HenryBy Kate Axelrod
December 08, 2011
Laura and I were sitting up front, and Henry was directly behind me. This was a couple of months ago and we were driving out to Westchester on a Monday afternoon. I was periodically checking on Henry through the rearview mirror. He was usually extremely talkative, bordering on manic, but his eyes kept closing shut and he was slipping in and out of sleep. He was middle aged but boyish in so many ways; today he looked like an overgrown teenager in a boy’s tee shirt and a baseball cap. I’d only known him for a couple months, but from the beginning I felt a tug of affection toward him—for the ways that he was forthcoming and insightful about his addiction and his depression, and how he confided that sometimes he honestly felt more comfortable when he was in prison than when he was out.
When I first met Henry he was staying in upper Manhattan, sleeping beneath a violet down comforter atop a handful of flattened cardboard boxes. He’d been living on the streets for several years, and was in and out of the hospital often. Most recently he’d been taken to the psych ward because he kept jumping into the Hudson River. It was during the thick of a brutal heat wave we’d had that summer, the temperature resting at a hundred and two degrees for several days. But he’d made suicide attempts in the past, and survived numerous overdoses, and so the doctors were reluctant to pass off his dips in the river as just some respite from the heat.
In the weeks that followed, Henry had made a lot of progress. He was living in a transitional housing site, a residence where he shared a room with a couple of guys, and he was meeting with doctors and caseworkers often, going to groups during the day and spending time at night working on rebuilding faulty electronics he’d found. He was extremely good with his hands—with assembling parts, breaking things down and putting them back together. Everyone was working to help him get back on his feet, to eventually have his own apartment somewhere: a place with a lock and a key, where he didn’t have to sign his name when he went outside for a cigarette, where maybe he could even invite a woman someday.
We drove out to Westchester that day, to the town where he was born, so Henry could get a copy of his birth certificate—this, among other documents, was necessary for him to move forward in the housing process. He gave me directions once we exited the highway, and after a handful of turns we were in the center of town: a civic center, a small post office, a few bakeries with patios and outdoor seating. Down the street was a Häagen-Dazs and an artsy movie theater—the marquee dull in the afternoon light. After he picked up the certificate, we got back in the car and he asked if might be able to visit his mother, who lived only a few minutes away. Laura and I looked each other—we hadn’t known that they were on good terms or even that they were still in touch. But sure, we said, we’d drop him off for a few hours if he would promise he could make it back to the city by the evening.
Henry directed us toward his mother’s home, the place where he’d grown up but hadn’t lived since the early seventies. It was the end of September and the streets were lined with trees, still thick and full, brimming with the anticipation of fall. There was a bay on our right as we drove through his old neighborhood, mostly Tudor houses, manicured lawns and beautiful gardens in bloom. I felt overcome with something—a combination perhaps, of astonishment and loss—and I wanted, desperately, to state the obvious: This is crazy! You’ve been living on the streets for years and years and your mother lives in this beautiful place. Can’t she help you? But I considered my words more carefully.
“Henry, during the winter, or when times were really hard outside, did you ever think of coming back here? Asking your mom for help?”
He paused for a moment, and I projected all my romantic notions of family and unconditional love into that space. I saw him taking the Metro North on a bleak wintry day, appearing at his mother’s door, where she lovingly embraced him. She would heat him up some leftover soup and roasted chicken and then make up his old bedroom for him. I imagined the Led Zeppelin posters still hanging limply on the walls, and the feeling of feathery carpet beneath his bare feet again, the first time in years. But this was not the right version of the story, and quickly Henry interrupted my idyllic fantasy.
“No,” he said softly. “I’m a grown man, it just wouldn’t be right.”
I figured the truth was infinitely more complicated, and I assumed he and his family must have wrestled for years with his myriad of struggles. Maybe his mother had opened the door to see him passed out on the front steps, or picked him up from jail over and over again, until finally she just couldn’t.
We pulled up to the house, angled up on a small hill, facing a distant, glinting sheet of water. A Lexus sat gleaming on a graveled driveway. Henry got up and hesitated for a minute beside the car.
“I’ll get my mom and introduce you.”
A few moments later he brought his mother outside. She was a small woman in her eighties, but not frail, and quite graceful. She wore an ivory blouse and a necklace beaded with amber stones. Her hair was short and frosted, and looked as though she tended to it dutifully.
“It’s so nice to meet you,” she said, and we both leaned toward each other, extending our hands through the open car window. I felt a pang when I realized she was standing on the side where the van plainly advertised our service: a homeless outreach team. For a second I wondered if perhaps she didn’t know, hadn’t understood what had happened to Henry all these years. But then she thanked us, earnestly, thoughtfully, for the work we’d been doing with him.
I thought of how nuanced and complicated her appreciation must have been. And I remembered, just a month ago, when my coworker and I visited Henry in the hospital. How lonely he had seemed in the day room, in the mint-colored hospital pants he wore, his face pale and lost. Would his mother have wanted to be there?
But I imagined that she must have put in years, decades of work, before being able to withdraw from his life in this way. I couldn’t conceive of a mother’s heartbreak, but I had loved, very deeply, people afflicted with addiction and mental illness, and I had spent years learning how to pull away, to submit to a certain kind of helplessness, when there was simply nothing else you could do. It was an impossible kind of pain—loving a person who suffered in this way.
Henry’s mother smiled and rested her arm at the small of his back.
“I’ll drive him to the train station in a couple of hours,” she said.
Laura and I watched them walk toward the house. Henry was slow, his mother walking steadily beside him. He was a good man and I ached for both of them, at how much work it must have taken for them to arrive in this place, where they could welcome each other, if only for an afternoon.
**Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.
I had a friend like the Henry you mention. He passed away about a year ago; and, as I eventually learned had been living on the streets, homeless, in New Jersey for quite some time, including the day of his death when he was found. He suffered from extreme paranoia and was every bit the schizophrenic. Prior to leaving Virginia to return back to live with his family in Jersey, his downward spiral began. It saddened me then as it did when I learned of his death that he was never able to escape those demons, never able to get them under control. I always wanted to help him in some way; because of his paranoia (he believed people, the government actually, were tapping his phone), I lost contact with him.
I really enjoyed this.
Beautifully done! I used to go to church with a woman whose son was mentally ill. He’d left home years before I knew her, and at times she literally did not know if he was alive or dead. Months or a year might go by, then she might suddenly hear from a medical facility, he might be on his meds or off of them, he might want to see her, he might be hostile. She never knew. I used to think she was quite stern, but we were in discussion groups and I learned more about what she’d gone through. She and her husband had gone for counselling, and she said, more than once, one counsellor had described the many levels of crying, the layers and depths of grief that are possible. I think you’re absolutely right, about how much work it took for Henry and his mother to arrive at this point.
Thank you for writing this.
I love this story, thanks for writing it. I love how you thought what you thought, all of that sentimentality but you didn’t express it that way because you learned how to pull it back in. Lovely story, so well written, look forward to more from you.
Kate this was killer. I sponsor guys in AA and constantly see them exposed to the solution and then choose the alternative.
“I had spent years learning how to pull away, to submit to a certain kind of helplessness, when there was simply nothing else you could do. It was an impossible kind of pain—loving a person who suffered in this way.”
I love that. I will go to the mat for those who show willingness. But I can’t chase after those who aren’t willing. If that is not the case then there is nothing I can do for them. Al-anon has been a big help for me in this area. Thanks.
This is a lovely story Kate. It really captures the complicated relationships so many of our clients’ who suffer from mental illness and addiction have with their families. I originally read this on the Goddard website but wanted to come on here so I could leave a comment and let you know how much I enjoyed reading it.