Taking Refuge in the Appearance of Life

img_4194The snow is only fluttering now. It is large as goose down and I can follow a single flake from its appearance outside my attic window as it tumbles down to the slushy street. Cat asleep on daybed. Knitting project put aside momentarily. Within this small room, my study, a picture of contentment.

For this moment I take refuge in the appearance of life. Trying to believe that I, the inhabitant of this picture, am really here, am really a human being on earth. Because my soul knows better–it understands that I am a ghost. As is my son Sean in his far-off psych hospital bed who is still puzzling over the wrinkled reality that shot him to another planet.

My life tore on the day that my son in his paranoid delusion denied me as his mother, but it didn’t disappear. I had Sean to fight for and I did so ferociously. But time is time, and when wrestling with mental illness time slows down. My fight has slowed, my hope subdued. Each milestone I yearn toward opens up new pain.

A year ago, I fought to get Sean into a shelter only to have him refuse treatment and end up on the streets worse than before. I sent his father to find him and what he discovered was so wretched it nearly cost my son’s life. The LPS state conservatorship that we won was miraculous, and yet, the ensuing months of locked care have yielded few results. Sean lives a drugged, lonely life in a suspended state of what I can only imagine is merely adequate psychiatric warehousing. While it is so, and while he refuses all contact with me, I can never come home to myself. Part of me will always be whisped around him, embodying his disjointed sense of self with my own. It’s exhausting.

In two weeks I am planning to fly out to visit his treatment team and to try to make contact with Sean. My first time in California since my intervention two and half years ago. I fear for myself, what it will do to me to come face-to-face with his shabby surroundings and the inadequacies of this care. I remind myself there are good people there: His conservator is a beautifully attuned woman with a solid spiritual wellspring; his program manager downloads music for him and talks art and books. A man from FERC, an incredible Bay-area resource for families dealing with a loved one with mental illness, will meet me for support.

And Sean has lucky invisibles: The person who helps him wash. And brings him pills. And tries to lure him to attend groups. And serves him meals. And delivers the books I send under the guise of “county donations.” I pray they are kind to him.

I pray I will find kindness too.




I found him in the gutter


My beautiful boy.

I know I shouldn’t be surprised by my growing aversion to write about my experiences searching the streets of Berkeley for my sweet, homeless son. Because this was the thick of it. The day I found him, literally, sleeping in the gutter–looking just as the very first street person I had encountered described him (“There’s a nice schizophrenic kid who sleeps under a blue blanket by People’s Park.”) And how I set up vigil across the street in that park, watching as a man emerged from his townhouse to stab the sidewalk around my son with a trash picking pole. And how I placed a paper bag of food by his covered head: all his favorites. Plain buttered bagels. Orangina. Smoked almonds. Even with jackhammers working the street, he did not rouse until the noontime sun had blazed the dew off the grass.

I watched him hungrily, trying to go unnoticed but unwilling to let him slip out of my sight as he had the day before. He quickly spotted me. He glowered a menacing, terrible look at me and I looked down, submissive as a dog. Furtive glances thereafter–from my knitting to him–as he slowly, mechanically ate the almonds and drank the water. He rose. He stuffed a blue blanket, his only possession, into a red plastic bag and slung it over he shoulder. Shooting me one last, forbidding look, he ambled barefoot down the sidewalk toward Telegraph Ave.

I kept space between us but I dogged him. At first I stayed on the sidewalk behind him half a block. But after he turned and blazed hostilely a few times, I began hiding behind things. I was ridiculous, like a Road Runner cartoon: I drew myself up skinny behind telephone poles. I slunk between car bumpers and slipped into door wells. He wasn’t fooled by any of it–not even my brilliant strategy of ducking into a bus stop with smoked-glass windows to view him unseen. That same thing that had told me where to find him — across 3,000 miles — let him know exactly where I was.

Sean picked cigarette butts off the sidewalk and smoked them. Once he sat for a long while on a wall and ate his bagel. I used that time to jump into a suitcase store on Shattuck Ave and hurriedly buy him a backpack. When he crossed the street, I did so too, and dipped into Walgreens to buy him some Marlboros. I don’t remember how I got the courage to approach him … or if I just got lucky and he started walking toward my bus stop “duck blind,” but I suddenly found myself beside him.

“I got you a backpack honey,” I said, handing it out to him. He stared into the street as if I weren’t there. “And some cigarettes,” I said hopefully. “I don’t want them,” he said, “and if you continue to harass me I’m calling the police.” There was a woman waiting for the bus who was standing between us and I could feel her unease.

“But it’s a backpack honey,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“I don’t know who you are,” he said, “but if you don’t stop harassing me I’m calling the police.”

“I’m your mother, Sean. I love you sweetheart,” I said. “Please. Please.”

He turned to the lady at the bus stop and said very politely: “Excuse me miss, do you think I could borrow your phone to call the police. This lady is bothering me.”

She mumbled something and moved away quickly.

“You can use my phone,” I said almost cheerfully. I held it out to him. He turned again to the street, with that stony, stoic look. He was against the wall, I knew, and didn’t know how to save face. Eventually, he just walked away.

During all of this–even before he woke up–I had been on the phone trying desperately to make contact with the Berkeley Mobile Crisis Unit and Berkeley Police for backup. I had learned the previous day that this mobile unit was designed for just these kinds of situations and had mental health workers who could evaluate him, and if needed, connect him to treatment and services. They kept promising me a unit would be there, but as the morning wore into afternoon they didn’t show up and I became more hysterical.

I began to realize the difficulty of coordinating this capture of my beloved quarry. It would require Sean to stay put for a while, which he eventually did. There’s an afternoon “feeding” in People’s Park every day by a homeless support group and Sean made his way there. I found a really fat tree to hide behind and started making another round of calls. “He’s here! He’s in People’s Park. This is what he looks like. Please please please come help me.”

First the Mobile Crisis lady showed up. She and I talked behind the tree and I pointed out Sean, describing his dazed and hostile condition, his destitution, how unrecognizable he was from the son I had left not three months earlier. Then the cops showed up. I stood in a tight knot behind the tree–the crisis lady had instructed me to stay as invisible as possible–terrified that Sean would spot the fuzz and make a run for it.

They converged on him and led him to a bench to talk. It all looked so civilized. I became terrified that they would be fooled by his politesse and do nothing. Please take him. Please take him. Please take him. My face was on the tree bark; I rocked my forehead back and forth as I cried and prayed.

The longer they were at it the more I feared the outcome. So I inched my way out to join the conversation if I could. I walked sideways in a crablike, unctuous manner–as if that would somehow make me less obtrusive. I pressed my hands together in actual prayer and mouthed the words please please to his interrogators. The mobile crisis lady stopped me as she saw me coming and motioned me to return to my tree.

A while later she came to me and reported that Sean seemed to be paranoid and delusional. She also said he claimed I was a child abuser. At that point, I only cared about one thing: Are you going to take him?

“Yes,”she said. “We’ll transport him to John George Psychiatric Pavilion and they will do a psychiatric assessment. I have to tell you, though,” she added. “You shouldn’t expect too much. He’s a sweet kid but I’ve seen a lot of this. He may have to cycle in and out for a long time. Even years. But he may come out of it okay eventually.”

What kind of fucking help was that supposed to be?

And so I hid behind my tree watching as my son, in handcuffs, climbed into an ambulance and sped away.

The texture of pain

cement wallDespite the jumble of contradictory Sean sightings by the redwood encampment in People’s Park, I felt sure he had been there last night. I thought about how I had slept just blocks from him, my radar already casting its beams as I slumbered. And how he rested unknowingly nearby.

I wandered a few blocks down to Telegraph Ave., where an assortment of young street people were forming a gauntlet at sidewalk’s edge. Many had dogs sporting bandanas. A few had cloths spread on the sidewalk with odd wares: small rock and minerals samples, glass pipes, trinkets. I looked for Sean among them, hopeful in a way that he was part of this anarchist collective and not the crackheads in the park.

I stopped in front of a sweet-looking bearded man who was selling rock samples to show him my pictures of Sean. He recognized him immediately and said he passed this way daily, usually in the afternoon. And that he usually wore a straw hat, a kind of cowboy affair. I tried to imagine Sean in such a getup–he always hated hats, and cowboys for that matter. “If you just hang around here you’ll probably see him,” he said.

I pounded him with questions: How did he seem? Did he have friends? Was he okay? The young man–whose name I later learned was J.–was thoughtful in responding. “He’s a bit of a loner,” he said. “He seems a little spaced out. Sometimes he talks to himself.” My heart sank.

I was too buzzed to linger, so set off to see if I could find Sean in the streets. I stopped a vendor who was hawking a homeless newspaper. I bought one and showed him a photo of Sean. “Yeah, I just saw him at McDonald’s. He was with a girl. I think they do a bit of weed.” I asked for directions and sped off, my eyes combing the sidewalks and park benches hungrily.

As I walked past the university, I thought of my parents–who went to school there and actually met and started dating shortly after the war. Surely they had walked this sidewalk together in the ’40s, although I can’t imagine it was then full of castaways, mutterers in flip-flops, drunks sleeping it off on the sidewalk. Never in a lifetime could they have imagined their first grandchild would be among them.

I looked in vain at McDonalds, cruised Shattuck Ave.–the major commercial drag that connects Berkeley and Oakland. He was nowhere. So I circled back to Telegraph and delivered a couple of slices of banana bread I had bought for J. I chatted him up about his life on the streets and looked at some of his rocks, when he suddenly pointed and said, “Look, here he comes.”

I scanned the crowd in search of Sean and saw no one I recognized. And then I noticed him: Tall, bearded, ambling in a daze at the far end of the sidewalk. It was Sean. We looked at each other and I could feel his surprise registering slowly, grainily.

I gave him a smile, raising my hand like a TV Indian saying “How.” I walked slowly to meet him. “Hey, hi, it’s me,” I said. “You’re probably surprised to see me.” He said nothing. He looked at me coldly and his eyes were very red. “I hadn’t heard from you in a while and I missed you,” I said gently.

“Get away from me. I don’t want to talk to you,” he said and brushed past me.

Not time even to register effrontery. I caught up behind him, walking one step behind like an old-time Japanese wife. I said nothing for a moment, then began again: “I know this must be surprising, honey,” I said. “I just wanted to see you. I love you, sweetheart.” He ignored me completely, though I could feel his alertness.

He suddenly stopped short and looked me directly in the eyes. “You are harassing me,” he said evenly, “and if you don’t stop I will call the police.” He turned a corner and was gone.

This stopped me dead in my tracks. I heard a sound I’d heard before, a kind of animal noise, a howling. And then I remembered: It was a sound I’d heard during my long labor with Sean, like a wolf somewhere. It was me. Only I was so submerged in pain that I wasn’t connected to self anymore.

I howled and turned my body into the building I stood before. I could feel my forehead and fingers scratching against the roughness of the concrete. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.

J. came up and touched my shoulder. “Oh man,” he said, “that’s so rough.”

“Go after him,” I pleaded.

J. took off around the corner and I covered my face with my hands and cried some more, leaning against the building for support. These were tears you had to stop for and I remember wondering what people passing by were thinking, and if this were maybe commonplace amid such misery.

He jogged back around the corner and said, “I’m sorry. He gave me the same. I tried to talk to him but he was very hostile.” I fell into J. and he wrapped his arms around me while I cried. “Oh God oh God oh God.”

Not his real name

baby-namesSo why would I launch a blog to search for my son and then give him a false name? It’s a fair question, though the answer is as layered  as the rest of this mess.

Ostensibly, I want to respect his privacy and I want to protect my identity. Also, by giving him another name, I think it almost gives me a sense that it’s someone else’s son and not my own beloved boy. It also helps me think of this as narrative and I take a small comfort in that–that this is a story I am living. It will have a beginning, a middle, an end perhaps. And so, too, it might be a story that will help other families in my situation.

It’s also probably indication that I’m not desperate enough to launch my own full-out Missing Person campaign. I still believe he’ll call me on his own and we’ll reestablish regular connection. Maybe he’ll even come back East for a while and let me fatten him up and give him a real bed. Barring that, I am counting on my mother’s navigational system to help me locate him when I do my own street search next month.

Mainly, I’m afraid of offending him. I’m taking a big risk by writing about this. It could become a wedge between us, propelling him further from my reach. That is, of course, predicated on him actually reading it. But Sean no longer has the cracked iPod Touch I gave him, so searching the Web is unlikely. He can’t even access those public library computers since his ID card was stolen–along with all of his belongings–several months ago.

When I filed my first Missing Person’s Report with the Berkeley Police in July, the officer who located him told me this detail: “Your son was very polite. He looked like he was taking care of himself. But he did do one very strange thing: He kept insisting that he had a different last name.” When I asked the officer the name he had given, it was his correct last name. My son bears my last name as his middle name and the officer had transposed them in her report.

So, you lose things on the street. Without an ID, my son has no name. But he hasn’t yet figured out that he can use that to his advantage and become someone else–or become no one. When I plaster the Berkeley streets with my Missing posters next month … will he step up to his name and call me?

Those thin threads

Sean spent his first few weeks in the Castro, befriending a scraggly group of fellow street dwellers. At that point, he still had his cellphone. Even though he wouldn’t accept incoming calls and left his voicemail box purposefully, repellantly full, he did manage to call me weekly. At first he was exultant. The flowering trees, the weather, the groovy people. He was evasive with details of his daily life–locations of where he slept, for instance–but I was at least able to get an emotional barometer and vague descriptors.

I knew he slept in parks much of the time, sometimes in groups. So I imagined a group of Merry Men encamped among the eucalyptis in the Presidio. He did say he tried sleeping in a doorway one night, but it was “too scary.” (This is where imagination begins to leave the mind and travel to other parts of the body: My stomach imagined his jolts of fear as junkies, prostitutes and thugs passed by his doorstep, weighing the prospect of him.)

Sean's bushes

Sean’s bushes by the health clinic

Finally, he seemed to settle in a tiny private garden outside a health center in the Castro where he could sleep by himself without being seen. A few weeks later, when I took a detour on a business trip and visited him there, he took me on a tour of some of his haunts. His tiny garden turned out to be a giant aloe planted in a small curbside garden abutting the building, with blooming shrubs and rich foliage. California is ridiculous that way: Everything flowers and multiplies into soft bowers. He really could sleep there relatively unseen.

I have tried to be if not supportive, at least relatively good-natured about this anarchist enterprise of his. It seemed the wisest course if I wanted to keep avenues of communication open. I should say that this wasn’t the first time I had survived bouts of Sean’s homelessness. He had spent the previous winter, off and on, living in abandoned buildings in Maine with other street kids. In between, he crashed at his father’s studio apartment, though they fought often. At least then I knew he had a place he could go. And Sean is not foolhardy, actually. He would seek shelter rather than freeze.

And then two weeks went by in San Francisco when I didn’t hear from him. This was unusual and it worried me. No, worried doesn’t cover it: devastated, devoured, obsessed. I could think of almost nothing else. I maintained a veneer of normalcy at work, but traveled to a “foreign” bathroom on the 11th floor so I could lock myself in a stall and cry when it got too bad. I imagined Sean stabbed, pimped, addicted, drifting through the streets with his mind blown–the absolute worst places my imagination could lead. I tried a few weak prayers but they even sounded flimsy to me.

When he finally surfaced, he sounded unconcerned by my worry. He had been sick, he confessed, very sick, and was heading out to Marin County to “get his head together.” I was so glad to hear from him that I didn’t press for details. I was just glad that he was going to Marin, with its beautiful hills and peace-loving hippies.

Leading to lost


My son leaving home.

Six months ago, I put my son on a plane from East coast to West. His backpack was laden with survivalist gear: tent, sleeping bag, buck knife–even snake garters, ridiculous equipage for a vagabond’s life in San Francisco. I considered it a small victory to have talked him out of his 10-pound mini-shovel and heavy-duty mallet at the last moment. Lugging these around, I told him, would kill him long before he used them to fight off mountain lions.

He was on a quest to find his life. A classic hero’s journey, my Odysseus. It wasn’t his first try: He had decided to live in the woods outside Louisville, Ky., the summer before. Why Louisville, I really can’t say. I think he liked the idea of it as southern city, and therefore terra incognita for a man raised in New England. His dream was to live on foraged food, create a leaf shelter, and live beyond the reaches of the corporate complex that enslaves men and dominates world consciousness.

He lasted about 10 days in Louisville, only one of them spent in the woods–some odd tract he found just outside of town. He called me in a panic during a crashing thunderstorm asking for advice. After I got him settled safely, if soggily, in a dell, he spent a sleepless night on the ground before heading back to town and spending all his (well, mine) money on a motel for the remainder of his trip.

The irony with which I recount these early misadventures is a luxury I no longer have. In those days, I still thought Sean [not his real name] would snap to his senses. Or at least join a commune. I clung to the hope that he would somehow forge a path in the world filled with stretches of happiness, deep fellowship, outlets for his considerable creative intelligence, and even peace. And who is to say he hasn’t found those? I pray for what I can’t believe.

The fact is, I have now lost my son.