My Blessed Boy on the Streets…and my Teacher of all Things Good

Previously Published in U.S. Catholic. 

A sometimes lonely leftover phone booth stands on a street corner in Portland, Oregon. When a street person feels so inclined, he or she can use the one-time pay phone, now free of charge, to call friends and/or family anywhere in the world. And inside the phone booth, profound words and laughter are heard, and sometimes tears are shed.

It’s being used today.

“Hi Mom. Do you know who this is?”

“Hey Dwight…of course.”

My second son calls me infrequently. When he first went homeless almost 20 years ago now, he would call more often, sometimes once a week, per my instructions. I needed to know he was okay. Then, over the years, less often. Until now, it might be a couple of times a year. I always love hearing the sound of his voice, but then, the meth-fueled ranting usually begins. The crazy delusions. The paranoid ramblings of a madman. Where is my sweet son? Where did he go?

“I found a new tent the other day, just put it up. I like it. It’s roomy. And so I’m dry again.” His familiar chuckle so near, like he’s next door.

My breath catches. My homeless meth-addicted son sounds almost normal. I hold my breath, waiting. I hate reducing my son’s position in the world to that of homeless meth addict, yet when speaking with others, that’s what I often call him, maybe to ward off questions from other parents about how many kids I have and what they’re doing (“accomplishing”), a conversation I despise as it too often starts with stories about their own kids–college graduates, peace corps volunteers, or successful software engineers, blah, blah, blah.

I don’t want to do this anymore. Define my son by a single thing that he does (meth), for where he sleeps at night (in a tent under a bridge—such a cliché). How do I stop doing this?

God, please help me. As a Catholic prison chaplain, I will deliver a reflection to the men in our Catholic Services group on the Gospel reading this week which happens to be Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes: ”Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…”

“And so how are you?” I turn off my computer, wait for the ranting to begin. Dwight is a man of few words, but when high, he can’t, won’t stop talking. I remember the days we could make a connection. Love each other without words.

“Well, I was really sick last week, I mean really, really sick. I’ve never felt like that, ever. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even make it out of my sleeping bag, you know, couldn’t even stand up.”

I’m holding my breath again. The virus? What good would it do to even ask? Dwight never goes to a doctor.

“I’m okay now, though.”

“How long did it last?”

“I don’t know, I lose track of time, you know. Maybe a week or two.”

COVID must be running rampant through the homeless camps.

“I’d love to see you.” His voice is calm, his tone even. “You ever get down to Portland anymore?”

We always talk about me coming down from Seattle to visit, but I can’t. I want to remember my tow-headed son the way he once was. Before. Before all of this madness.

And then I find myself smiling. “Remember that time we ran into each other on the Morrison bridge?”

Another chuckle. “Of course.”

It was years ago now, the last time I saw my son. I was crossing the bridge, walking from the Amtrak station over to my other “successful” son’s second-hand store, the son I know how to find as he’s usually at his store. No one ever knows where to find Dwight as he moves around. No one sees him unless he chooses to show up somewhere.

I was in the middle of the bridge when I heard, “Well, hello there, Mother,” like seeing me on the bridge was an everyday occurrence.

“Dwight?!” I couldn’t believe it. No one else on the bridge. Me walking from one end. My son walking from the other. Connecting in the middle with a hug. I loved that moment, revisit it often in my imagination.

“I want to show you my latest.” And I followed him off the bridge to a legal wall where he’d left his graffiti trademark: SPOIL. I think I asked him what it meant one time, but he’d answered in some meth-fueled gibberish, and I’d never asked him again.

It’s beautiful, my son’s artwork. And I’m proud of him, though I never share that with anyone as I don’t know how to explain Dwight’s life and what he loves to others.

He doesn’t love many “things.”  I remember the time he called to tell me he wanted to come over and get into his two duffel bags, reduce them to just one. “I have too much stuff,” he told me.  “It makes me nervous.” This was when he’d first gone homeless, and he still had “stuff.”

He showed up at my friend’s garage where he was storing his duffel bags. Shaking our heads, we watched him happily sort through the few things he had, delivering one duffel bag worth of junk to the dumpster, hauling the other one back into the garage.

He emerged from the garage, wiping his hands on his pants. “Ah, that feels so much better.”

I’d been studying. The Beatitudes’ “poor in spirit” aren’t those who don’t have stuff, but those who are humble. I know my son. The deal is, it’s Dwight’s humility that causes him to be happier without stuff than with stuff. And while he doesn’t collect “things,” when he does come into possession of something, he immediately wants to share it with others. His is the kingdom of heaven.

Sometimes I worry about my son’s safety. I remember one time when he was running from the cops across a busy thoroughfare, and when they caught up to him, beat the bloody crap out of him and dumped him off at the hospital, never to return. While it hurt my son’s feelings, and I knew he was traumatized by the event, he let it go and moved past it as he always does. He doesn’t hold grudges. “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” A meek person is one who is able to remain calm and subdued even when being provoked. That’s Dwight. Jesus had Dwight in mind when he spoke those words: “Blessed are the meek.” My son has already inherited the earth, and he wants for nothing else.

“And how are you, Mom?” He’s thoughtful that way, always wants to know how I’m doing. Always looking out for others. Blessed are the merciful for they should obtain mercy. If he ever hurts anyone, it’s unintentional. My son is without guile. A mother knows her child.

We hang up, and I sit there feeling only gratitude for the phone booth in Portland, Oregon that now stands empty once more. The other thing I feel grateful for is that the need to change my son is no longer present within me. This is the life he’s chosen, and while I once thought he had to be miserable because aren’t all homeless drug-addicted people miserable, I learned long ago, that that is a belief we have embraced because, I’m not sure, we need to feel that there’s something we can do to help? And so, if we want to feel like we’re doing something, we can always give a homeless person five dollars because, you know, he’s miserable? And that makes us feel good.

But I faced the truth years ago. My son isn’t any more miserable than the rest of us. And he’s definitely more content than most of the people I know. I remember him telling me one time, “Mom, I don’t like being inside of a room. I love sleeping outside under the open sky, looking up at the stars at night.” And Dwight has never liked to work. Never. In years past he’d try but would intentionally get fired from every job he ever had. Who decides these things, that you know, not wanting to work, wanting to live outside, that that’s always a bad thing? Dwight, an introvert, keeps to himself, doesn’t mooch off others, shares whatever he happens to have with those around him.

How do I tell those who might want to know, and most don’t, who my son is, that he’s so much more than the tent he lives in and the street he lives on? That meth is something he does, but that it’s not who he is?

Jesus once said, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” And yet, back to the Beatitudes, Jesus was the most blessed man who ever lived.

I can do this. Adjust my perception and reframe my son’s place on the planet. Relax and love him for exactly who he is in any given moment. Describe him to others in a way that emphasizes his gentle spirit, his humility, his generosity, rather than where he sleeps or his addiction to a certain drug.

And whether he’s aware of it or not, Dwight does have a home. Of sorts. In my heart.


Gloria Kempton is the author of seven nonfiction self-help books and two young adult novels, as well as hundreds of short stories, essays, personal experiences, personality profiles, how-to’s, and feature articles for a number of national magazines including Writer’s Digest. For three years she wrote a column for single parents in a parenting magazine. Her book, Dialogue, was published by Writer’s Digest Books in 2004.

1 Comment

  1. Patricia on April 28, 2021 at 4:51 am

    Gloria, Thanks for sharing your touching story. I like the transformation your son helped create in you. Your love for him and his willingness to be himself helped to change your focus from his perceived faults to his realized strengths.

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