At Last

For three and a half months I am homeless. Not by way of wandering, as I’ve been these past three or so years, but by the deliberate, willful denial to my own property by others, i.e., the unlawful occupation of my home by tenants who signed a month-to-month lease, then refused to vacate and/or pay rent. It is entirely different in every way, and I am overwhelmed with a sense of injustice combined with futility. I learn all I can about tenant/landlord laws in California, but I can neither change the bias against landlords nor circumvent the crawling pace of the eviction process. I’ve done nothing wrong, yet I’m being punished and I feel helpless to right this wrong. It is familiar, and it is very reductive. It would be so easy to slide backwards, into emotional chaos, disarray, oblivion. I wonder if I’m strong enough to resist.

Then somehow I get lucky, I am reminded that there is hope, there is good, by Neighbor Jim. He takes me in, says “Hey, I’ve got a couch, sleep here… stay here for as long as you like.” He is 85 years old. I arrive in early January, expecting to stay a week or two, at most. But by mid month he has reassured me again and again: I like your company; I don’t like living alone; you are welcome here. I realize he is not dotty, he is sincere. He tells me about his wife of 30 years, dead now since the early 2000’s. His eyes shine when he speaks of her, sometimes with happy memories, and sometimes because he still can’t quite believe she is gone. It’s as if he woke up and found her missing and can’t figure out where she’s off to. He’s baffled, discomfited, then quietly full of dismay. He knows about Jackson, and there are moments when our sorrows bounce off one another. Somewhere along the way I stop feeling like a burden, and start feeling like a friend.

We fall into a routine. He rises early and goes out to get the newspaper. He returns, quietly boils water for a cup of tea, and retreats to his downstairs studio, housing a piano and several stained glass projects in various stages of completion, to read the paper. After awhile I get up, moving slowly, make coffee, and read for a bit, after which he comes back upstairs and hands me today’s crossword puzzle and Sudoku. We occupy the small space of his living room, which is almost exactly like my own (the condos in this complex all identical in layout) in quiet companionship until one of us is hungry enough to mention breakfast. I make us eggs, with or without bacon, or a smoothie, or toast for Jim and a scoop of almond butter for me. I have recently read a book by a cardiologist who recommends the elimination of all grains and sugars from the diet, and because what he writes makes sense to me, his discussion of our evolutionary eating habits and history, I have decided to follow his advice for six weeks and see how I feel as a result.

In the afternoon we go to the local farmer’s market, or I take a walk, or he takes me to see my grief counselor, grocery shopping, or to a doctor’s appointment. We ride in his 1998 BMW Z4 convertible. It’s not airtight, far from it, so when he speaks to me I find myself yelling to be heard. Back at his place he plays the piano and I read, or write, or finish the morning’s puzzles. In the evening I cook us something for dinner, and we watch a DVD, something from the library, usually a mystery. We both like Agatha Christie, so more often than not it’s Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. He falls asleep midway through it, but I keep watching alone. He typically wakes up just as the show comes to an end, and announces, as if he’s been awake the entire time, “Well that was good, but I think I’m ready for bed now.” And off he goes.

When I’m not at the condo with Jim I’m walking. To the library, the nature preserve, the bay, around town. When she’s available I meet my friend Jenn, who has just had her first baby, a boy. At 41, she’s 10 years older than I was when Jackson was born. She is lithe and vibrant again, or maybe still – I can’t be sure, not having been around during her pregnancy. I try and remember how I felt then. I recall with clarity feeling tip-top during my pregnancy, but after? Was I this energetic and in shape, as if the challenge of birth now over, I had one hand on the starting line and the other behind my back, rocking back and forth as I listened for the whistle? She has a partner, whereas I was on my own. Did I pace myself? I know I tried.

Declan is just over ten weeks old now and every time I see him he looks the same size to me, an odd thing, because I saw him as a newborn and have seen him on a regular basis since. Meanwhile Jenn remarks frequently on how much weight he has gained, or how long he is now. I stare into his sweet blue eyes and remember the pull, the enormity of it, and I have to look away.

This is the first time I’ve been around a baby since Jackson died, and it’s simultaneously better and worse than being around the older children of other friends. Or maybe I should say simultaneously easier and harder. Easier because Jackson passed through that phase of his life intact, if not unscathed. It is less distressing to look at his baby pictures than his high school graduation photos. Harder because while older kids remind me of what I had and lost, Declan reminds me that I will never have the chance to fill that void. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that children are replaceable. They are not, by a long shot. But the being a mother part, that doesn’t have to end if you have other children, or if you are still capable of having more babies. My status now as mother is wrapped up entirely in sentiment rather than activity. I am a Mother Emeritus.

I meet Jenn whenever I can for a walk or a cup of coffee, and no matter when we last saw each other, she greets me with a hug and a kiss. I am only now getting used to this, and I revel in it. The only person before now from whom I could count on for a hug, at least on a regular basis, was my son. Almost every evening before bed we’d run into one another in the kitchen, the hallway, or the stairwell, and after a brief exchange about what was on the agenda for tomorrow he’d say “Goodnight Madre.” (It was always Madre except when he was emphatic about something, or angry, then it was Mother. When something was wrong, when he needed me, it was Mom.) Then he’d lean into me and throw his arms around me in a bear hug, sometimes lifting me off the ground, taking my breath away. Since his death, I crave affection even while I am afraid of it. Crave it in the way that an almost-alcoholic can live without his drink, but really doesn’t want to. Afraid of it in the way you don’t want to get used to something that you want, or possibly need, from someone else because you know it could disappear at any time, and then where will you be? Life lesson after life lesson has taught me to count mostly on myself. Trust, hope, disappointment are all feelings I seem to be ill equipped to handle these days. Yet they are inevitable if we are to truly live rather than merely exist.

Finally March 14th arrives. I meet the deputy sheriff at my condo at the prearranged time of 10:15am. I’m pretty sure my tenants are gone, as I saw a moving truck a week ago outside the garage. But I follow the rules: I wait for him to arrive; I arrange for a locksmith to meet us there in case I am locked out; I hand him the keys and wait for the all-clear. Finally it comes, and my home is my home again. Christ it’s a mess. There is junk scattered throughout the yard – pile after pile of clothes left out in the rain, now moldy and stuck together. Old wood, pieces of furniture, and trash, in a heap by the fence. A heavy couch, torn and bleeding, smack dab in the middle of the yard. A rusty grill, lawn chairs, car batteries, hand weights, discarded cosmetics, dog shit. No pets. Never mind. As I step inside I take a deep breath. I quickly look around, assess the situation: a gash in the stairwell wall; old, spoiled food in the kitchen; the skeletal remains of plants upstairs, death by thirst; boxes of yet more soiled and mildewed clothes in the garage. I take a quick inventory of my furniture and discover several pieces missing, but thankfully none are my mother’s antiques, pieces I will never again leave in the hands of strangers. Most importantly however, my son’s room remains intact. The deadbolt is still in place, and the door itself gives no sign of violent disturbance. Heart pounding, I turn the key and go inside. It is as I left it. I breathe in deeply, and when I smell him I fall to the floor in tears, so thankful, so happy, that I can still, again, have this.

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