A few springs ago, I flew out to Santa Barbara from Columbus, Ohio for what would have been my son Jake’s 29th birthday. I needed to see for myself where he had lived and died as a homeless person the year before. Even now as I write those words, I am flooded by sorrow and shame. How could this have happened? How could my beautiful, sensitive, generous, funny, brilliantly creative son’s life have ended this way? It was unthinkable.
So many unanswered questions. This doesn’t happen to good parents, does it? Just lousy parents, right? Or was this horror Jake’s fault? Had he been just plain stubborn? Maybe the grip of substance abuse and escapism was too strong to resist? Had he suffered from a mental illness? Was he just plain bugged? Shouldn’t I have been able to save this precious person from a spiral of self-destruction? I had tried so many ways but nothing had helped – not the counselors or the psychologist, or the recovery programs, or medication. Years of frustration finally caused my kindness, patience, and understanding to give way to desperation, panic, and ultimatums.
Although I had approached this trip to the west coast with dread and fear, I somehow felt compelled to come anyway. James, my grief counselor, had encouraged the journey saying “There’s a reason you should go. There is something you need to find. We don’t know what it is, but you’ll know it when you find it.” I did find some compassionate and generous people – among them the kind man who witnessed the accident that killed Jake and had run to his side to try to help him; the director of the Rescue Mission where Jake sometimes ate, slept, and showered; a compassionate mom whose daughter had died after a similar struggle; the innkeeper who had himself narrowly escaped an early violent death; and others who graciously reached out in love. These people no doubt pushed through their own dread and fear to get involved in my mess, to speak hope into my heart. But I was to find something even more important than good individuals.
For my stay in Santa Barbara I had chosen a small inn just steps from East Beach and also just as close to the crossing where Jake had been struck and killed by an Amtrak train. When I arrived, the East Beach area was completely shrouded in dense fog. I was eager to get to the beach anyway as I’d never before seen the Pacific Ocean. When I checked in at the front desk, I was surprised to find a gift bag and note waiting for me there. I took my luggage and gift bag up to my room and pulled out a beautiful, incredibly soft hand-knitted shawl in shades of dark blue, teal and purple. It was from Kate, a woman who had written to me shortly after Jake’s death to thank me for an essay I’d published about Jake’s struggle. At that time she had written:
“Not until I read your words did I feel that someone else understood the love attached to asking a child to move out, telling a child that you cannot support the lives they are choosing. Is it in hearing the pain filled words from another mother who has said ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ in love, as I did, that some peace comes and some guilt is relinquished? I don’t know that it should matter, but this is the gift your words gave me.”
Now Kate’s latest note explained that she had made this prayer shawl for me in hopes it would provide comfort during times of solitude. Before giving it to me, she had taken it to her women’s circle, and they had all prayed over the shawl and for me. I was deeply moved by the kindness of these strangers.
I made my way out to the water’s edge, sat on the cold sand, my knees pulled up to my chin with the shawl wrapped around me, shielding me from the damp cold. Supposedly, the ocean was out there before me. I had to accept that notion on faith because about all I could see was a few feet of lapping waves, then nothing but fog. How much my surroundings at that moment reflected my current life situation! Behind me was a parent’s worst nightmare – the very spot where my son’s tragic life tragically ended. Ahead of me a cold impenetrable fog. So much of my identity – the best, noblest, and most fun parts of me – had been wrapped up in being Jake’s mom. Now who was I? Was I even a real person anymore? I could barely imagine that there was any sort of life worth living ahead of me – just a cold, senseless unknown. But, I was wrapped in the soft love and prayers of other moms, and that comfort would have to sustain me for now.
After I returned to the inn and started to feel a little more at home there, I shared my story with Frank, the innkeeper. He then told me his own story. He had been one of ten children and did not get a lot of direction from his parents, but he emphasized that he did not accuse them in any way of being neglectful. He never got new clothes, just hand-me-downs. If he wanted a bike, he had to earn the money himself. He said growing up like that made him more independent and self-reliant, and that eventually turned out to be a great blessing to him in how he has lived his life. But during young adulthood, he became angry and rebellious, struggling with drugs and alcohol and finding his place in life. His turning point came after he was struck by a car and almost died.
I asked Frank if he went to a treatment program or 12-step meetings to kick his drug and alcohol problem, and he told me no, but he did have to physically move away from his old friends and influences. Even then he started to fall back into it. He had to resolve to turn away and never look back. And that\’s just what he did. Amazing. He believes the key was that he himself had to really want to make those changes. He called it “turning toward life,” and he felt God had a hand somehow in his turning.
As I listened to Frank’s story I felt the grip of my own guilt loosen somewhat.
Throughout my visit, I continued to be blessed by the kindness of almost total strangers. Ron, the witness to Jake’s death, showed me where Jake’s body had landed by the tracks after being struck, and he described exactly what had happened that day. Although difficult to hear, it was enormously helpful. The day Jake died, Ron had only hours later written out his recollection of what had happened. He gave me a copy of his essay. What he wrote addressed the question which I had dreaded but yearned for an answer. The words that soothed my soul read, “ . . . this didn’t seem like a suicide to me. It looked like the guy was unaware that the train was coming.”
Rolf, president of the Rescue Mission was incredibly generous with his time and wise counsel. We cried, laughed, and commiserated over what a tricky business it is to help someone trapped in addiction and self-destructive thoughts and actions. Even the experts grope around in the dark, but continue to do the best they can. (Kinda like us moms.) What they do manage to accomplish with folks who have finally decided to turn toward life is so inspiring. My speculation that because of his sensitive nature Jake may have felt more keenly the disparity between how life should be and how it actually is, resonated with Rolf. “This is how I’ve phrased my own struggles with depression,” he commented. “ I wonder why I’m bothered by an ideal vision of what life should be like while other people are able to take it as it comes.”
Soon after I returned home, Rolf invited me to join the Facebook group for the Rescue Mission in Santa Barbara. I pulled up the site, clicked on a video link and watched one of Santa Barbara’s very famous residents make an appeal for donations. I thought, as essential as the monetary donations are, something more elemental than money needs to be pulled from us to save the lost and struggling – and particularly those whose fractured lives have led to homelessness.
As someone who is always seeking foundational truth, I try to imagine how God views homeless people. Instead of seeing a “homeless problem” as many of us would describe that situation, I think he would see homeless people the same way he sees all of us – a bunch of lost sheep in need of a shepherd. And he would go out finding them one by one. So this should be my perspective too. Jesus says, “My sheep know my voice.” I have to ask myself, am I calling out on behalf of the Great Shepherd? Like the kind people who reached out to me, am I, in turn, speaking hope into the hearts of the hurting or lost? Reflecting back on my visit, I did try to do just that.
As I already mentioned, the first thing I noticed in Santa Barbara was some very persistent thick fog. I also noticed numerous dark grayish forms of people walking along the beach and boulevard. Once the fog finally cleared, this picturesque coastal city burst forth in brilliant color. But some of the people seemed to remain washed with gray. It was as if they did not regain all of their color when the fog lifted. Like gray ghosts on the otherwise colorful landscape, I realized they were the homeless, and I was shocked by how many there were wandering around the parks by the beach. “Were they a menace?” I wondered. I felt afraid of them and somewhat repulsed. But my son had been one of them less than a year before, and HE was not scary, dangerous, or repulsive. He had been just a beautiful, lost, mess. I decided I should try to get to know some of these homeless ones, even though I did not really want to. Once again, I had to push through dread and fear.
At first, I warmed up by handing out a few dollars here and there to the panhandlers along State Street and asking, “Are you OK?” (I know, I know – lame!)
My next homeless “victims” were Chris and his girlfriend, who were quietly sitting near a Chipotle Mexican Grill, holding a sign asking for compassion. I asked if they ever stayed at the shelter or the Rescue Mission. They told me no, because those places were for “druggies.” They preferred to camp. I asked if it would help them if I bought them lunch. They said that would be great. I asked if they wanted to join me and was relieved when they opted to take their food to the park instead.
The next day I met Happie and David sitting together on Stearns Wharf. David held a sign that read “Houseless.” We talked a bit and shared some laughs. Later that night, I met David again near the Milpas St. crossing. When I began to tell him about Jake dying at that very spot the year before, I choked up, and he asked if I needed a hug. I did. He told me how his mom had died in Santa Barbara and how he planned to return someday to New Mexico where he owned property. Before going our separate ways, he described to me the place nearby where he had been “camping.” I hoped he was safe.
A day later, I met up with Happie again while I was helping to serve dinner at the Rescue Mission. I was surprised to see him there because he had told me that the mission was for drunks and drug addicts, not for someone like him. I listened to the dramatic story of how he’d fallen off a mountain once, resulting in extensive leg surgery and a donor bone. He spoke of his great sadness over his broken marriage and how much he missed his daughter. He asked why I was in Santa Barbara, and as I told of my son being at the mission the year before, I again began to cry. Happie asked if I needed a hug. I did. He told me a good friend of his lived in Columbus, and he asked if I’d contact her when I returned home. I promised that I would.
My last morning in Santa Barbara, I took my leftover food from the hotel room down to the beach and offered it to a very young man named Oliver, who was playing a harmonica and portable keyboard. He accepted my offerings and was especially grateful for the Breton crackers, which he said would go very nicely with the brick of cheese he’d just acquired. But he was a little wary of the Bosc pears. He was more accustomed to Bartletts. I asked if he’d take my picture at the water’s edge, which he did – twice, because he was dissatisfied with my first pose. Not natural enough, he said. When I asked him if his mother knew where he was, he assured me that he spoke with his parents on a regular basis. Did he ever use the services of the Rescue Mission? No, but he planned to join a fitness club. After chatting awhile, I told him I had to go catch a plane and he said, “Well, how about a hug before you go?” Sure thing, Oliver.
Did any of this friendliness and hugging amount to anything? I will likely never know. However, a few weeks after my return to Ohio, I was sitting with a crowd of about 2,000 and heard this amazing story from Dan, my neighbor, friend, and director of a large outreach to the urban poor here in Columbus. His personal experience illustrates how reaching out in love can indeed amount to something.
“I grew up in an upper middle class family in Connecticut. And, briefly, through no fault of anyone but myself, I became very emotionally and mentally damaged. I was asked to leave two high schools. I didn’t graduate from high school. I have since graduated from college and Bible schools, but I didn’t graduate from High School. I hitch-hiked out to the West Coast, and I lived for a time as a homeless person.
“I lived in the basement of a building for a few weeks in a city for five dollars a week until I was thrown out – literally. I wound up sleeping on the street or in a shelter. And I remember how humiliating it was to be robbed by somebody bigger and stronger than me.
“One night I went to the Salvation Army. I just wanted a meal. I was a little bit resentful, and I was guarded. I came into the Salvation Army, and I got my plastic tray, and I was with a long line of other people, and we were shuffling – shuffling along, minding our own business. Nobody really connecting. Some talk in the background, but nobody really said anything much.
“As I was coming through the line, an amazing thing happened.
“It seems so small, but it was so big to me. There was a man serving food, a volunteer. He just decided that night that he’d volunteer at the Salvation Army. He could have stayed home, watched a television show. In 1973, I don’t know what was on. Probably nothing better than now! But he just chose, ‘I’ll go and serve.’
“And so he said something, and I looked up – kind of defensively. And I think all he wanted to know was, did I want some of this, or some of that. I met his eyes, and something happened. I saw warmth. I saw kindness. I saw respect. He spoke to me in a respectful way. And God used this simple act of kindness . . . to speak to me – hope in my heart. I felt respected and valued as a person. It ministered to me, and that man probably didn’t even know it. That simplest of acts [told] me that I was valued.
“I couldn’t process it all at the time. I don’t think I said much of anything to him except ‘Uh, yeah OK.’ But it stuck with me.”
In the weeks and months that followed, Dan began and then continued to turn his life around to the point where he is now serving others as he was once served. Dan went on to add:
“Mother Theresa once said, ‘We can’t do great things. But we can do small things with great love.’ I would add to that that small things done with great love can be used by God to do great things. And that small thing that man did by simply choosing to invest some of his time made a change in my life. And I thank God for that.”
What would have happened if some kind stranger had reached out in love to my son Jake? Maybe nothing different. Maybe someone did reach out to him. Maybe someday I’ll have some answers. In the meantime, I have questions. Who will get the message of love to the lost? Who will speak hope into their hearts? I love the answer offered by Sara Groves in one of her songs, “Every heart has so much history . . . sit down a while and share your narrative with me; I’m not afraid of who you are.”
Aren’t we all a little lost? The only remedy is to connect – to reach out to each other in love. Perhaps we could loosen up on our obsession with rugged American individualism, our romance with the Lone Ranger mentality. We could learn much from the African Xhosa culture’s concept of ubuntu. It means that a person is a person through other persons.
In his book God Has a Dream Desmond Tutu describes ubuntu as:
“. . . the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole.”
I lost my son in Santa Barbara. But in Santa Barbara I found ubuntu. Pass it on.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.