The Junkie Mom at the Park

{Originally written over the summer}

The sweltering day had tapered off into a shadowy, refreshing breeze. I love when the scale of the year tips winter-ward and the summer nights begin to cool off, teasing of autumn, and tonight was one of those perfect nights. After a late dinner ala fridge and close to bedtime, we decided to take advantage of the weather and walk to the park.

We rolled up the hill with the dog in tow, who insisted on tugging relentlessly at the hunter green leash and barking at every squirrel within a quarter mile, and I saw her sitting on a weathered wooden bench across the park. When we sat down on the opposite bench, she yelled, “how old is your little girl? She’s pretty!”

Then I thought she said that she loved her hair, too, so I reached over, stroking her blond, bouncy locks, smiled and said, “thank you!” But she quickly responded, “no, yours!”

Oh, okay. That was sweet.

People at the park will smile on occasion, but they aren’t normally too friendly in the city, just as a general rule. They tend to keep to themselves, although I try to initiate some conversation when I’m feeling like getting out of the hermit shell inside my head. So I was a little surprised by this anomaly.

I sized her up from my seat, noting her seemingly clean purple and white-stripped cardigan and jeans.

Hmmm… She looks about my size, I thought, and for a second, I reverted back to middle school and considered befriending her in an effort to swap clothing. Sharing wardrobes was a trademark BFF thing back in the day. Then I quickly remembered the prevalence of bedbugs and fleas and other pests in the city, so, coupled with the obvious creepiness on my part, I scratched that idea. She proceeded to have a cigarette, which further reaffirmed my decision.

Her two girls were chattering excitedly about the dog and how cute he was and how they wanted to pet him, and I hesitated for a moment, because sometimes he can be quite boisterous and scary, his bark being much bigger then his bite. He hasn’t, in fact, ever bitten anyone, but still, I was nervous. As they inched closer, he relaxed his ears and seemed to welcome them, so I gave them permission. They loved on him enthusiastically, despite his frequent kisses and horrid breath.

My son was playing with a tennis ball on the slide, rolling it down with the inherent problem of having climb down and retrieve it each time, but she picked up the ball, which practically rolled right to her, and tossed it back up. They played like that for a little as I watched, debating whether I should get up and take her place like a “good mom” or allow them to continue.

Her girls tired of the playground and wanted to swing, and though they were plenty old to push themselves, she readily got up and went to push them. They were laughing, legs intertwined and facing sideways into a banana split, and she pushed them back and forth as they squealed.

I didn’t suspect anything yet.

My kids wanted to swing now, too, of course, so I situated them in the bucket swings and gave them a push alongside the other mom. And that’s when I first caught a whiff of it drifting by on the wind. The smell of urine. I didn’t immediately connect it to them, but then I noticed it each time they were near.

As she swayed back and forth with each shove of the swing, she asked if we lived close by. She lived in walking distance, too. She talked about summer and the start of school, which is all in the realm of normal mommy conversation, but I began to notice a strangeness in her movements. A kind of jerky, twitchy, awkward thing. It was mirrored by her seemingly compulsive style of speech and lax personal boundaries.

And then I realized, although it was a cool evening in July, she was in a long-sleeved sweater, jeans, and shoes instead of sandals. Everyone else was comfortably dressed in summer attire from head to toe. It’s the addicts, thin or even emaciated from the poison coursing through their veins—the very thing that is psychologically necessary to sustain them is, in fact, stealing their very life out from under them—who dress for an imaginary winter nobody can feel but them.

As her girls grew bored, she hopped up off the bench and suggested a game of follow the leader, and the girls filed in line behind her. They invited my kids to play, too, but the only response they received was a few blank stares.

She started marching across the playground, climbing over the stairs and ducking under the slides before weaving through the swings and finishing off her turn by going round and round and round the few pine trees in the park before rescinding her role.

“You’re a better mom then I!” I relented to her as I sat on my bench and observed, feeling pregnant as could be after the week of a heat wave we experienced. But was she, I wondered?

On one hand I admired her willingness to jump right in and play with her kids. Playing isn’t really my thing, but I did my time thrusting the rubber bucket, while tiny feet dangled effortlessly in the evening breeze, and I tossed the tennis ball up the slide to my son more times then I really cared to. On the other hand, I wondered what the inside of one’s house must be like if everyone who lives there walks out the front door smelling like a middle school boys bathroom.

With kids there is an awesome type of filth that comes from a day spent outside under nothing but the blue sky in the summer. Knees grass-stained, fingernails grubby, little feet with a ring of dirt around the bottom, and head full of sand. I always wonder, when we go out in the evenings after a day like this, if the people we come in contact with will think my children are neglected. Frankly, I figure there’s no point in changing their filthy clothes until bath time, because it’s not just the clothes that are filthy. Maybe that’s just me.

But these poor girls… They were a different kind of filthy. The kind that doesn’t just have the spills and stains from today on pink shorts, but the grime from yesterday and the day before, too. Maybe even all week. The kind of dirty that has an accident in bed at night and doesn’t have a clean pair of clothes to change into. The kind of dirt and sweat on faces that has blended into what looks like a tan after probably days of not bathing.

When I was young and thought I was utterly invincible, I would ask people what drug they would do if they had to choose. I, of course, picked the riskiest one I could think of, which was heroin, despite my always-existent fear of needles. I know now that given the right cocktail of pain, loss, circumstance, anger and fear, people are capable of anything. In our soul of souls, I think we are all a lot worse then we would ever dare to imagine.

But even still, the pit of addiction is one that I don’t ever care to have to climb out of; so thus far, I haven’t been tempted to jump in. And heroin of all things—it leaves a trail of destruction and ruined lives in its wake. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’d never go there, because I think that type of ignorance is just foolish, and I’ll be the first one to admit that I enjoy me some wine. Sometimes a little too much. But that cross, that self-imposed thorn in my flesh, is not one I’d ever like to bear.

Yet, there she is in front of me. The product of those choices in the flesh. And I wonder how she does it—be a mom—day in and day out. Parenting is a bitch most of the time as it is, let alone with a layer of addiction on top. What you thought would be the icing on the cake, the sweet, melt-in-your-mouth escape from reality, ends up weighing you down, trapping you in the gooey muck that is now your mess of a life, and the once buttery richness has lost all its flavor. How do you survive there?

I guess part of me admires her for showing up. For swinging her kids with her twitching hands and awkward conversation, for ducking down and following them around the pine tree, again and again. For, when one daughter asked, after she had to be dizzy from all the spinning, “is this fun mom???”

And her saying enthusiastically, “Yes!”

To the Mom Beating Her Son on the Side of the Road

The day didn't work out at all how I thought it would. But if it had, I wouldn't have seen you.

I woke up with grand plans of showering, once I got the big kids off to school, and taking my little ones to the first moms group of the season. You know, the glorious place where I would get to eat a lovely breakfast and sip my hot coffee in peace and enjoy a couple kid-free hours with other adults. I'd get home in time to feed the kids a quick lunch and lay them down for a nap. Pretty much a perfect day, if you ask me.

Alas, long Wednesdays at school followed by an evening at church, as fun as it is, tends to strangle the life out of Thursday mornings. Everyone wakes up tired and crabby.

I tried everything--I promised treats from the moms group, mac and cheese for lunch when we got home, even a trip to Wendy's for Frostys if they willingly went to their class at church so I could go to mine.

Please, for the love of God, take the Frosty deal. Take advantage of my desperateness. I'm begging you. 

But no.

They didn't want to go, no matter what I offered. In a passive-aggressive huff, I relented and walked back downstairs into a day that would now revolve around their preferences, muttering something about laying them both down for an early nap since they were so tired. The tears began to fall, and I quickly felt like a loser for the comment. They were going to take a nap anyways, but I had to go and make it into a consequence. Awesome.

I hugged them and told them it as okay. I wasn't mad at them. They really were too tired to hold it together in a foreign environment for several hours, and it looked like it was best to stay home after all. For them, and me.

I remembered that we still needed to drop my husband's phone off at work and run to the bank, so I wiped away the rest of their tears and promised we'd come right back home. They piled in the car, still heaving a little from the guilt trip I gave them, and I pulled off the street and waited at the corner light.

That's when I heard you yelling.

I heard you before I saw you, even though my car windows were shut tight. I watched you turn the corner to walk by my car, still in your pajamas, hair tied up in a scarf and looking like you just got out of bed. I saw your son cowering in front of you, walking backwards with this hands above his head to protect himself. I saw you smack him on the head in rage every couple steps as you screamed at him at the top of your lungs. Just walloping him in stride.

"You think you can just run away out the house?? You think you can do that?"

The boys face was contorted in pain and fear as he inched back with every step you took forward. He didn't need to say anything because his eyes said it all--he was afraid, begging you with his gaze to make it stop.

And I just sat there in my car, mouth ajar, staring. It was like watching a train wreck. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. For a second I thought about grabbing the video recorder.

Someone should say something for that little boy. Someone should stop her.

But my mouth didn't move.

My face, however, began to flush with shame as the car behind me yelled out to her. She grabbed the boys arm and, looking at the driver, shouted, "this fool just think he can up and run out the house and go wherever he wants! No sir!"

The light turned green, and I followed the other cars as they moved on. In my rear view mirror, I could see yet another driver stopped to confront her, and my heart sank.

Why hadn't I said something to her?

I don't know what I would've said in the shock of it all, really. The first thing that came to my mind, and most likely what would've come out of my mouth in the moment was, "Lady, maybe he ran off to get the hell away from you! I don't blame him!"

I don't think that would've improved the situation at all, however. Perhaps it was for the best.

But was it?

We ran our errands and I kept an eye out for her on the way back home, but she was long gone. I couldn't stop thinking about that little boy. About how he desperately needed someone to speak for him, and I didn't. How nothing I was doing at the moment was more important then that.

Why hadn't I said something? Why hadn't I pulled over to offer some help? 

Clearly the woman, and the boy, needed help. I love the city because a lot of the time, the people who walk these streets wear their brokenness on their sleeve. Certainly, there are people hiding here just like anywhere else, or folks wouldn't be able to keep three girls locked up in their house for a decade without anyone noticing. But sometimes, like today, the mess just spills out all over the sidewalk for the world to see.

What would I say to her if I had another chance? Would I put on my social worker hat and confront from a place of authority, child protection, and anger management? Would I help her get connected to the right local services? It was past the time school had started, so I wondered if the boy had special needs of some sort, putting him at further risk of abuse. It was hard to tell for sure through his wincing expressions.

Would I just offer a listening ear, mom to mom? Extended a hand of grace? I know what it's like to have a child that you want to beat within an inch of his life at times, and by the great mercy of the Lord I have never followed through with that. But I know what it feels like to want to. I know how scary it is when the threads of self-control that are binding you, holding you back from horrible things, are breaking one by one, threatening to unleash the fury within. I know.

But beating someone into submission never solves anything, either. I know that, too.

In my heart I asked the Lord to forgive me and promised to speak next time. To say something. Anything.

We walked out the door to go to the park, and I saw the neighbor on her front porch with her new boyfriend's kids, brushing their blond hair. I say "new" boyfriend because she tends to replace them every few weeks or so, and this one appeared the day after her last boyfriend was dragged out of the house by the SWAT team. She's a poor judge of character, to say the least, and a recovering addict.

But I looked at the sweet little faces of those blond kids on the porch, and I thought, maybe they need someone to speak for them, too. I told her we were headed to the park down the road and asked if they'd like to join us. She said thanks and maybe they would in a little while. I made another comment about the beautiful day and walked on behind the kids on their bikes. She never did show up, but at least I said something this time.

There was a water truck doing something with the hydrants by the park, and the city worker flagged us across the street when the coast was clear. I waved to thank him, and the kids proceeded to enjoy a lovely morning at the park. God is good, for I did get to sit in peace with my hot cup of coffee after all. I sat on a bench in the shade in between watching them ride their bikes and pushing them in the bucket swings. Sunshine is healing to the soul--it's a reminder that all things work together for His glory.

We had been there over an hour when the kids finally said they were ready to go, just in time to get home for a quick lunch and naps. I reminded the kids to ride slowly down the hill so they wouldn't fly out into the road at the end, and that's when I looked up and saw you across the street.

Now you can't tell me, even for a hot second, that there is any such thing as coincidence. Not like this. No, the Lord desperately pursues our hearts, seeks us out, even in our most wretched state, and wants to make all the brokenness new. He makes beautiful things out of the dust, and he is the God of second chances. Because there you were, right in front of me. Again.

In that moment, I knew God wanted to redeem my story and at the same time speak into yours.

At least I thought it was you, but I wasn't close enough to tell for sure yet. I thought I recognized the clothes, but you had your hair did now and no longer needed a scarf. I hurried the kids across the road, thanking the same city worker on my way. I tried to holler and get your attention, but the truck was too loud. You couldn't hear me.

Quickening my footsteps to reach you, I ended up leaving my littlest behind. She got stuck on the sloped sidewalk and started to cry, and I had to run back and help her up. Thankfully, my son rode on ahead, and you stepped aside for him to pass. Looking back, you saw me wave and apologize, and I was finally able to grab your attention.

"Excuse me! Could I ask you something?" I blurted out.

You turned around and said yes, with a smile.

"Were you walking down the road this morning with a little boy?" I asked.

"Yes, that was me," you replied.

"I was driving by and saw you guys. Is he okay?!?"

You said yes, he was okay. The kids had woken up late and missed the bus for school, and you didn't have enough money for bus fare to get them there yourself, so they had to stay home today. But your oldest son just took off and ran away. You said that wasn't like him, that he had never done anything like that before. And it turns out the little boy's not so little after all; he's twelve.

You went out looking but couldn't find him, and after checking the dollar store, they told you he had been in and may be down the street. When you finally saw him, you witnessed an older man trying to give him money. When the man heard you yelling, he looked startled and ran off, leaving you convinced your son just barely escaped a kidnapping attempt because you showed up in the knick of time.

And you were scared.

"That sounds terrifying," I replied.

I remember the day I thought I lost the two-year-old. How we looked everywhere in the house and the yard outside and couldn't find her. How we ran all over calling her name, down the street, the kids riding their bikes around the block, shouting. How the tweaker next door said he saw her walking down the street with two older boys, but neither she nor any boys could be found.

My mind immediately went to the worst possible scenario, because there was no way her little legs could've gotten her that far away that quickly. It had only been a couple minutes since I saw her last. I know the panic and terror in the pit of your stomach when someone precious, someone of irreplaceable worth, has been lost. The fear, the helplessness, the guilt for looking away for seconds. And just as I picked up the phone to make that terrible call to my husband and then the police, the call you pray to God you never have to make, I turned around to see her standing there in front of me, unharmed.

She had been hiding in the garage.

I got down on my knees and hugged her, squeezed her tighter then ever before. Then I told her how important it was to answer mom when I called, how scared I had been. How precious she was. She never actually left the yard, but the panic was real. And although she was home and safe, it took me the rest of the night to calm the tightly wound nerves inside.

"So I whooped him," she continued. "You better believe it. Yes ma'am, I did."

Because you were so scared.

I get it. I really do. It doesn't justify it or make it right, but I understand. There are other Ariel Castro's wandering around this city, and it's just not safe. Fear makes us behave in ways we would never expect, and in ways we may always regret.

I asked her if she needed anything, and after pointing out my house down the road, I found myself offering her kids a ride to school if she ever needed it in the future. She thanked me and we talked about our kids for a while. She has three of her own, and she bent down to tell my daughter how beautiful she was.

I asked if I could pray for her before she went on her way. She shrugged and said, "sure!"

So I did. I prayed for this woman who had shocked me more then I've been shocked in a long time. Because underneath the brokenness, hurt and pain, she's a human being. She's a mom who's not much different then me, as it turns out. A mom who was scared of losing her son to the evil that lurks in this city.

Under all the gunk, she's a person made in the image of the Living God.

She smiled and thanked me. I extended a hand as I introduced myself.

"You know," she said, "my youngest son, about his age (pointing to my son), is having a birthday party this Saturday. You and your kids should come and have some cake. There's gonna be a lot of cake, and I'm cookin'. Y'all like spaghetti and chicken??"

I laughed and said, "oh yes, we love spaghetti." I told her I'd actually had spaghetti for breakfast this morning and last night before I went to bed, due to an odd craving (or divine foreshadowing). She laughed, too. God is in the littlest of details.

"What time?" I asked.

"Three o'clock." she replied, pointing to her house down the street. "You won't be able to miss it--there will be people all over the place having a good time!"

"Well, we just might have to stop by," I said. That sounds great.

August 24: The Day the SWAT Team Hid in Our Lilac Bushes

So.... Ya. 

This was our evening. How was yours?

I noticed the police car when we drove home from school. It was parked a few houses down. As Clayton chased the dog home, he caught wind of the fact that there had been a robbery. I just shrugged and said okay. That's pretty normal on our street lately, and this was just one of a half dozen or so this year; the previous one happened right next door on the Forth of July. Such is life in the city.

God protects us, though, as the houses all around us have been robbed at least once, but ours has never been touched.

When one police car turned into two and I saw them running around the neighbors yard, however, I started to suspect more then a routine robbery investigation. Then I looked out the back and heard them yell that the house was surrounded, and I thought, well, they're certainly not chasing a dog. 

The kids had been outside riding bikes just moments before and saw the cars pull up next door. Eva was still out on the front porch, her bike sitting at the end of the driveway where she left it. I had her come inside and locked all the doors. 

The cops that showed up next were carrying guns that said they weren't messing around, and the kids and I went down the basement for a while. Ben stayed upstairs to find out what was going on. 

Funny enough, I wasn't scared at all. I told Ben to take some pictures outside, and he glared at me. I make photo collages, so priorities, you know. And besides, how many times in a lifetime are there police with assault rifles in your front yard?

Hopefully just once, and hopefully never aimed at us.

The lieutenant told us that we would need to leave the premises, since we were so close, the suspect being right next door. I felt bad for the kids, because although they were trying to cope in their own way, some of them were scared. Men with big guns, masks, and shields were milling about, setting up a perimeter, and standing in our front yard.

We left after dinner and went to get ice cream, because what else do you do when the SWAT team is hiding in your lilac bushes? 

On the way out the door, I


asked if they would pose for a picture with the kids--selfie with heavily armed men, anyone??--but then I thought,


It's not every day that SWAT is in your driveway, though, so it was probably a missed opportunity.

An officer bent over and pulled the baby's bike out of the driveway as we were pulling out, and that was such a visual for me, seeing the group of them standing there by the toddler's overturned bike.

We drove slowly down the street, past the long line of police cars, past all the neighbors sitting on their front porch. It looked like there was a summer movie event or something with the amount of people watching.

The officer at the end of the street moved the police tape to allow us out, and we could see SWAT set up at the corner drug store, ready to roll out the tank. It would've been cool to have a front row seat to all the action, unless it went south, of course. So we went on our way.

We live a crazy life in this city, but I wouldn't trade it. 

A few hours later they got the guy, and life returned to normal.