Losing People, Compass in Hand

6 10 2012

I’m holding a battered metal compass in my hand tonight. It says my writing desk faces southwest, and that the cat curls her tail northward. It doesn’t say which direction skirts despair, doesn’t guide the path toward hope. Folding it closed, I wonder what good a compass actually does.


Longtime Hooked readers have heard references to my social worker days. From June 1999 to May 2005, I worked with homeless youth in Seattle’s University District. Though more years have now passed than I actually spent there, “the Ave” maintains a tight grip on my heart.

As fiercely as I loved “my kids,” I relied on a few things to carry me through. My colleagues, inspiring souls who shared the trenches as well as intense passion, gallows humor, and a devotion to harm reduction. Our standing “self-care” date at Flowers Bar on Wednesday nights.  A private ritual for grieving whenever we lost one of our kids.

The day came when these tools were no longer enough. Love wasn’t enough. Realizing that I wasn’t doing good work anymore – and that I hadn’t been doing good work for far longer than I cared to admit – I felt like I’d been mopping the ocean, only to be consumed by the undertow.

They say that you shouldn’t try to fight an undertow, so I let it steal me from the Ave. I gave in to the current until it released me in the Gulf of Alaska, returned to my original home and workplace. As I sought solace in familiar mountains, guilt and fear tugged at my raw edges. Guilt that I’d abandoned young people who’d dared to trust once more, after lifetimes of betrayal. Fear that I’d never get to know what happened next in their lives.

(If I’m honest? Fear that I wouldn’t know when yet another kid died.)

Back in 2005, I hadn’t envisioned a Facebook future. Whatever discomfort I have with social media’s ever-grasping tentacles, it’s been priceless for keeping in touch with transient loved ones. I can “like” graduations and family news. I can be a virtual cheerleader for sobriety, offer congratulations on a new job, and celebrate the day of their birth.

And I can receive messages like this one:

Hey it’s SR.
B passed away. He went missing 09-20. He was found unidentifiable on a blanket in the far corner of his mothers back yard yesterday. She said it might be months til they can identify a cause. We wern’t sure if you knew. Sorry.


After all these years, my Ave death ritual remains the same. Alone in a dark room. One candle, crafted by an unknown inmate at the Monroe State Prison. One song, Leonard Cohen’s gravel promises twining through those dark places that candlelight can’t reach.

I will speak no more

I shall abide until

I am spoken for,

if it be your will.

When I try to sing through the tears, my voice crumples like discarded newspaper. Better to sit quietly and remember a young man who was just a towheaded boy when he first arrived on Seattle’s streets.

B came to the Ave as many kids do – gentle, tender-hearted, searching. A brutal introduction to street life stripped the trust from his blue eyes. He toughened up fast, forged a crusty exterior. Yet through all that followed – every sleepless night blurring into a series of sleepless days, every “Oi, oi!” hollered down the block and followed with a hug heartier than his increasingly thin frame seemed capable of, every mug shot gifted like a yearbook photo – the sweet in him still shone through.

I could never anticipate which fresh-faced youngsters would fling themselves hardest down the rabbit hole, but that’s just what B did. He ran his body like it was stolen. His years on the Ave came to a screaming halt in 2002, when prison closed steely arms around him. Despite my best intentions to be a supportive pen pal, new faces demanded immediate response to the same crises. I lost track of B.

Until 2009. A message appeared – Facebook, again. B wrote with warmth and clarity, proud to share the gifts in his life. Re-settled in his home state across the country, he had a job. A house. A wife and young daughter.

Then and now, I never know if my kids are honest about their well-being. Especially in a many-years-gone-by reunion like this. B knew I wanted to hear he was clean and healthy, and that’s what he wanted to report. In the end, it doesn’t matter if I’m told The Truth as someone’s living it, or “the truth” as they wish they were. There are reasons we tell the stories we do, and they all boil down to wanting to please and protect. If I hear lies, I hear them told with love.

Something changed. In 2010, B decided to return to Seattle. I worried – why dance on quicksand when you’ve already struggled free once? – and wrote overly parental lectures. This time would be different, he assured me. “I’m not the same kid I was, Tele. The plan is to be productive.”

Stories are subjective, but I couldn’t misread the color in B’s skin and fleshy cushion over his cheekbones. His hug was solid. Stable. Both of us equally out of place on the block that had once been our universe, we ducked into Pagliacci’s for refuge. I bought him two slices of pizza that he picked at. We traded stories of our new lives, doing our best to level a relationship that’d been built on a steep grade.

At the end of our visit, B walked me to the bus stop. Fishing in his pants pocket, he pulled out a battered metal compass and folded it into my hand. “Here.” When I protested, he insisted. “No, dude, I want you to have it. So you don’t get lost.”

Two weeks later, B wrote that Seattle wasn’t working out as he’d hoped. Once again, he headed across the country for his home state. Still searching.

We traded Facebook hellos here and there. Did I text him a random good wish this summer, during one of those rare moments of cell service at sea? Sounds familiar, but now I can’t be sure. Am I recalling The Truth that was, or “the truth” I wish had been?


A friend and I used to co-teach “Homelessness 101,” training the University District’s new volunteers. Inevitably, someone would ask, “How many of these kids actually make it out?”

We could recite the answer in our sleep. Most of our program guests would find their way into healthier, more stable lives, but that meant something different for everyone. The routes out of street life were as varied and unique as the people taking them; there was no cookie-cutter method for “making it out.”

But tonight, darkness folds around me, broken by the shuddering breath of candlelight, and my faith is shaken. Squeezing B’s final gift, I feel the metal bite my palm. The placement of my desk, the angle of the cat’s tail, the position of north, south, east, west… All irrelevant. So many of us are lost, searching for hope, peace, purpose. A sense of self-worth, and the strength to surpass what we’ve been told about ourselves. Those directions – where do you find them?

I thought you’d found your way, B sweetie – I thought you’d made it out. If you’d held onto your compass, would that have helped?

Let your mercy spill

On all these burning hearts in hell

If it be your will

To make us well.

B’s death leaves a gaping hole in a lot of hearts, and my thoughts are with you all. As you grieve, please ask for help if you’re thinking of hurting yourself. Contact Seattle’s 24-hour Crisis Clinic line at 1-866-4CRISIS, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.784.2433. Take care of yourselves, sweeties, and each other.



21 responses

6 10 2012

So sad for you and B and all who loved him. A beautiful tribute you’ve offered at a time when I’m sure it’s difficult to even find the words…

6 10 2012

Ahhh sweetie. Be good to yourself as well. We have to remind each other of this, taking care of self is as important as looking out for the welfare of others, and, the only thing we have control over. I don’t know that I knew B but the story is so familiar though circumstances may be different. I too had someone I knew well and in many traditional ways was “making it.” But the years of outside living and using and working and not accepting the help that was offered all the while connecting and offering sweetness, had finally taken their toll. He never really stopped using, or took his medicine they way he needed to. But he had his resons. Sometimes I find that it isn’t the death but the choices in how others live that is so difficult to wrap my head around. Some suicedes take longer than others. As for me, I run to the pasture with my goats and often sitting in the dark looking at the stars. We are here to witness others lives, in our caes, these lives are troubled and difficult and many won’t or can’t witness them. Be well my dear.

10 10 2012

Thanks, Andrienne… I know you know this story too well, yourself, and appreciate your reflections. “Some suicides take longer than others.” Yeah, that resonates all too loudly. I’m glad you’ve got your goats, friend.

6 10 2012
Cami Ostman (@camiostman)

Ah… What I wouldn’t do for a magic wand! Thank you for a beautiful tribute to the gift of life and friendship, however fleeting. Sometimes I wonder if those of us who “make it” in this life are just more adept at grief, more able to carry it on our shoulders without it crushing us completely.

6 10 2012
Amber Lattimer

RIP B/ memories are coming back of him and his unmistakable smile. sometimes I forget how big of an impact The ave had on me then I run in to old ave rats. and neither of us know what to say. usually we are both caught off guard and don’t say anything. the last time I remember seeing B was shortly after the new sidewalk was finished and yeah he got some meat on his bones. now all I can think about is his laugh. I think I will hold on the that laugh as long as I can.

11 10 2012

Amber, thanks for stopping by here and leaving your memories. Hearing your voice means a lot. I can relate to that awkwardness of running into people… I only end up on the Ave about once or twice a year, but it feels like being in a place from a dream – somewhere that feels familiar, but in almost unrecognizable threads and wisps, and if I actually do run into anyone still out there from way back when, it’s a little heartbreaking.

I’m so glad that you’ve got B’s laugh with you. Big hugs to you, sweetie.

7 10 2012

Love. True North. A beautiful gift. Take good care.

7 10 2012

Tele, so sorry to hear about your friend B. I am sure he appreciated your words and help through the years, but he wore out. Life became too hard. When one faces too many road blocks they tend to lose their spirit. Maybe he gave you his compass because he grew tired of navigating and wanted you to always find your way. I truly am sorry for your loss.

7 10 2012

I’m sorry about your friend. Reading this and then the Bellingham Herald article (complete with blog link! Nice marketing) makes me as grateful as ever that you are a writer. Lots of love on your birthday today.

8 10 2012

Thanks, Kari. Hope you had a wonderful birthday weekend – I see some chocolate cake sharing in our future…

7 10 2012
Patty Davis

I am B’s mom- I want to Thank you for all the kind words & I really want to Thank you for Taking care of him when he 1st came out there to Seattle. The story is true, he is gone now. I have heard that he sits beside Jesus. Keep that compass as a reminder of how fragile life really is. I didn’t even know how depressed he was, when he disappeared. And then to have found him (my friend had found him) after 15 days of laying in the treeline in the very back of my yard. I cannot look out there without losing my mind. To all of his friends in Seattle- I love you all for being a part of his life. I wish you all could get off of the drugs, but, I know it is not an easy thing to do. So I will be praying for you all. If you want any information for his services here. http://www.PikeFH.com
Lakeside Family Church will be having the
Friends & Family Gathering: Thur:6-8pm Fri:Noon-1
Memorial Service: Friday 1pm

Again, I want to thank you all for being a part of his life.

8 10 2012

Patty, I’m so sorry for your loss. Wish that there were words to offer, but it seems there’s only time, and even that moves so slowly and inadequately through grief. All I can tell you is that even through his darkest days with us, B always conveyed a light, a sweetness of spirit, that is rare anywhere, let alone on the street. As you know, you can be so proud of your son.

I never wish for anyone to be on the street, but selfishly, I’m thankful to have known your son. I know a lot of people out here who feel similarly. We’ll all be holding you and your family in our hearts.

9 10 2012
Steffany Raynes

Oh Tele–Once again your exquisite writing and sweet soul tells a profound story. So many people today need help with mental health issues. And their troubled lives affect so many, many loved ones. When are we going to put priority, as a society, on helping people heal and live productive lives?
Thank you for your honest powerful writing!

10 10 2012

Good to hear from you, Steffany, and I’m totally with you on our misplaced priorities. The initial notes of this piece were far more rant-driven in that direction! Hope that you’re well, and we cross paths at some point. Joel’s been up in your area, trying to get as many photo missions in before the weather changes. Big hugs to you.

9 10 2012
Lisa W. Rosenberg

Tele, I’m so sorry for this loss. Having been a social worker, I know how it is to leave clients and then feel guilty asif you’ve abandoned them or given up. But it sounds like you gave B a true gift, that made the life he had a little better. It also sounds like he never matched up to the “truth” he was telling you about his life and was trying to believe himself. As his mom said, no one could have known how deep his depression was.
Your writing is so beautiful, you bring us into the feelings, we’re right there with you.

9 10 2012

There is such beauty, truth and love here, Tele. Thank you.

10 10 2012

A “P.S.” here, friends:

Nagoonberry is an Alaskan blog I follow – a lovely, loving writer. Just a few days after I posted this, she posted about an Anchorage woman who committed suicide. Nagoonberry didn’t personally know this woman, but she wrote a beautiful tribute, as well as a spotlight on how, as Bloggess Jenny Lawson says, “depression lies.” It’s recommended reading:

(And yeah, I know this suicide/street kid/social work stuff may be a stretch for those readers here for the fishin’. How does that stuff fit with Hooked? My point is to write about places of connections – whether the sea, the environment, or people, the stories that touch my heart and, I hope, may touch yours. Thanks for being here, friends, even when the flavor of the day isn’t quite what you were looking for.)

13 10 2012
Graham Milne

Well, you do say on your masthead that you are trolling for truth. The search for truth can often take us to dark, uncomfortable places – but sometimes that is where you have to go. Everyone who reads you is lucky that your way with words still makes looking into those darker corners a beautiful experience.

15 10 2012


Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. It has helped me to keep a bit of a grim smile on my face these past weeks. I applaud you for being able to keep enough of your mind together through this to be able to write something so touching.

I’m going to feel the pain of my big brother’s absence for the rest of my life. I’m going to miss hearing, “Right on, Sis!” and, “Oi! Whaddaya doin?”, hearing his laugh and the silly sound effects he’d make when snatching something off of a table or anywhere… I’m going to miss just talking with him and his reminding me to be level-headed.

All of my life, I’ve looked up to my brother for inspiration as to who I should be.. but now I feel lost and more alone than I’ve ever felt before.

Right now, I’m doing my best to keep one foot in front of the other.

-Jazzmine, Ben’s “lil Sis”

16 10 2012

Oh, Jazzmine… I’m so sorry, sweetheart. I wish you were celebrating your brother’s birthday with him today, and I wish he was by your side, warm and thoughtful and true, for you to turn to. You’re absolutely right that you’ll feel his loss for the rest of your life. I hope you also feel his presence, the inspiration and lessons he shared that are forever yours to carry. I hope that someday maybe the special memories you have will outweigh this pain. Until then, I hope you keep putting one foot in front of the other – and PLEASE let someone know if you don’t feel like you can keep doing that. Your family, friends, me… We’re all here for you, and each other.

Sending big hugs, from my state to yours. Be safe and be well, sweetie.

17 10 2012
Nancy Mueller

Oh, what a hard story to live, let alone write, Tele, but I do believe your writing will carry you through to the other side of grief. I’m so sorry for B, for you, B’s family and friends. You have a great heart, my friend. Obviously, B knew that, too. Take great care of yourself – and keep on writing in your beautiful voice . ..

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