My husband and I kiss goodbye in the hotel. He goes to his work dinner, and I go in search of some food and what’s left of the days sunshine.
I find a cute little patio, give the waiter my order and dig into the book I picked up at the airport called “The Teenage Brain.” The author suggests that while our kids are teenagers, we are supposed to BE our kids frontal lobes until they connect to the brain. Being a stay at home mom while my kids were little has been a choice I've never regretted and a privilege I don't take for granted but as they approach the teen years, I am even more aware of how critical it is to be fully present in their lives, working or not.
A growling voice interrupts my reading. I look up from my book and see a man with a white beard holding a bunch of bags. His words both annoy and soften me.
“I’m hungry. I’m thirsty.”
"Well come in then, you can eat my dinner.”
I meet him at the door and bring him out to the patio. He sits down in a huff, talking up a frenzy and trying to light a cigarette and I wonder if I’ve just let the big bad wolf in.
He looks down at my chicken dinner and says he likes steak.
I want to remind him that he has no teeth, but think better of it.
There is rice, soup, and bread too.
He says he isn't hungry. He is too depressed to eat.
I ask him some questions and he fills in the better part of an hour answering.
Do you have a nice childhood memory? He does.
Do you have any friends? He doesn’t
Are you on drugs? He denies it.
He holds his side and winces and I wonder if it’s meth burning holes in his liver and kidneys.
I once took a stray and filthy dog into our home and into the shower with me. My husband was concerned that he could been sickly or carry rabies but the dog was the sweetest thing and so happy to be bathed and fed. He bounded out the front door wagging his tail like a puppy. The voice in my head now says: This is a complicated, potentially dangerous addict, not some stray you can shine up and feel good about! And just what DO you plan to do to help? You can’t finance his addiction. Rehab rarely works. He won’t even eat the food you’re giving him. You are helpless to help.
I push the voice away.
He is still talking. “I just got lost in the world. Do you think I want all this? He grabs at his beard. People don’t know me and it’s not fair. They don’t KNOW me."
He’s right. It’s hard to see the man inside the addict. His body is jerking around. He’s paranoid and nervous. He shrinks back when people walk past our table. His eyes are wild and his speech is hard to understand. But he is a person with a name. Somebody’s child. He is Jeff from San Francisco. Jeff who worked at IBM. Jeff who skipped school and stole candy when he was little. A boy who grew up and made some bad choices possibly during those years when the frontal lobes weren’t yet connected.
Days later my husband drives me to the airport while it’s still dark and we see them walking in their sock feet as if the street is their living room floor. Their belongings are bags and their cravings are severe. They aren’t home. They are in hell. I feel safe in the SUV. Safe from the zombies who’s bodies are bending over in pain, the drugs eating their organs for lunch.
And you wonder, what CAN one person do to help this mess?
“Do you believe in God Jeff?
“God’s the only reason my feet are on this earth”.
He hugs me then for a long time, whispering "God bless you" in my ear. It’s a little awkward and I wonder what my dad would think if he saw me hugging an addict on the streets of San Francisco, but when I walk home, my heart all ripped up, I feel humbled to have embraced somebody’s lost child. I think about all the people who are missing their family members, fighting for their loved ones to get healthy again while the alcohol and drugs call to them like a sweet intoxicating wind.
Maybe all one person can do is just sit with the Jeff’s of the world for a moment, letting them know that lost or not, we are here together. And maybe that is enough.