared by other squatters. One day in the midsummer heat she collapsed, and as soon as the ambulance sped away with her, authorities from the Department of Human Services shoved her door open and whisked her children away.

All documents state that Bettina abandoned them.

After they took her children away, Bettina would say whatever angry thing was on her mind to a judge, a counselor, a doctor, without fear of consequences. Her manner often inspired those powerful people to speak harshly to her. She was “uncooperative,” “impulsive,” and “lacked judgment.” But none of their words could shape her, and nothing they did could hurt her. Would they take away her food? She could find that in a trash bin. Shelter? She could sleep in an alley. Money? She could earn a month’s welfare check in five hours of nighttime work. Health care? For the small problems, heroin was numbing enough. For the great emergencies, care came when you were obnoxiously sick in front of compassionate people—people like the doctor who refused to let the staff push her out the door of the hospital during her last few days of life. She was armed with indifference. She didn’t want what we had. She didn’t wish to be us. We couldn’t touch her.

Bettina terrified us. She took our welfare checks, was shrewd as a French housewife in picking up our leftover crumbs, and she spit on our pride.

Bettina thrilled us. She did what, on certain days, we so desired to do ourselves: shrugged off every social demand and spoke her heart.

Bettina humiliated us by dressing stylishly from the used-clothes bins in shelters and churches. She usually wore a little cocktail hat; she was dainty and clean; she had lovely makeup. Her dresses and coats were strange but elegant. Her dark eyes glistened; she had dimples. A couple of weeks before her death, she flirted with an old man as they rummaged through a box of donated canned goods. It was only in the very last days when she lost her balance and kept falling down that her hat was askew and her skirt stained. Only then was her shattered health visible.

All her daughters inherited her amazing beauty.

In those last days, when the father of her youngest child tried to enter her hospital room, she sat up in her deathbed like an old emotion that refuses to be buried with the body. She pointed to the door. “Out!”

“Why?” he mumbled, confused with love for her.

“You said you were not the father of my child.” And indeed he had refused to admit paternity to the social worker when asked if he would take the child in. The social worker—finding him accoutered with land, cars, a wife, children, possessions—had believed him. Now, stubbornly, he stayed in the hospital room until Bettina’s children, who had gathered there to say goodbye to her, stared him down. After a while he slinked out.

Abandoned houses, abandoned children, abandoned society. Perfect freedom to make every harmful choice. Perfect courage rising to the task. And beauty to boot. CP