I catch a train from Penn Station out to Mineola, Long Island. I’ve never been to Mineola, but there is a Marriott hotel there called Springhill Suites. My friend Meghan is staying there while she’s in town for a funeral, and I tell her, “I’m catching the 6:51 train,” so she is waiting for me when I come off the train onto the platform. I get off on the train on the side of the tracks where there’s only a cracked sidewalk and one taxi cab. Meghan is on the other side, texting me, and I climb the stair case that brings me to the overpass over the tracks, and I see her. There’s one of those hugs, like I-haven’t-seen-you-since-last-summer, and we walk down the sidewalk to a bar on the corner.
Meghan is a social worker, the best kind, with the soul that gives everything to the long days. We slide into the bar stools, and Meghan is saying something about a hard week. The image that a “hard week” conjures for me in that moment is one of long days and long hours, thankless tasks and a feeling of aimlessness. I was thinking about hard weeks in the way law students think about them because I’ve forgotten: I’m thinking memos and papers and stress. The stress of pleasing people.
Meghan starts to tell me about her “hard week,” and it’s a story about a client in a domestic violence situation who is at gunpoint (often) and afraid. Meghan tells the story matter-of-factly, as I remember I used to do when I would say to family members, “I’m having a hard week.” But then I would say something like, “One of my teenagers was gang raped tonight.” Like it was usual because it was my day. So when Meghan gets halfway through her story I’m remembering that the hard days used to be about other people. How I was worried if I could help them or not. How she is worried if she said the right thing or if her client will muster enough strength to leave before she is killed.
I remember the hard days for social workers, and the people social workers care for, are not about long hours. Those days are about all the moments that don’t finish with promises or paychecks or praise but with untied ends of maybe-she-will-call-saying-she’s-ready-to-leave. Maybe this week she will live. Or maybe this week she won’t. And the hard week is because you’re caught in the middle, fighting for the services that might pour pathways under her feet to survive. And the services aren’t always there. And the pathway doesn’t always form.
I left the bar conversation remembering what it was like to have a real “hard day.” Not the hard days that you have in a comfortable job with a good income and the artificial stress of finishing a brief on time. Not the hard days that you have when you work a couple late nights and get tired. No, when I’m catching the train back from Mineola, I remember that the hard days were when I cared so much that it took all I had to not weep into my sleep, knowing that if more people everywhere took a share of the pain, it wouldn’t be so hard. That maybe if more people would care, less people would die. The hard days were the days that women and girls I cared about were on the brink of freedom or terror, life or death, and I was the only one they called for help. It’s harder to be a lifeline than on a career path. And I almost forgot that.