A star drawn on the sidewalk remembers Chilli, “the angel that got away.” Photo from Deacon Robert Kinghorn

Chilli’s death reminds us love is the answer

  • March 21, 2024

I never knew the lady’s real name. When I met her she said, “Just call me Chilli, that’s my street name.”

Readers of this column will know her as “The woman who lives in a doorway downtown.” It has been 10 months since we first met. At that time, she gave me some money to go and buy clothes for her from a nearby shop. When I returned, we sat on the step together as she poured out her grief for her son who was taken from her at nine years old.

“I had been clean for seven years back then, but I couldn’t handle my son being taken from me and I relapsed badly, and so here I am living in a doorway. You see all these stars drawn on the sidewalk? I drew one for everyone who has died on the street of an overdose. I want to draw attention to the grief on the streets,” she said.

But this evening someone had drawn one large star, and in the middle of it was the single word, “Chilli.”

A man I knew was walking slowly away and I asked him the question whose answer I already guessed.

“Where is Chilli? Don’t tell me she died.”

He turned, and with sadness he slowly pointed to the sky. Over the years I have known many people on the street who have died of an overdose or suicide. I don’t know why but Chilli’s death was different. I stood and looked at the large star on the sidewalk with her name in the middle of it and I said a prayer.

I turned to walk back to my car to drive home. I just could not stay downtown for the rest of the evening and wanted to be alone with my thoughts. As I walked, I reminisced about times we were alone together in the doorway. The evening when she saw me approach soaked in the pouring rain.

“You’re going to drown out there,” she said, “come in here and sit next to me.”

I stepped up into her “house” and we sat shoulder to shoulder out of the rain.

“What are you writing in the book there?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s my spiritual writing. I write things that come into my mind. Do you want to read what I have just written?”

It was clear from the flow of the scrambled words that she was longing for hope in her life. I told her I would always pray for her to find hope.

“You are a good person,” I whispered.

It was the previous two meetings that haunted me. Two weeks before, I approached the doorway and there was a large cardboard box blocking the entrance. I called her name, and when I got no answer, I looked over the top and saw a red blanket, and underneath what seemed to be someone sleeping. A mutual friend looked over and called her name, but once again got no response. The week before she died, she was sitting in the doorway with another lady that I know on the street. I looked at Chilli, but she was sitting there using drugs.

She curled up in the corner of the doorway and waved her hand to tell me she did not want to talk. It was the last time I saw her. I did not sleep much that night. Grief cast a pall over my inner being. Anger with God was palpable. She was a beautiful and gentle soul, whose passing has left a void in my life.

Fr. Greg Boyle once asked the question, “Can we stay faithful and persistent in our fidelity even when things seem not to succeed?”

When we feel hopeless, he said, we have to hold on to tenderness. Love is the answer, community is the context and tenderness is the methodology. As the pastoral saying reminds us, “The only failure is not to show up.” I leave you with the epithet of Chilli, written on the wall of her doorway:

“Seven angels know my name, six angels show me another way, five angels protect me day by day, four angels teach me how to laugh and play, three angels support me all the way, two angels guide me every day, one angel loves me in all my ways, today they all told me I am the angel that got away.”

So long my friend until we meet again.

(Kinghorn is a deacon in the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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