I only see Joey once a year for a couple of hours. If I’m lucky. On one of my annual trips to Florida he had just been nearly choked to death in a drug deal gone bad and was on the run, so I missed seeing him that year. But this year Joey and I had lunch together out on the terrace of a restaurant in Palm Beach. Gesturing to the nearby shaded park, the fountain with kids scampering around trying to sit on the randomly erupting shoots of water, and the surrounding open-air restaurants, Joey said, “A lot of homeless people live here. See? A place to sleep, shower, and eat. When the diners leave, the guys just grab the leftovers before the tables are cleared.”
I didn’t ask if he knew this from experience; I know Joey has been homeless many times. I’m haunted by the images I carry in my mind of his unshaven cheek pressed into the sandy beach or littered curb, sprawled out there but not there. Passed out. Alone. Sometimes I can’t take my next breath. But over the years of enabling I learned where I begin and Joey ends. And so I don’t ask questions that aren’t my business, with answers I can do nothing about.
Joey ordered a Reuben, I ordered a roast beef sandwich with sweet potato fries. We talked about the most recent job he was fired from, his most recent arrest, my going’s-on, and the weather. I no longer give motherly advice or lectures. This is how our mother-son-addict relationship has evolved.
Thin but not emaciated, clean but tired looking, Joey was wearing jeans and a green shirt that made his blue eyes look greenish. I wondered if he was wearing colored contacts. (Such a silly question in retrospect, as though colored contacts would be something he’d even think about given his fringe lifestyle; I still have trouble processing the reality of his existence.) Joey has eyes like mine, ones that can’t see blades of grass, just a blurry mass of blurry green, from 2 feet away without glasses. But he wasn’t wearing contacts. “Too expensive,” he said, as he lit a cigarette.
We sipped on our sodas, chatting for a while longer after we cleaned our plates, but I know from experience it’s best to keep our rare visits brief. I know that ‘brief’ hurts less than ‘one sentence too long.’ So I savor the moments, the smile, the hug, and tuck the memories into a safe place. Joey knows I love him. He knows I want the addict to give him back.
I will grieve for the loss of my son until the next time I see him. If there is a next time.
The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction is available in bookstores and libraries.