My son's father is homeless.
I don’t mean 20-something couch surfing on his way to eventually finishing his creative writing degree and one day we’ll shake our heads and laugh about how rootless he seemed but it was all worth it kind of homeless. I mean, at 42 years old, he periodically chooses to sleep in his car, under bridges or in the woods instead of following through with treatment for his chronic and debilitating alcoholism.
I’m 41, with a master’s degree. I’ve worked for organizations as prestigious as EDS, Rice University and Reed College. So how did I end up having a child with a homeless man?
He wasn’t homeless when I met him. Not quite. Coming off a split with my second husband, I ran into Brian at a dive bar I used to frequent. He was friends with my friends, 6’ 2”, brown hair, green eyes, sexy. And smart. He was a reader and a writer, like me. He had a job -- he worked with my friend at a veterinary clinic. He drove an old Acura and lived in a bohemian-style apartment in the bohemian part of town.
He was a drunk for sure, but Lord knows I drank too much myself. And I wasn’t planning anything serious with him. I was planning to move from Houston to Portland soon. I was biding my time and enjoying myself.
Right off, we had some pretty serious problems. He was possessive and explosive, verbally abusive, but really, really good in bed. After the fights, he’d beg and plead. He was like a hurt puppy, one who was 185 pounds and liked to bare his teeth and rip the upholstery and tear up the front door if you left him alone too long.
He eventually neglected calling in sick to work when he was hung over and just stopped going in altogether. That really alarmed me. I mean, he was already two-and-a-half months behind on rent and he had no discernible skills or degree. What kind of job was he going to get -- and in a hurry -- to pay his bills?
But he seemed unconcerned. I learned that he’d hardly ever lived on his own in his 33 years. His mom kept letting him move in with her, paying his car insurance and his phone bill.
Of course, when he got evicted, he'd move in with her. Except when it happened, he called me, begging.
I’d been there before, supporting a man who simply wouldn’t support himself. I swore that I’d never do that again. But I was moving in a few months, and this relationship would be 1,000 miles away. What harm could it do?
I had no idea I could even get pregnant. My ex and I had tried the entire marriage. I’d even been to fertility doctors.
But there it was, plus sign glowing in the harsh bathroom light at 3 AM on the leftover pregnancy stick from back when I was trying. I was going to be a mom. A single mom. Because there was no way the overgrown boy passed out in my bed was going to shape up and become a man, man enough to be a father, in less than nine months.
But sometimes babies make people grow up, don’t they?
That was the hope, the dream, the delusion. Even before my son was born, the delusion fragmented, disintegrated. Brian decided to pursue his dream of working in a winery -- in Walla Walla, Washington. I was 6 months pregnant.
He came back when the baby was born. His best friend gave him a job. He lost it in less than three months. And thus would begin the self-destructive spin cycle that, so far, he’s been unable to pull himself out of.
In seven years, the longest he’s held a job is 7 months -- and that was four years ago. He’s had 4-5-6 stints in rehabs, aborted stays at sober houses. And all roads have led to the street. Streets somewhere close to where his son and I have moved: Portland, Austin, Houston streets.
None of the parenting books, relationship books or divorce books tell you how to co-parent with a parent who is chronically homeless and addicted. Wanting my son to have a relationship with his father, and hoping that the relationship would provide some incentive for Brian, I always facilitated their connection.
At times, I let Brian sleep on the living room floor. I picked him up off the corner of Red River and 7th in downtown Austin and drove them to Zilker Park for play dates, hoping when we scooped him up off the street he wouldn’t reek of alcohol, that he’d somehow manage to have clean clothes, that his then 4-year-old son wouldn’t notice that anything was amiss.
When we returned to Houston, and Brian followed, moving in with his mother and enrolling in community college, his family and I hoped that this burgeoning stability would hold. A lover of words and foreign cultures, he received a merit award for Spanish that made him proud. He completed 24 credits during that year and saw his son every other weekend for overnights.
It was almost like normal.
But he also refused to go to AA, stole his mom’s credit cards or just plain stole from the Kroger’s, hiding magnums of wine in his hoodie or baggy pants. Finally, his mother had enough, held an intervention, and forced him into yet another rehab.
I knew that something had to change this time. And it wouldn’t be him.
Facilitating the relationship between my son and his father had cost my son more than any child should have to pay. My son’s behavior would change at school whenever his dad disappeared or reappeared in his life. Long stints without seeing Brian added to his insecurity. Confusion as to why he couldn’t spend nights with his father made him angry. And sensing something deeply broken and sad in Brian, he developed an overwhelmingly protective attitude toward someone who should have been focused on protecting him.
And with Brian’s record of rehab success, I had no faith that this latest stay would lead to lasting sobriety.
I started attending Al-Anon meetings. I stopped taking his phone calls. A few weeks after he’d been admitted, I received a call from his mother: He’d left rehab again; he was out on the streets.
My son’s father’s homelessness has affected my view of many of the homeless men and women I encounter on street corners. So many of them deal with such debilitating addiction and mental illness that they literally cannot take care of themselves. These people need help -- a multidimensional approach to attend to the roots of dysfunctional that led to the homelessness.
But I have seen my son’s father -- a child of an engineer and a teacher, whose two brothers are successful in business and law -- refuse help time and time again.
Now, when I see an unsteady man with the telltale ruddy complexion of the alcoholic and addict standing at an intersection holding the cardboard sign with requisite black block lettering, the compassion I’ve always given freely fades and morphs into something less charitable. Instead, I become angry: angry at my son’s father, angry at addiction, angry that there is absolutely nothing I can do.
I ignore the outstretched hand, roll up my window, grip my steering wheel and try to stare stonily at the road ahead.
And then come my son’s questions: “Why doesn’t that man have a home?” “Where does that woman sleep?” “Where does he go to the bathroom?” “Mommy,” he says, a slight plea in his voice, “it’s cold outside.”
I release the steering wheel and reach into the driver’s side door pocket. I pull out some change, roll down the window, and hand it to the person standing next to my car. I look up at him and make eye contact.
“God bless you,” he says.
“Thank you,” I reply.
I roll up my window. And I hope and pray that my son’s father stays warm tonight.