*Max (front) with his brother Jake (in Mickey ears) at Disneyland 1994
By Suellen Meyers
My son Max is sensitive and particular about certain things. The day he is born I swear he looks at me from his bassinet, smirks, and begins to cry for a bottle.
As soon as he is able to articulate his needs, he insists on wearing only Fruit of the Loom low-cut socks, as any other type drive him crazy. He pulls them as tight as his little hands can, then thrusts out his feet so the nearest adult can fasten his shoes securely over the taut material, to the point I fear his circulation might get cut off. When he rides in the car he cries, “My waist, my waist.” He tells me the seatbelt smothers him. I feel helpless and perplexed by his pleas for relief. In the front seat, I cannot manage much more than a “We’ll be there soon,” hoping that will calm him. It never does.
I become aware of Max using drugs when, as a freshman in high school, he is expelled. Higher than a proverbial kite on eight Xanax, he is found doling out peachy colored pills like candy to classmates as they passed him in the halls.
He does his first rehab stint at nineteen. Outpatient. He lists heroin addiction on the intake form, albeit I don’t think he ever met a mind-altering substance he didn’t like. I beg the doctors to put him in an inpatient program, but insurance won’t cover it.
By the time he is twenty-one he’s been using for years, still, I am surprised when I receive the phone call.
“Hey Maxie,” I answer as I maneuver down the freeway, shutting the sunroof at the same time so I could hear him. I wonder why he was phoning so soon, I’d just dropped him off less than a half hour ago after we’d had breakfast at the lake.
“Did Max take anything at the restaurant?
“What?” This is not my son’s voice in my ear; instead it is his drug buddy.
“It’s Sean. Max won’t wake up. Did he take pills or anything at breakfast?”
My stomach sinks. He wouldn’t wake up? He was perfectly fine when I left him half an hour ago; still breathing was as perfectly fine as a practicing addict can be. Max is playing one of his pranks on me. I wait, holding my breath until I hear the familiar, “You always fall for it, Mom,” but it doesn’t come.
I answer automatically, like an obliged kindergartener, “He went into the bathroom a couple of times. I don’t think he took anything.”
Three-year-old Max pops inside my brain – all chubby cheeked and crying for a peebone, his toddler word for pencil. He’d picked up the instrument and was inherently able to draw better than most adults. How did my baby end up this way?
“Where are you?” I croak.
I pull up to the curb as fast as possible without doing any damage and slam the car into park. I am moving rapidly, yet feel as if I were trying to run in the deep end of a swimming pool. Despite my terror I notice the cracked concrete walkway, the weeds in the front yard, and the peeling paint trim. The inhabitants of this little box are not like the manicured masses. The house has the malaise of a worn-out stepchild trying to garner parental attention.
I try to steady my breath in anticipation for what I am about to face. I am bone-chillingly cold and sweating at the same time. I rap on the filmy door. The knock emits a small, hollow sound, and it hurt my knuckles. It is much softer than I intend it to be or the situation calls for. I want to bang my fists ferociously, scream desperately, but at this second; I have nothing in me that can muster the strength I am going to need in a few moments.
“This is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening” and then “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” I gasp.
The door opens, and there he is, my beautiful Maxie, collapsed on the staircase in the entryway of a hoarder’s house, trash piled so high I can hardly see him lying there, barely breathing.
I find a rehab that will let us make monthly payments to admit him. The road to Provo, Utah is 375.7 velvety brown desert miles on Interstate 15. Four lanes of traffic, two in each direction, file toward salvation in more ways than one.
Although most of the drive is dull, the tanned, leathery landscape is occasionally interrupted by various stimuli. Ten
minutes outside St. George for instance, the highway winds its way through the stunning Virgin River Gorge carved between the layered red rocks so plentiful in the area.
Outside the tiny town of Holden, the road turns weathered and dusty again, although it expands generously. This allows my husband, Gary, a smooth transition to the side in order to pass elderly drivers in motor homes, their steering wheels gripped between hands at ten and two.
In Scipio, located at the bottom of an incline-decline dip in the road, there is a propensity for fog so thick it sits right in the pocket like gooey marshmallow filling, cloaking the way both up and down the hill to either side.
Above Nephi, the sky shines a glorious robin’s egg blue, the precise color of a Tiffany box minus the ribbon.
Rocky Ridge is where Max wakes. “I want my phone, you can’t take it away from me,” he slurs angrily between nodding in and out of his drug-induced haze.
“We pay your phone bill so we can do anything we want.” The tough love tactic the rehab center suggested I use loses resolve with the haranguing.
By Santaquin, named for the peaceful relationship between White Mormons and local Indians, we are all beyond restless. Inside the car our present little village of four offers no such harmony.
When finally, we see the sign for our turnoff, billboard after billboard advertises assistance, blatantly selling services of help to the desperate masses: drugs, gambling, alcohol. The road to Provo, Utah, is not just for Osmonds anymore.
At twenty-two, Max is fresh out of a California sober living house. He’s got a job at a tattoo shop in Costa Mesa right down the street from his tiny new studio apartment. For the first time in years the knots in my stomach loosen just a bit.
“Mom, come on up, I want to show you my place,” he yells over the banister, then skips every other step as he flies down to greet Gary and I. We follow him back up the rickety staircase; the wrought-iron railing shudders precariously with each rung as we make our way to the second floor. “That’s Ronald’s,” Max says, pointing to a door along the way. A spindly black chair and a black and yellow plaid beanbag ashtray, the kind my dad used to have in the 70s, stand guard outside the withered barrier. I could tell it had been a pleasant shade of teal green at one point in its overused life, but now it appears haggard, like an old-time Hollywood starlet whose heyday has passed. “He’s really nice. Oh, and that’s Heather’s, she’s been giving me food and shit. She asked me to draw her some roses.”
He takes a small, silver key out of his jeans pocket and pops it into a feeble lock, “Look, they gave me my own storage.” He says this with an innocence that does not match his tattooed exterior. His face shines as he proudly reveals his most prized possessions: the Dyson vacuum cleaner we’d handed down to him, a battered blue bike acquired during his stint at the sober living house, several blank canvasses, colored pencils, paint pots, and brushes.
“Plus, I hung those shelves you gave me.” He grabs my hand and drags me back across the walkway to show off white IKEA planks lined up just so on the main wall of the small space, like perfect soldiers.
This is not going to be the last time I see him.
Gary and I say our goodbyes and head back home, three hundred miles away.
Five months later, standing in the passenger pick-up area of the airport my denial is palpable. The sallow glow of the lighting above obscures my visual acuity, along with my ability to accept the situation before me as it truly is.
“Hey, you two! I’m so glad you’re here. How’s sunny California?” I cheerily grasp Max, and his girlfriend, Cat, up in a hug. “We’re heading over to meet everyone for lunch. You guys hungry?”
“Mom, I need to talk to you when we get there” Max says, climbing into the back seat.
“Sure, honey, I’d love to catch up.”
The temperature is 117 degrees; even by desert standards it is grotesquely hot. Max and I perch on a bench outside of Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que. How could I not have noticed earlier he looks sicker than ever before?
A chorus begins playing in my head; he is going to die, he is going to die, he is going to die.
How he’d been allowed on a plane, I could not fathom. In his current state Max is emaciated. The clothes covering his bones hang on him as if he were a five-year-old trying on his dad’s suit. His skin glows with a yellowish-green tinge. Red pits and swollen sores dot his face, yet somehow, they do not make him any less beautiful.
The last time we’d seen each other five months ago, he was proudly showing me his new apartment. I had such high hopes that finally the nightmare was over.
The bench digs into my thighs. I twist back and forth trying to get more comfortable.
He is going to die.
Sweat begins to bead, then trickle down my back. My bright blue cotton sundress is topped with a short-sleeved cardigan meant to camouflage my 50 extra pounds. The clothing sticks to me as Saran Wrap does to a leftover steak. My mouth is dry. I look down at my hands as they shake violently. I suddenly feel nauseous. I’m confused even though I am in a familiar place. The panic rises, and then transports me to one of those carnival fun houses I’d been in as a kid, where the floors slant and the mirrors make your head appear huge, while your body looks tiny.
He is going to die.
Max’s eyes dart, tears begin to form. I know this is serious, as he rarely cries. Then he says the most horrifying words, “I’ve been doing crystal meth Mom, but just to get off the heroin.”
He is going to die. He is going to die. He is going to die.
I stand up on my Jell-O legs, leave him sitting there right in the middle of his teary cry for help, and wobble up the stairs to the hostess stand. “I need to find my husband?” It comes out as a question. She looks at me, confused, and throws up her hands in an “I don’t know who your husband is” kind of way.
The dining area is a maze of partitioned rooms, making it all the more difficult to locate him. Red and white checkered tablecloths provide the perfect backdrop for ice cold glasses of water and sweet tea, served in Mason canning jars with Ball written across them. I look to my right and notice our large party sitting at a round table, spot a balding head, Gary. Trying to breathe instead of gasp, my quivering legs move in the direction I need them to go. I shake uncontrollably as if the movement is an involuntary muscle akin to the beating of my heart. My knees knock against each other, even my teeth are chattering. My husband takes one look at me and stands up. “Take me home,” I whisper.
I am fifty-one years old. It is Sunday, June 30, 2013, at 12:51 PM. This is the moment I become agoraphobic.
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