This is an "Interlude" chapter from my book, explaining how homelessness feels for a father...
When you’re homeless, you feel like you’re on the outside looking in. Like there is an invisible wall between yourself and “normal” folks. It feels like it’s a slow-moving nightmare and you can’t tell which part is the dream and which is reality. You want to wake up, but you’re already awake.
It feels like you’re watching the normal folks with their normal life, a life that you used to have as well, and you start forgetting what all that felt like. What it was like to have a kitchen, and a stove, and a bed...and an address. You try to forget about your dogs and your cat and your garden. You overhear bits of conversations about mundane home ownership, and you wish you could be doing those things that had the normal people complaining. You wish you still had a lawn to cut. You wish you had a driveway to seal, or an electric bill to groan about. You’d give anything for a nosy neighbor.
When you are homeless, you don’t wake up on Monday mornings, have the Monday morning blues, and make jokes with your coworkers about how “It’s Monday again...” Because when you’re homeless, every day feels like Monday. Every day greets you with the blues. Every day finds you one day further removed from humanity. One more day since your last meaningful conversation. One more day since you had clean sheets and a warm bed. One more day has passed since you had a cup of coffee in your kitchen, in your mug, from your coffee maker.
When you’re homeless, you can’t run home for lunch, or grill out, or hang your laundry out to dry. You can’t take a warm shower at the end of a hard day’s work, because you don’t have a shower, and you can’t find any work.
When you’re homeless, you can’t stay indoors on a cold, rainy, November Saturday and get caught up on some reading, and have a nice fire in the fireplace and make some soup and watch the cold rain as it falls. When you’re homeless, you try to stay dry and warm and out of sight if you can.
When you’re homeless there are no pictures on your walls, because you have no walls. So, you carry them in your wallet, and in your heart. They come alive at night, these pictures. They haunt you. Pictures of your little girl and the rope swing you had in the oak tree out back, and how she laughed, and wanted you to push her for hours. Pictures of how your beloved dog Bonnie would come over to you on the sofa and lay her chin on your leg, and let out a soft little sigh and look at you plaintively until you scratched her head. Pictures of your daughter and the time you filled the Jacuzzi tub with Mr. Bubble powder, and she was lost in the suds and laughing up a storm and having the most fun you’d ever seen. Pictures of when it was that you had a life.
Other times, it’s like being on the inside looking out. You swear everyone knows. Everyone sees. You hide your bedroll in the trunk of your car but maybe they saw it when you were getting your school books. You circle the church where you hide your car at night to get a few hours of sleep. You circle it like a hawk, hunting for his prey, waiting until you don’t see any headlights coming in either direction and then you pull in before someone sees you. Your heart races, and pounds and you swear that this time, they saw your taillights and they’ve called the cops. You hurry up and back into the overgrowth until you are hidden from view. They can’t see you but you swear they can. You wait, being as quiet as a mouse, barely breathing. Ten minutes go by. Then twenty. Sitting still like this means the fatigue that has become part of your DNA, starts to catch up to you but you fight it. After enough time passes, you let out your breath and realize that nobody saw you. You’ve pulled it off one more time. You get changed into your sweatpants and sweatshirt and zipper into two sleeping bags and try not to let yourself admit how cold it really is. The cold has gotten into your bones by now and you can never quite feel warm. Your body is warm enough with all the layers, but you’re still breathing frigid air and you wake up shivering. You feel like every pair of eyes in the world is dialed in on you when you’re homeless. Do they know? Surely they know. Everyone knows. You walk with your head down, and your eyes lowered. Because even if nobody else around you knows, you know. And that’s bad enough. You stop looking in store-front windows because you can’t bear seeing your own reflection. You hide your shame when you see your daughter, because after all...you’re still her daddy.
Sometimes, you feel like a caged animal. Like the little people inside a snow-globe, never moving, never showing any reaction whenever some outside force shakes their world and stirs up the snow. Their smile painted on. Their faces plastic and emotionless. That is you now. Feeling less and less, because feeling anything at all only reminds you of who you used to be and who you are now.
When you’re homeless, you don’t tuck your kids in at night. You lay there in your sleeping bags and cry because you miss them. On the coldest nights, the tears freeze to your cheeks and they cut you like diamonds when you wipe them away. You remember your little girl’s bedtime prayers and you swear you can still hear her voice as she says them... “God bless Bonnie and Cooper and our cat Jackie. God bless Daddy...”
God bless Daddy.
God? God who? You question Him. Sometimes you curse at Him because it feels like He’s just left you here.
Sometimes you cry out to Him for mercy and beg Him for hope. You pray to Him. You pray to him for your daughter. “Please, God,” you beg, “Please give me a place to live again. My daughter needs me and I need her.” Then you think about her life and the pain she feels. “Please God,” you continue, “Please protect her like I would if I was there right now.” And the tears resume, and the sobs, and the memories, and the questions, and the doubts.
When you’re homeless, you no longer get your daughter once a week and every other weekend. You get McDonald’s for an hour every few days after school. You try hiding the truth from her, but she’s smart. She finds out, and then you feel even worse because you know her, and now she is worrying herself sick about you every night. When you’re homeless, you are still someone’s father, but you sure don’t feel very fatherly.
When you’re homeless, you think of the old days and the happy times and those memories are triggered by the strangest things. I was walking through the mall one hot summer afternoon, just trying to stay out of the heat. I walked past the “Build-a-Bear Workshop” store and I stopped outside and watched the little kids. There was a girl there who reminded me of my own daughter a few years before. She was finishing up her bear and doing the little routine where they tell the kids to jump up and down and turn around. I remembered all the trips we made together to this place. Back when I had a job and a home and she had a bedroom where she kept all these prized little stuffed friends. It felt like it was a million years ago. It felt like I was watching it all from some cloak of invisibility. The little girl clutched her new beloved friend as mine had done. I turned away in tears. I raced to the bathroom before the sobs embarrassed me in the mall.
When you’re homeless, every little thing reminds you that you used to have a home, and your daughter used to spend weekends with you, and you used to be someone.
When you’re homeless, you reach a point where you want to quit. In that moment, you’d better have a reason to keep fighting. You’d better have something or someone you love more than you love yourself. Believe me, when you want to give up, when you want to craw inside a bottle and die, or jump from a bridge, or just fall asleep in the dead of winter and let your body freeze...there had better be a face you see when you close your eyes that keeps you going. Because when you’re homeless, just you alone...
...isn’t nearly enough.