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Authors: Debra Gwartney

Live Through This

BOOK: Live Through This
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Live Through This
A Mother's Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love
Debra Gwartney


Copyright © 2009 by Debra Gwartney
All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this
book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing
Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Gwartney, Debra.

Live through this : a mother's memoir of runaway daughters
/ Debra Gwartney.
p. cm.


1. Runaway teenagers—West (U.S.) 2. Teenage girls—West (U.S.)
3. Mothers and daughters—West (U.S.) I. Title.
1435.W4G93 2008
[B] 2008013751

Book design by Melissa Lotfy

Printed in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Excerpt from "Birches" from
The Poetry of Robert Frost
edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1916, 1969 by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright 1944 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Portions of this book previously appeared in a somewhat different form: "Far Away, So Close," in
"Mothers Who Think" column, November 23, 1998; "Tenderloin," in
Creative Nonfiction,
no. 16, 1999, pages 21-30; "Tent," in
Fourth Genre,
vol. 3, no. 1, Spring 2001, pages 20-27; "Out of Gas," in
Tampa Review,
33/34, 2007, pages 19-27; "Runaway Bus," in
Portland Monthly,
January 2006. "Runaway Daughter" was included in the anthology
I Wanna Be Sedated,
published by Seal Press, March 2005. And a segment related to this book was broadcast on
This American Life,
Chicago Public Radio, March 29, 2002.

For my daughters


The girl next to me on the Portland city bus is bone thin and has mouse-brown hair. Her crooked horn-rimmed glasses—the temple on my side held together with oily Scotch tape—hang at the end of her nose. The coat she's wearing is two sizes too big, three sizes, so she's rolled the sleeves halfway up her arms and she's using ragged fingernails to pick at an exposed knob of wrist. I'm guessing she's sixteen years old, give or take a year, and I know she's coming off a drunk. Either that or a bad high. She's got sallow skin, half-shut eyes, hunched shoulders—but mostly it's her smell. When I lowered myself onto the vinyl seat next to her, I got the first whiff, the air around her so pungent it tasted of drugs and booze and smokes and daze. The dried-urine, stale-ashtray stench of a binge.

I turn away and glance around the crowded bus. Is anyone else troubled, disgusted even, by this girl, this child, and her obvious downfall? It's twilight outside, and the others squeezed in the seats and aisles are only pointed home, lost in themselves, not noticing the girl next to me huddled in her soiled parka tent. But I notice. I take in every detail; I fume over my bad luck at getting stuck next to her. I slide to the far edge of my seat and try not to glance in her direction.

And there, staring out the window across the aisle, I start to wonder about myself. About my suddenly prickled skin and hands knotted in my lap. Why am I revolted by everything about this girl:
her puffs of shallow breath, the scab she's opened on her arm that's now steak red and glistening, the white crust that formed on her lips while she slept in a train station chair or a building's frigid alcove?

Of course I know why. Of course this stranger has stirred memories of my daughters when they were no more than sixteen and fourteen years old. My own girls, who'd show up at home looking and smelling something like this on the days they bothered to show up at all. The child I'm sitting by has also reminded me of something else I don't like to think about: the mother I was back then who couldn't manage the trouble that had landed on my family.

It's been ten years since Amanda and Stephanie stopped going to school, stopped coming home; a whole decade since they joined those on the street who gave them access to beer, dope, tattoo ink, every circus shade of Manic Panic hair dye, metal spikes, and the best corners for getting money from strangers—
they called it. I've let myself believe the passage of time and my daughters' turns for the good have washed me clean of most old aches and pains, but then I get ambushed: by the girl next to me and others like her at bus stops and on street corners and sleeping on benches in the hallways of the university where I work. When I see such kids, when I get up close, I'm inevitably shoved back into my daughters' old life and into mine, and right up against the question that can't seem to leave me alone: why?

When my daughters got tired of having their mother search for them on the streets of Eugene, Oregon, and then drag them home again, where we'd scrap and yell and accuse and blame, they jumped a freight train to Portland, two hours straight north up the West Coast. I found out they were in that bigger city a few days after they'd left—friends had spotted them panhandling in the downtown Pioneer Courthouse Square. I drove a hundred miles north to look for Amanda and Stephanie in the nooks and crannies of a strange town; the lack of a single sign of them sent me back home. Years later, the girls told me they'd heard I'd been asking for them, heard I'd stopped at youth shelters and the police station with their
photographs. So they'd hopped another train to get farther away, this one to the Tenderloin District in San Francisco, where the drugs were meaner and the cold wind off the bay drove them to accept about any comfort. My daughters had disappeared.

Amanda was gone for three months; I didn't see Stephanie for a year. For nearly a decade, I thought I wanted to forget everything about that empty expanse of time. But those kinds of memories don't just get wiped out, they don't get swept away. Instead, now I find I must wander through the worst of it again—where my daughters went, what they did. How I, every day, handled or failed to handle their absence. I have to face it, although until recently our past has felt too thick, too dense, and, somewhere at its heart, too implicating of me.

I've been wary of getting on a bus in Portland, or in any town, and sitting next to a girl like this, with her familiar odor, someone who can yank me backward and who can fill my throat with sour heat before I have a chance to steel myself against memory's rush. The girl who's now made me take a look at myself: Where is even the smallest surge of concern for her? Why do I feel more like slapping than hugging her? What's wrong with me, still, after all this time?

I'd like to be one of those women who can confront the past's reminders—like this young seatmate—with nothing but compassion. But apparently, I'm not there yet. Something tangled and sore remains unsolved in me. After years of trying to decode and dissect our history, of picking over episodes with my daughters (a fight over a concert, a note found under one of their beds, the nights and nights and nights they didn't come home), and crawling through the muck again to discover the origins and escalations of our troubles, I want to move on. I want to forgive—Amanda, Stephanie, myself, the times we lived in—so we can stop looking backward.

Now the girl on the bus sits up straighter, pulls a wrinkled plastic bag from between her feet. I'm relieved by these getting-ready-to-disembark moves. She'll go away and I'll calm down. I'll get off near my cozy home with its stocked fridge and good music. Except
it's not going to be that simple; when I stand to let her by, grabbing a silver pole to stay steady, she looks straight at me. "Could you spare a couple dollars?" she asks, pushing the glasses closer to her face. "For something to eat?"

I'm about to say
into her cloud of bitter breath, but my right hand has another idea—it begins reaching for the wallet buried in my purse. And why not? Maybe giving this girl money is a flinch, a gesture in the direction of peace. A reconciliation with the turmoil still inside me. Then I remember how I've long railed against those who gave my daughters everything they needed to stay on the streets—blankets, pizza, sandwiches, drugs, alcohol, tampons, medicine, a bed for the night, and money. My daughters stuck their hands out, coins and bills landed in their palms, and that was one more day they didn't have to come home.

Murky as I am about the giving or not giving, I shake my head in refusal, a nearly invisible movement. With her own small shrug, she clambers off. The bus rumbles ahead again. That's the end of it, I think, though I can't help looking out the window, straining to see her one more time. She's gone. Disappeared that fast. I turn back to press my fingers against a rib that tends to devil ache at moments like this. It's a pain that reminds me of memory's snarl and its potency. The pain reminds me, again, how sometimes the past simply refuses to be finished.


One late autumn night a few weeks after the freight train dropped her in San Francisco, my fourteen-year-old daughter Stephanie wandered in the Tenderloin District. It was 1996. She was by herself except for the puppy following her on a rope leash. She had on a tank top, worn through, and a pair of double-kneed Carhartt's that were dirty from the train yard and dirty from the train she'd ridden in. She also wore a stained orange necklace, a string of about twenty pointed teeth she'd pried from the jaws of dead nutria, a strange cousin of the beaver that tended to get smashed nearly flat on the rails that ran along the Willamette River. High on whatever
was smoked and handed out that night in the Tenderloin and on too many forty-ounce cans of beer, Stephanie staggered through clusters of the stoned and drunk—people who inhabited this corner of the city after dark. The crack cocaine users were out in the public square—a crackhead fair, I'd hear her call it years later. They'd spread ratty blankets on the concrete plaza near the library and lay out broken watches, bottle caps, toys dropped from tourists' baby strollers, parts of toilet-paper dispensers stolen from department-store bathrooms. Shiny things, she said, as if deposited there by crows.

Stephanie stumbled to one of these displays glowing under a streetlight and squatted to the ground to have a look. She reached over to pick up a metal box, thinking that she'd trade the crackhead for the out-of-fuel yellow lighter in her pocket, but the second she lifted the box off the blanket, rolling it from her fingers to her palm, its owner leaped out of the shadows with a bowie knife in his hand. He yelled at her to get away. He ran toward her, shouting, scattering his stuff as he slipped and slid to get to her. Stephanie dropped the box and was up fast, but the knife was already pointed at her chest. She jumped back as he took a swipe. A line of blood popped up on the inside of her skinny arm, the one she'd raised to protect herself, four or five straight inches. Stephanie watched the cut drip blood as she turned from him and hurried through the hazy crowd toward her friends, the puppy under her good arm. She made her way to her older sister, Amanda, who'd stayed with the group my girls had hooked up with after they'd left our house in Oregon, a group they called travelers. Travelers who followed certain music (punk, grunge, Johnny Cash) and certain weather (sunny days, tolerable nights), and certain drugs, getting from one city to another on rumbling freight trains.

"You need stitches," one guy said when Stephanie slumped down into the circle of friends who were wrapped in cheap blankets, caked with dirt, surrounded by smoke.

"No way," Stephanie insisted. "They'd want my name." And that was that.

Someone had loose cloth, a ripped shirt or an old sock. He tore it up and cinched it around Stephanie's bloody arm and handed her another beer, another forty, to ease the pain.

When I heard this Tenderloin story, about Stephanie knifed in the square, she and Amanda had been off the streets for two or three years. They were back in school, clean of drugs, getting by. That helped, but I still walked around the house and through our backyard with this scene from my daughters' past erupting like disease in my mind. I realized (realized again) that too much had happened, that we could never go back to what we'd been before the girls left, even though I had, for so long, harbored the image of an ideal family life that would poof magically into existence once they returned.

But I'm the one who'd rushed my daughters away from our life in Arizona and moved them to Oregon in the wake of a divorce that had felt bitter enough to me and, blind as I was to this at the time, catastrophic to Amanda and Stephanie (they must have picked up on the fact that once the papers were signed, I planned to forget their father had ever existed). The two of them stopped doing homework, stopped going to classes, began failing math and even English (stunning for girls who often had books in their hands). Okay, I thought then, that's what happens sometimes when families come undone, fly apart, when parents split up. I figured my oldest daughters—as symbiotic with each other by then as the red and green strands of a DNA illustration in a science book—would get over being steamed and disaffected and distant. They'd learn to live far from their dad. A few simple corrections and we'd be fine again: meetings with teachers and school counselors and the family therapy sessions I dragged us to. I insisted on family trips to the coast and dinner at the dining room table. I waited for the phase to pass. But Amanda, followed quickly by her sister, got deep and deeper into the grunge/punk/spikes-and-purple-hair scene in our town, and I couldn't pull them out. Why couldn't I? Because I waited too long to take it seriously? Or because I wouldn't allow myself to be
lieve anything or anybody could take my daughters away, not until they vanished?

Even after Amanda and Stephanie were gone, I pretended with my younger girls that this was a phase, a fit their sisters would get over soon and then come bounding home, looking for food and beds and hot showers. Except eleven-year-old Mary would wake up crying in the middle of the night because rain was driving against our roof and I couldn't promise her that Amanda and Stephanie were warm and safe. Or Mollie's teacher would call to tell me they'd found my fourth-grade daughter crossing the bridge over the highway again because she had to go search for her sisters. That's when I'd realize that the same images that were in my mind filled my younger daughters' minds too. Amanda and Stephanie out there somewhere, asking for money as strangers passed by, eating food pilfered from garbage cans or gathered up at shelters. The drugs whistling through their bodies. The dirty corners they were sleeping in, the trains they were jumping to get from town to town. The railroad security men who beat them with flashlights and chased them with dogs. Where did they go to pee? Where did they find toilet paper or soap or clean underwear or socks without holes? How were they getting by without us, without me—the shelter of our roof and a mother who, though I was worn-out and short-tempered more often than I should have been, wanted more than anything to take care of them?

BOOK: Live Through This
13.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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