I’m driving home when I spot him. On a busy street corner, a man stands astride his bike. He looks a lot like my grown son. The uncanny resemblance cuts a path across my broken heart, carving fresh tracks where I’d tried to forget. I’m hurting and there’s no end in sight.
My son’s meth-use cycle has begun once again. After bingeing, he slept, ate, slept and ate ate ate. This is how it’s gone since he was in middle school. Use-recover-use—except that these days he hardly recovers before meth uses him again.
For years, I’ve been held hostage by disappointment and the feeling that at any second, I might just fall down and die. I’ve been to the edge so many times that the abyss knows my name. Where do you find the means to get up and start walking again?
He turned forty this year, but the cycle’s the same. Before the first day he uses, our family enjoys a week or more of the beautiful boy we once knew. The artistic lefty who feels so deeply. The son who loves his mom. The guy who doesn’t curse or steal our stuff. That son’s just emerging when craving resurfaces, snapping its jaws like a famished beast. Leviathan pulls my good son into the depths and leaves no trace. He’s gone again.
It takes a while for disappointment to stop smothering me, for the pain to die down. Then comes the dangerous moment—I scream. I’m done. This time I mean it.
Whenever I’m this done, I ooze bitterness: Nothing will ever change. Hope is a mirage. I should give up and never smile again. Because I’m done done done.
Or so I tell myself.
When I’m this done, hope is a mirage.
But then, up pops another mom with another son and another cycle. She pleads with anyone who’ll listen: When will he change? How can I smile? Is hope even real?
I practice my best scowl. Arms folded tight, I answer, “Hope’s overrated. Your kid’s a lost cause. Give up now.”
A car honks. I glance up at the man on the bicycle. Ball cap, plaid shirt, shorts. He waits for the light to change. My pulse speeds up.
I give advice to the woman in my mind. Look for small, ordinary moments. That kid you love is in there, really, I say. As real as the wonders of zinnias in summer or the smell of wet wool in the snow.
Find a way, I tell the mother, to remember how to lose yourself in a sunrise. Distract yourself by counting stars. Find a baby to kiss. Play with puppies, pet kitties. And then, after you’ve run your fingers across smooth pebbles and watched a chrysalis or three unfold, then think of your child.
Think of the way he always snored, recall her funny laugh. Think of curing hiccups and first bike rides and how he hated broccoli. Even when she’s high as heaven or jonesing so bad, hold a space for your child without your hurt barging in.
Even if you can manage only a tiny spot in your thoughts, think of how you once marveled at the shape of his mouth, or the way her hair fell across one cheek. If it’s safe, hug your child, and ask about their day. And no matter what, tell him you love him. No matter what.
All my advice rushes back at me now. Maybe I’ve been playing the movie in reverse. All this time I’ve wanted to believe that if my son no longer used, I could hope. But I’ve had it exactly backwards. Every time I speak a kind word or soften my sharp, judging eyes, hope multiplies times a bazillion. The chrysalis unfolds, love opens its wings.
The car behind me honks again. I startle and look up. The man at the corner, the one with the ball cap, sees me. He grins ear to ear, and waves as if I’m the queen mum, which in a way, I suppose I am. Suddenly I become that woman. The ordinary unfolds its holiness and I am changed.
I smile at my beautiful boy, my son, my child. Even though he’s not where I’d like him to be, I leave the empty chrysalis behind. Seeing with these new eyes, I can hope for one more day. I mouth I love you at the man on the bike and wave back.