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Young woman's plight brings lessons ... and memories

"Do more than belong: participate. Do more than care: help. Do more than believe: practice. Do more than be fair: be kind. Do more than forgive: forget. Do more than dream: work."

— William Arthur Ward

It still haunts me, what I did — and did not do — for the hapless young woman in pink sweat pants who wandered into and out of my life one recent Saturday.

I wrote last week's column pondering what it means to be human — and flawed. Some readers commiserated with my confusion over how I reacted to this chance-met woman. Others called me out for my lack of protective intervention. I appreciate the compassion. I also accept the condemnation. And I wish I had more answers.

In case you missed it, here's a brief recap: A neighbor told me a female stranger had wandered across several of our properties, picked up a cushion from my niece's kayak and took it with her on her journey to wherever.

She likely figured this was a finders-keepers situation. I would have, too. But, in truth, this "pillow" didn't rightfully belong to either of us. Earlier attempts to locate this unknown passerby failed. But late that afternoon, I got a call she was still schlepping the "pillow" along on her way toward the town of Rogue River.

I grabbed my keys and headed off to explain things. Of course, she'd wholeheartedly agree it should be returned. Who wouldn't? But when I pulled off the highway, the young woman darted away. (Huh?) When I got out of my car and called out to her, she came toward me. (Yeah!) Then she practically climbed on top of me. (Whoa! What's going on here?)

I scrambled to make sense of our moments-long meeting. Her dialog was disjointed and disconcerting. She wanted in my car. She wanted me to go away. She'd never seen the "pillow." She had the "pillow" on her. She'd left the "pillow" down the road. She had a bad boyfriend, a calamitous river ramble and, somewhere, her new truck was awaiting, she said.

Red flags began waving wildly. But my brain remained stubbornly fixated on the missing inanimate object, even as my heart began to prod me to "rescue" this seemingly lost soul.

The situation renewed aching memories of a beloved nephew. We loved Jay dearly. But for decades we agonized as this brilliant but bipolar young man's life spiraled out of control because of the combined effects of mental illness and drug use.

We tried so hard to save him — individually and collectively. We gave him advice, food, shelter, funds and so much love. Tender love. Tough love. Down-on-our-knees-praying-for-a-miracle love.

God knows Jay tried, too. But his challenges were too complex for family or friends to fix. His best hope was long-term treatment in an inpatient care facility that does not seem to exist. At least not around here.

Jay died violently on Sept. 11, 2005 — one day after he was released without family notification from a short mental hold in the psychiatric ward at a local hospital. He was stabbed to death in an alley near the Mail Tribune by another tragically troubled soul, similarly released.

His killer, having already done a stint at the state mental hospital, refused to take another insanity plea. He pled guilty to a first-degree manslaughter charge — and is slated for release on the 10-year anniversary of my nephew's murder.

Maybe my experiences with Jay caused me to shut down Saturday. Or maybe I've simply lost faith in our current catch-and-release mental health care system. Neither excuse is acceptable. There is a difference between feeling helpless and actually being helpless.

Giving a ride to an unknown stranger is dangerous.

"Anything could have happened," said the officer I eventually spoke with earlier this week.

But why did I flinch at calling 9-1-1 that evening? Or at least the non-emergency dispatch operator at Rogue River or the Jackson County Sheriff's Department.

"I'd like to report a young woman who, I believe, is at risk. She's wearing pink sweat pants, a white camisole, plastic bags and a burlap sack. Said she'd wandered all day, trouble with a boyfriend, currently looking for her truck. Last time I saw her she was skipping along the highway, flying the burlap like Superman's cape. She ran up a dirt driveway. Witnesses said she later continued south. But I can't find her. And I'm worried. It was really cold last night. It's getting dark ... ."

Why did I think that was not my place? Why was I afraid it could cause her trouble? Why did I tell myself she was not my problem? Had police been able to find her, she might have been returned to family, or taken to a sobering center, or to the hospital for a psych evaluation.

"We get these suspicious-persons calls all day long," the officer said.

Suspicious? Try tragic. But even a single night in safe haven beats the alternative. Jay would agree.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.