A Chinese Coin

It is not uncommon for a young person to be independent, to be on a trajectory toward success, and for the momentum to stop. For the generation that came of age with social media and the great Pacific garbage patch, anxiety plays a big part. Eliot might have seen or heard something on the bus, and once he stopped setting foot in the world each morning, those fears spiraled into depression. It was as if life were his guitar teacher, who could pick up any instrument and fire off a riff, and it was easier to fail than strive for stardom.

The hardest part for Eliot was coming home to get well. Even though we were looking for a subsidized apartment –for which he had earned a voucher after nearly a decade on the waitlist– and even though he would always be part of the CALI Project, CALI was where he’d become independent and found his second family, and missing CALI only made him sadder. He didn’t like returning to a house where I’d packed every room in boxes to make space for the remodel. For a while locks on the doors were once again the only way we could safely coexist in the house.

A good day was one where Eliot went for a walk two times around the block. Shaving was an accomplishment, his hair grew longer and longer, and his guitars collected dust in a corner. He hid in his man-cave of a room from the painters and the contractors, all of whom were understanding. Every day George the floor guy asked Eliot if he wanted to walk around the block with him and his two Chihuahuas. Eliot kept saying no until finally he said yes. When the floors were done, George left him a Chinese coin he’d found on a solo dog walk.

On a visit home Carly encountered the same upheaval. “Life is scary,” she told her brother, “But it’s also fun.”

In her room George had laid hardwood flooring over the brown-painted boards, and I’d placed a queen-sized bed where her childhood bed had been, the same one where we’d moved her from the crib before Eliot was born. Her first assigned night in the little bed she’d climbed back in the crib, rolled up in her blanket, and fallen asleep.  And on her visit home she briefly considered sleeping on her childhood bed in the family room before sinking into the comfort of the new queen.

They weren’t the conditions under which we had begun the renovations, yet it was only upon Eliot’s unexpected return that any residual anger or resentment I had melted away. I blew a fuse plenty of times, but the overriding principal was patience and kindness. There was simply no other way.

He still had to get up every morning, take a shower, and do his chores, but beyond that any motivation had to come from him. Our expectations were what had gotten him this far, and now only letting go of our expectations would keep him moving forward. The one thing we didn’t let go of was our faith in who he was.

We fell back on the research we’d done with Dr. Traver and put him on the Prozac that had helped before. And we started to see signs of life. Cissi came over in a lacrosse helmet to shave his head. Shaving his head was a weight off, like Frodo shedding his orc-shield, his helmet, and his heavy belt on the road to Mordor.

“Sam did likewise, and put aside his orc-gear; and he took out all the things in his pack. Somehow each of them had become dear to him…

‘Do you remember that bit of rabbit, Mr. Frodo?’ he said. ‘And our place under the warm bank in Captain Faramir’s country, the day I saw an oliphaunt?’

‘No, I am afraid not, Sam,’ said Frodo. ‘At least I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire…'”

Soon after their unburdening, Frodo got rid of the ring and turning back toward the Shire, stopped to see his friend Bilbo, who had grown old and spent his days in Rivendell dozing by the fire. Bilbo holding court from his chair reminded me of my father at ninety-seven. Dad never lost the ability to ask questions, even if they were the same questions whose answers he’d forgotten. Every morning he got dressed and sat in his chair by the fireplace, napping until one of his children or friends came to visit. Being an attorney, he would draw out his visitors, probing for news of the outside world, and in those last months I was not the only one of my siblings to read aloud to him from The New York Times.

When he asked about the ring and Frodo told him it was gone, Bilbo said,

“That’s what you went for, wasn’t it: to get rid of it? But it is all so confusing, for such a lot of other things seem to have got mixed up with it: Aragorn’s affairs…and caves and towers and golden trees, and goodness knows what besides.

“I evidently came back by much too straight a road from my trip. Anyway it’s too late now; and I really think it’s much more comfortable to sit here and hear about it all…” Bilbo said before dropping off for another nap.

For Frodo the stop to see his old friend was as important as the journey to Sauron, and while my siblings and I hadn’t always been taught that growing up, by the time Mom reached ninety we knew it to be true, that nothing was more important than being with them. Such is the truth of family and friends. I may spend the day happily by myself, but nothing lifts my spirits like running into a friend in the ocean lineup, at the grocery store, or one lane over at the pool. So Eliot, if you’re reading this, do not forget what saves us from day to day, what holds us together is our community, our CALIs and Georges, the parents who are there for us, our family.

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Carly giving her Baba a kiss at at a family holiday

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Paper Map

When Carly and Eliot were little, messes in the house were a healthy part of the flurry of life. Once they moved out, the layer of dust and dirt that had accumulated on the sills of their rooms were ghosts I needed to wipe away in order to occupy my newfound freedom.

Carly came home for a visit, and I offered to help her clean out her room, the high school graduation cards, dresses that had never made it out of her closet, the trucker caps from years of surf contests. When we were finished we put some surf trophies and signed baseballs back on the shelves and propped a couple of favorite photos on the desk, and I filled up the van with a dresser, books for the library, and clothes to donate. But we kept the stuffed animal her Baba had given her, a wind-up ballerina that played the theme from the Nutcracker.

Standing in her room after she left for San Diego, I picked up the ballerina and it let out a few last notes. I thought of my mother dressed in a skirt and jacket, always with a colorful necklace, taking one or two grandchildren to The Nutcracker in San Francisco each December, not stopping until all of them had seen it. I could hear the waltz of stringed instruments and answering flutes filling the Memorial Opera House. Long before, my mother had seen each of her six children off to college, and when the last one was gone it was the sound of her piano that filled an empty house.

It was not something she talked about, but I needed to, once Eliot added a fifth night of independence and was home for just part of a weekend. Having watched Carly move away, he was motivated, and I took it as a good sign, even if I missed having a Sherpa to carry the groceries.

At the start of summer Blue and I went to Huntington to help open the cabin, and Eliot asked us to “send him some love.” Those were his words for a postcard.

“It’s going to be in the thirties at night,” I told him.

I was sad to say goodbye but he wasn’t. “Have a good time freezing,” he said as he went out the door.

Blue and I picked out a postcard of a mama bear and her cub crossing a creek. I knew that like the cub, no matter how independent he was feeling, he still needed guidance. There was the time he went out to dinner with Carly and wore his raincoat with the hood up, thirty-six hours after it had stopped raining. Or the times he missed some spots shaving and went to work with half a mustache.

After I read all of the Harry Potter books aloud to Eliot, I’d read him The Hobbit, and he’d dictated a sixteen-page report, with pictures he’d drawn of the ring and the sword. My favorite drawing was of Gandalf, a triangle hat perched on a head with a triangle gown. It was when I started The Lord of the Rings that he’d entered the adrenaline-fueled period that we survived only with a lot of planning and unwavering support from The Bay School.

“You have to stop reading that book,” Blue had told me, and I knew he was right. An adolescent boy would take desperate measures to get away from his mother’s voice, as would a young man.

Once he and Carly were mostly gone, I got used to the space and the freedom. I planned a backpacking trip with my friend Patty. She and I had hiked out of the Southern Sierra’s Florence Lake, and this time we were hiking out of Edison. My first trip had been to the Desolation Wilderness, solo with Buddy when he was just a pup, and this would be my sixth and last sleeping on the hard ground.

Outdoor clothes were lighter than they’d been before, so we dropped some weight there, and although I wasn’t about to invest in a new lightweight pack, the old heavy one  balanced perfectly the load on my hips. The Pacific Crest Trail was full of young people hiking the entire length from Mexico to Canada, with their ultra-light sleeping pads, pocket-sized water filters, and a hunger for what felt like a boundless wilderness.

When Patty and I got back I picked up the copy of The Lord of the Rings I’d put down when Eliot was seventeen, and once again found myself identifying with Frodo as he shouldered his pack and journeyed away from the Shire. Waking up with a tree-root digging into his back, he thought of the feather bed he had left behind. But then he watched the sunrise, and he and his companions filled their water bottles from a flowing stream.

“The day’s march promised to be warm and tiring work. After some miles, however, the road ceased to roll up and down; it climbed to the top of a steep bank in a weary zig-zagging sort of way, and then prepared to go down for the last time. In front of them they saw the lower lands dotted with small clumps of trees that melted away in the distance to a brown woodland haze.”

His companion Sam’s “round eyes were wide open – for he was looking across lands he had never seen to a new horizon.”

With the few safety nets that existed once families exited special education, there were times when it felt as if Blue and I were trudging blindly toward Mordor, and like Sam and Frodo, we had to to turn north and west when our destination was southeast. My pack felt heavy with the work of referrals and wait-lists, heavier than those of the Pacific Crest through-hikers. They were mapping their courses with their phones, but I liked my paper map with its distant peaks, its topo rings spreading outward. And as Eliot stood looking over the trees that melted away in the distance, I kept my map close, like the glittering shirt of mail Frodo wore under his clothes.

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Miracle March

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I’d pulled over too close to the side of the road, which was nearly impossible to see, and was stuck. Driving alone to South Lake Tahoe, I’d hit snow at 3000 feet, and at 5000 feet the road was covered in an icy layer. Ice accumulated on my windshield and wipers, and I’d pulled over to scrape it off.
When all four wheels started spinning, I turned off the engine and dug out around them, but was still stuck. I flagged down a young man and his girlfriend in a four-wheel drive truck, and they pushed me out.
At 6000 feet Highway Patrol was escorting a line of cars going down the mountain. I was exhausted, but knew if I didn’t keep driving, highway 50 might close before I made it to South Shore. I arrived safely at the massive Heavenly resort a couple of hours behind schedule, and bought a lift ticket, planning to catch up with my friend Lance who knew the mountain. But once I made it to the Nevada side my phone died, and I knew better than to look for him in a blizzard. As it turned out, he and his friends ended up in a creek bed and spent two hours hiking out.
I stuck with one lift, making repeated trips down a tree-filled run. Watching a mom on the hill with a child between her skis filled me with longing, not because I wanted to go back in time, but because without that reality I was adrift. Eliot was transitioning to full independence, and I was feeling sad the way I had when Carly left for college. When the transition ramped up so did his anxiety, and alone on the mountain, mine did too.
Midafternoon I started worrying about the trek back to the California side. The signs were confusing, and when I asked, one person pointed to a trail deserted and devoid of tracks. Panicked and a little weepy, I thought, “If I go that way, I’ll never get out and I’ll never be found.”
After a second run up the chairlift I did find the California trail, and eventually, the steep Gunbarrel run that dropped to the parking lot and my car. Miracle March was delivering atypically dry snow to the Sierra, and I spent the next two days skiing deep powder with friends. On the last morning I landed a little hard coming out of a chute, one of my skis popped off, and I slid six feet past it.

I wondered if in snow that deep and vertical I could make it back up to my ski. I heard my friend Kim shouting from a stand of trees below, and called her cell phone to tell her it was going to take me a while.
“We’re not leaving you,” she said.
I turned myself around so my ski was on the bottom. Poles sinking in deep powder, I pushed up with the ski, using my knee instead of the sinking boot. As I inched closer I spotted something sticking out of the snow. It was a rock, but I knew my ski was right below it. I brushed away snow with a pole, and when I got close enough, dug in and found my ski. Minutes later I skied down to the trees where Kim was waiting.
What I took away from that weekend was that even the most independent of us find our abilities being tested, and on the mountain I was learning the same lessons as my grown children.
Like Eliot, who when his aunt Jeffery sent each of her nieces and nephews a Christmas check, bought a new bike to replace the one he’d outgrown. It had a rack and bags for groceries, and came with a huge red bow he refused to cut off. His first trip back from Safeway he rode with the bow on the handlebar and a twelve-pack of beer on the rack.
He stuck to a single beer each night, which he figured into his budget both at home and at the CALI Project. Once he texted Cissi from the liquor store to tell her he’d used his money for beer and needed more for lunch.
Budgeting was hard, especially at the hot food bar where he was charged by the weight. When he overloaded and the customer behind him offered to make up the difference, he said, “I’m a man. I can pay for my own food.”
And if how fast he could swipe a twenty out of my hand was any indication, Eliot was learning the value of money.
I knew we had come full circle when he attended a winter dance at Vintage Faith, our church from his infanthood to adolescence. I helped him dress in good pants, and as he reached around to pull the belt through the loop he usually missed he said, “I have to go, I’m on a mission.”
When he got home and I asked which girl he’d liked the best, he said, “All of them.”
One morning he was bugging me so badly I sent him out forty-five minutes before his bus came. He didn’t seem to mind. “The early bird catches the worm,” he said.
Then it started pouring and I worried he was getting soaked. But when I passed the bus stop on the way to the grocery store, he was standing dry under his umbrella, flashing me the look Blue had long before named Dr. Evil.
Four years after the county granted me and Blue conservatorship, the court reporter returned to our house to see how Eliot was doing. When she reminded him he could vote, I asked if he remembered whom he’d voted for in the last election.
“Donald Trump,” he said, which wasn’t true. There was a pause and he added, “Uh, Lincoln.”
While Eliot was transitioning to independence, Carly had moved back from the North Shore of Oahu and settled in San Diego, where she was working her dream job as an organic inspector and reviewer. Not having the Pacific between us made her feel closer. One morning as she was driving up to collect the last of her stuff, I went for a surf, and passing Cowell’s Beach saw a line of waves. On the first wave where not a single person paddled was a dolphin, skimming and leaping, offshore spray fanning behind it. A greeting for my girl, who on the balcony of her apartment in Encinitas had placed two pots. One sprouted lettuce and one tomatos, for both the timelessness and the newness of our endeavors.

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Brown Bowl

When Mom and Dad moved from the house where they raised six children, she gave me her giant mixing bowl, which I remembered her using around the holidays. Turkey stuffing comes to mind, but by the time I thought to ask if she used it for baking it was too late. “There are still things,” she said once, “I wish I could tell my mother.”

Every year after she handed it down, I pulled out the bowl when I doubled and tripled her recipes for the Christmas cookies I gave to neighbors and teachers. It was thick glazed ceramic the exact color of the ginger molasses cookies, cinnamon-speckled brown, I mixed in it. Made even heavier by pounds of dough, the bowl cracked early on when I set in on the counter, and the first Christmas after she died it broke. Like sifting through the memories that surfaced, stirred, and receded, I scraped out the batter from two halves of bowl with a rubber spatula, and rolled the dough in parchment paper, to freeze and pull out for baking in the days before Christmas.

Of the three kinds of cookies our mother made, at least two of them came from her mother Irene. The third kind, called The World’s Best, was named for its irresistible combination of butter and sugar, coconut and pecans, crushed corn flakes and salt. Written for me by our mother on a three-by-five card, the recipe was blurred by years of spills, marked with my notes and asterisks. That T that looked like a tablespoon, I’d noted, was actually a teaspoon.

Conversely, the three-by-five card for the chewy cookies that tasted like gingerbread was my handwriting but unmistakably our mother’s recipe. She’d listed the spices as “ginger, cloves, etc.” The “etc.” I knew was cinnamon, but if there were only one more spice after the cloves, why not name it?

The answer rests with Irene, whose penchant for sweeping the carpets she laid over the Tahoe campsite where she took our mother in the 1930’s, she passed down to our mother and me, along with the abbreviated manner. Although it probably reached back farther than the generations whose economy of words fell on my ears, what we were left with was an abbreviation, first for the word cinnamon, then for the word etcetera. I can hear my mother say it, “And so forth, and so on.”

In our mother’s recipe for gingerbread on which those cookies were based, the cinnamon was listed, along with the rest of the ingredients. But the instructions were limited, and read in their entirety:

Last of all, 2 eggs well beaten.

Shallow pan, 350 ˚

That’s where the watching must have come in. Our height the same as the rim of the brown bowl, my sisters and I would have seen her mix the wet ingredients first, and would have known to do the same when we made gingerbread ourselves. A mental note added to a written recipe. Etcetera and so forth and so on.

The Christmas after Mom died, I unwrapped the birdhouse ornament with the sparkled roof hanging by a piece of twine, which she’d also handed down, along with a miniature pair of mittens and a painted nutcracker. Hugh Martin’s words rang through the house:

Through the years we all will be together

If the fates allow

Hang a shining star upon the highest bough

She never liked those mittens, but I did, and I took a tearful pause as I hung them on the tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bus Pass

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At the end of August before Eliot graduated, I helped him write a speech about his eight years at The Bay School, which he practiced for weeks and read aloud at his graduation. Having never seen such hard-working, dedicated, and loving staff, I asked him to write a letter to each of his teachers, and my favorite was the one he wrote to Josh, who’d been one of his first teachers at The Bay School.

“I remember doing math and listening to music,” he wrote.

“You have an awesome mustache. Love, Eliot”

Two days later he started his new life, spending several nights a week at the CALI Project, as well as weekdays at Brightpath. Instead of resisting independence as I thought he would, the mornings he was at our house, he left on his own to catch the bus with little more than a “See ya.” If he needed to buy food for lunch, he went alone on the bus to Trader Joe’s without argument.

At first when there were issues at Brightpath with safe hands, I told him it was his job to act like a man and help his friends. I saw there was plenty of opportunity at the day program for him to take responsibility, cooking or shopping for those who needed more help. Cissi referred to Brightpath as work and I followed suit.

She told him that to add nights at the CALI Project, he needed to meet certain criteria, namely being independent and keeping safe hands at all times. After she and Victor, the director of Brighpath, told him he was free to leave early if he started feeling overwhelmed, the aggression faded. Often he opted to leave just a half hour or so ahead of his friends. After all, Brightpath provided a social life. When he asked another client his age if she wanted to go out to lunch, she said yes.

“How about Pono?” he asked, naming his favorite place for coconut shrimp.

“No,” she said. “Mac Donald’s.”

“New Leaf,” said Eliot, who often ate at the health food store.

“Taco Bell,” she countered.

After that Eliot gave up on going out with her.

Then he got the croupe, and decided to stay home even after he was no longer sick. There was a time when he’d done that at The Bay School, but this wasn’t school. It was up to him to meet his new responsibilities. Work, Cissi reminded him, was about helping pay the rent and not letting his friends down. She had him sign a contract that said if he missed a day of Brightpath, he missed a day at the CALI Project. That was incentive enough for Eliot to get up every morning and go to work.

When it started raining one afternoon just as he left, Victor asked if he wanted a ride.

“I got this, bro!” he said, language that came straight from Cissi. And rightly so. Mentor, teacher, room-mate, in many ways hers was his first real friendship.

Although he didn’t miss school, Eliot did miss his teachers, and decided to invite a few of them to the CALI Project for dinner. When he opened his wallet and asked me if three dollars and eight cents was enough to buy food, I suggested a potluck.

The day before they came to dinner he vacuumed, swept, and mopped the apartment. As it should be, his mother wasn’t invited, but I heard he was the perfect host.

Once he’d settled into a routine, I decided to try weaning him off the low dose of Prozac he’d been on for a couple of years. With Dr. Traver’s blessing, I gradually cut his dose over a period of four weeks. He got very agitated halfway in, a brief indicator of dependence. But after a day it passed, and he finished the four weeks without incident.

“Anxiety is just a part of who you are,” I told him, “And you’re developing coping mechanisms.”

One of which was depleting my beer supply, a single bottle each night that he chugged.

When I told him he needed to go to Safeway to replenish the twelve-pack, he said,

“No no no.”

I thought he was going to argue, and I’d lost my mojo for arguing with him.

But he said, “I want to buy my own beer.”

“You mean two twelve-packs?” I asked.

“That’s what I want to do,” he said, grabbed his keys and his wallet, and left the house.

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The Height of Living

for Dad

Friday nights you made
martinis, set the needle on Louis Armstrong
and swept the floor with the soles of your shoes,
soles that would trudge
the fifty-seven stairs
of the house where you raised
us. Four, five, six
Here we go, down the

Snow under your skis
as you raced to catch her,
she who would cross the continent by train
the Atlantic by ship to marry you
the white of the mountains
you loved
not the Hassle
nor your boots, but the
Rose-colored view from the chairlift

Fourteen, fifteen… twenty-eight
Landing. 1920, the year you were born
Hello Darling Heart.
Your key in the door
times years, number of days
how you managed, each of you
one brown butter bourbon in a glass,
how you carved the time
without interruption

Struck a match
in the fireplace of all three floors
twenty-nine, thirty
hung your coat and keys
said
let’s go for a ride
put the top down
drove backwards, streetcar cables humming below
to the ice cream store, where we satisfied
your insatiable sweet tooth,

Forty-one, forty-two, creaky stair
landing. Loud
with your bedroom door
before you lost your hearing,

The aerobic contraption
that spread
your arms and filled
your lungs, and all those stairs
prepared you for the mile
of traffic-choked road
you would navigate with a walker
two thousand steps
into your ninth decade,

Forty-three, forty-four, creaky stair
the candy your son
snuck to his room
put away by then. Because he never forgot
the night you rallied your own
children to raid
the shoe box of Good and Plenty
stashed under his bed

Fifty-six, fifty-seven, landing.
Here lofty thoughts
sailed across the bay
out the gabled window. Here
you told us
to pull up our socks,
generous with the adjectives, especially
when you talked about golf

behind you the cargo ship
we fathomed through tears
or the last diamond
at the corner of an x-braced skyscraper. Sometimes
we met at the escalator
and walking downtown
your hand would squeeze,
meaning

what you said in your letters,
Love
and Voila. Leaving the rest of the French to Mom,
the two of you
bought a painting of that heady crag
le baou de Saint-Jeannet
and back home, heaved steel boules
across the dirt

So put on a record,
let saxophone
and clarinet
ring through the air
scuff our shoes on the floor
and dance

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New Roommate

The final stroke of genius I witnessed from Eliot’s teacher Jewels, before she left to have her baby, was the paycheck Eliot earned at the end of every week for work completed. On Fridays I “cashed” the check so he had spending money to eat out. But aggression or noncompliance resulted in deductions that usually meant no paycheck, and it was his Balance buddy Cissy who, when she showed up on Saturday morning, asked in her straightforward, streetwise manner, “So how are you going to pay for your beloved coconut shrimp?”

She told him he’d have to make lunch at home, and when he objected later to watching her eat out, said, “I earned my paycheck. I can have my coconut shrimp.”

It was Cissy who came to me one day and said Eliot was a perfect candidate for the transitional program she had put together.

“When can he start?” I asked. And in September of his last year at The Bay School, he would begin spending the night at the apartment she had secured for the Cali Project, learning to cook, clean, and shop for himself. He would work his way from several nights a week to every night, until he moved permanently to his own place.

Eliot and I were both ready for him to trade in his mom for Cissy as a room-mate. Sensing me pull away, he barraged me with questions, and I had to acknowledge the irony of having taught him to ask questions I didn’t want to answer.

“Just let me cook without having to talk. At all,” I said every evening around dinnertime.

When he asked the same question repeatedly and I yelled for him to stop, he said quietly, “You don’t to yell.” Occasional bouts of aggression clouded the fact that Eliot was essentially was the gentlest of humans.

After one of those bouts of aggression on a trip to Fall River, I sat him down and said, “Your dad works very hard, and he deserves to feel safe on his vacations.”

So it was that when Blue and I went to Huntington Lake that summer, we had Eliot stay home with his Balance buddy Mel. It was good for all of us. Blue and I made it to a waterfall we hadn’t come close to reaching on family hikes, and had uninterrupted conversations with friends. “You’re the man of the house while we’re gone,” I’d told him, and he watered the plants, collected the mail, and made dinner with Mel. Best of all, he rode the bus twice with Cissy to practice getting to and from the apartment by himself.

But he was angry about having to go to school instead of the mountains, and that week deductions cut into his pay. He called me to let me know he had enough money to eat out.

“How much is your paycheck?” I asked.

“A dollar and nine cents,” he told me.

I howled with laughter. As Cissy would say, “How many coconut shrimp will that buy you?”

But he was twenty-one and done with school, and I had a plan for that too. I took him to a day program which several of his Kid Quest friends already attended, and he liked it. He would graduate The Bay School early, and after he moved in with Cissy, each weekday would go to Brightpath, where he could help shop for food, cook, and garden.

If that weren’t serendipity enough, within walking distance of his day program was the Sandbar, where he’d performed with Carly one Open Mic night. The Sandbar was where Eliot would continue the vocational training he’d started at The Bay School, maybe even the food prep he’d performed with joy and without incident.

Brightpath was located in a cedar house, where every morning the twenty attending adults gathered at the round table for a meeting. As Eliot’s eight remarkable years of growth at The Bay School came to an end, I took solace in the fact that when he looked around the table, he’d be excited to get to know the faces that were new, and comforted by the ones that were familiar.

Eliot at the Homeless Garden Project

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