Why are you here? he asked, pulling down the black hoodie covering his head.
To see you, she replied, reaching out to touch a stringy strand of oil dark hair that hung limply along his cheekbone.
You’ve never really seen me, he said. Why start now?
She stepped back. The pain of his words piercing her like sleet driving into the night.
That’s not true.
Yeah? Then why’d you leave me? Why’d you let me go?
She swallowed. Closed her blue eyes for one brief moment. Opened them wide and looked into his. Deep blue into deep blue. Mirrors. Reflections. Gene pools spilling over with familial bonds cascading through the years. His birth. Precious. Filled with promise. Anger. An arm swinging, hitting. The father. A dark figure. Gone. Leaving her and her baby. Alone. Afraid. Young mother. Young child. Struggling. Fearing. She’d lost him for awhile. Got him back. Worked hard. But he kept running away. Leaving. Never really settling in upon his return.
I didn’t let you go. They took you. I was always there. I just didn’t know what to do. Her words rushed out. A stream of letters tumbling in a frothy brew of discordant notes, pouring into the void between them. Never enough. No never enough to fill that space. But they were all she had to give.
You were supposed to know. His voice hissed. Steam rising. A pool of heated water shimmering with words unspoken.
You were supposed to know.
She sighed. Her shoulders rose. She arched her neck. Raised her chin. A silent prayer. Grant me the serenity to accept…
He was but a child. A boy. Runaway. Running to. Running from. Running.
No longer a child. Legal age come and gone long ago in the pain of childbirth. She grew up in the rush of his screaming fight to enter the world ripping her apart. Teenage girl to mother in one cut of the umbilical cord.
She’d never had a chance to catch up.To untie the knots of her past. To become his mother without yearning for someone to mother her. But still she kept running after him. Reaching out to catch him.
Reaching into that place where he kept running to. Running. Fast. Hard. Into that place where pain recoiled and fear froze in the cold reality of his life. Street teen. Addict. Panhandler. Words that collided on the frozen landscape of his life lost to the street.
She was eighteen plus eighteen. Eighteen at his birth. Eighteen years since he came into this world.
It was his birthday today. She came to find him. It had been six months since she’d last had word. She wanted to invite him for lunch. Tea. Coffee. Anything.
And here she stood. A mother pleading for her son’s life. A mother standing before a son whose life was so far away she did not know how to reach him. Did not know how to find him amidst this life she could not understand.
He had run away. Again. For the … she had lost count.
she had followed him. Again. Finally finding him. Here. In this place where he said he fit in. Belonged. Knew. who he was. Who his friends were.
She looked around. The room was crowded. People sat at tables. Heads down on folded arms. Chatting. Playing cards. Reading. Staring into space. People sat and walked and hung about. Busy room. Chaos.
She’d been here before. The last time. She hadn’t found him then. She had found him now. She had to try. to reach out. to reach him. To reach within his closed off heart.
I’m here now, she whispered quietly into the space between them. She stepped one step closer. closing the gap. Closer.
It’s not enough.
She stepped closer.
You’re being here. You’re too late.
It’s never too late. She spoke the words. Desperately wanting to believe them.
He smiled. Briefly. A flitting upward motion of his lips. Like hers. Full-bodied. She looked at the sore beside his mouth. Red. Blistered. Cracked. Crack sore.
She ached to touch it. To heal his pain. To take away the drugs that were eating him from the inside out.
She kept her hands to herself. She looked into his eyes.
It’s never too late.
I wish that were true, he said. I wish… and he stopped. His blue eyes flitted around the room, darting from left to right. Up. Down. He blinked.
I don’t know. And he repeated, softly. I don’t know.
That’s okay, she said. You don’t have to know. Let me help you.
I’m not ready.
I am. And she paused. I know it’s taken me too long. I know I’m late. But let me help. Let me…
He shook his head.
She gulped. Breathed deeply. Reached into her jacket pocket. Pulled out an envelope.
Let me give you this. And she handed the envelope across the space between them. Pushed it into his hand that hung by his side.
He gripped the envelope. Crumpled it. Held on tightly.
You know if it’s money I’ll just spend it on drugs.
Pain. Sharp. Cutting. Another arrow to her soul. She breathed. Deeply.
That’s your choice. Pause. Can I take you for lunch?
No. Pause. Thanks. I just ate. And he swept the hand that held the envelope out towards the room. Here.
I gotta go. Pause. He turned away. Light hit his face. It streamed in through the cloudy glass of a window high above. In its light, she saw him through the years. Young boy running. Stomping through mud puddles. Building a fort under the kitchen table. First steps. First day of school. First cut knee. Tears and fears and cries she could not relieve. She saw him running through the years. He turned to walk away. Stopped. turned back.
Thanks for coming down. He held up the envelope. Thanks for this. Pause.
She waited. Silently.
I know I look a mess. I got out of Detox yesterday. Words began tumbling out. I’m still clean. He held up the envelope again. I’m not really going to use it on drugs. I wanna get straight. Stay clean. I’m looking at a course. Here. Maybe go back and finish my GED. Get a job. I wanna let it go but I gotta do it my way. I gotta find my own path. I can’t keep running back to you and back to here. And if I come back to you, I’m scared I’ll just come back here. So I need to start from here and see where I go. I gotta do it my way.
She bit her lip. Held her breath. She searched for the right words.
I’ll always welcome you back. No matter what. And she paused. Took a breath. No matter what, I’ll never quit loving you.
He stood in front of her. This boy/man searching for his way. Searching for the path out of the darkness.
Yeah. I know.
And he turned, pulled his hood up over his head and walked away.
She stood. Watched his back fade into the crowd of grey and black bodies sheltered beneath the roof of this place where so many like him waited out the time until they found the courage to take the next step on the path away from where this place that sheltered them where they were, as they were.
She stood and watched and knew he was doing it his way. She would do it hers with heart held open in love.
She stood and watched and said a silent prayer of gratitude. He was safe. He was alive. There was hope.
©2019 Louise Gallagher
I wrote this story some time ago shortly after I stopped working at a single’s adult homeless shelter. I had forgotten about it until I found it in my archives this morning.
I wrote it to honour the many encounters I had while working at that shelters with family members coming to the shelter to try to find their loved ones. It was always so emotionally challenging to have to tell them we couldn’t give them information – Privacy is privacy and we could not violate the privacy of those we served.
I share it again today in honour of all the mothers and fathers who never give up hope and all the children who feel lost and without hope. There is always hope as long as life continues.