Losing People, Compass in Hand
I’m holding a battered metal compass in my hand tonight. It says my writing desk faces southwest, and that the cat curls her tail northward. It doesn’t say which direction skirts despair, doesn’t guide the path toward hope. Folding it closed, I wonder what good a compass actually does.
Longtime Hooked readers have heard references to my social worker days. From June 1999 to May 2005, I worked with homeless youth in Seattle’s University District. Though more years have now passed than I actually spent there, “the Ave” maintains a tight grip on my heart.
As fiercely as I loved “my kids,” I relied on a few things to carry me through. My colleagues, inspiring souls who shared the trenches as well as intense passion, gallows humor, and a devotion to harm reduction. Our standing “self-care” date at Flowers Bar on Wednesday nights. A private ritual for grieving whenever we lost one of our kids.
The day came when these tools were no longer enough. Love wasn’t enough. Realizing that I wasn’t doing good work anymore – and that I hadn’t been doing good work for far longer than I cared to admit – I felt like I’d been mopping the ocean, only to be consumed by the undertow.
They say that you shouldn’t try to fight an undertow, so I let it steal me from the Ave. I gave in to the current until it released me in the Gulf of Alaska, returned to my original home and workplace. As I sought solace in familiar mountains, guilt and fear tugged at my raw edges. Guilt that I’d abandoned young people who’d dared to trust once more, after lifetimes of betrayal. Fear that I’d never get to know what happened next in their lives.
(If I’m honest? Fear that I wouldn’t know when yet another kid died.)
Back in 2005, I hadn’t envisioned a Facebook future. Whatever discomfort I have with social media’s ever-grasping tentacles, it’s been priceless for keeping in touch with transient loved ones. I can “like” graduations and family news. I can be a virtual cheerleader for sobriety, offer congratulations on a new job, and celebrate the day of their birth.
And I can receive messages like this one:
Hey it’s SR.
B passed away. He went missing 09-20. He was found unidentifiable on a blanket in the far corner of his mothers back yard yesterday. She said it might be months til they can identify a cause. We wern’t sure if you knew. Sorry.
After all these years, my Ave death ritual remains the same. Alone in a dark room. One candle, crafted by an unknown inmate at the Monroe State Prison. One song, Leonard Cohen’s gravel promises twining through those dark places that candlelight can’t reach.
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for,
if it be your will.
When I try to sing through the tears, my voice crumples like discarded newspaper. Better to sit quietly and remember a young man who was just a towheaded boy when he first arrived on Seattle’s streets.
B came to the Ave as many kids do – gentle, tender-hearted, searching. A brutal introduction to street life stripped the trust from his blue eyes. He toughened up fast, forged a crusty exterior. Yet through all that followed – every sleepless night blurring into a series of sleepless days, every “Oi, oi!” hollered down the block and followed with a hug heartier than his increasingly thin frame seemed capable of, every mug shot gifted like a yearbook photo – the sweet in him still shone through.
I could never anticipate which fresh-faced youngsters would fling themselves hardest down the rabbit hole, but that’s just what B did. He ran his body like it was stolen. His years on the Ave came to a screaming halt in 2002, when prison closed steely arms around him. Despite my best intentions to be a supportive pen pal, new faces demanded immediate response to the same crises. I lost track of B.
Until 2009. A message appeared – Facebook, again. B wrote with warmth and clarity, proud to share the gifts in his life. Re-settled in his home state across the country, he had a job. A house. A wife and young daughter.
Then and now, I never know if my kids are honest about their well-being. Especially in a many-years-gone-by reunion like this. B knew I wanted to hear he was clean and healthy, and that’s what he wanted to report. In the end, it doesn’t matter if I’m told The Truth as someone’s living it, or “the truth” as they wish they were. There are reasons we tell the stories we do, and they all boil down to wanting to please and protect. If I hear lies, I hear them told with love.
Something changed. In 2010, B decided to return to Seattle. I worried – why dance on quicksand when you’ve already struggled free once? – and wrote overly parental lectures. This time would be different, he assured me. “I’m not the same kid I was, Tele. The plan is to be productive.”
Stories are subjective, but I couldn’t misread the color in B’s skin and fleshy cushion over his cheekbones. His hug was solid. Stable. Both of us equally out of place on the block that had once been our universe, we ducked into Pagliacci’s for refuge. I bought him two slices of pizza that he picked at. We traded stories of our new lives, doing our best to level a relationship that’d been built on a steep grade.
At the end of our visit, B walked me to the bus stop. Fishing in his pants pocket, he pulled out a battered metal compass and folded it into my hand. “Here.” When I protested, he insisted. “No, dude, I want you to have it. So you don’t get lost.”
Two weeks later, B wrote that Seattle wasn’t working out as he’d hoped. Once again, he headed across the country for his home state. Still searching.
We traded Facebook hellos here and there. Did I text him a random good wish this summer, during one of those rare moments of cell service at sea? Sounds familiar, but now I can’t be sure. Am I recalling The Truth that was, or “the truth” I wish had been?
A friend and I used to co-teach “Homelessness 101,” training the University District’s new volunteers. Inevitably, someone would ask, “How many of these kids actually make it out?”
We could recite the answer in our sleep. Most of our program guests would find their way into healthier, more stable lives, but that meant something different for everyone. The routes out of street life were as varied and unique as the people taking them; there was no cookie-cutter method for “making it out.”
But tonight, darkness folds around me, broken by the shuddering breath of candlelight, and my faith is shaken. Squeezing B’s final gift, I feel the metal bite my palm. The placement of my desk, the angle of the cat’s tail, the position of north, south, east, west… All irrelevant. So many of us are lost, searching for hope, peace, purpose. A sense of self-worth, and the strength to surpass what we’ve been told about ourselves. Those directions – where do you find them?
I thought you’d found your way, B sweetie – I thought you’d made it out. If you’d held onto your compass, would that have helped?
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well.
B’s death leaves a gaping hole in a lot of hearts, and my thoughts are with you all. As you grieve, please ask for help if you’re thinking of hurting yourself. Contact Seattle’s 24-hour Crisis Clinic line at 1-866-4CRISIS, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.784.2433. Take care of yourselves, sweeties, and each other.