Day number four in Arizona comes to a close. It is 8:30 PM, the strong sunlight of a hot day (108 degrees) has dipped below the horizon, and I sit in the twilight near the pool at the Sheraton Crescent Hotel. Tony is ambling about, toying with the idea of dipping into the pool, while Kyle is lounging in the room with his favorite lover (important note: Kyle’s favorite lover, from the very beginning, has been television). Although the sun has gone much of the heat remains. It is hot enough during the days to prevent my taking a walk (one of my favorite things to do generally, and especially in a new city). I attempted such a walk this afternoon, only to find myself subjected to a bleeding nose, the result of a combination of high heat, low humidity and a change in altitude for me.
Today was a lazy, irritating day. We moved from one hotel to another. We ate meals together. We watched television. I observed the consistent pattern of bickering, agitation and mutual annoyance between my two sons. There are times when the eight years separating them seem more like eight months. Tomorrow, however, the conference will begin, and I will see them only at meal times and in the evening. While it will be a break for me, I’m sure that Kyle will have reached his limit by the times I am free of meetings.
Tonight we decided we would eat Chinese. I googled a search for “Chinese food Phoenix” and got a number of hits. Confirming the location on Mapquest, we set out for our destination, some eight miles away. After driving and driving it was apparent that the restaurant in question was not where I thought it to be. By the time we figured that out, however, we found ourselves in a rather interesting part of town. We witnessed numerous homeless folks, liquor stores and strip joints. Sometimes the naivete of my oldest son make me smile (with relief). The front he wears makes it appear that he is worldly wise and deeply aware of the world around him. Because his major source of information is the television (see paragraph one above), he would have those around him belief that he is suave, sophisticated and street-wise. In those moments when he wears that image I sometimes experience parental angst, wondering if I know my son as well as I think I do. I was relieved tonight to witness his naivete. In this seamy side of town we passed what would have been called, in my grandmother’s day, “houses of ill repute,” each of which scurrilously advertises their wares, often in cryptic and, admittely, clever ways. One of those locations was called the “Nude Body Shop.” I made reference to the name as we drove by, and my oldest son said, “What’s that? A nude body shop?” I tried to keep my response muffled to avoid provoking younger son’s attention: “Strip joint.” “Oh, yeah. I guess so,” he replied with a smirk on his face. I am grateful for those glimpses into the relative innocence of my nineteen-year-old son.
And after those encounters I ponder internally how different life would have been for Kyle had he fallen through the cracks of the social services system and remained, on the one hand, with a drug-addicted, neglectful birth mother or, on the other hand, with a disinterested foster parent. Kids who grow up in those kinds of settings often see too much too soon in life, and by the time they are nineteen they are themselves involved in what society deems “adult” activity, whether it is illicit drug use, underage drinking or careless sexual expression. Though there are times when I think that given Kyle’s personality he would have turned out much the same as he has today, it is in these moments that I am reminded that Claudia and I have been able to safeguard some of his innocence, to provide him the opportunity to simply be a kid and assume adult roles at appropriate times in life. What would life have looked like for Kyle as a nineteen-year-old aged out of foster care or embedded in the multi-generational dysfunctions of his birth family? Much, much different I have to believe.
As we drove along we also witnessed the sad effulgence of the homeless in Phoenix. My understanding is that Phoenix has a huge homeless population because of its year-round pleasant climate. Near a bus stop Kyle spotted a shirtless, unwashed, man asleep on the sidewalk, his burned skin reddening in the blazing afternoon temperatures. He pointed him out and then said little. I tried to add a note of compassion to the situation, adding that chances are this man is mentally handicapped and/or chemically dependent.
A few blocks later he said, “I don’t know how people can stand to live this way.” “What way is that, Kyle?” I asked. “You know, poor.” Knowing very well Kyle’s own birth history, I refrained from upbraiding him, but said, “Well, poverty is a hard, hard thing to break out of, especially if you’ve never known anything else and if you don’t have the chance to go to college or have anyone help you get out.” He didn’t say much, but I know that human misery bothers him, although his take is the “we all have the ability and responsibility to get out of situations like that” mentality. I am hopeful that one day he will realize and be able to express the realization that his adoption provided him a way out that he might otherwise not have had. And I hope that he will realize one day that being poor is not a crime, but that those of us who have means and do nothing to pull people out of poverty are the ones who are criminal.
Ironically enough, we spent over an hour driving about Phoenix, only to discover that the restaurant in question was closed, long closed. And then, less than a mile from our hotel, we discovered a Chinese restaurant that fit our initial goals. We ate our meal in relative silence, all of us grateful for the opportunity to be distracted by others than ourselves.
Opening our fortune cookies, I found my fortune to be an especially appropriate way to conclude our day. In one succinct sentence, the fortune expresses my sentiments at the end of this day: “Just to be alive is a good thing.”
Tonight I will be able to sleep well, knowing that my family in Minnesota is well cared for by their mother. And I will be able to sleep well in my hotel room with two of my sons, believing again that adoption may just have saved each of them from a life filled with the everyday, dreary harshness of poverty, neglect and confusion. Sometimes just to be alive is a good thing.