*Featured Artwork: “Bewoulf” by Megan Phipps
I stand in our dining-room/office, ready for work. The sounds of the neighborhood under-score my solitude: passing footsteps, the thunk of a car door, the cough of an engine, the crunch and shush of tires as a car leaves gravel and slips onto tarmac.
Today I woke eagerly—a mystery, given how I cried last night thinking of my son, Sam, the flophouse where he lives, drug-addled, alone, his magic beans having landed him in the country of angry giants.
My partner Mem and I share the relief of knowing Sam is at least dry on a rainy night without having to live with us, which he hasn’t done since his psychotic break two years ago. Without him, we’ve rested in the ‘boring’ life my mother predicted I might regret, being married to a wise, calm woman instead of the difficult and interesting Jason, Sam’s dad. But grief over Sam’s condition never leaves me, a rising pressure in my chest and throat that demands periodic release. Tapping into that well of tears last night may be why I feel lighter this morning.
Jason has at least been covering Sam’s rent to keep him off the streets. But clearly Sam is still with us, if I’m crying myself to sleep over him. My sorrowful preoccupation is hard on Mem, I know. Could I let go of Sam a bit more? A thought I’d like to sit with, but there’s work to be done!
Mem left today with a smile, heading down the Peninsula where she teaches high school. I’ve been collecting college freshman essays all week, which will require steady work today if we want to play a bit this weekend.
I open my folder of essays. The one I read on the train yesterday defies analysis. Where can I start with this young man, who scrawls incomprehensible nonsense as if stoned? I wince. If I can get this kid in for a conference, we may have a chance. I write a note, move his piece to the bottom of the pile. The next one is typed at least, but almost as lacking in meaning and substance. I pull a third essay from the middle of the pile, also typed, but riddled with errors. Another young man with nothing to say, or so he claims. I close my eyes, remembering the wonderful portfolios my last class produced by the end of spring semester. I remind myself of how their initial efforts had likewise elicited despair. Yet I had known where to start and what to teach, and they had grown and learned. Why do I despair now?
My eyes fly open. My present sense of helplessness has a name: Sam. Just a month back in town from his latest psych lock-up at “The Villa,” in Oakland, and no further along toward healthy independence.
It’s the mother in me who has no idea what to do. But the teacher in me is alive and well, it seems. I take the half-witted paper, find a sentence I can respond to in the margin, give this disaffected writer a reader who thinks he matters. I add an encouraging note at the end. After two more hours, ten more essays done. I stand to stretch, fix tea and toast, fold laundry, savor the peculiar satisfaction of matching socks. A right answer for every pair! Back to work, I add four papers to my DONE stack before my next break.
Noon. Time for a sandwich. The mind drifts fondly to a ten-year-old Sam who once confessed to wishing he were a student of mine. “When your students came to visit that time in Berkeley, they told me how great you were. I wanted to have that.” I told him I was sorry to be a better teacher than I was a mom. “That’s not what I’m saying,” he protested. “Maybe not, but it’s true,” I said, and regret it still.
This fact bares its teeth at me. Nothing I can do for Sam, but plenty I can do for my students. Though my heart protests, I pick up another essay, grateful for someone to help.
The screen door slams. Who the hell—? I scramble to my feet in time to witness my son, as if summoned, burst into the front hall. He blows past me with a big grin and a rock-star wave.
Incredible. I step into the hall behind his retreating figure.
“Sam.” My command snakes after him like a lariat and spins him around to face me, as he backpedals into the kitchen, megaphoning his needs.
“Hey, Mom! Gonna shower downstairs. I’ll need a peanut butter sandwich when I come up. Haven’t eaten for three days!” He makes starvation sound like a grand achievement. Then he’s gone, slamming the back door as he heads downstairs to our in-law unit, once his private lair, now a retreat where I work on my dissertation.
I sway in his wake, then drop to sit, staring at the desk. A band of morning sun swipes across the piles of paper, sparks off the stapler and pencil sharpener, the silver clips of ball-points. Glittering points of light fracture my vision. Steadying myself with a deep breath, I resolve not to let the interruption demolish this day of work. We had an agreement. Sam is not supposed to drop in without an invitation, unless he calls first! I fight the urge to follow him downstairs, confront him this instant. But wait.
No point yelling if I make his sandwich anyway, I tell myself, grasping my dilemma by the horns—do I feed him? Can I not? Damn decision time again. I had really hoped I could leave him to his fate long enough to finish my first-week’s essays. So let him make his own sandwich?
But where does that leave us?
A tsunami of protest fills my throat. We can’t go back! Trapped in that endless culvert pipe, tunneling under roads that might take us somewhere we actually want to go. We followed that tunnel for years, leaving daylight at the entrance, moving in the dark for so long I lost my bearings. What has brought him here, today? Why hasn’t he eaten? He survived once on the 25cent-meal program of the Food Project, which I still support. But this is a new test.
So. Is a pb sandwich really disallowed? I’d like one myself. I picture making two and sitting down together to talk. The heart leaps. I rise involuntarily; knees push back against my chair. I move away from the desk and turn toward the kitchen, but our history rushes at me.
This journey began long before I found Mem. At fourteen Sam took his troubles to his dad’s brother and sister–in-law, Ted & Diane, the back-up family he took refuge with after I went crazy, screaming him down the street, berating him about smoking. How little I knew of what he was up against, the voices in his head he was concealing so heroically. I was determined to save his lungs as I couldn’t save his father’s. But by fourteen, Sam was a chain smoker like his dad and already beyond my help in more ways than I knew.
I confess to guilty relief when Sam lived with his dad’s family during his fifteenth year. His absence, however painful, made space for me to fall in love with Mem, restoring my faltering spirit. But Diane finally sent Sam home to Jason and me. Jason’s blackest temper was loosed on the prodigal’s return, and no birds sang. I still imagined I might save us all.
We knew Sam was abusing pot—that fragrance familiar from our hippie days. Because we had used it, because he was at Berkeley High School with easy access to dope from kids like himself, not street pushers, Jason refused to be worried. “It’s normal to try it.”
I argued, “Was it also ‘normal’ for Sam to cut school the entire week I went east for my father’s funeral?” Learning of his truancy, on my return, I knew we were in trouble. When I found a family therapist. Jason refused to participate, and so, of course, did Sam, who opted for life on the streets, with his “friends.” I was bereft.
I went back to my own therapist. How do I care for my lost kid, just fifteen years old? She challenged the money I gave Sam every time he called with a new request (another bike, when his was “stolen”) saying that any cash I forked over would be instantly converted to drugs. I was “enabling” his addiction, she explained. Shocked, I told Sam I would not give him cash again. I could buy him shoes or clothes, but no cash. The requests dried up. I missed his calls but held firm against my longing to give.
Someone recommended ALANON, and I found my way to a meeting, ignoring Jason’s accusation that I was exaggerating Sam’s problems. I didn’t recognize my own dilemma in the introductory sharing that night, but the main speaker got to me. A woman about my age, deep eyes seasoned by pain. I can hear her now.
“For years, I believed I could FIX my son, control, restrict, protect him, by sheer force of will. When that didn’t work, I’d throw up my hands in despair and try to put him out of my mind. But soon I’d cave, needing him to know I loved him. I really had to keep a roof over his head and food in his belly, slip him a little cash, for my own sanity. None of these efforts did him any good. In fact, all three were harmful in some way.”
As she elaborated the negative effects of each familiar stance—“controlling,” “enabling,” and abandoning,” she walked in a slow circle. Finally, she stopped and pointed to the empty place in the middle. “At ALANON,” she concluded, “I am learning about this other space, in the middle. This ‘none of the above” space.
Hearing this, I felt a thrill of hope, a chill of dread. I blinked at the empty space that I had no idea how to fill—hadn’t even known existed.
So, the world required more of me than angry protest or pious acceptance? I needed to find a middle way. But where? How? I began to read. My therapist lent me books on co-dependency, which scalded me with recognition: my mother, myself, my culture. Women’s roles: rescue and repair, advise and inspire, support, protect and comfort. All the ways I feel needed. How can this loving response to my child’s pain be wrong?
Jason’s continuing refusal to enter therapy together or admit any concern about Sam eventually defeated me. I longed to be with Mem but was slow to end the marriage, hoping to spare Sam. Finally Jason and I agreed to separate. Sam’s response to the news floored me: “That’s a relief. Your marriage has been over for years,” he announced. I couldn’t argue.
For a time, shame, guilt, and failure rendered me useless at home and at work. Then, it was summer. Jason left us, at my bidding, and Mem moved to take his place in our cramped little house with Sam and me. An awkward experiment for all. Six months later, after Sam’s sixteenth birthday, Mem and I bought this lovely, big house with its downstairs apartment “just for Sam,” its garden “just for Mem,” and a study “just for me.”
I rest my forehead against my wrists, elbows on table, and relive that first season of bitter fights with Sam over money; his lunch allowance was never enough, and he ran great cons dunning me for more. Mem and I watched him deteriorate, our downstairs apartment filling with scrap metal scavenged around town—bolts and washers, galvanized pipes, once a whole car bumper. I dithered. I didn’t want to drive him away again by forbidding the junk.
So, things came and went. One day Sam crept past me with a beat-up guitar in close embrace. That night, we lay awake to arrhythmic strums across untuned strings, the flat, dead sound of delusion—maybe if you just play it, it will make music. A fantasy of effortless mastery that I’d laughed at in myself, and with others who shared it. “Just do it! It’ll be great!” It wasn’t great, and it went on and on; he could not have known how bad it sounded, but his delusion didn’t alarm me—a harmless kind of crazy, I thought. But sad, yes. Until it was more than sad.
The sun shifts off my desk. My eyes lift to the bright windows that were night-black that desperate evening two years ago when Sam went over the edge. While Mem and I cleared away supper, Sam had sat slumped, muttering his way into a rant. Then he was up, pounding the walls and gesturing at our reflections in the dark glass.
“I don’t belong to you, you know. I’m Frodo, the Hobbit! I have to deliver the Ring to the cracks of doom! But right now I’m in the cave, and you—you’re Shelob, the giant spider. You’re in my way, and I have to—” But he balked at saying “kill.” He broke eye contact and continued, shouting, “I have to fucking get past you, to finish my journey. You’re in my head. I have to get you out of my fucking head.” He turned to glare at me in nervous defiance.
Mem had appeared from the kitchen. “You will not speak to your mother like that in this house.” The authority in her classroom voice silenced Sam for a breath.
I seized breath for my own message. “Honey, I’m just a little Hobbit like you. Even Hobbits have moms. You take your journey and I’ll send love all the way.” I imagined myself disarming his delusion. I believed my Sam was, inside, still the sweet, sensitive kid I’d always known, a faith confirmed when he went quietly on downstairs. Mem later reported she had lain awake all night, expecting to be killed in her bed.
My therapist referred me to a psychiatrist at Walnut Creek Psychiatric Hospital, saying we needed to get Sam help. Sam was sleeping away the days, never bathing. His long hair grew lank, greasy, his untrimmed beard and mustache crusty with dried food. When I described his state to Dr. Wilcox, I learned that “neglecting personal hygiene is a major flag for mental illness.” Who knew? He gave us an immediate appointment.
When we got to the hospital in Walnut Creek, Dr. Wilcox described his ten-month residential program. Sam shook his head, ruefully, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I can do that.” By some grace, tears began to course down my cheeks; I had nothing left to offer—no wisdom, strength, endurance—nothing but surrender. Which was apparently what Sam needed.
“Okay. I mean, I guess I can try to do it,” he said. “I don’t want my mom to cry.” Wilcox regarded Sam appraisingly and smiled a beatitude. I took heart.
Under Dr. Wilcox’s care, Sam was dual-diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic with hallucinations, and multiple-drug addictions. Wilcox explained, “We’ll never know which came first—the drug abuse or the psychosis. The psychosis often leads a young patient to self-medicate with street drugs. We treat the psychosis with legal meds while building life skills for the adolescent addict.”
I was disappointed to learn we couldn’t just blame the drugs. Instead, as soon became clear, a new parenting style was required. I needed to find that middle space, not running things, not abandoning him.
I sought out my Zen teacher. “I don’t know how to be his mother. What do I do?” Mel asked, “Why not love him just as he is?” A response not readily available to me, I found; I kept looking for a door to pound on, begging for deliverance. Nevertheless, for the next two years, Sam not only got the help he needed but I got indoctrinated in the virtues of not helping.
And so we entered that halcyon school year when Sam was contained, safe, medicated, supervised. At the end of his ten months, he was discharged to a group home in Modesto, miles away from his Berkeley suppliers. I visited him there and admired his adjustment to the highly structured regimen. I came home to my teaching. Not privy to his progress, I could only trust naively that he was “getting better,” whatever that meant for an addict.
Unknown to me, a week before his 18th birthday, the official date of graduation, Sam left Modesto, A.W.O.L., with a ‘friend,’ a dealer in fact. After a week holed up in Sacramento, stoned out of his mind, he returned to Berkeley on his own, staying again with street friends until his dad rented him a room at the Shattuck Hotel. I visited this flop house once, gagging on the stench when he opened his door to my knock. The aromas of stale smoke, spoiled food, beer, urine and sweat-saturated clothes piled on the floor, had melded into the indelible smell of street people. I stood there, letting my heart grow big enough to hold this, too. A path. Something else I was not invited to fix.
Eventually, another “fifty-one-fifty” (police code for psychiatric crises) landed him in a psyche facility in Oakland, “The Villa,” where I visited him, saw his paintings of “Vortex,” a recurring vision he described as “terrifying,” blaming it on his medications.
Believing he might be right that the psych meds made him crazier, I wasn’t sorry to learn Sam was free again, back on the streets. Then, last month, Mem and I had him to dinner. Not a happy evening. I asked about the pressured speech, which he couldn’t stop; I thought it came from being stoned, a no-no for visiting us. He corrected me, as Wilcox once had: “You think I’m high, Mom, when I seem crazy, but I’m only crazy when I can’t get my fix. When I seem normal to you is when I’m on my stuff.”
I couldn’t see how to proceed. It was devastating to be with him, untreated.
Mem said, “No more. Take him out to eat next time.” I wept. Conceded. Called Wilcox.
On the phone, Wilcox hammered home his mantra, “Tough love. He needs to find new parachutes. Every time you rescue him from now on will be another nail in the coffin of his resilience, self-respect. Everything you give him comes with the message that you doubt his ability to manage his own life. And of course you do doubt it, and so does he. But when you start believing in him, he gets to find out if he can believe in himself. He’s stronger than you think.”
So, is this the day we begin, with the un-mixed message? No feeding him while announcing you won’t do that anymore, unless he observes boundaries? Been there, done that!
But now, where are we? It kills me to think of those months of expensive treatment in Walnut Creek, for which his Dad beggared himself, dunning friends for help, all gone for nothing. Are we truly out of options?
I pause in my rush to despair. I’m not responsible for finding a complete and lasting cure this very minute. I’m just facing up to this one chance to do something different.
I tune in, listening for Sam, telling myself, this is the life we are in. I can be grateful he is not dead in a ditch. I am getting used to not knowing where he is, used to knowing that my passion for rescue and repair can lead us back to hospitals, jail, asylums. Nothing to do but to do nothing.
Except – he only wants a sandwich. And he’s not high—I think. And he’s here, and Mem’s not home… I confront this wheedling voice.
I do not want to repeat the old moves—the handout with the lecture that poisons it, sending him away with food in his belly and shame in his heart. Other parachutes exist.
But where are they? Am I actually required to refuse him food? Just a sandwich, for God’s sake! What if my refusal makes him give up on himself—deserted by his own mother? My breasts ache. Ignoring the blather in my head, my body stands, unprompted, ready to prepare the necessary, innocent peanut-butter sandwich, just the way he likes it, spread to the edges of soft toast, with blueberry jam. I salivate thinking of his pleasure, mine.
Catching myself, I pick up the pile of finished papers and pack them in my school bag, as something hidden struggles to decide itself. A conviction appears: I dare not turn my back on this challenge.
Dear God, why can’t I be a safe haven for my own son? Where is the law written that his mother is the one person forbidden to help? I want to hit something or someone until the answers change.
The longer I cry out in protest, the stronger comes the directive. You know you have to break Sam’s dependence on you—physical, financial, emotional. My spine sags. I return to my chair, facing out.
Sit. I scrub my eyes to quiet the itch of withheld tears. Rest my hands, palms up on spread thighs. I imagine my knees draped in sculpted folds, supporting the beloved body. The universal grief of mothers. I am not alone. And Sam is not dead. His hope lies exactly here, in these spirit-broken hands I must not use even to make a sandwich. I suck air through my teeth.
Expelling my breath in a burst, I straighten up. Come on, Mom. What’s it going to be? Do what you know is right, even if he hates you for it, even if you hate yourself? The point is not to be loveable. The point is to hold the line. He’s stronger than you think, says Doc Wilcox. I turn, brace my elbows on the desk.
“Hey, mom. All clean! Where’s my sandwich?” Chipper as a six year old, blue eyes dancing with uneasy expectation, sliding away when I meet them. This is the man I helped to make. And now must help unmake. I pick up my assigned script with no idea how to play it.
Swiveling my chair from the desk, I look up at him. Can I actually do this?
“Sam,” I rake the top of my thighs with closed fists, then stand, shoving aside my chair to brace my butt against the desk. The teacher stance gives me strength.
“We had an agreement when you got back from Modesto and Dad set you up in the hotel. You weren’t going to drop in. You were going to wait for an invitation, or you’d call ahead. I thought you understood these boundaries, but I guess you forgot why we needed them.”
Sorry, Mom. I’ll do better.” Sam rallies quickly, not quite hiding his surprise. “Just, this time, I couldn’t make a call because…” I feel it coming, no way to unravel his lie, tight as a hair ball regurgitated on the spot.
It never occurred to Sam to call me, I do know that much. And that he won’t admit it.
“Sweetheart, I’m gonna interrupt you. We’re not talking about what you tried and couldn’t do. I’m just holding to our agreement. You’re going to have to see what you can do about getting through today. I can’t feed you when you drop in like this…” my voice falters as his eyes flare in genuine astonishment.
“Jesus Fucking Christ! You can’t be serious. You’re saying you won’t feed your own kid when he’s starving? What the fuck is the matter with you, Mom? Shit! Are you crazy?”
He sounds totally rational. I am the crazy one. I sag against the desk, watch him, wait for the message to land. I see the moment when he gets it that I am not going to break. The rage hits, then dials back. He spins away and hurtles out the front door, shouting, “God damn you, mother-fucking bitch! What kind of mother won’t feed her own kid? Fuck you, mom! Eat shit yourself! You shit-eating bitch! God damn you to hell!” The world his witness.
And then I begin to tremble. Shaking, I stagger back to my bedroom and collapse on my knees at the foot of the bed, fists pressed to my eyes. Prayer rips through me like a geyser—I grab the Universe by the shoulders, shake it with all my strength, screaming, “Help him! Pay attention! Don’t you dare waste this one—he’s too good to waste. Wake-up, up there! You help him. Don’t lose this one! Don’t you dare!”
The screen door bangs, another rifle shot. I stop shouting, listen. He’s back? Spare me!
“Hey! What’s happening? Are you okay?” Mem moves swiftly though the study, past the kitchen, and she’s here, behind me, questions quivering in the air. I turn from the bed, sink into a crumpled sit and lift my face to her frightened fury. How can she be here? Oh, yeah, her half-day! Thank god she wasn’t here earlier.
“I could hear you on the street. I thought you were being murdered.” She stands glowering. I’ve scared her.
I get up and we go to the kitchen, drink tea. I recount the scene. Later, I return to work, which I will finally finish around midnight. But at six p.m., with countless essays and supper to go, I realize I need to write my son a letter. Take pen and paper to the couch where late sun falters against evening shadows. I feel weepy but strong and very clear.
Turning you away today was the hardest thing I’ve done in my entire life, and also the farthest out I’ve ever loved you. An act of faith that I hope will bear fruit. I am turning over your life to you and the powers that guide you. Help will arrive as you meet the challenges you face. You’ll be surprised at how much strength and courage and intelligence you possess and can tap into when it’s up to you to survive. Please survive.
I believe in you and love you with all my heart.
I fold this note and put it in an envelope. Lick the flap and press it down. Print his name on the outside in caps: SAM K. I set it on the chair by the front door. Mem has fixed an enormous dinner with roast chicken and saffron rice with sweet little white raisins—an act of love. I eat it all, swallow past the knot of sorrow, remember when Sam used to eat with us, calm, funny, so long ago.
Saturday I start the search. At his hotel. I press a button, the door opens, releasing the indelible aroma. I enter. Two young men are coming down the stairs
“Sam K?” I ask the first one, holding up my envelope. “Dunno,” he says, pushing past, but the next guy stops. Thin, wasted, filthy. Young. Sweet.
“Sammy moved out. I think he’s staying in a trailer behind the Firestone station over on Fulton.” I could kiss this smelly boy.
I walk along Fulton Street, find a Firestone station I’ve never noticed. Go around back, stepping over hoses and oil slicks. Leave the letter stuck in the torn screen door of a derelict trailer where someone thinks Sam might be living.
A month passes. Then another. Early November, after another tear-streaked night (Will I ever see him again?), I approach my work full of resolve. Today I clear this desk.
My front door is open this mild fall morning. I hear the mail carrier clatter the box. Go out to take it in. Beneath the political appeals, a letter. No stamp, no address, just “Mom” scrawled tiny in the center of the envelope. I tear it open and read, standing in the thin sunshine.
Thanks for your letter, and for sending me away. Thanks for having faith in me. I got a job at Ten-speed press, silk-screening T-shirts. My friend Don is my boss and he makes me toe the line, be on time, eat, sleep, all the good stuff.
Maybe I’m ready to start growing up.
Keep the faith,
I kiss the page, inhale the scent of tobacco. Him. Alive.
Does this mean I’m off the hook? Won’t lie awake at night anymore? Do I call my friends, share the news?
Don’t kid yourself. This is just a start. Now I get to practice living from that middle space that isn’t panicked protest, mindless enabling or helpless despair. His letter opens a window.
This is a joint effort now.