Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tree of Life

It was months before Evan finally ended up in the hospital. It would be his fifth time. Our son, Elijah, was slightly over three years old at the time, and we were both in a state of perpetual fear. Evan’s mental health was no longer stable. To avoid being in the vicinity of him, Elijah and I  would travel between several playgrounds and farms each day. Our days were filled with juice boxes and in-car activities. We lived in an affluent town on the grounds of an estate. There was a mansion, a law office, a pool, a separate garage, and a little building we referred to as the cottage. During Evan’s and my endless travels, we would end our journeys at this small non-winterized dwelling. It was the off-season from touring with the Grateful Dead. I was very happy to have a place to go. My life until then was filled with years of living out of storage units. I had no place to call my own. I was always crashing at someone’s place until I overstayed my welcome. This cottage was not at all my own, but after the initial awkwardness of returning, I would settle in. Once Evan and I had a child, it established what I thought would be a permanent end to my lack of shelter. Although I never thought of myself as homeless, I had often thought of myself as a drifter, and that I didn't need anything other than the positive sensibility my mother had instilled in me.
Evan grew progressively more out of control, and I was at a loss with his parents. They were attorneys, and had threatened to not let me back on their property if I called the police. I would, however, call the police, and ask them to stay on the phone with me when Evan’s behavior got out of hand. I would be holding Elijah in one arm, and grasping the phone with the other arm, with the police standing by on other end. Meanwhile, his father would take the car seat out of our car and hide it so we could not leave. The police officer would say: “Heather, are you sure you don't want us to send a car over? Is your baby safe?”
 Elijah and I would lock ourselves in the bedroom at night. I played music tapes that Elijah liked. We would dance. Evan would stay up for days, drinking, yelling biblical quotes, and displaying out-of-control mania. Many things led up to me finally leaving over the course of those several months, yet it all seemed to happen so fast. One night while I was at work, on what would be one of the last nights I left my son alone with his father, Elijah got on the phone and told me that “daddy was having a camp fire.” I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. As I drove down the long gravel driveway of the estate that curved around like a maze through arborvitae trees, I saw the fire. Smoke was billowing over the top of the trees. There was a crackling fire, and the smell of burning plastic filled the dark hour of that summer night. The fire contained my things: a camera, a guitar, photos, journals, and my clothes. This would not be the first time that I lost all my possessions, nor would it be the last. 
I was trying to hold down my job and secure shifts at the restaurant, while at the same time confronting Evan’s erratic and frightening condition. It was becoming increasingly more difficult. He had been hospitalized many times before this point and, despite the pronouncement from medical professionals that he was dangerous and in need of inpatient treatment, it was very difficult to return him to this system.  Finally, after so many episodes of disturbing behavior, he was to return to the hospital. In the twenty-four hours before this was to take place, he disappeared. Evan vanished into a local wooded area. We drove around looking for him. When we did find him, He walked towards the car. He was disheveled and bleeding from falling down, while trying to run through the woods. He had carved a cross onto his arm. He was delusional, dangerous, but still with his beloved dog at his side. They picked him up and placed him in a hospital. This particular manic episode took its toll on all Evan’s family. During the days after Evan was locked up, I stayed with some friends. I expected to be welcomed back to the place I had called home for many years. Instead, I received a phone call telling me that my things, as well as Elijah’s, were packed in black garbage bags and left on the porch. I remember a dear friend summing it up this way: “Heather, they are like an amusement park, when there is a bad accident. They clean the scene up and keep the line moving.”
It’s hard not to write about these things without feeling resentment and anger. I am trying to write from my heart; the heart that even in the worst times is full of love, forgiveness and compassion. I can't attempt to understand what it was like for the others who love Evan. It was not that long ago and much of it is still unresolved. 
After the initial shock, I changed into survival mode. I was not only good at this; it was a familiar way of life. You made do, utilizing whatever you could, being resourceful in every minute of the day. I still possess these traits. It was summer time, and there were more hours in the day. It was warm and this made living easier. I went to Cape Cod to see my family, and to try and put a plan together. I weighed my options. I had already established a steady, meaningful connection to the restaurant. They were becoming like a family to Elijah and me, full of the same dysfunctions and love. For weeks we bounced around, staying at various houses and sleeping in safe parking lots. I knew which ones to go to. I knew how to park so that the sun did not wake us up. I had done all of this before, except not with a toddler. I slept with one eye open, or not at all. During this time I stopped smoking. It had been two months that I was smoke-free. I would sit at a playground and cry. Elijah would notice and come to me. He would put his tiny hands on the sides of my face, holding my cheeks the way a child would. He said: “You can't smoke mommy, I don't know why, but you can't.”  He continued: “I love you mommy. This is fun at a playground, thanks for taking me here.” He would reassure me that he was happy. The days and weeks passed for me as a nonsmoker under severe stress. Elijah would see someone smoking outside of a store, and he would adamantly grab my hand.  “LOOK AWAY MOMMY, LOOK AWAY.”  
We visited Elijah’s father in the hospital. He stayed there for a month. This was one of the first of many periods where Elijah and I felt a strange level of comfort. While Evan was in the hospital, we were safe, and there was hope. I had to decide if moving to the Cape was better than staying in the area. I had been offered a low-income housing unit, but did not take it because it would mean living in the same town as Evan. I knew that I needed a safe place to raise my child, and he was not going to be safe when in the care of his father. When I struggle to pay my rent now, I always remember this decision.  I strongly believe that Elijah is the wonderful way he is partly because of me, and the decisions I made back then. I do not regret a thing.
I told my boss at the restaurant: “Look, if I you want me to work here, I have to bring Elijah with me; all the time. I have to make it work.” Later that afternoon, my boss and the guys in the kitchen, brought up an old desk from the basement. Elijah and I watched as they cleaned it off and carried it up the back ramp. Someone took out a marker and wrote Elijah’s desk on it. At the moment, we felt needed, we felt love. We felt like a family, and that we were part of a community.
As the weather got cooler we started staying inside other people’s homes for a few days at a time or even for weeks at a time. We would wait until the owners went to bed so we could quietly go into the room or space they provided. We were biding our time, slipping by underneath the radar. It was a trait I had mastered before Elijah was born.
It was November, the day of Elijah’s fourth birthday.  I did not tell him it was his birthday because I did not like that we were homeless on this special day.  I gave him a cake, but he did not know why. I whispered in my head: “happy birthday my beautiful baby.”  We would go to work, and because of Elijah’s growing anxiety, I would work upstairs in the restaurant, so that he could stay close to me, but not be under foot at a chaotic restaurant. There was a non-working bathroom off the upstairs kitchen. I gathered old tablecloths and covered the toilet and the floor. I propped the door open with Elijah’s stroller. This became his version of our car. I had movies, books, and junky, little dollar store toys for him to occupy himself. He would wait for hours. Towards the end of my shift, I put him in his pajamas, and would continue a bedtime routine. I stood in the kitchen, pushing the stroller back and forth until Elijah fell asleep. Like clockwork, the guys in the kitchen would one by one come up the stairs and grab ends of the stroller with sleeping Elijah. They would carry him and numerous bags down to my car.
      At last, an apartment became available. It was within walking distance of the restaurant. It was small, but cozy and warm. The date was December 21st. We moved into the empty apartment, and it stayed empty for many months. We moved our stuff from the car, and created a pile of flip-flops, sleds and winter coats, each of them depicting the seasons we had lived through. As I stood in front of the pile that reached to the ceiling, I looked at the woman moving out of the apartment and said: “Can you believe all this stuff was in my car?" 
Elijah desperately wanted a Christmas tree. When I was growing up, my family never had a fake tree, and getting a tree was an event. It was a hike and get lunch out tradition.  I told Elijah that we could not get one, and that all the money had been used to pay for the apartment. We went down to the local Walgreen’s. We were in the process of feeling out the neighborhood. I was sick and knew I needed to take something. Upon entering Walgreens, Elijah spotted a fake tree. It was marked down at 75 percent off. It cost 6 dollars. It was two and a half feet in height. It was my last 6 dollars. I neglected to buy the cold medicine I needed. As we carried the box in the house Elijah’s excitement turned to a slight despair when he realized that we had no decorations. I assured him this would be this tree would be the best tree anyone has ever had. Thankfully, it was equipped with lights. We gathered some candy canes, play dough cutter shapes, matchbox cars and affixed them carefully to the tree with twist ties. Elijah sat down on the bare floor we slept on, and said: “Mommy, this is the most beautiful tree I have ever seen. Thank you so much mommy. I love it!" We still use this tree every Christmas. As we hang the same decorations on it we both remember, and we are both grateful. We are careful not change a thing on that tree.
We had planned a trip to Cape Cod for that Christmas Day. Elijah’s father was still in the hospital, and the relationship with his family remained strained and painful. I was becoming increasingly ill, and had a high fever. In the subfreezing temperatures of the night before Christmas Eve, I drove myself to the emergency room. Upon entering the hospital, I started to unravel. There were remnants of a bad scene; crime scene investigators were milling about with clipboards. I was glad that Elijah was asleep in the stroller. He was covered with several fleece blankets.  As I sat there, all the events of the prior months came crashing down on me. One of Elijah’s blankets dropped to the floor. A tall, assertive police officer leapt to retrieve it. He said sympathetically: “I got this for you,” as he wrapped it in a sterile see-through plastic bag. At the time I was unaware that the blanket had dropped into a pool of blood left over from whatever previous mayhem had just occurred. I stood in front of the nurse and began to cry. I told her I was sick. She began to question me and somehow this accelerated my unraveling process.
“Is there anyone to bring your child to? Are you alone? Do you have anywhere to go when you leave here?” I was glad that at least the third question’s answer was yes. We were led to a room where I was assessed. I continued to cry, sobbing now, telling the nurse all that had transpired. She listened as she brought warm blankets for my son and me. She offered another cot for Elijah to lie on. They immediately started me on an antibiotic. I was sick but also experiencing the withdrawal of not smoking for the last several months: most people who quit smoking experience an unpleasant bronchial clearing-out reaction. 
The nurse dimmed the lights and affirmed that everything would be okay. She told me I was a good mother, and that I should rest for a while, but that I could leave whenever I was ready to go. I fell asleep for a while looking at the plastic Christmas decorations hanging off the fluorescent lights. At about 4am, I decided to make the trek home, or rather to our empty apartment with a single Christmas tree. I felt the weight of my life, the sadness; the holidays pushed down on me as I drove through the quiet, empty streets. I felt alone, sick and scared. I pulled in front of the apartment, and sat in the car, stunned, trying to pull it all together. I saw a shadow move towards the car. It was Oswaldo, my coworker and neighbor from upstairs. He had seen us leave, and waited for our return. He silently opened the door of the car and carefully carried my sleeping child into the house. He laid him out on the makeshift bed. He then came back for me and put his arm around me, guiding me into the house. He went upstairs and appeared again with a hot cup of tea. He put it front of me and said: “You are okay now Heather. I am here for you. I am your neighbor now. The restaurant is your family, we are all here for you.”
 He continued through my streaming tears: “It's okay Heather, you are home now.”


  1. WOW!!!!! you are an amazing human being..mother..friend and I for one have been blessed to have had you even crossed your path.

    I have been where you have been...homelessness is not fun for sure, but it sure gives us such a real and true sense of humility and appriciation for life and allthe things and people in it.

    Our kids have the gifts of knowing that we have sacrifice so much for them and even through the hardest times they see how we just push through the hardships of life and put them every parent should ...although many neglect this fact and it is usually those who have everything!

    Love ya girl..the times you have written about are the times that have defined you and have turned you and your son into the truely amazing, unique and beautifully spirited people you have become!

    Power to ya!!

    Debs : )

  2. Heather -

    as I read your blog, I am impressed at what an amazing woman you have become. I know I've said this before, but I'm saying it again. I feel blessed to be your friend. You have had such a tough life, but you have survived and triumphed through it. I'm glad that you are sharing your story because it is inspiring. I seriously think you should turn this into a book because I think there are people out there that will truly benefit from it.

    Pam :)