“Mum, you need to come get me — I can't stop drinking."
I woke up with a jolt, my son’s words echoing in my mind, beads of sweat on my forehead and pooling on my lower back as I struggled with the twisted sheets to sit up. I had received that call in 1996, before he got and stayed sober for 10 years. He’d long since started drinking again.
It was 3:17 a.m. My son had not been heard from for weeks, and my mind always went to the scary places at night, remembering phone calls from unknown locations and pleas for help that I was never able to give. He’s 38 now and homeless, has been for years, but this was different. I felt it. I looked at the clock again and counted: In 6 hours and 43 minutes I would start calling the West Coast hoping for some shred of news, but knowing I wouldn’t get it.
"I can neither confirm nor deny anyone is here by that name." I have no idea how many times I had heard this since his cycle of homelessness began in November 2013, just three months after he went to San Francisco for a fresh start. They could never tell me anything: the hospitals, then the jails, the homeless shelters, and lastly the morgue. All I wanted was some rule-bending clerk who’d let me tell them about the little scar my son has over his right eyebrow from falling off his bike, the narrowness of his feet, the colour of his eyes and hair including a likely long and mangy beard. That he would be dirty. And then to get so much as a grunt of confirmation on the other end.
I know they must be busy; I swear if I get someone I’d refrain from explaining his whole history. That he had a master's from one of the world's most prestigious schools. That he moved to China where he learned the language, established a company, and fell in love. That he returned home for an exciting job, which was quickly pulled out from under him when the company sold. That he was devastated — but suddenly flush with cash and free time. He took his severance money on a trip to England, where wine with dinner woke the sleeping demon, and alcoholism took hold again. He’d beaten it before, but this time it would change his life story from one of great potential, pride and happiness to one of depression and despair. Both of ours, really.
Whomever I reached on the phone would see none of that. And they wouldn’t see his inevitable outbursts of laughter when he is with his sister, the warmth in his voice when he speaks, or the slight quiver of nervousness when he sings, his extraordinary intelligence. My missing boy. So I will be alone with this, awake.
I feign sleep until my husband leaves. I'd stay home and make calls until I had exhausted my list of numbers, a worn and wrinkled sheet of paper with names and numbers I’d been adding to each time we went through this.
“Please help me, help me, help me,” runs on a loop — it’s my mantra, my prayer, and my script for those calls.
He had been sober for nearly 10 years, I think to myself. How could this be happening? How could I have been so naive to think that recovery would last a lifetime? There is only sobriety that is one day at a time, I now know. And some days take fighting through with white knuckles and gritted teeth.
He had reached out to me asking for help; so what if that was only in a dream this time?
I could never have realised that first desperate phone call from him would foreshadow a 20-year journey. It took six years for him to get sober that first time; he fought against the reality that survival meant he could not drink at all. But then, relief: nearly 10 years of a clean and sober calm. I was told that relapse happens. And, of course, it did.
In the five years since his relapse there have been five sober houses, seven arrests for ordering food he couldn’t pay for, time spent in three jails, four recovery programmes, five hospitalisations, multiple detox admissions, countless nights on the streets or in shelters. I have traveled to San Francisco twice trying to help him get in a good and safe place. I have spent thousands of dollars to give him food and clothing. I have purchased six pairs of eyeglasses, seven prepaid mobile phones, sent boxes of clean underwear, pants, and socks to sober houses and shelters. I have found strangers willing to help. I have felt heartbreak, fear, and defeat, but I have never stopped loving or given up hope.
With one more hour to wait, I go through the motions of breakfast: tea and a dry piece of toast.
"I’m sorry. I can neither confirm nor deny anyone is here by that name." As expected, I got that monotone response, excruciating indifference, from two hospitals, two jails, a homeless shelter, and the morgue. My last call was to the San Francisco police. I had called many times before. The gist was always the same — missing people generally didn’t want to be found. I couldn’t accept that. I was convinced my son wanted help. This was not the life he wanted, planned, and worked for. He had reached out to me asking for help; so what if that was only in a dream this time?
I reached a desk sergeant, a woman — a mother, I think. She offered to check the system for his social security number, and miraculously, he was listed. I couldn’t breathe. She told me that he had been taken to a hospital by ambulance, and had surgery — but nothing more. Whatever had happened, I knew it must've been at 3:17 a.m.
I was 3,000 miles away in a panic. How badly was he hurt? What had happened? This sergeant made the generous decision to bend the rules. She sent a patrol officer to the hospital to see my son. She called back within an hour to let me know that his injuries were not life-threatening. The news brought such a release of fear and tension that it caused my body to nearly collapse. I cried until I was empty, took a jagged breath, and called the hospital again. I knew my son was there and I would not be refused information. Not again. I got some.
I knew my son was there and I would not be refused information. Not again.
He had been found by the side of the road with a severely fractured foot, ankle, and a hip that required surgery. What inane law says it is the right thing to do to leave patients like this alone, to not notify family? I was later assured that, had he died, I would have been notified, something there’s no consolation in knowing.
Due for surgery myself, I couldn’t travel to see him. My daughter went instead, and it scared her to see her brother as he was — unkempt and seriously injured. When she left, she worried she’d never seem him again. I have no consolation for this.
Upon discharge, my son was sent to a respite facility for medically complex homeless people, where he was given three meals and a real bed — and freedom to drink.
“Why Mum?” he asked, when I finally spoke to him there. He was sorry and he hurt. He was angry, too. I had no answers for him. He had no means to stop.
By the time I could travel it was two months later, and he had already slipped through the cracks of an inadequate system to be returned to the streets of San Francisco — this time with crutches, a pronounced limp, and chronic foot pain: permanent reminders of his dues to alcoholism.
I know my son fought the pull in moments of clarity when he would recall who he was in a prior life; the clarity that also must have displayed the wreckage of his current life in sharp relief. It is not willful self-destruction that leads him to drink, but desperation, fear. The cycle perpetuates. I have lived this with him. The pit in my stomach never goes away.
My son never hurt anyone but himself. My father was an abusive drunk, and I am the genetic link. Do we somehow atone for the sins of my father? Is this how it has to work?
I often wonder if, given the chance to go back, I would do it again — if I would have children. Inside I know I would. I know the joy this son gave to me far outweighs the pain, which only multiplies. I would take on his disease if I could, sell my soul to give back all that he has lost.
Alcoholism knows no boundaries, I have learned, but neither does a mother's love.
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