First Oleander on the Right Elizabeth Willis Barrett December 9, 2011
I drive up Bunker and just past Lionel I make a left turn onto the canal bank where I shouldn’t turn at all. I don’t think cars are very welcomed on the canal roads. But this is where he lives and I have come for another visit. I pull up to the first oleander and get out with my feet feeling like they are trudging through deep, dark mud and with my heart slogging along above them.
“Jeffrey?” I call.
“Hey, Mom,” comes his voice from the middle of the bush.
At least he’s alive--a good sign, I think. I walk up to the large overhanging oleander, and part the branches. There he is like he was the night before, wrapped in his sleeping bag and several blankets and looking very comfortable. I almost want to join him. Almost.
“How are you?” I ask.
“Good. Except for my hip. I think it’s broken.”
The first story is that he had jumped over a wall and landed on his hip. The next story is that he had hitchhiked and as he was getting out of the Good Samaritan’s truck, he caught the heel of his boot and fell hard on his backside. Truth has lost its way in his muddled head and doesn’t know how to get to his mouth anymore. Honesty used to be a valiant companion of this beautiful son. But she was so neglected that she left long ago. We have missed her.
Jeffrey is already dealing with a broken elbow that he acquired when his scooter failed to turn a corner. Scooters don’t miss garbage cans on their own. They need a sober driver and this one didn’t have one. Lack of sobriety was most likely the cause of Jeffrey’s hurt hip as well.
I never planned on any of my children becoming homeless. Homelessness is for people with no families, no opportunities and no one left to care about them. We have lots of room in a very nice home and plenty of food and love to share. We could easily keep Jeffrey for another 27 years. But the fact is, our keeping him was doing him harm, not good. We had enabled him too long or rather dis-abled him.
His father and I finally reached a decisive intersection where we stood together as adoring yet formidable parents. Although we had been at this juncture a hundred times before, this time we irrevocably meant it when we took a turn to the right and declared, “YOU CAN NOT LIVE WITH US ANYMORE!”
I used to wonder how people ended up being homeless. When I’ve encountered panhandlers on the edge of the freeway, I’ve questioned why they didn’t go get a job and pay for shelter. I’ve seen many “help wanted” signs. Surely those on the street have seen them, too, and could “inquire within.” But I understand now. They have “inquired within”--within themselves-- and the answer was, “Drugs. I need drugs.” Jobs cannot be sustained by those who need drugs. And standing on a corner with an outstretched hand can bring in as much as $25 an hour. That beats the wages for dunking French fries into oil at McDonalds. Since they don’t have any ambitions nipping at their heels, why not stand on a corner and beg?
On one occasion, a very kind and well-meaning gentleman gave Jeffrey $100 when he heard that he was homeless. That $100 nearly bought Jeffrey a permanent shelter measuring eighty-four inches long, twenty-eight inches wide, twenty-three inches tall and six feet under, since the entire amount was used to buy drugs.
When I had to take Jeffrey to TASC one day to get a court ordered pee test--more formally called a UA for Urine Analysis--to check for drugs in his system, we joined some rather questionable characters congregating for the same purpose.
“Do you want to be like these people?” I nearly shouted at him. I mean, who would? They all looked frightening and frightened, aimless and aimed at.
“No, Mom,” he said. “I wouldn’t be like these people. When I do drugs, I always know I have a home and a bed to come back to.”
I have to remember these words when I falter and want to gather him up and bring him home. In his case, home has kept him from growth and made using drugs way too easy.
So, I have allowed him to be a homeless beggar, choking back my motherly compulsions and desire to keep his natural consequences at bay. I don’t want him to be cold. I don’t want him to be hungry. I don’t want him to be alone.
As I leave him in his makeshift camp in the bush, I have become a beggar myself. I am begging that a change of heart will come, that truth will conquer, that the need for drugs will diminish. I am begging that another of the many people who love him will be able to influence him in a positive direction since his family no longer can. And I am begging that Jeffrey will finally be able to sustain a home much stronger and more stable than the first oleander on the right.
Another Rat--Another Race Elizabeth Willis Barrett September 23, 2011
Janice slammed her palm to stop the screaming of her alarm clock that told her with insolence that it was time to begin again. Five o’clock had arrived. Janice clenched her teeth in an attitude of determination and sat straight up, throwing her legs over the side of the bed. Another day. Another chance. Another try at the race. She was ready. Her best running shoes were waiting for her and since she had slept with her socks on and had worn her running shorts and shirt for pajamas, she hoped for a head start this time.
A quick bathroom stop, a drink from the bathroom sink, a cursory brush stroke through her hair, a gargle of mouthwash, a breakfast bar in hand and out the door she ran, not stopping to pet the dog or take the garbage to the road even though it was Thursday.
She was off, past those who had stopped to water their plants or to kiss their children good-by. She was out and ahead. “Yea, yea, yea,” she thought as she made her way to the busy thoroughfare. She was going to win today. She was committed.
The road was dusty. A few were ahead of her but she picked up speed. She knew she could stay in the lead. This was her day.
But as she looked over her shoulder, she was daunted to see Evelyn edging past her. “No, not Evelyn.” Evelyn the decorator. Evelyn--owner of the showpiece home. You could walk into any room in Evelyn’s house at any time of day and it would look like a model at Morrison Ranch. Janice thought of the stacks of papers that had gathered unbidden in each of the rooms of her own house. She thought of the unmade beds and the worn sectional in the Family Room and slowed to a jog. Discouragement had a way of slacking her speed. Evelyn was kicking up some dust that blew into Janice’s face so Janice shouted orders to her legs and she tried a little harder. She was still ahead of most of the runners.
Then over her other shoulder Janice could see another woman creeping past her--her stride impossible for Janice to match. It was Karen. Karen the cook. Janice had been the recipient of some of Karen’s cooking and Janice was certainly no match for her. Janice’s meals consisted of Panda Express and Taco Bell. More dust. Janice tried to keep up but her legs were cramping just a little. “Keep going,” she told herself. “You can do it. You’ll make it. This is your day.” But doubt was inching into her confidence like a growing mold.
Dust was rolling around Janice’s feet. “Take that,” she mused, aiming her vengeance at the people racing behind her. She kicked the dust a little higher on purpose.
Then on came three more. They weren’t sidling past her, they were bounding. Where did they come from? Where did they get their energy? There was Dionne, who could pick up a guitar and accompany anything from “Give Said the Little Stream” to “Perhaps Love.” And Nancy with her not-to-be missed catered parties. And Karley with her ability to walk into Dillards and come out looking like a fashion model. The dust was thick and Janice was re-thinking her ability to win at this race in any category. But she trotted on. Running was beyond her for a moment.
She took courage again from somewhere. From where does one take courage? A shelf? From another’s store of it? A bag that just happens to be sitting around with the label COURAGE on it? Well, from somewhere, Janice took courage and put a burst of speed into her faltering steps.
“Yes,” she said to herself. “I can gain speed from my outstanding ability to express appreciation. “Yep, I’m really good at that,” she said with conviction and she pulled out ahead of some of the other runners. But to her dismay, here came Phyllis--the queen of appreciation. She made beautiful thank you cards and always sent them out, even if it was just to thank someone for picking her kids up from soccer. Janice thought about sending thank you cards but they never made it from her mind to the mail box. Again Janice was left in the dust which was billowing in flourishes all around her.
“Aaaaaa,” she protested as the dust gagged her and the runners passed her. There went Jill with her computer expertise. She could upload pictures on Facebook, put her blog into ecstasy with backgrounds and extras that anyone would envy. And coming up on her left was Hannah who could out serve the best on the court and in life with her help with the homeless and bereaved.
Passing her on the right was Amy with her perfect straight and whitened teeth and who had botoxed her wrinkles into another decade. Finally, when Alicia passed her, Janice had to stop and wonder. “Alicia? Really?” Alicia had lost 30 pounds and was entering her 4th Triathlon. There was no hope.
Janice just stood there wondering how to take her next step. Family Home Evening? Yes, she was good at that. She started running again trying to just stay ahead of the stragglers. But it was no good. Here came Beth who never failed at holding an award winning Family Home Evening with her 6 kids and 20 grand kids every week. She used laminated visuals and made mouth watering refreshments. Why try? Janice stopped again. She put her head down and her hands on her thighs in an attempt to catch her breath and think. Think. What could she do? She could write. Yes, yes, yes. But just as she started to run ahead with that consideration, here came Paula. Paula had written 3 books already and had even got someone to publish one of them. Janice blew out her breath like a discouraged horse.
What? Ahh, speaking. Yes, she was OK in the speaking department. This rumination propelled her ahead for several meters until Brenda, the President of the Arizona Chapter of the National Speakers Association raced past her in a long strided sprint. Too much.
Janice thought of her grand-parenting achievements. Nope, they couldn’t get her too far. She was passed long ago by Margaret who took a Disney Cruise with her grandkids every year. Spanish? Nope. There went Karma who had taken three months out of her life to go to Peru to become fluent in Spanish.
Sewing, knitting, crocheting? She was passed early this morning in those areas. What then? Janice was a friend. A good friend. But not nearly as good a friend as Marley who went to lunch every other day to keep her friendships in order.
She was kind of good at scripture reading, but Polly had bolted ahead of her with her finishing of the Old Testament. That wasn’t even on Janice’s to-do list.
Real Estate? No. Celeste had that one covered. Good neighbor? Again Janice snorted out the dusty air that had filled her lungs.
Genealogy? Janice raced for two whole steps when she remembered that all her genealogy consisted of was a disordered pile of papers oozing from a cardboard file box.
The dust was getting thicker as runner after runner sped by her. Janice looked on in an immobile daze. Another day. Another loss.
Why not rest right here? Yes, right here. She lay down in the soft layer of dust powder left in the wake of the day’s runners. It cushioned her body like a cloud as new layers covered her with the advancement of sprinting feet. Ah, peace. Janice lay with her eyes closed and her heart subsiding, waiting for tomorrow.