My Mom became homeless three weeks ago. I had been waiting for it to happen for some time. Her choices, the last ten years, have been opaque to me, impossible to comprehend. Despite that, almost a year ago, I decided to honor her quest (as I saw it) to have nobody, ever again, tell her what to do – promising myself I would never again pretend I knew what was best for her, regardless of my opininions about her choices. My judgment and fear was too strong to participate in her life, however. So I broke off our contact, as I had many times before, the last eleven years. All I had learned about boundaries and self-preservation told me this was the only option for me.
During Spring 2012, I participated in a forthnight of storytelling, in a project called Scintilla. Writing about my mom and myself opened up a longing for her that I thought had died a long time ago. Synchronistically meeting an old mentor who invited me to her home for a lovely meal and spoke so lovingly of her sister, despite challenges between them, brought me face to face with my decision of not talking to mom. I had come to the point of feeling nothing for her, just a distant awareness of what had once been. Reading another Scintilla blog, Product of Excellence, where I felt respect, appreciation and gratitude intermingled throughout the words, I wanted fervently to be able to feel again. Since there was nothing tangible to do, I left these yearnings and feelings alone, letting them simmer in peace.
On Tuesday, three weeks ago when I’m writing this, Mom calls me from a number I don’t recognize. I start chattering along lightly, although I feel the intensity behind her silence. She interrupts me.
– “Marie. This time it’s bad.”
– “Okay. Can you tell me what the situation is.” I feel my heart beating, pulse reverberating on the side of my throat.
– “I’m getting thrown out. I have nowhere to go.” Mom sounds upset, her voice is murky.
– “I know where to go. Let’s meet.” For a long time I’ve been poised, ready to act, just waiting.
– “But what about my things, and what about…” The confusion comes through the line.
– “Let’s just take it one step at a time. Can you get to Hakaniemi?” I am breathing in, deeply into my belly, feeling how the trembling intensity calms down and my hands stop shaking quite so much.
Mom laughs dryly.
– “Well, you sure know how to talk to someone who is scared and upset.”
I say something. Anything. Matter of fact.
We hang up. My mind is reeling. My mom, homeless. Who to call? I remember all the times I have called others, all the crises points before this one. The thought of calling brings drama burning in my throat. My mind is spitting out judgments, rapid fire. I think of Jason, who showed me what homelessness feels like. I remember my toes curling, reading his stories. The language of experience showing me familiar feelings in a way I could connect to, despite never having been through that circumstance. Compassion starts warming my heart. ‘What’s the next step, honey?’ I ask myself. Call the number I got from the friendly lady in the telephone service I called a week ago. Where do the homeless in Helsinki go? There is a center. So I call them. Beyond my judgments, beliefs about how life should be, should have been, could have been for our family, is actual life. How it is. Now.
I meet my mom in a subdued shopping mall café. The Anna magazine I read to pass the time, has an article about a mother whose child’s father is homeless, due to alcoholism. The tender, desperate voice she is telling her story with, the little boy’s reaction to seeing his dad sitting on the street – one of joy in seeing him – feels familiar. I like how the mother in the story asks us to remember that everyone has human worth and deserve to be treated with respect. Then mom is there, trembling, in a greyish overcoat too big for her. I offer her my arm. Her exhale of relief, the settling of her ribs against mine straightens my spine. There are inquisitive looks around us. I notice. I ignore.
Breathing moves my belly button, open, close, open, close. Walking to the metro I am viscerally transported back to the time with small children, finding elevators because the escalator is not an option. The rush of busy people, streaming in lines on both sides of us, like a rush of water. At one point I ask whether I can carry mom’s bag. Fragility and exhaustion all around us. Tenderness.
The slow breathing, slow walking journey to the service center for people without housing takes us farther than a few kilometers. We allow contact between us. We leave behind past hurt, betrayal, pain, defense, anger; like useless nick nacks no longer needed. What matters in this moment is that she is my mother, I am her daughter and there is something that can be done, even if we don’t know what it is. There is only the metro ride, searching for a new address, the determination in walking from point A to B.
When we arrive at the homeless shelter, my mind makes another somersault. People in tattered clothes are hanging out in a sunny court yard. A man with a beet red face and blue eyes looks me straight in the eyes and says “Hi!”. No speculation, judgment, nothing except a friendly hello. I say “Hi.”, take a few steps to the glass door and ring the doorbell, supporting mom, feeling a bit supported myself.
We step into smells of chlorin, urine, alcohol. A friendly twentyish woman with black hair meets us. With a welcoming air she starts telling us about how the shelter works. The women have a tiny room reserved for them, with five steel beds next to each other, a thin blue mattress, the bedding consisting of sheets. Seeing that, my eyes burn, my mind revs up. ‘What’s the next step?’ I whisper to myself, ‘Breathe, darling’ my inner voice suggests. My mom’s arm feels relaxed, hooked to mine. I squeeze it a little. She squeezes back.
Upstairs there is a lunch hall. Everywhere there are white, clean, bare spaces. You can get a boiled egg for ten cents and lunch for a euro here. We go to the lunch hall, wait for a chance to talk to the social worker. We sit side by side. Mom doesn’t want to eat anything. I give her a strawberry protein bar for later and get myself some lunch. Acutely aware of the need to keep myself strong, grounded and nourished I walk to the counter. The woman there stares at me, but when I smile at her and say: “Lots of salad, one potato, please” copying the person who went before me, she smiles back, prepares my plate and takes my euro.
Eating meat and potatoes with dill sauce I’m breathing through the need to snatch my mom away, to protect her from this experience, to fix everything. I want to save her. Save her NOW. The only thing keeping me from turning the world up side down to rescue her, is that I have already been in that place and tried that option before. This. Is. Not. About. Me.
I can choose to be with my mother, as a companion, in this harsh lunch hall, in these hard circumstances.
Or I can leave.
So I sit. Eat my side of salad with corn. The food is good. We talk a little. Suddenly I remember I have my laptop. We check out some options for housing. I go to the bathroom. The lock is broken. Gulping, I realize there is no place in the whole facility where mom or any other resident can choose to be alone. Not even the toilet. Homelessness means no privacy. When I go back, the black haired young lady is there. Another social worker will see mom. Walking into the social worker’s room, I choose the chair that is farther away. Sitting, shutting up, present, I let mom talk about her situation. Everything is very immediate. Food, hygiene, health, housing, money are the questions covered. The kindness, respect and dignified courtesy in the social worker’s manner move me. In all of the encounters we have had that day, there has been no blaming, no manipulation, no attempts to control or humiliate.
There is a whole list of next steps for mom, after the visit to the social worker. Doctor, nurse, tests, vitamins, housing options. Starting tomorrow. Mom is to stay at the shelter for the time being, while everything is worked out. The time has come for me to go back to my own life, go get the kids from day care, cook dinner, answer e-mails. After years of struggling, being angry, healing, hoping, resisting, defending I have promised myself to not expect anything, to hope for nothing. Without all the drama, everything is suddenly simple. Mom will spend the night in this center for the homeless, I will call her tomorrow and accompany her to an interview for a home. I leave mom, sitting with her gray bag at a table with Helsingin Sanomat, the local newspaper.
A few days later I realize that nobody, who is loved, is ever homeless. They are just between apartments. There is so much in this experience that I cannot put into words. What I know now, beyond trust & doubt, is that love is never lost. It just needs freedom.