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Keeping My Ambitions to Myself

But it's hard when your own son is homeless.

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Stairs to New York Subway station
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At my subway station, homeless people pushed carts, sat on benches, and propped themselves up against columns, seeking shelter and money on a freezing winter evening.

I emerged from the train car, a middle-aged woman in sophisticated attire.

Farther along the platform, a heap of a young man sat on the ground, his back hunched against the tile wall, head down, holding an artfully lettered sign saying “PLEASE HELP.” It was my 27-year-old son, filthy, wearing a long skirt, his hair curly and wild, with a placid expression of equanimity across his face. Jolted, I knew he didn’t have a permanent place to live, since we kept in touch at least once a week.

Yet I’d never seen him homeless on a subway station, particularly mine.

I called his name, and he smiled at my stricken face. “Mom!” he said enthusiastically. “Just getting out of the cold. I’m spending the night at my friends’ house later. When I get a cell, I’ll call you. Do you want to hang out a little?” he asked, his brown eyes hopeful.

The situation took a layer off him being everything familiar to me in the world, but I still felt the pull of my love’s invisible tendrils.

“I can’t.” I forced the words out.

I wanted to buy him warm pants, let him use my shower, wash his clothes, give him healthy food as I had so many times in the past. Yet confronted by this latest level of his reality and exhausted from work, I couldn’t do it. Not this time. As I shakily climbed the subway stairs, overwhelmed by tough-love guilt and my own survival instinct, images swirled in my head.

The blond, fair-skinned infant with Guarani Indian eyes smiled, one of 14 other babies in a cottage on a dirt road in rural Paraguay. A 12-year-old girl changed his diaper on a cockroach-studded table, and my (future) ex and I were so happy to become parents. The next day we wheeled him in his stroller through the outdoor markets of Asuncion. Small, dirty barefoot boys collected bottle caps to turn to coins. We’d make his life better.

Then, when he was 10, I became a single, working mother with sole custody, and he was my focus. The small yellow bus took him to his school for smart kids with special needs, where he prepared for college. The violin lessons, classes at art schools, and filmmaking projects at the Jewish Museum made him and me proud of his creativity, as did the hours of drawing at his desk by the light of his computer.

He locked himself in his room after turning down a full scholarship to his dream art school, too emotionally overwhelmed by a breakup with his girlfriend to attend classes. Had I pressured him too much to have a productive life? Did I make him afraid of failure?

Substance abuse fed his impulsive anger and caused my building to prohibit him from living there. I had gone into debt, paying for 16 months of residential rehab for him. He was an adult. The week before, after cleaning up in my shower with scrub salts, I took him to a local bistro. I thought that when he ordered French onion soup and grilled octopus, it would jolt his memory to the past 25 years, when his meals were ones of sensate pleasures and nutrition rather than just for survival.

His perfect table manners and restaurant demeanor, which he pointed out were a part of me he carried with him, were intact.

Desperate to fix things, I could no longer provide a home for him, but I could offer to assist him in reapplying to art school. Shared housing and a structured learning life leading to a profession from his passion would be his for the effort. He wanted this, but it was too alien from the street lifestyle to which his boyfriend introduced him two years before. He liked the freedom of the urban outdoors.

He hadn’t reached his bottom, my therapist told me. How much further was the spiral down, I thought, as I looked at his body, folded into itself on the platform. Instead of fantasizing, as I did when he was a child and had written a screenplay, that I would be sitting at the Oscars one day and watching him thank me, I now hoped he would find something productive to do that he enjoyed and that he would earn enough to pay for an apartment. I prayed for his good judgment. I learned to see him as a person, out in the world, who has most of my heart but is separate from me.

His achievements — or lack of — are not part of my identity. As long as we are in touch, we’re OK. I live life for my own ambitions. We had rescued him from the streets of Paraguay 27 years ago, but for now, he’s chosen the ones of New York.

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