Mary Jo died last month. You wouldn’t have known this from an obituary, even if you’d known her, as there wasn’t one. In death she was even more invisible than she’d been in life.
I’d known Mary Jo since 1997. In some ways she was my introduction into the world of people living alone with a major mental illness. She wasn’t the first of her kind that I met, and she sure wasn’t the last, but she shared her life with those of us working at the Shelter for almost 17 years.
In the “early years” (when she was in her early 50’s), Mary Jo would spend her year in Boston, Portland and Bangor. Almost every night would find her in a homeless shelter in one of those cities, and she’d generally stay a month or three and then move. As far as I know, she was never a problem to anyone. And because we liked her, and because we almost always could find an empty bed, we would be able to let her stay here in Bangor whenever she got off a bus and showed up at the door.
Mary Jo looked like she came from healthy, working class stock. She had strong facial features, a full head of hair that had gone mostly to white, a robust build, and a gait that conveyed purpose. If you’d happened to see her on the street, you might have noticed that she always had a sort of duffle bag with her, and that she was usually dressed in too many layers for the weather. But it would not have been striking if you’d passed her by without coming away with any visual impression—Mary Jo was guarded, very much focused on taking care of herself, and would never make eye contact with strangers. All those people in passing never got the chance to see her absolutely beam when she allowed her smile to shine.
The real deal, or at least the part of her that Mary Jo kept hidden while she lived and breathed it every day, was that she was living with a serious, deeply rooted condition of paranoid schizophrenia. As she allowed us to gradually get to know her a little I found myself wondering how she managed to survive. She lived with fixed delusions (having a Ph.D. from Cornell; owning family property on an island off the coast of the Camden Rockland area) and paranoid ideations of being threatened and persecuted while existing, in the world we shared, on her own, on the city streets, and in homeless shelters. She never had anyone in her life, near as we could tell, to call on when she really needed someone. And so she got older, and more stubbornly strong, and more alone. And more than once, when professional staff were successful at the delicate dance of getting Mary Jo into an office somewhere in which she could meet with an agency or government representative about the possibility of disability income and a housing voucher for which she was eminently qualified, her face would take on that patient look of someone dealing with “some poor dear” who just didn’t get it, and inform that representative that she in fact did not need assistance as she was the owner of substantial property off the Maine coast. Thank you very much, and good day.
We finally managed to get her into housing with an agency that had a subsidized apartment as well as compassionate, professional staff who understood the situation. So for a few years, Mary Jo didn’t travel to Portland or Boston or who knows where, but actually had a stable place of her own here in Bangor. I’d see her rarely—I can recall once in a local supermarket, approaching each other from opposite ends of an aisle, and her success at not making eye contact—and another time at the Folk Festival when she was picking bottles and cans from the trash barrels, wearing blue snowmobile pants and a short sleeved shirt.
I only knew of Mary Jo’s death from the call I received from the good folks at the local funeral home (you might be surprised by all the quiet and compassionate acts those people perform behind the scenes). They were going to have Mary Jo’s seventy-seven-year-old body cremated but had yet to confirm the final disposition with any family (and with our records we were able to help with that). We were left to imagine just whom Mary Jo had had for family, and how her death struck them…