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When My Mom Moved Into Her Car, We Learned To Survive Without Being Fine

What do you do when the person who wants everything for you doesn’t have everything she needs?

When I found out my mother was living in her car in Oregon, I was sitting in the dining hall at my expensive liberal arts school, 2,500 miles away. I read the text message — “I don’t sleep at Carol’s. The drive’s too far so I sleep at rest stops near school during the week.” — and my breath left me. My heart seized up. I felt knives at the backs of my eyes. I tried my best not to steal glances at my classmates to see if they’d sensed some disturbance in the force.

When you go to school with the children of 1-percenters, you learn how to keep your poker face as daily money catastrophes come crashing through the door. This time, I reached for a steadying breath, some semblance of air. But I couldn’t find one. For once, I couldn’t keep up with the idle chitchat that usually carried me and my friends from day to day, from class to dining hall to dorm and back again.

I called my mom, tearful, pleading. I reached for every solution in our arsenal. Could she find a job closer to home? There weren’t any, she said. Could she find a cheap apartment in Portland? She informed me that the young people inhabiting Portland’s most affordable rooms are hardly looking to share them with a woman in her sixties they aren’t related to. When I couldn’t find something, anything to fix her situation, I went back to class. I continued living my life, vaguely conscious of my mother’s daily reality, but allowing her pain to become a messy wound in my life. She continued her work, and I continued mine.

I’ve laid our conundrum out on the table in front of us many times. My mom’s job, teaching medical assistants, is in the greater Portland metro area. The house — which her sister, Carol, owns and lives in and which she’s kindly opened up to us — is two hours south, in a mountain logging town of roughly 1,500 people. As my mother has told me over and over, she lacks both the gas money and the energy to commute all the way back to their little mountain, only to turn around at the crack of dawn the next day and do it all over again.

The little money she makes at her job goes to helping Carol keep the house afloat and supporting my older sister, whose life remains dependent on those resources. Jobs closer to home are scarce. And the one my mother does have — a job she loves, and one where she is beloved by her students — comes in bursts and spats, seasons and dry spells. It exists in April, but not in March. It exists in October, but not in January. And that’s not a paycheck you can make plans (or rent) on.

So we do what we’ve always done: We trudge on and make ourselves comfortable in our circumstances. Mine, of course, are cushier than hers. She sleeps in Walmart parking lots, in rest stops, in the parking lot of her school, wherever she can get away with it and feel some semblance of safe. I can’t even imagine what it was like for her to send me that first text, let alone spend her workweek in some halfway state between home and homeless. I can’t imagine what it is like, even through all our conversations.

It’s easier than you’d think to accept the unacceptable.

Years pass, and solutions fall through our hands like water. It’s hard to find a room at the right price and for the right time span. She got on the waiting list for senior subsidized housing, but then they started renovations and the spaces evaporated into a heart-knotting “eventually.” There’s only so much pleading you can do — to your family, to the sky — before everyone settles into this new normal. Before she finds comfort in knowing the beats of movement at every rest stop in a 50-mile radius, wearing that knowledge like a badge of honor. Before the makeshift bed in the back of her van feels a little like home. Before I start to trust that she’s OK when she tells me to stop worrying. You can rail against anything as much as you want; sometimes, eventually, you get tired of railing.

My mother’s “situation” is unacceptable — to her, to me, to our family, just in general. She needs a roof. She needs access to a shower and a kitchen and a reliable heating system. She needs, ideally, a home to feel like herself in. But it turns out it’s easier than you’d think to accept the unacceptable. You push the bad thing to the periphery and learn to live with it inevitably creeping back into your line of vision, the fact of it obscuring all the rest.

It’s been five years, and my mother still spends two to five nights a week at rest stops and Walmart parking lots all the way up the 205 to Portland. She has a van now, more space to spread out. She knows the sounds of the trucks, the habits of the truck drivers and road-tripping families passing through, which roadside bathrooms are best for brushing her teeth, and which ones will be most conducive to her sleep. She knows the ticks of these places like the beats are a part of her.

This isn’t the first time she’s lived in a car. At some point in our past I was right there beside her, my brother right beside me. We have curled up in those small spaces together before, stretching our limbs as far as we could into the steel perimeters and pulling them as far as we could back into ourselves. We’ve lived in motels; we’ve lived on friends’ couches. My mother, my siblings, and I have spent countless stretches of our lives trying not to take up too much space, trying not to be a burden on our hosts, or on each other. She fought hard for our space and our right to a sense of home; she found apartments eventually; she kept us fed. The biggest labor of her life has been to provide us with the strength and drive to land somewhere where our limbs could unfurl.

So I’ve spent my whole life chasing upward mobility, and in many ways I’ve started ascending the stairs. They’re made of sand, shifting under my feet, but up I go. I graduated from my fancy school and found a fancy job. As a professional writer, my life now is stuffed with privileges I’ve longed for since I found out they existed. I have my own health insurance and the beginnings of a 401(k). My voice is amplified; I have a platform. I haven’t slept in a car in 20 years. I haven’t lived in a motel in 10. With every new success or holiday, my family revels in where I am now, and where I’m working to go. It’s easy to feel at home in that — complacent in it. My dreams are closer to my grasp than ever before, just as she’d always worked for them to be.

And yet: The money I make barely covers a life in New York and my student loans. I don’t have the means to help her the way I’d like to, or in a way that she’d let me. The rougher truths of her life are still a problem we are both searching for a way to solve.

We learn to live with our realities, but that doesn’t stop them from taking from us.

All I want for her is that space. A bed. A home. I don’t know how to give it to her. I’m still learning. The thing that continues to suck the breath from me is the thought that I’ve left her behind in the pursuit of what she wanted for me. That she’s spent too much time and energy fighting for us — for me — and that it’s rendered her too spent to battle for herself.

That I can’t find a way to support my mother as effectively as she helped me feels like perhaps my life’s biggest failure to date. In the moments when the facts of my mother’s life suck the breath from me again, a part of me wants to cross those 2,500 miles — closer to 3,000 now — and be that roof for her. I want to take away the pain of it, let her stop working so hard to keep existing. But I know she’d never let me. That’s just another fact of her life.

“It’s fine,” she’s repeated to me over the years, in various iterations. “I’m fine. We’ll fix it when we can. It’s just another thing to weather.” She tells me that she’s proud of me. And so I keep working too, hoping that one day I’ll work enough and make enough that she won’t have to know the heartbeats of the rest stops again unless she is going someplace wonderful. I’m not there yet — it’s not even visible on the horizon. But she worked hard to put me on this path, so I keep trodding.

We learn to live with our realities, but that doesn’t stop them from taking from us. Her view, a rain-streaked window in a Walmart parking lot, remains the same. I hope that one day she can stretch her fingers as far as they’ll reach and just feel air.

This essay is part of a series of stories about the meaning of home.

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