By Pedro A. Noguera
My son is a missing person. His face doesn’t appear on the back of a milk carton or on a flyer at the post office, but he’s missing, nonetheless.
I haven’t seen him in over two years, and I don’t know if I will ever see him again.
But I hear from him every day. He calls regularly. In fact, he calls too often. He wants to tell me about his suffering: his left leg that he’s sure is shorter than the right one, his eyebrow that twitches, the microbe under his thigh, the neighbors who are listening to him, the mailman who wants to harm him. The list of his troubles always goes on even though it changes constantly.
I suppose I should be happy that I hear from him. At least I know he’s alive and well enough to worry about these things. But I miss him — and I want him back.
Two years ago, my son fled through his apartment window. Like a thief making a quick getaway, he climbed out of the window with a duffle bag full of clothes, his laptop and his phone. I didn’t think it was possible for him to get away. The window was small. His apartment was on a major street. But when I showed up with the police, a locksmith and a social worker, he knew I was there to have him hospitalized. That compelled him to find a way to escape — by any means necessary.
Being hospitalized was, and still is, his greatest fear. That’s why he evades me and the rest of his family, the people he’s closest to. He knows we’ll try to get him inpatient treatment again if we get the chance. That’s why, when he saw me with his would-be “captors,” he took off. First on foot, then by bus and train and, eventually, by plane.
His movements surprised me. I thought someone with his appearance — a mass of hair on his head, a long beard and fingernails that look like claws — would draw suspicion during his travels. He looks nothing like the handsome young man in his passport photo. But so far, no one has tried to intervene.
After a week of traveling, he turned up in Anchorage. We knew because we could monitor his movements through his cell phone. The extent of his travel was an amazing feat for someone who experiences paranoia and delusions much of the time. He told me he went to Alaska because it was too hot in Los Angeles, and he wanted to live someplace cool. He said he chose Alaska because he needed to live in a state that began with the letter A, the same as his first name. Arizona and Alabama are too hot, so Alaska was his best option. Besides, it was far from me and the rest of his family.
My son is missing — not because he was abducted, but by choice, his and mine. I could find him if I wanted to. He’s gone, but financially dependent on me. I could withhold support until he agreed to see me. But what good would that do? I can’t force him to do anything — cutting off support would simply ensure that he struggled financially, as well as emotionally. He calls me often, because he is bored, lonely and suffering. He calls because I will answer. In fact, he calls me every day.
I listen as he tells me his fears and ailments, but he rejects my advice for treatment, especially if it involves seeing a doctor. He won’t accept my suggestion to take a walk outside because he never leaves his apartment. He’s afraid of the dangers his mind conjures up.
So, he stays inside and calls his uncles, aunts, cousins, old friends, classmates from grade school that he can track down through social media and co-workers who forgot about him years ago. He’s desperate for someone who will listen to him, and he’s running out of options. The number of those who are willing to speak with him has shrunk with time because all his contacts are moving on with their lives, and not many are able to handle hearing his difficulties.
My son has taught me a painful lesson: to accept the things I cannot change. It took me some time to embrace the lesson, but once I did, it eased my own suffering. A few years ago, a friend told me not to worry about my son. “Worry isn’t good for you or him. Be concerned, but don’t worry because there’s not much you can do.”
Doctors have told me to be happy for what we have. He’s not living on the streets. He hasn’t been beaten up or arrested. He knows how to cook for himself, order food online and manage the life he has. “You should be grateful,” a well-regarded psychiatrist told me recently. “It could be far worse.”
It’s hard to imagine, but I suppose he’s right. I see so many people, especially young men of color like my son, living on the streets of Los Angeles; battling psychosis and suffering. When I see them, I give thanks that my son isn’t out there too.
Still, I miss him, especially the son I knew when he was a child. He was sweet, thoughtful, kind and a pleasure to be with. But he’s gone — and I must accept that I may never get him back. We spoke this morning, and he was in a good mood. In fact, he laughed when I said hello because he thought there was an echo. Then he began telling me his current list of problems. I listened, just happy to know that he’s alive and as ok as he will be for some time to come.
Pedro Noguera, Ph.D. is the Dean of the Rossier School of Education at USC. He is a sociologist and the author of several books on education and society. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. He’s the father of five and grandfather of five.
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