Homeless women pay tribute to Women’s Hearth volunteer

In 20 years as a greeter at the Women's Hearth, Marie Pizelo, center, touched the lives of many struggling women through her warm welcome and her artwork. The women of the day center in downtown Spokane recently gathered in honor of Pizelo, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
In 20 years as a greeter at the Women's Hearth, Marie Pizelo, center, touched the lives of many struggling women through her warm welcome and her artwork. The women of the day center in downtown Spokane recently gathered in honor of Pizelo, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. "All my life, I've had a thing for people who suffer alone," she said. (Colin Mulvany)

She found her voice at the center but is now dying of cancer

Marie Pizelo was just a baby, crying as babies do to communicate hurts and desires, and one day, someone in a house filled with neglect and abuse placed a pillow over the face of crying baby Marie until she passed out.

And in that gesture, baby Marie got the message. You don’t cry. You don’t express hurts and desires. You remain silent. You are alone.

Baby Marie lost her “voice” that day. She is 74 now, and she is dying of cancer, and she cannot imagine how it would feel to die if she had not found her voice again.

But find it she did, starting 20 years ago, when she discovered the Women’s Hearth, a day center in downtown Spokane, where women who are homeless or socially isolated walk into welcome and support.

Pizelo is the welcomer there, a volunteer job she’s held for years. She knows every woman by name.

One recent Friday, the women who are called by name gathered around Pizelo, who was seated in a chair, looking like royalty.

Pizelo wanted to share her journey of voice-finding. She wanted to say good-bye. It was a sort of a memorial service in advance. Pizelo could be gone in a few months.

Dozens of women showed up, sitting, standing, leaning into one another, Kleenex boxes a teardrop away.

Pizelo’s voice was soft but sure as she updated the women on her medical condition.

Eight weeks ago, doctors found a “bellyful of cancer,” she said. Ovarian cancer has spread throughout her body.

“I’m not doing surgery. I’m not doing chemotherapy,” she said. “Hospice is helping me with pain and other things. This is not a wrenching time in my life. I feel like my life is in a good place to (let) go.”

She talked about her childhood.

“When I was little, things were miserable and I felt very alone,” she said.

The house was dirty with secrets – sexual, physical, emotional abuse. And neglect, tons of neglect. Pizelo’s oldest sister, at age 8, was put in charge of six younger siblings.

These smart, resilient siblings, however, grew up and seemed to be doing fine.

“I have five brothers and sisters with master’s degrees,” Pizelo said. “We all got up in the morning, put on our smiles and away we went to work. That’s how we dealt with life. We were all workaholics – the one acceptable addiction in America.”

Twenty two years ago, when her oldest sister was dying, she asked Pizelo for forgiveness. Pizelo noticed the dying sister’s anger. And the anger of her other sisters and Pizelo felt nothing like it.

“I never felt safe enough to be angry,” she said.

So she got some counseling. She discovered the Women’s Hearth when it was called the Women’s Drop-In Center and in a different downtown location.

Pizelo took a sculpting class at the YWCA. Her hands expressed in clay the words she could never say. Her first sculpture? A child in a garbage can, no way out.

Pizelo’s art now decorates the center, expressing the anguish of childhood abuse. A woman saw her art one day and angrily said: “How could you do this? Don’t talk about it.”

Pizelo told the woman that if you talk about it, you become a gentler person.

“This was a miracle of a place for me,” Pizelo told the women gathered.

And in this miracle of a place, Pizelo remembered the name of every woman who walked in the door. Some of them women people cross the street to avoid. Some of them women who grew up so deprived, they never had one friend.

Women also silenced young, and bereft of voice.

“For a lot of my life I was quiet and withdrawn,” Pizelo said. “It was unbelievable to be in (this) place where you could be with your pain and it’s alright.

“Most people want you to go home and fix it and then you can come back. They don’t want to hear about at it at the store or the laundromat or all the places we go. They just want us to be fine. That’s the way our world is. We’re all pretending to be fine. That keeps you stuck in an awful place.”

Pizelo’s adult life looked fine from the outside. She was married for 47 years to a quiet but controlling man who died six years ago. They had four children, all boys. She worked as a property manager, a meat wrapper and as a waitress in restaurants.

But she didn’t truly come to life until the Women’s Hearth, until the artwork, until her role as a greeter, the remember of names.

She has moved in with her son for her last months, moved out of Cathedral Plaza in downtown Spokane. She was a familiar site in her scooter traveling the downtown blocks, her dog, Dusty, riding on the floor of her scooter.

When she left Cathedral Plaza, a granite marker with her name was placed in the garden she tended.

The things that she did, she said, were so simple. Gardening, greeting. But in life, “we don’t give the simple acts enough credit.”

Pizelo spoke for 10 minutes only, and then the women spoke back. They were not shy with their voices.

Lea Anne Potter presented her with butterflies on a string, filled with messages from the women.

“I know you like them because butterflies transform,” Potter said. “When I first walked into this place, I was scared to death. You greeted me and made me feel good. Thank you for sharing your life with me.”

Bonnie Avery covered Pizelo’s shoulders with a shawl.

“We’ve been working on this prayer shawl for you,” Avery said. “And those who couldn’t knit and crochet have been holding it and praying over it to help you through the journey.”

At the end, Edie Rice-Sauer, director of the Women’s Hearth, said to Pizelo: “Thank you for being the face of God for us. For many of us who don’t know that calming, deep consoling place, you have brought that to us.”

Rice-Sauer then said: “Shall we do this once a month? We can call it ‘Words with Marie.’ ”

Pizelo nodded yes. She has found her voice. She will use it until she can no more.

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