My phone chirped to alert me to Devon's incoming text. "Hi Mom. R U okay? Just heard about Uncle Jed. How come U didn't tell me sooner?" Normally, back-to-back appointments during the day kept me from looking at texts. But a last-minute cancellation today left me with an unexpected free hour.
I had no idea what my son was talking about. I hadn't heard anything from my brother or about my brother for at least two years. I started to text him back and thought, better to call. I had at least a half hour before my next appointment. But it went right to voicemail. Darn! What could have happened to Jed?
I tried to get back to the messy will in front of me, but I couldn't focus. By the time I read the same sentence for the third time I quit. It always amazed me how many intimate things you learned about people's lives when you were helping them to write a will. More than once I had thought my crazy family upbringing prepared me for this job.
I obsessed about how Jed looked the last time I visited him in the homeless shelter down in Long Beach. I barely recognized him. So thin, a skeleton really, sunken eyes flitting around, and twitchy. Must have been using meth. His formerly beautiful red hair hung in a long, matted, dirty mess. I couldn't remember how long ago that was. Three years? I had tried to talk him into getting into a drug treatment program -- I even offered to pay for it -- but he refused.
"Thanks, Sis, but it would be a waste of your hard-earned money. Plus, I've got a nice new girlfriend staying with me here. She's not around at the moment or I'd introduce you."
Right, I thought, probably out scoring drugs. I asked if he was still on SSI -- Supplemental Security Income -- and he said he was. Drugs had so decimated my little brother the government considered him to be disabled. No better off than my father. I left him with all the cash I had on me and drove back up to Santa Barbara.
I stared out the window at the view: peaceful, downtown Santa Barbara. White stucco buildings with terra cotta tile roofs, green lawns, Spanish Colonial architecture. I could almost see the Santa Ynez Mountains in the distance. I worked in a small firm and although not a named partner, wealthy Santa Barbara was a handy place to be an estate attorney. I never would have imagined, growing up in my rough Long Beach neighborhood, that I'd have ended up as a lawyer, much less living in Santa Barbara. I made good money, owned a nice home within walking distance of the beach, and put my son through college. Couldn't ask a lot more out of life than that, especially with my roots.
My phone rang and I jumped. "Hi Devon. Tell me about Jed. What happened?"
"He died three weeks ago. How come you didn't you tell me?"
"Oh, my God! Because I didn't know, that's why. How did you find out?" I was shaking now. Devon told me he'd just found out that Jed died in a hospital in Long Beach, or more likely on the way there in an ambulance, after overdosing on fentanyl. On the one hand it was shocking, but on the other not unexpected given his history and lifestyle. The fentanyl surprised me only because opiates had never been his thing. He was all about stimulants. Stealing Mom's cigarettes in seventh grade turned into pot smoking by eighth and crack by high school. Later it was meth. I didn't even want to think about what he did to get the money for drugs. The best-case scenario was probably petty theft, and the worst? Well, there were lots of worsts, like selling himself on the street. He was a nice-looking kid -- freckles, blue eyes with enviously long lashes, full lips, a huge smile, wavy red hair, slight build -- and I was sure plenty of men would have been happy to drop a hundred bucks for a half hour with Jed. I shuddered. Although I was sure he wasn't gay, I wouldn't be surprised to hear he'd died of AIDS.
"You won't believe this, Mom. I found out by accident on Facebook. I was poking around there today, and I happened on a post by Gabriela saying she hoped her father had finally found some peace -- "
"What? What do you mean?"
"I messaged her for details and that's what she told me. She found out from her mom."
Jed had fathered a child named Gabriela with a young Latina girlfriend early in his addiction before he had gone off the rails. They never married, but he still worked a little then and tried, in the beginning, to support his daughter and stay in touch. But he had no clue how to be a father. How could he? He turned out to be as bad as our own father was. In fact, it was a misuse of the term "father" to call either Jed or the man who impregnated my mother a father. I still refused to call him Dad.
I said goodbye to Devon and tried to pull myself together. I had three more appointments before the day was over, and I couldn't afford to fall apart. I could feel a migraine coming on. Yet all I could think about was big, cold glass of Chardonnay. Weird, because I hadn't had a drink in twenty-five years. I drank a bit in my early twenties, and then when I was pregnant with Devon I stopped. Then once he was born, I figured, why start drinking again? With my family history, I was like a ticking time bomb. So far, I was the only one who hadn't exploded.
At five-thirty, still fighting that headache, I finally left the office for the two-block walk through downtown to the parking garage. I passed a crowd of homeless people panhandling on the sidewalk. God, I hated homeless people. Why couldn't they get their shit together? But, at the same time I sympathized, thinking of Jed and his lifelong struggle with addiction.
Then, without warning, insidiously, guilt overtook me like the Santa Barbara fog, settling into my bones. Should I have done more? Could I have done more?
As I passed Santa Barbara Wine Therapy on State Street, I thought, that's exactly what I needed, wine therapy. I was sure a tall frosty glass of Chardonnay had my name on it. But I willed my Jimmy Choos to keep on walking. By the time I hit the parking garage, big fat tears started their journey down my cheeks. I called my BFF Sara, so consumed with choking sobs I could barely talk.
"Greer, what's the matter? I can hardly understand you. Are you okay?"
"Not really, no," I said, as I sat in my Lexus, in no shape to drive.
"See if you can calm down and tell me what happened." Sara worked as a part-time psychologist, accustomed to dealing with meltdowns. While she yelled at her two teenage kids to turn the TV down to give her some quiet, I took a couple deep breaths and regained my composure enough to speak.
"Jed died. Three weeks ago."
"Wait, what? Your brother Jed, the homeless one? Three weeks ago?"
"My only brother. Yeah, the homeless one. I found out from Devon this afternoon." Although I rarely talked about my family history, Sara and I had been close since I had moved to Santa Barbara seven years ago. Given what she did for a living, over time, she had weaseled the whole sorry tale out of me.
"Greer, I can hear that you're upset. Are you at work?"
"No. I'm sitting in my car in the parking garage, too upset to drive." Sniffling, I searched in my bag for tissues to wipe my eyes and stem the tide of mucous streaming out of my nose.
"Right, driving's a bad idea. I can be there in five minutes, ten tops. Stay there and I'll come."
Sara arrived five minutes later. I watched her walk-run up to the garage where I waited out front. She looked like an old hippie -- long curly brown hair, streaked with gray, a long flowy cotton dress covered in big, colorful flowers, taupe Birkenstock sandals. She threw her arms around me first thing, then stared into my tear-stained face. We sat down on a nearby bench.
"Thanks for being such a good friend. I'm a friggin' mess. Finding out this way was like a sucker punch to the gut."
"When did you last see him or have any contact with him? I can't remember you saying anything about him in ages."
"I've been trying to remember that. It's always been tough to keep in touch because he had no phone or email or address. Probably about three years ago. I made myself visit him at a homeless shelter in Long Beach. What a shit show." I dabbed my eyes as more tears flowed. "He seemed to toggle between the street -- or maybe the beach -- and the homeless shelter. When the street got to be too much, he'd drag himself inside. Our weather lets people stay outside forever if they want to."
"Was he clean?"
"I'm sure he wasn't. He looked like crap. Gaunt. That's probably the reason he'd never stay in the shelter for long -- 'cause they don't let you use. If you're high or have drugs on you, they throw you out and give your bed away to some other hapless soul who isn't drunk or on drugs."
"Did he ever try to get clean?"
"A bunch of times. As many times as he could get someone to pay for it. I footed the bill myself a couple times. That last time I saw him I told I'd pay again if he'd give it another try."
"But he said no?"
"Told me not to waste my money." I stifled a sob and blurted out, "Then how come I feel so guilty? Why am I beating myself up, wracking my brain to try to think of what I could have done so it wouldn't have ended this way?"
"Greer, you know that's ridiculous, right, completely irrational?"
"Who says guilt is rational? Why is it ridiculous?" How could she expect me to be rational?
"Do you want my professional opinion, or should I answer as a friend?"
Oh, God. What's the right answer to that one? I wasn't up for having to decide right now. "I don't care."
"Well, that was a trick question, 'cause the answer's the same, whether I respond as your best friend or a psychologist. You did everything you could! More than most people would have done. My God, you virtually raised that kid!"
"I know I did but apparently didn't do a great job. If I had, he wouldn't have turned out so fucked up." I had a quick memory flash of getting Jed ready for bed when he was little when Mom worked the three to eleven shift at the hospital. Reading Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, his favorite book. Sometimes three times before he'd drift off. Ruffling his beautiful hair, kissing him softly on the cheek. How could that sweet little boy have turned into such a miserable wreck?
Sara brought me back to the present. "In reality, he never had a chance. You never had much of a chance. You're a freakin' miracle! You know that, right? You defied the odds. You buckled down and vowed you would get out of that morass intact, and you did. He didn't. Despite all you did, your dysfunctional mother and absentee father never gave that kid a chance at a normal life. Isn't your father the one who introduced him to drugs?"
"I don't know that for a fact, but it's pretty much what I've always assumed."
"Listen. Now it's the professional psychologist talking: Let go of that guilt. Nothing good will come of it. Go home and take a walk on the beach. Or find a yoga class. Or meditate. Do something physical. Take care of yourself. I've got to run. Call me tomorrow, okay?"
"Okay. Sara, thanks for listening. You're the best. And thanks for the advice. I like the idea of a nice dinner and beach walk. I need to call Julian too. I'll talk to you tomorrow." We hugged.
My futile commitment to trying to save Jed was one of the unresolvable issues that caused my marriage to disintegrate. But Julian was a good dad -- a great dad, actually -- and we got along well. He still lived in Scottsdale, also a lawyer, and I needed to talk to him about this. Had Devon already told him?
Finally able to drive, I made the short trip home to my pale blue, shingled Craftsman-style home on West Hayley Street. I threw my purse and briefcase on the credenza in the foyer and kicked off my shoes. I hated what heels did to your feet, but they looked so darn good. I sat down on the sofa to massage my aching toes and my cat, Jupiter, came running to greet me. "Hi Jupe. Yeah, I'll feed you in a minute." As I walked into the kitchen, he wound around my legs, threatening to trip me. "How was your day? Mine sucked. Thanks for asking."
I was surprised to see it was already a quarter to seven. As much as I wanted to plop down on the sofa and vege, I figured it would do me more good to take a walk. I went upstairs to change, thinking about what kind of portable snack I could snag. I changed into leggings, sneakers, and a UC Berkeley sweatshirt. The shirt was a gift from Devon, who was in grad school there, studying journalism. I came downstairs and grabbed a protein bar from the kitchen cupboard, along with my phone and headset.
I turned east on Hayley, toward State Street, where I would hang a right toward the beach. I wanted to get there soon enough to walk on the beach for a while -- maybe even sit and listen to the waves -- before it got dark. Not a great place to be after dark. The evening was beautiful, still clear, but the fog would roll in any minute. I usually brought my phone on walks to listen to music and for safety. Tonight, I wanted to see if I could reach Julian before it got too late. I knew he turned in early, because he got up at an ungodly hour, like everyone else in Phoenix in the blistering hot summer.
"Hey Greer, how's it going?"
"Hi Julian. Not great, to tell you the truth. Did Dev tell you about my brother dying?"
"He did! Boy, what a shock. When did you find out?"
"When Dev texted me this afternoon!" I walked straight into the ocean breeze. It had gotten chilly, despite being July. Good thing I had on a sweatshirt. I could already hear the Pacific. With the sound of the waves crashing and the tangy smell of the ocean, I relaxed. Was this phone call a mistake?
"You're kidding! I thought he died a couple weeks ago."
"Three to be exact. My family is so fucked up. Neither Gabriela nor her mother had the decency to call me and let me know. Nor did my aunt Marilyn. After all I did for Jed. Gabriela too." I started to cry, hard. And I neglected to bring any tissues. Shit.
"Greer, I'm so sorry. I can't imagine how hard this must be for you -- "
"And yet I feel guilty! I know that's stupid -- or at least Sara told me as much -- but that's how I feel."
"Well, I wouldn't say it was 'stupid,' but I would remind you I was there during those tough years. You did a lot for him, and for Gabriela -- "
"I know, I know, and you thought it was too much. I don't want to re-excavate all those old issues, but I needed someone to tell me that ... that ... I don't know, that I did everything I could ..."
"You did everything you could. Of course, you did! You did way more than any other reasonable person would -- "
"But it wasn't enough." Finally at the beach, I walked through the sand and chased the waves, listening to their roar. Only a few people were walking on the sand; most were up on the paved paths that wound through the grass and palm trees. Occasionally, when I got too close, I felt the salt spray. Near the water's edge, I dodged jellyfish on the sand, beautiful pink, speckled, stinging jellyfish, big as dinner plates, tentacles two feet long.
"Sometimes it isn't enough," Julian said. "Not everyone can be saved. Wants to be saved. I don't want to reopen those wounds either, but that's what I kept trying to tell you back then. That Jed, for reasons we couldn't understand, didn't want to be saved."
Darkness settled around me and fog rolled in, so I turned around. I had taken off my sneakers and carried them. I loved how the sand felt on my bare feet. Still warm on top, but when I squiggled my toes down into the sand, it was damp and cool. "Julian, you were right. Jed didn't want to be saved, not then and not later. 'Cause I still kept trying periodically after the divorce -- "
"Devon told me you did. You never gave up on him, but he gave up on himself. That's what I wish you could accept."
I sat down on a bench to put my sneakers back on and thought about that. "I can't stop thinking about how much of a waste it was, his whole life. How much pain he caused to so many people. I'm glad my parents aren't alive to see this, even though I know they're the ones that produced this pathetic human being who wasn't equipped to deal with life."
"Listen, I'm glad you called, but I gotta go. Take care of yourself."
As I walked home, I realized that tomorrow was Saturday. Yay! I needed some downtime, but I also realized that I had some difficult phone calls to make. The prospect gave me an instant upset stomach.
I slept in on Saturday. When I got out of bed, I saw that it was foggy outside, gloomy. I finished a bowl of yogurt and fruit and forced myself to go to a yoga class, even though I wasn't in the mood. Trying to follow Sara's suggestions. The minute I woke up I started to obsess about these phone calls I had to make. And the guilt niggled at me. I hoped the yoga would distract me for an hour and be good for my head and my body. Help me to be as calm as possible before I picked up the phone.
When I got home after yoga, I made my first call, the most difficult, to my Aunt Marilyn, my father's twin. I tried to think through what I was going to say, knowing how angry I was, but with Marilyn that strategy rarely worked. Her MO was to highjack a conversation and force it into whatever direction she wanted. You'd think my years as an attorney would have prepared me to counteract that, but it usually didn't help much. I brewed another cup of coffee and sat down on my living room sofa. Taking a deep breath, trying to calm my stomach, I picked up the phone.
"Hi Marilyn, it's Greer. Happy Saturday morning." Trying to get things off to a neutral start.
"I know why you're calling."
Oh boy, here we go. Not, how are you? Or nice to hear from you.
"Why's that?" Trying to keep my voice even. Jupiter sauntered over and jumped into my lap.
"You're calling about Jed."
"You're right." Breathe, Greer. Jupiter purred as I stroked him. "I was disappointed that no one contacted me when it happened. That I had to find out about it three weeks after he died, in a text from Devon, who found out about it on Facebook -- "
"You sound angry -- "
"Ya think? Wouldn't you be angry if no one told you about your own brother dying and you had to find out through a Facebook post?" x"Calm down, Greer -- "
"Don't tell me to calm down! Would it have killed you to pick up the phone and let me know when it happened? I don't even know if he was cremated or if they had some kind of service or anything. How am I supposed to get any closure?"
"Well, to answer your question, we cremated him, and Gabriela asked if she could spread his ashes over the ocean -- "
"Why couldn't you include me in that? After all I did for him over the years!"
Marilyn didn't respond.
"Huh? Why couldn't you let me know so I could have taken part in that?"
"I don't think the family -- "
"The family? I'm his family? What do you mean, 'the family'?" Now I was up and pacing, Jupiter long gone after hearing my raised voice.
"Well, I mean Gabriela, of course. And Estela." Gabriela's mother.
"Why should their preferences trump mine? I virtually raised that kid! Paid for rehab twice. The last time I saw him I offered to pay again. He said no, he wasn't interested in getting clean." This conversation tapped into a reservoir of resentment I had cradled for years. My father's family had been wealthy, but because my dad was as bad as Jed was, when my grandfather died, half of Dad's portion went into a trust that Marilyn managed for Jed. That trust paid for a few rehabs, too. For years, I'd had power of attorney for Jed, but then Marilyn went to court and, with Jed's cooperation, wrested it away from me. When my father passed away, half of his part of the estate went to me, but Marilyn was managing Jed's half.
"Greer, you seem to expect some kind of credit for raising Jed, as you put it, but as far as I'm concerned -- "
"Don't you dare say, look how he turned out! How could he have turned out any different? After Travis was killed Mom fell apart and my father -- your brother -- was already long gone."
My father was a Vietnam vet who my mother met while working as a nurse in the VA hospital in Long Beach. The war's legacy for him was an amputated leg and PTSD. He healed from the former but never the latter. He'd started using cheap heroin in Vietnam and picked it up again when he returned. They didn't know much in those days about treating PTSD. It devastated our finances. When Mom made him leave, I was eight, and Jed was still an infant. Travis was born shortly thereafter, the product of an unexpected visit by my father, whose sexual advances my mother could never resist, no matter how strung out he was.
"I know she did. And your dad did the best he could -- "
"The best he could? What planet are you on? He was on full disability by then! Totally addicted! Using his disability checks to score drugs. He's probably the one who introduced Jed to drugs!" Neither my mother nor my aunt could look at my father with an ounce of objectivity. They both got hung up on this whole war hero image he liked to project. And Marilyn could never acknowledge the role of drugs in my father's premature death.
"You don't know that. Your father would never use drugs with one of his children. He loved all three of you -- "
"I don't doubt that he loved us. But he never took one iota of responsibility for us, even before the divorce."
The only supervision my brothers got was from me, because mom worked full-time. But I had a life too. School was super important. I figured out the only ticket out of the madness of our home life was success in school. When Travis was six, he was hit by a car and killed. My father had already been gone for years, returning every so often to stir things up and seduce the boys into thinking they had an actual father. After Travis died, Mom went off the rails. She'd always been a daily drinker, but before the accident she kept it in check enough to go to work every day. After we lost Travis, she descended into hell, losing one job after another. If I hadn't taken over the finances, not a single bill would have been paid.
"Well, that might be your perspective, but I chose a different way to look at it." Marilyn, the high and mighty, childless, living in Santa Monica off her inheritance.
What was I thinking, calling her? "Marilyn, I need to go." And I hung up.
On Sunday, still reeling from yesterday's conversation with my aunt, I called Estela to see if I could clear the air. I knew it would be a tense call, so I walked toward the beach while I talked. I hadn't spoken to her in years, but amazingly, the cellphone number I had still worked. She answered on the second ring. "Hi Estela, this is Greer Larson. How are you?"
After a pause she said, "Not so good. Jed's death hit me hard." Strange, since she hadn't seen him in probably twenty years or more. He'd dropped out of her and Gabriela's life when Gabby was still a toddler. I remembered, because I started to send checks soon after he left. Even when I was in school and couldn't afford it.
"Actually, that's what I was calling about. I'm disappointed that Devon and I found out from a Facebook post of Gabby's. After all I did for you guys, couldn't you at least have had the courtesy to let me know that he'd died?" I felt proud of myself for being assertive, working hard to not talk through clenched teeth. The silence lasted so long I thought the call had been dropped.
"Estela, are you still there?"
"Yes, I am. I'm trying to figure out what to say. You were never my favorite person, Greer. And you were never Gabriela's favorite person."
Now I really had something to be pissed off about. A volcano of self-righteousness welled up inside me. I struggled to keep my tone measured, using my most lawyerly voice. "And why is that? I helped the two of you out for all those years."
"Yeah, you did, I guess. But when I needed you most you weren't there."
I had arrived at the beach and was walking in the sand. Thank goodness no one was nearby. I was about to lose the battle to keep my voice under control. "If you're referring to your request to take Gabby off your hands when she was a teenager, that's bullshit -- "
"I couldn't handle her! I needed help!"
"How was I supposed to handle her? I had a son of my own and was a single parent too. I worked sixty hours a week, struggling to hold it together! And yet I sent you checks every month that you were more than happy to cash -- "
"Of course, I did! What was I supposed to do? Jed never helped at all!"
Why had I thought it was a good idea to call Estela? Now I felt even more upset. I had hoped for some kind of explanation, some reason they couldn't call me and include me in whatever they did to close the final chapter of Jed's pathetic life. But there was no closure here. "That's why I sent those checks, even though it wasn't my responsibility. I'm sorry if I expected -- "
I was about to say "gratitude" when the line went dead.
That bitch hung up on me!
I stood and looked at the waves, hands clenched, tears streaming down my cheeks. I tried Sara, but it went straight to voicemail. So, in desperation, I called Devon. It seemed inappropriate, calling your twenty-five-year-old son when you were at your wit's end, but at this point I didn't care.
"Hi, Mom -- "
Interrupting, I said, "Oh, Dev, I'm having such a tough time with this ... I ... I don't know what to say. I'm so sorry to bother you. I'm sure you must be busy with school -- " I was sure he could hear me sniffling and sobbing.
"Mom, it's okay, it's fine. Has something else happened?"
"I made the mistake of calling Estela a few minutes ago ... to find out why neither she nor Gabby called me about Jed. But all she did was tell me I wasn't their 'favorite person' because I refused to take responsibility for Gabby when she was out of control as a teenager -- "
"Wait. What do you mean? What did Aunt Estela ask you to do?"
"Have Gabriela come live with us. You and me. Dad had already left, and you were about twelve or thirteen. I couldn't handle it. I was working long hours, trying to be a good mom to you ... hanging on by my fingernails."
"Well, that's ridiculous," Dev said, always the loyal son. "Expecting Gabby to come from California to Scottsdale and move in with us. Especially if she was too much of a handful for Aunt Estela -- "
"And she never even said thank you for the checks I sent all those years!" I had sat down on the sand and watched the waves roll in, the gulls screeching in the background. I inhaled the tangy salt air and tried to calm down. I had finally stopped crying and regretted that I had again forgotten to bring tissues.
"I sent money every month, starting when Gabby was a little girl, because Uncle Jed never supported her."
"Wow, I never knew that either ... Mom, I'd have to say that supporting her all those years was way beyond the call of duty. It absolutely was not your responsibility to make up for what Uncle Jed wasn't doing. You know that, ri -- "
"That's exactly what I told her -- and she hung up on me!" I started to cry all over again. "And I know this is stupid, but I felt guilty."
"Mom, I must say, that is stupid. But I get that you need to do something."
I wiped my nose and eyes on my sleeve -- yuck. What a great son I had raised.
"Yeah, I do. What about if we went down to the homeless shelter and talked to some people there, tried to find his last girlfriend or something?"
So, we concocted a plan to say our final goodbyes to Jed the following weekend. Devon would fly to Santa Barbara from Berkeley on Friday night, and we'd drive down to Long Beach on Saturday to visit the shelter. Have our own little memorial service.
We got up on Saturday and drove the two-and-a-half hours to Long Beach. The homeless shelter visit didn't go as we had hoped. The shelter was exactly as it was three years ago when I last visited Jed there: filthy, chaotic, smelling of urine and vomit, utterly depressing. We explained to the staff who we were and why we were there. But no one on duty claimed to have known Jed or anything about how he'd died. And they were surly and uncooperative when we tried to find out anything about his so-called girlfriend. Maybe he had spent no time there in his last year ...
So, we left and drove instead over to Bluff Park where Jed had spent countless nights. We parked on the street and walked over the spongy, lush grass to the paved walk along the cliff, high above the beach.
"How did he get around?" Devon asked.
"He always had a rickety old bike I'm sure he stole from someone."
We walked along the cliff, enjoying the ocean breeze.
"What's that smell, Mom?"
I inhaled the scent of mint and lavender and pointed to a shrub on the hillside. "It's coming from that plant there. I always called it catmint, but I think the official name is nepeta."
We climbed down forty-two steep stairs and crossed the busy, paved bike and running paths to the wide, flat beach. We sat on the sand and gazed out at San Pedro Bay. While I watched the ocean, I realized this might be Devon's first major loss experience.
"I wish we had ashes to spread or something," Devon said.
"Yeah, me too." I settled my gaze on him, struck by how handsome and healthy he looked, with his auburn hair, wavy like Jed's but not as red, his clear blue eyes and tanned face, dressed in khakis and a crisp blue linen shirt. In contrast to my last memory of my emaciated brother in filthy, tattered rags.
"Mom, why are you staring at me? Are you okay?"
"Mm hmm. Thinking how healthy and happy you look today and how awful Jed looked when I saw him last a couple years ago." Looking out at the waves, hearing to them crash on the shore, over and over, felt healing.
"I hate to admit it," Devon said, "but I was unprepared for how bad that shelter was. It was disgusting. I can see why Jed wasn't eager to spend any time there. It creeped me out. I almost felt a little scared."
"It was creepy. I'm sure those people who work there do the best they can with whatever meager resources they get. And they have to deal with those poor wretched souls, day in and day out. Crazy, drunk, high, violent ..." I shuddered. "Let's say our goodbyes to Jed and get out of here."
We each said a few words to Jed and turned around to walk back to the car. As soon as I started the car Devon asked to go back to see the house that Jed and I grew up in and my old neighborhood. I thought about it for a minute and said no.
"Come on, Mom. I want to see where you were Uncle Jed used to live."
"I don't think so, Dev." I kept my eyes on the road. "Not a good idea."
"Come on, Mom. Let's drive by for a quick look. Just so I can see it."
"I said no!" Devon was born in Scottsdale a few years after Julian and I finished law school at Arizona State. He had never seen where I grew up. I understood his curiosity, but I couldn't go back there. Especially not today. Part of it was shame, but the bigger part was not wanting to go down that road again. Not having the stomach for revisiting that past. It was all I could do to handle what had bubbled up when I'd heard Jed had OD'd.
"Jeez. Sorry. You didn't have to take my head off." He slumped down and turned toward the window, sulking.
We drove in silence for fifteen or twenty minutes, the tension in the car thick as mud. Devon's body language told me he was upset, all curled in on himself, staring out the passenger door window. I owed him an apology, but I wasn't ready yet.
Finally, I said, "Dev, honey, please look at me. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you like that. You didn't deserve that. It's just that this whole past week has really taken a huge toll on me -- "
"I know it has, Mom -- "
"Wait. Let me finish. I spent my childhood trying to take care of Jed and Travis. Doing the best I could because neither of my parents was up to the task ... and even into adulthood. That's one of the reasons your dad and I ended up divorcing. He couldn't take it anymore." I kept my eyes on the road so I didn't have to look at Dev. "I don't fault him for that. I don't. The only reason I'm even telling you this is that I feel like I owe you an explanation for not wanting to go back to that house."
"It's okay, Mom. Apology accepted. I get that, or at least I'm trying to. I knew your childhood must be pretty bad. After all, look at how Uncle Jed turned out. But you've never talked about it much."
"You're right. I haven't. Only two people in the world know the whole story, and that's your dad and Sara. That's why I can't handle going back there today, especially not after the shelter. And especially after your Aunt Marilyn implied last Saturday that the reason Jed turned out to be a drug addict is because I didn't do a good enough job raising him."
"Yep, that's right. She as much as told me I did a lousy job of raising him. She probably blames me for Travis dying too."
"That's the second time you've mentioned Travis. Who is Travis?"
Shit. I forgot I'd never told Dev about Travis. "Travis was my youngest brother. He was hit by a car and killed when he was six."
"Mom, are you kidding me? I never knew you had another brother besides Jed!"
"That's because we never spoke of him again after he was killed. Grandma disintegrated after that, and my father had already left. Nobody ever told Jed and me 'don't mention it,' but we knew. It devastated Jed. They were only a year and a half apart. Best friends." I was glad I was driving and had an excuse to keep my eyes on the road, afraid if I looked at Devon I'd start crying again.
I had his full attention now. x"Wow, your family was chock full of secrets, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, it was. There were only two things I wanted in life when I was growing up. One was to do whatever was necessary to get out of that crazy household, and the second was to create a normal family for myself. And I almost succeeded."
"What do you mean 'almost succeeded'? You and dad and I have a great family."
"I guess. Maybe. You turned out great, but I wish I could have kept us together."
"Mom, I have a great relationship with both you and dad, and you guys get along really well."
"It thrills me to hear you say that, Dev." It took all my restraint to hold back the tears at this point.
After that we were quiet. I had given him a lot to chew on, maybe more than I should have. But he was a mature twenty-five-year-old, and a sensitive young man. As we approached Santa Barbara, I only half listened to Devon go on about one of his courses or a professor or an assignment he struggled with. I couldn't decide whether our trip to the shelter made me feel better or worse about Jed dying. I could hear Sara's words echoing through my brain: "Some things in life, no matter what we do, we're just not going to get closure on."