photo by Unsplash user Jesse Borovnica
I hate flying. I hate the window seat, the middle one, and prefer the aisle if given a choice. I was particularly anxious for this trip. I clenched and unclenched my hands while staring out the window watching the ground crew toss suitcases on a conveyor. Cross-country travel is exhausting and the destination was one I both longed for and yet feared. Turning off my phone, severing all possible communication, I settled in for the journey, hoping my middle seatmate would not hog the arm rest.
I was heading to San Francisco to see my alcoholic son in the Walden House residential recovery program. I closed my eyes and prayed I would find Justin intact. He had been living homeless on the streets for nearly three years. He wanted to get better; I needed him to get better. This had to be a new beginning for both of us. I planned to stay with his AA sponsor and his wife while in San Francisco, strangers who had tried to help him and who now offered to house and help me navigate a strange city. I had no hesitation staying with them; my husband thought me insane.
My son relapsed in 2012 after nearly ten years of sobriety. He had been studying and working in China, returning to the States in 2010. I still wonder if something happened in China, but I guess I’ll never know. He came home, found a job that had ups-and-downs, and was laid off before the company unexpectedly sold. I don’t know what the exact circumstances were. It doesn’t make any difference. He had a severance and unemployment benefits–and too much free time on his hands. He became depressed over the job loss and struggled getting geared up to start applying for a new one. Anger crept in along with the belief he had done all he was supposed to do, and the world had let him down. He traveled to England to commiserate with friends from Cambridge, and when he returned he was no longer in a state of sobriety.
It got bad fast, really bad. I thought he would turn it around quickly, given he knew the risks, but he couldn’t. After trying to gain some traction in Massachusetts, then in New York City where a hurricane and a drunken roommate beat him down, he spent thirty days in a court ordered treatment program and then moved to San Francisco to start fresh hoping geography would make a difference. It didn’t last.
As his mother, I have traveled this nightmarish journey with him. Now, after so many months of madness, there appeared a hoped-for recovery. A place where treatment was available, and with people who genuinely cared about the suffering homeless and uninsured. There was Miss Collins who manages the Walden House detox program. She always fed and found him a bed when needed most. This same Miss Collins would tell me every time I called, “You just gotta have faith. Itta be awright.”
Miss Collins was the personification of the strength and power of faith. There were weeks at a time when Justin was missing in San Francisco, and I called her nearly every day. Hearing her voice kept me sane. Her deeds kept him alive.
“You gotta believe,” she would tell me.
I didn’t always understand all that she said. Her speech was quick with an undetermined accent and colloquialisms, but it didn’t matter. I heard her passion and felt her belief and took it in. What she didn’t realize was I hung on to believing by the thinnest of threads.
“He know what he gotta do.”
Going to San Francisco was scary. I hadn’t seen my son in nearly three years and in that time he had suffered greatly as a homeless man. He endured assaults, injuries, surgeries, hospitalizations, incarcerations, infections, and any number of indignities all with the undeniable obsession that is the root of an active alcoholic’s life. The mental and physical need overrides any rational thought, and is far stronger than any innate sense of survival–the drink is the survival for an alcoholic in the fifth stage of alcoholism, where dependence becomes addiction.
I wanted to get to Walden early in the morning. My hosts, this generous couple, understood. They hooked me up with Uber so I could get around. They cautioned me not to have any expectations, but I couldn’t help it. I felt anxious and could not wait to hold my son, to hug him tight, and to look at him and tell him I loved him. I wanted to inspect him, to convince myself that he was okay despite the physical injuries and mental anguish.
I was so emotional on the ride over that I blurted my story to the Uber driver. She looked to be in her thirties, pretty, a mother of two sons, and extremely sympathetic. In our short ride I shared my reason for being there, and my sorrows. I learned that she too had graduated from Justin’s alma mater, UMass in Amherst; she was a psychology major. She knew Justin’s teacher, his mentor, and strongest supporter, Dr. Richard Halgin, and expressed a deep respect for him as one of her best teachers. Our bond as mothers was instantaneous, and her compassion was such that she jumped out of her car when we arrived to hug me and wish me well. She had tears in her eyes as she hopped back in her car. The kindness of strangers.
The Walden House building loomed dark and dreary when I entered it. Unknowingly, I had gone to the wrong door. I viewed the remnants of the Catholic convent it once was, with high ceilings, dirty and streaked stained-glass windows, dark walls, and cobwebs in the corners of the old foyer. It was eerie. I shivered, wondering if this was a safe place. I stepped back out into the sunshine and made my way around to the other side of the building. There were a few random lawn chairs and some plants in a small courtyard. Several of the residents were sitting outside smoking, heads down, staring at their feet, no eye contact to be made.
I entered the building again and approached the reception desk manned by a client of the program, ready to greet people and answer the phone–a job I knew Justin did a few hours a day. He looked up and smiled. He had only one front top tooth, a cocked red cap, and baggy black clothes. He looked out of place at an ill-fitting adolescent-size, old school desk. I noticed his fingernails were ragged and chewed down–one tooth or not. He was the only white person I had seen so far and looked to be barely in his twenties.
“You Justin’s mother?”
“Yes, I am.”
“You can go on in the Director’s office there on your right and I’ll tell Justin you here.”
The Director’s office was dark too. Paper littered his much larger desk, and the coating of dust would easily allow me to draw my initials. I had spoken with him several times on the phone; he was actually much younger than I envisioned, a small Asian man. He didn’t stand up when I came in, polite but not overly effusive. He allowed I could wait for Justin in his office. I couldn’t help but wonder what brought him to this place.
Justin arrived in seconds, coming around the corner to see me for the first time in three years. We burst into tears and embraced, both shaking and holding each other. When I finally stepped back, I still didn’t release my grasp. I kept looking at him with his long and bushy Grizzly Adams beard, clothes that didn’t fit quite right, and a pot belly on his otherwise long and skinny body. When he came in, he had a very pronounced limp. His sneakers were dirty and worn. No longer would I picture him standing erect and confident in a custom tailored suit, clean shaven and meticulously groomed, right down to his highly polished shoes.
He looked hard at me and I got a little self-conscious. He could see how his mother had aged, now with thinning gray hair and a pot belly of her own. His tears clearly showed me the sorrow and guilt he was dealing with. He took his glasses off and wiped his eyes on his sleeve, trying to pull himself together. I handed him a tissue, and then blew my nose and dried my own tears.
We thanked the Director, who sat there quietly, and left the office to find the clients and staff members Justin wanted me to meet, including Miss Collins.
The introductions were fast and furious. The clients were easily distinguished from the staff by facial expressions of emptiness, sadness, fatigue, and possibly a little envy. I met and thanked Justin’s counselor, who also looked younger than I expected given she had earned her PhD. Several clients stopped to tell me how much they liked Justin, and that he had helped them. I appreciated their compliments. Ed, a muscular black man in his fifties, pulled me aside and cautioned me that sobriety takes time, and that I can’t do it for Justin, just as his father could not do it for him. It’s a tough lesson to learn.
Jennifer, a white transgender who completed a six-month Walden House program, wanted to share her story. She returned daily because she could, and was too afraid to go elsewhere. She was about forty years old, had manly military tattoos covering her chest and both arms, and wore a floral sleeveless dress and an ill-fitting blond wig that was askew on her bald head. Justin later told me how much she had suffered and how cruel her family had been to her. His compassion for her was apparent. I was glad I took the few minutes to speak with her. I later sent her some of my clothes and a cosmetic bag full of makeup samples.
It was like the island of misfit toys, so many men and women whose lives were reduced to a survival with little or no hope or family support – all bridges burned because of the illness of addiction and possible history of abuse, traumatic military service, and/or mental illness.
We made our way down the hall to Miss Collins, the one person I truly needed to meet face-to-face to express my gratitude. I’d had a mental image of her as a coffee-colored black woman with a wide, white smile, abundant breasts, and open arms. She was almost exactly as I had imagined. What was different were her bright colors: her clothes, her office, her nails–bright royal blue, fuchsia pink, brilliant yellow. I instantly regretted the gray flannel bag and muted plaid shawl I had sent her for Christmas. She glowed in contrast to her surroundings. She exuded a huge positive energy. I loved this woman. I loved her for all that she was, and all she did for me and my boy. I hugged her tightly and she hugged me right back, whispering, “Praise Jesus.”
Justin and I got ready to go out for lunch. He had been granted permission to leave the building with me since I had traveled so far to see him. He asked me if a friend of his from the program, Lucas, could go with us. I was happy to have him along. The three of us signed out, left the building, and started to walk to Haight Street.
We were quite a sight. Justin tall and with a bushy beard and a significant limp, me, the gray-haired mother, and Lucas, a young black man who was a foot shorter than Justin but had a matching limp due to one leg being much shorter than the other–despite a worn-out orthopedic shoe with a substantial lift. One pant leg was frayed and torn because it was too long and he stepped on it.
I had read about Haight Street so was prepared to see the collection of shops that were a mix of the flower power/hippy theme of my era and the current trendy boutiques mixed in with coffee, tea, vape, and tobacco shops. As we were walking, I glanced down and on the sidewalk right in front of me was a $20 bill folded into fourths. I stooped to pick it up and announced that it was going to be a good day! We stopped at a convenience store so I could buy them some cigarettes, and break the $20 into two tens–one for each. I knew neither of them had any money so this was a gift for sure. I believed that the found money was an omen, a talisman for the day and my visit.
Lunch was to be a special treat and the choice was up to them; whatever they wanted was okay with me. Lucas wanted a steak. Justin wanted to go to the wharf to find a nice restaurant as it was a beautiful, warm, and sunny day. We hopped on a bus using the back door and proceeded to ride across the city. I was concerned we didn’t pay for the bus ride, but the guys told me that’s how they managed to get around and not to worry about it.
The bus was crowded and the riders a mix of tourists and locals of various ethnicities. As we traveled Justin pointed out sites in the city. He was excited to show me landmarks: the financial district, the municipal buildings, and shopping areas.
Midway through the ride a man got on the bus carrying a few filthy shopping bags. He looked to be in his forties with greasy brown hair with gray mixed in, a worn T-shirt and ripped pants. He kept trying to get my attention, “Ma’am, ma’am! It’s hard being homeless.”
I tried to ignore him and be there in the moment with my son. I could see the change in the neighborhoods as we rode; so did Justin. Justin started to point out city benches where he slept, public toilets he used, and places where he was frightened.
The man continued calling to me, “Ma’am, ma’am!” When the stranger got up to leave the bus, he stopped and looked at me, and told me, “Alcohol is really bad,” as if he knew my fear. Justin heard him too. I got the chills despite the heat of the day.
When we got off the bus at Fisherman’s Wharf the karma had shifted. Stress started to seep out charging the air, and we all felt the tension growing. Finding a restaurant became a chore as Justin was afraid to go in places where he had ordered food and not paid. His “dine-and-dash” habit had apparently been routine in this area. His 6’3″ frame, dark hair and bushy beard, along with a pronounced limp, made him easily recognizable. His appearance, and his proclivity for ordering oysters and martinis, instead of pizza and a Coke when hungry and unable to pay, made him a person that was not easily forgiven.
Ultimately, we settled on an Italian restaurant with outside seating and steak on the menu. There was a large awning and a table that gave us front-row seats to witness the carnival of people and street performers of Pier 39. There were jugglers in bright costumes, dancers moving down the street, families strolling with carriages and kids with balloons, and music of all kinds. The scene was full of life and excitement. Justin told me he spent a lot of homeless nights in this area as the bathrooms were open, and the overnight Asian cleaning crews would not harm him. I suspect he sometimes found a sense of hope, or dreams of possibilities, here during the daylight hours.
After we were seated, Justin excused himself from the table to go to the men’s room. He took a long time and I started to get nervous. Lucas and I exchanged idle chit-chat, both not sure what to talk about. He did tell me he enjoyed the ukulele group at Walden that Justin was helping with. He liked the singing better than his own attempts to play. He told me he was Justin’s friend, and his job was to keep Justin from drinking, and Justin’s was to keep him from using cocaine. He said he had the harder job.
When Justin did come back, he was changed, loud and obnoxious. He ordered oysters that he ate with the butter and sauce dripping down into his beard as he slurped. I wasn’t sure exactly what happened, but I knew something was radically wrong. I sniffed to see if I could smell alcohol but the scents of food and fish were overpowering.
I attempted to eat my salad, chewing small bites but having difficulty swallowing. Fear and anxiety built with every passing minute. Lucas kept his head down and ate his steak in silence, trying to enjoy a rare treat while not daring to glance at his friend. Justin kept up a monologue talking with his mouth full, frequently announcing how good his food was. As soon as Justin was done, I paid the bill and we got up to go. I could see he was unsteady on his feet. I looked at Lucas.
Across from the restaurant a street musician played guitar to a small gathering crowd. Justin moved in that direction and we followed. The man, in a wheelchair, had no legs. He wore a red bandana on his head to soak up the sweat and a black leather vest with a Vietnam POW patch sewn on the back. He had a bucket in front of him for donations. Justin reached into his pocket to take out a few crumpled dollar bills and tossed them in. In that moment, my suspicions were confirmed. He had broken the $10 bill somewhere, likely a liquor store.
The soldier played “Landslide,” a favorite Fleetwood Mac song of ours. Of all the songs that he could play, this one struck a tender chord. We stood there and sang with him, Justin weaving but managing to hit the notes loud and clear. I couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down my face as I strained to get the words out.
Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides
Can I handle the seasons of my life
mmm, mmm I don’t know mmm, mmm
Well, I’ve been afraid of changing
‘Cause I built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Children get older
And I’m getting older, too
I’m getting older too
So, take this love and take it down…
Before the song ended, Justin abruptly announced he wanted ice cream. Another sign things were not right as he is lactose intolerant. Rather than create a scene, I followed him down the street and into an ice cream parlor. He ordered a large cone and I paid for it. The whole thing seemed unreal, like an episode of the Twilight Zone. The day was perfect with sunshine and warmth but I couldn’t feel it. The shops and restaurants were colorful with smiling happy people milling about; the ocean shining in the background; seagulls circling and cawing; music playing; groups singing and laughing, all having a good time. I couldn’t participate. I kept asking myself how this could be happening. I had traveled 3,000 miles to see my son in recovery–not drunk with chocolate ice cream dripping down his face, beard, and hands.
We walked single file with Lucas up ahead and me behind. I kept my face forward unsure of where we were going, wondering how I would get Justin back to Walden. I passed Justin and called to Lucas to wait. When I turned around briefly to check on Justin, I saw him unzip his pants and openly urinate on the road with dozens of people witnessing his display, the ice cream cone now in a sticky heap next to his steaming urine. I was horrified and close to vomiting, my stomach churning and lunch rising in my throat. There was a taxi stand on the next block and I yelled to Lucas to quickly go and hire a cab. I pushed Justin down the street and into the car.
He passed out the minute he sat down. I remember just staring at him. My son. His beautiful face, clear skin, and long dark eyelashes the same color as his bushy beard. He looked peaceful resting there with no outward sign of his inner madness. I leaned over to inhale the scent of his hair–warm and spicy. Again, I wondered how this could be happening. I was overwhelmed with the love I felt for my son, and my desire to fix his life. I didn’t know how.
When we got to the Walden House, Lucas bolted out of the car without even saying goodbye. He knew his place in the recovery program would be in jeopardy if he was seen with Justin under-the-influence, not that he could have prevented what had happened. Justin leaned out of the car and nearly fell face first as he worked to get his feet out and under him. I tried to prop him up and we made our way around the side of the building. Again, he stumbled and nearly fell down an embankment. It was hard for me to steady him.
I told him we needed to go find a cup of coffee and sit. He did not want to. I figured he would not be allowed back into the recovery program in this condition. I had no idea if Miss Collins could help, but I was afraid to find her and check. As we headed away from Walden, Justin began to yell.
“Fuck you Mom! You don’t understand!”
I asked what he wanted to do.
“I want to go sip something!”
I told him I would not do that, and he just kept walking, weaving back and forth as he went down the street, again screaming, “Fuck you Mom! You don’t understand!”
I froze, not knowing what to do. He was right; I didn’t understand. What the hell was happening to my son? And why?
I took my phone out and called Justin’s AA sponsor’s wife, looking for guidance. She reacted quickly and sent an Uber driver to pick me up, knowing I had no control and there was nothing I could do. It was clear to me I was powerless, and it was unbearably hard to accept.
So, I abandoned my son stumbling down the street under the influence of a cocktail of prescribed medications including what I later learned were Abilify, Ritalin, and Klonopin, with what was likely an alcohol chaser, downed an hour after he was doled out his pills at the Walden dispensary. I was told that Klonopin should never be given to an alcoholic and it likely had compromised his sobriety more than anything else. I had never hurt as much; my heart was breaking, the devastating disappointment bringing me to my knees. Why couldn’t I save my child?
Not knowing what else to do, I changed my flight that afternoon and prepared to leave for my daughter’s home in Oregon the next morning. I was shattered and consumed with guilt. I had no idea where my son was or in what condition. I called our angel, Miss Collins, from the airport, realizing we both still needed her.
“He know I’m here for him when he ready…He not ready yet…Have faith and pray to Jesus…You gotta believe.”
I was trying.
I boarded the plane.
Flying into Portland I looked out the window and saw Mt. Hood with its snow-capped peaks. This time I didn’t think about being in a window seat; I was numb. I started to quietly sing, not caring if others heard me.
I took my love and I took it down
I climbed a mountain and I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills
’till the landslide brought me down…
When the plane landed I turned my phone on and there was a message from Justin received three hours earlier.
“Hey Mom, I don’t know…uh…what happened. I know I had something to drink from the 7-11, and I blacked out. Umm, so, if you could help me, I’m at Carl’s Jr. at Union Plaza, that would be great. Thanks.”
The gift of desperation. His. Mine. I was already gone. I tried calling him back. A stranger answered. In a few short hours he had given up his phone and dropped out again. Perhaps the emotion of seeing me was too much for him, his sorrow and his guilt pulling him back down the alcoholic hole and ending his fragile state of sobriety.
Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above
Can I sail though the changing ocean tides
Can I handle the seasons of my life…
I don’t know. I don’t know.
“Landslide” is part of a series by M. Betsy Smith. Other installments can be read here on The Write Launch.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
M. Betsy Smith retired after working twenty-six years as an insurance underwriter and started a new career as a writer. Her first essay was published by Refinery 29. She has since been published by The Write Launch and Chaleur Magazine. She was awarded a five-day writing residency by Straw Dog Writers Guild in Northampton, MA to continue work on the series. She is the mother of two adult children and grandmother of one lovable and quirky nearly nine year old grandson. She recently started taking piano lessons and reports although her writing is getting better, she can’t say the same for her piano skills.