The Reunion: But First

My Brother, Cousin Marcia, Cousin Hugh. Ca. 1969

[I started this story in its middle. Click here to read what happens next. Click here to read the conclusion.]

The Promises of Place

His voice on the phone is a miracle singing in my ear after ten months of silence. I’m always relieved when my cousin calls. 
It means he’s still alive. 
He speaks good news. For three nights a week, he isn’t sleeping in a tent on a cold concrete sidewalk. A friend takes him home. I’m grateful for this buddy’s mother, who lets her son and my cousin sleep in her garage almost half the time. I don’t begrudge her the other four nights, don’t wonder why not seven.

He has a place now. And place promises. He gives me a phone number, tells me I can call him. I write the address he recites like treasure, thinking of the gifts I couldn’t send these recent years as birthdays and Christmases rolled by. And as we talk I realize:

Place means I can go to him. I can see him. I can take him to his mother. And so we plan. Yes, the very next weekend we’ll come, we’ll meet, we’ll drive to the nursing home to visit his mother. 

My husband, Rich, and I leave our place early come Saturday. It’s ninety miles to San Diego. He drives and I pray hard for love to rule this day. Finally we exit the freeway, turn right, up the street, watching the numbers tick up on each house, searching for the treasure address.
A shaggy man hurries down the street, bouncing on the balls of his feet. I’d know that walk anywhere. “There he is!” I tell Rich.

“That isn’t Hugh, is it?” When we saw him last, at my mother’s funeral in 2008, he was clean-shaven. Now a beard hides half his face.

“It IS!” I leap from the car and I cling to him tightly, tightly. “So good to see you!” I whisper, my eyes running wet onto his shoulder. I’m squeezing, checking for ribs under the winter coat, feeling for life, hanging on to life. 

“This is the place. Come in and meet my friends,” he says, and I see a man standing on the tidy porch, smiling welcome. The home is snug, the curtains drawn. We decline the offer of coffee, water, something to eat? The men smoke. One says, “I quit smoking when I was in prison.” 
Another says, “Are those diamonds on your watch?” My nerves twitch. I picture a police raid, Rich and me snared like dolphin in a tuna net, cuffed and searched and explaining our way out. Or not. I picture a flash of steel, a demand for my jewelry.
These men give my cousin a place, I remember. Breathing on purpose, I focus on the shrine to Our Lady of Somewhere, glowing in the corner next to the television. 
We sit for ten minutes and talk about places. These men ask where we live and Rich describes our home, the oaks that stand as sentries, sturdy around our safe lives. We rise, thank them, gather my cousin, and depart. “Your friends are kind,” I tell Hugh.
“They’re pretty good guys, for gangsters,” he says. And I’m twisted round, looking at my cousin in the back seat. He’s weary and enslaved, arms scarred and stiffened from the chronic infections the needles deliver with the poison he shoots into himself.
But my heart sees him small, a shining boy full of future, a boy who could go anyplace. We’re going to the beach. He and my brother are ten, and I’ve just reached sixteen and a driver’s license, and Mom says you can take the car if you take the boys, too. I blink and the boys are fourteen and we line up at four a.m. for concert tickets. Bruce Springsteen is coming to town, and I’m taking the boys. We’re young and life stretches before us, open as a map of America.

We could go anyplace.

A question rises and clogs my throat, demanding voice. I’m seeing him three and I’m making us peanut butter sandwiches and the jelly is purple, sweet, and sticky, and back then I could never imagine this question.  “Do you get enough to eat?” I ask. The words slash my well-fed tongue. 
“Oh, yes,” Hugh tells me. “People are kind.” He smiles, showing rotted teeth. Rich drives and listens. 
I wipe my leaky, leaky eyes. 
“This is the place,” I say, as Rich parks at the nursing home. 
Hugh is eager, fearful: “Do you think she’ll remember me?” He hasn’t seen his mother in five years. 
And her mind has moved on to some secret place she guards for herself. She doesn’t let us in there anymore, won’t even peel back the curtain and let us look inside. 
We gather ourselves and walk towards the door. Prayer floods, then overflows my heart: Father, be with us. Fill this encounter with Your love. Inhabit this place.

3 If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.
John 14:3 (NASB)

I’m linking up with L.L. Barkat for In, On, and Around Mondays. I hope you can join us there.