I am standing in a consignment store in Alameda, the place I have decided I want to live, surveying the furniture – some I like, some I don’t – daydreaming about having a real home to put any of this stuff in while I wait to look at one more property that just won’t be right, isn’t the one, when my phone rings.  Innocent enough.  Just the normal ring.  But it is a coworker of my dad calling to tell me that a neighbor can see someone in the house.  An intruder.  For the second time that week.  A break-in.  Into a place with almost nothing unbroken or of value.  But here they are – again.  One more violation to a place I still love, despite the trash, despite the ugliness.  My home.  My architectural center.
Call the police I say.  Now, please.  And tell my brother.  Please.  My dad was out of the country and I was what felt like eons away – hours north and busy and even if I left that exact moment, it would be too late – too, too late.  So he did.  And my brother met the police there.  And another report was added to the ones that already exist for that address – more in the last year than could have possibly been generated in the seventy-plus years preceding. I fought the urge to collapse to the floor.  I stiffened up against the need to land on my knees and bury my head in my hands and curl up in a ball – like a cross between praying and going fetal – in order to keep from exploding into thousands of worn out pieces.  Again.  No.  Not again.  Stop it. 
Just two days before I had walked up to do at least a couple of hours of sorting on a Sunday, feeling slightly guilty for having taken Saturday off from the task.  I was alone.  For the first time, I was going to go in there alone. We’d been there almost a week and nothing suspicious had happened.  I would be fine, I told my sister and my dad (who was in Mexico for business).  I would call and check in when I got there and when I left, I said to my sister.  I’ll leave before dark.  I’ll lock the gate behind me – trap myself behind iron and thick chain link and a padlock.  Safe.  Fine.
As I pulled the gate closed behind my car and popped the padlock around the double loop of chain link, I felt enclosed.  I pulled around to the back and parked and took a few pictures of the yard, of the ‘pot man’ my mother made decades ago who still sits watch near the tool shed.  I looked at the sky which was so very blue and the way the trees of that neighborhood reached up and out to frame that lovely, clouded sky.  I was stalling, I guess.  But I was also taking in what I loved about that place in the world.  What I’ve always loved about it.

I walked through the pool gate and toward the back door. I stopped almost as soon as I could see the door.  There was a laundry basket full of wires and speakers and a lamp shade and other miscellaneous electronics on the step just outside the door.  There were books strewn in a meandering path out the door.  I stared at these things.  Trying to convince myself they had been there when we left.  I knew they had not been.  My stomach knotted up and my head felt full of cotton and I held my breath.  I let my breath out. I backed away, as though I were staring down a snarling dog and couldn’t turn my back.  I walked out to the driveway and paced, looking up at the house constantly, while I tried to call my sister to ask if she had left that stuff there when we left Friday and I just hadn’t seen her do it.  Voicemail.  I paced and paced.  I felt trapped.  I texted her and waited for an answer.
I paced the driveway and stared at the gate.  I was suddenly aware that I had not only locked everyone out –  I had locked myself in and should someone come running out of that house, I better be ready to scale the fence, to run and jump and throw myself over it.  I imagined old Bionic Woman and old Wonder Woman episodes to envision how I would do it.  I tried to imagine my car, my tiny little hybrid, could bust through the gate, but knew I needed to rely on my own tired body if escape were actually needed.  I would need to muster more than I thought I had – pray that the magic of adrenaline would make all the difference – and run and jump and pull and make my way over and out to safety. 
My sister called me back.  Nope.  I didn’t do that.  I definitely did not do that.  I unlocked the gate and got in my car and drove just outside the gate and then closed it and locked it again.  I sat in my car, right there, aimed at the road, my hood almost in the street and tried to think.  I hadn’t heard any sounds the whole time I was pacing.  No one was in the house, I was sure.  Right?  I could be sure, right?
I called my dad. Yes, call the police.  So I called the non-emergency line.  I’m sure there’s no one in there, but I didn’t go in.  No, I’m outside.  It’s not an emergency.  But if you look up the address you’ll see why we want to know for sure. She says she will send the police out.  To check. Just so we know.  If you see anyone come out of there, call 9-1-1, she says.  I will, I say.  Oh I will, I say to myself.
I wait.  More than an hour.  My tension building with every moment.  The opposite of what I expect.  The more time that passes, the more on edge I am, keeping a watchful eye behind me, trying to distract myself with my phone, texting friends, checking facebook, anything to not just sit there. I wish desperately for someone there with me, someone to talk to, to distract me.  I make plans for later that night as the second best thing.  Entertain me, I think.  Distract me, please.
One car arrived.  Two officers.  One female, one male.  The female officer had been to the house numerous times.  Her face visibly altered, only slightly, when she realizes who might be in the house if it were one of the people who had been staying there.  They called for back-up. The house is too big for just two of us to clear they said.  But then she also said they shouldn’t go in alone based on who my mother’s former associates had been.  My heart collapsed inward.  This is what we have become.  This is who we are, where we live, the stories we have.  Even the police need help.
The second car arrived.  Two more men, all four officers armed with the childish, non-scale schematic I made of the house at their request – including all closets and crawl spaces for maximum safety.  We’re going to wait for a K-9 unit they said.  It was some pretty unsavory characters they said.  Six officers and a dog.  Six guns and countless sharp teeth.  Just for the all clear.

Waiting for the second and third cars, I spent a good deal of time talking to the first two officers.  It was heartbreaking to answer their questions and try to explain what is only understandable (and even then, only marginally so) to the people living these things.  I’m not sure.  I haven’t seen her in months.  We were afraid to come by (a both horrifying and validating nod from the female officer, her expression the first non-family member to bear the signs of really getting why we were scared). She wouldn’t let us help. We tried. We could only do so much.
A small hole opened up inside of me and started to slowly reach out, like watching water spread slowly on a table after spilling it.  What words are there for what the last year and a half have been, let alone the last six?  How can I convey concisely what they need to know so that it feels true (to me, to my family, to the woman that is my mother and so deserves to be more than a shadow in this story)? I felt naked and helpless and teetered on the edge of worthless – we did nothing to keep all of this from happening. At least it can look that way.  It looks that way when you’re peering in, when all you read is the news, when all you hear are my answers to those questions.  But their faces showed none of that.  They looked at me and listened.  They weren’t killing time, they wanted to know.  The female officer had been to the house many times but had never been in – the reason for the call always retracted by my mother when the police got there and they were left without any reason to enter. All they could bear witness to was a woman saying, no, it’s nothing, I was wrong.

I could see in her face the same frustration I have felt, although more muted and detached.  She had been called out several times, told me my mother would say she was hiding in a crawl space in the master bedroom closet, that she needed help.  But when the officer would arrive, my mother would be present, out front, denying any trouble. I can already sense the haunting of that image, the way the picture of my mother hiding, huddled, scared will come back to me again and again. I could see in the officer’s face that she had wanted any reason to go in and make it all stop.  I wish for her, and for me and my family and my mother and the person whose blood was spilled in that house, that she had been able to go in, even once.  I can see her frustration in her eyes and it is not an angry one – it is a wide open kind of sympathy and I wonder, momentarily, what she has seen in her life – at work, at home, with friends.  Both officers are looking at me with their full eyes and it feels like a small stick to steady myself on, to keep this seeping hole from growing too fast.
I found myself grateful for the Fresno police – truly, truly grateful – for the first time in my life.  Both of the first responding officers were patient and caring and understanding (so different from a wide variety of experiences I have had with the Fresno Police Department).  These were the officers I would hope would respond when my mother called.  They both nodded their heads, their faces betraying no judgment or weariness, and asked questions – often prefacing with if you don’t mind me asking.  I felt tender toward them and fought the urge to hug them.  Instead I thought this, sensing the words without hearing it in my head so clearly: Thank you for this – thank you for being just how you are right now when I am wound tighter than a spring about to burst while also floating at the edge of present, struggling to stand right here in front of you without bursting apart into tiny pieces – I don’t know if you know how much difference your compassion is making, that what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, matters.

When the K9 unit arrived, I stood outside, near my car, unless I needed to answer questions.  One of the last questions they had for me before going in was whether the stolen stuff was ours or theirs.  I had no idea.  I had not gone in and couldn’t even be sure that it had been one of the people who had stayed there.  That had been my hope – that at least someone was trying to take what was theirs as opposed to a whole other group of people rummaging through my history.  This detail matters, though, because one scenario is a misdemeanor and the other a felony.  A dog can only attack the suspect if it’s a felony.  Otherwise, they have to hold him back.  A tidbit of information learned in the midst of this scene – oddly, for me, a redeeming element in what was going to turn out to be another lost day of work, another day of no progress, of only regress. Just the kind of fascinating detail that I can spin my mind around and store for later, a trinket, if you will, of this day spent waiting and worrying.
I watched them all enter the house – following my route through the gate, past the pool, up to the broken-paned laundry room door.  I waited outside – anxious, listening for any sort of sound, hoping not to hear gunfire, my feet appearing to be flat on the ground but already poised to leap into my car or run, a shadow of myself already bent at the starting line.  It took a while.  I looked at my phone for the time constantly, but each time I forgot what it had said before, my mind spinning so fast as to seem at a standstill, my inability to hold even that simplest of facts the only tell that my mind was not working on a normal plane. 
When they came out, they talked amongst themselves for a while and then the K9 unit left.  One of the officers from the second car came up to me and asked if I could go in and see what was missing.  The first two officers said goodbye and left. And there I was: left with another officer to explain things to, another person that had questions, another session of I don’t knows and I was out-of-state and she wouldn’t let us help.  I felt that same puddle begin to grow, the same tired feeling of having to explain but measure what words, what tone, how much or how little I give.  The seeping out of what is he thinking? and what does this seem like to him? and who are we to this man? We walked up to the back and entered the house and I saw it, anew, as they must have.  What had looked like less chaos to us after a few days inside would just be chaos to them.  Not the worst they’ve seen, I’m sure, but not on the middle of the scale either.  A mess.  How could they possibly tell if anything had been done to this house that day.  A mess.  A big, big mess.

Two lamps.  One that matched the shade on the porch step.  Gone.  The only matching set of anything we had found in the house undamaged.  I didn’t even know if any of us wanted them – but they were ours.  And they were undamaged, one last unbroken piece of the before.  Stolen.  Every box we had filled in the upstairs bedroom was turned over, scattered, searched through.  Even a garbage bag full of broken things in the master bedroom had been ripped open and scattered in case there was anything of value in there.  Three long days of work, undone.  Three long long difficult heartbreaking days.  Undone.  I fought the urge to even need to fight tears.  My vocabulary boiled down to only a few words – the one thing I have aplenty, diminished to a teenager’s rage.  Fuckers.  Motherfucking fuckers.  Really?  
Anything else you notice? The officer.  I was not alone.  I needed to remember that.  The fit I so desperately needed to have, could feel tugging at my muscles, would have to come later, because, believe me, I knew it was coming.  But he’s here now and he wants to leave.  He was nice, but business-like and he deserved to be able to do his job and go.  A few things were gone – namely the ipod dock and phone charger I had accidentally left there Friday.  I almost drove back for them the moment that I realized I had left them, but it was only the dock, not the ipod – only the charger, not the phone.  So I didn’t.  Still, they were the two most valuable things in the house.
He offered to make a full report but we settled for an incident report.  I had already kept six officers tied up for what, it turned out, was an empty, if devastated, house.  I had no impulse to add unnecessary paperwork to the mix.  We are a mess, officer.  This is a mess.  No one will be found or charged or arrested, so please go.  Leave me to deal with this alone, again.  
He left and I walked back upstairs for a moment.  It had been three hours since I arrived and I was ready to go.  The day was shot, but I had to look up there one more time before leaving – mostly so I could report back, but I think, also, because I hoped I could muster the motivation to not be shot down by this.  Instead, I felt every muscle in my body twitch and I just wanted to scream.  I wanted to throw myself on the floor and kick and scream and throw the type of tantrum that doesn’t end until you are too exhausted to move anymore.  I wanted to go toddler and flail and cry and wail.
I would have, I’m sure, but the floor was disgusting.  In addition to the fingerprint dust everywhere and the general filth of the place after so much neglect and time left vacant, the room reeked of urine.  The odor was thick.  We believe my mother, for months, had lived up there in that room with her dogs and that the entire carpet was their yard.  I was held together, maintained my composure, because the thought of putting my body on the carpet repulsed me into compliance.  I will cry – later.  I will not fling myself on the ground.  I will walk out of here and I will get in my car and try not to fall apart.
I drove back to my sister’s with only a few tears.  I told her, in an exasperated, breathy tone, what had happened and what to expect when we showed up there the next day.  I could see her face fall slack and we changed the subject.  I got ready to see friends and tried to bury the echo of the day that was floating in my skull.  I was out of state.  There’s only so much we could do.  She wouldn’t speak to us.  

So  much of this drama – most of it really, for me, at least – has been played out among family and friends and friends of the family.  It is hard enough to navigate conversations about it with those you love, those that love you, those who love my mother.  Strangers, that’s something else.  For the hours it took to deal with the police, I felt like I was standing outside of myself and seeing a shadow version of myself who had changed nothing, stopped nothing.  And I didn’t like it at all.  It was like an itchy patch of skin that can’t be scratched anymore, small spots of blood bursting forth to the surface as layer after layer is slowly rubbed off. And even knowing I was lucky, even knowing that the interaction with the police could have been all kinds of shades of worse, I was bruised emotionally.  I felt black and blue and green everywhere that I felt anything.  

A few days later, as I am packing up more boxes, stuffing more bags with trash, hefting them the long, long way out to the giant dumpster we’ve placed just outside of the fence – a detective shows up.  Looking for my mother.  I walk up to the gate but do not open it. He shows me his badge, my suspicious eyes apparent even from ten feet away. No I don’t know where she’s at.  I’ve been out of state and came back to help clean up.  Her lawyer should know.  I think a hotel.  No.  Sorry.

And so I tell him a somewhat truth.  I knew where she was weeks ago when we all went to see her, us three kids, for the first time in many many months, over a year for me.  Where we ended up, momentarily, in a group hug huddle with everyone crying and the words love and always and even when.  Perhaps the first time we have all four been like that, hugging, holding.  A moment in the midst of the nausea we all felt driving there and the silences that crept in every few minutes for the hour after the hug.  A perfectly fucked-up Norman Rockwell painting called Early Evening at the Hotel, an unexpectedly tender moment where we expected none.  
So I knew where she was, but couldn’t be sure it’s where she is at the moment that he arrives.  As I walk away from the gate, I try to figure out why I didn’t just tell him that and I start to understand, beyond intellectually, why family members lie for and hide their loved ones.  In that split second that I realized who he was and who he wanted, I felt the most instant and overwhelming of protective urges.  She has had enough.  We all have.  Let her be.  Let us all be.  I knew he would find her and question her, but I needed to not be the one to send him to her. Not so soon after seeing her again, after all of us huddled in that room. Not me.

Weeks later, my brother and sister and father and I will gather to hand off the stuff that has cluttered up our lives since February.  The woman will show up, without help and in a sedan, despite my father’s very clear instructions that she will need a truck, will need help, will need to tow this car out of our driveway on this very day that we have arranged or we will toss it all.  He is done.  We are done.  She will act as though she had no idea.  She will say But I thought we were just meeting to talk about it and I will see my father begin to dismantle from the inside, something she can’t possibly have noticed because she does not love him and know him like we do.
My siblings and I stand by as they are face to face – she in her Sunday best and all made up – as she pushes him, softly, subtly.  She addresses him with Mr. and his last name and we watch, let him handle it, as I can feel my blood rise into my neck and words are forming right inside of my throat that I am trying so hard to swallow.  If there’s one thing my father is – it’s direct and clear.  We have no doubt that she understood and is trying to buy more time.
She can’t know because her life is different, what brings her here is so very different than what brings us, even though we are all orbiting around, hovering above the same horrific incident – she can’t possibly know that we have been waiting for her for nearly an hour by now and we are tense.  Accidental gun trigger pulling tense.  Hatched an escape plan tense.  I have my phone with 9 and 1 already dialed tense.  Because we are trapped in this driveway if she shows up with her sons and his friends and they are angry with us.  Because we have been cleaning up the debris of what can happen when situations become complicated and emotional and violent.
And she is pushing at my dad, with her words, with her tardiness, with the soul crushing prospect that we will have to gather another day, wait again for her, live with these things in the house one more day.  On the proverbial rope, we are holding on to the last piece that has frayed from the end.  We are done.  And yet maybe we aren’t.  
The three of us are standing there.  And my dad is staying calm but his voice is getting louder and I can see in his arms and his hands the wear of her voice.  I don’t know why you’re treating me like this she says and I never stayed a night in your house she says.  Not true.  From our perspective we are treating her well, kindly returning things, meeting her, not tossing these things.  And as she goes on, starting to step away from my dad and then stepping back in to face him, time after time, as he just keeps repeating that she needs to get a van, get help and she has an hour, I step forward.

I aim to cut through, to stop the loop, to say none of that matters, just go get what you need and come back and get this stuff.  What I actually start with is You have no idea what this has been like for our family – no idea and then I move into trying to usher her away in order for her to come back and for this to be done.  What happens next, though, is that she starts saying to me what she has been saying to my father.  She tries to make her case and I just am not going to hear it, none of us are and she doesn’t see that.  My own intentions make a sharp right turn and I end up telling her to shut the fuck up and then when she says she saved my mother’s life, as she turns away and waves me off,  I tell her she’ll get a gold fucking star in heaven for that.

Instantly, before she is in her car even, I feel deflated.  I am hot and I am mad – at myself.  I intended to be the calming force.  I trusted a mouth I should never have trusted after the afternoon spent waiting, after the morning spent dreading, after the weeks spent immersed in the thing our lives had become.  I know myself better.  I can only arbitrate in the calmest of moods, in the most centered of places – two things I hadn’t had the luxury of in months. I apologize to my family, for losing control.  I can feel the wheels of obsession start to turn in my head and spin around and around my own failure to diffuse the situation.  I tell myself to let go, to not obsess.  To not worry that I will have set off some sort of reaction that will only make this all much, much worse.

As we pile everything in the empty lot next door, refusing to wait around for her anymore in the ninety degree weather, none of us dressed for labor since we were wishing and hoping to be on the other side of that with these boxes – as we pile them over I curse my own protective nature, my own mother-bear self, my own inability to back away when it involves someone I love.  I could have let her go on and on, I’m sure, if she had only been talking to me. I could have told that detective where I had last seen my mother.  I could have told those officers as little or as much as was necessary, without aching, without emptiness and helplessness. If only I hadn’t felt the fragility of those I love in such piercing waves.

I can not pick up my mother like a baby bird and bandage her wings and keep her in a box and feed her day and night.  I can not lift her in my arms and take her somewhere different, somewhere safer and saner and secure.  I can not step between my father and this life, shield him from the basest parts of what his marriage has become, what the life he had worked so hard to build has turned into.  I can not fight those battles for him without fumbling myself, without losing my words to the most base of my emotions.  I can not lift a blanket between both of them to shield them from one another – two people who loved each other deeply and sincerely for so long, now on two sides of a divide, trying desperately to navigate each side full of ruts and ravines and twisted, upturned roots.

I will regret failing at what I intended at the same time that I will recognize how good it was to tell that woman to shut up, recognize the tossed up knot of emotions that one sentence birthed in me.  I will forgive myself for it, but I will turn it over and over in my head.  I will allow myself this wide open wound when bridging this gap between what is so personal and all of the people that are pulled into the scene.  I will try hard to give myself the berth I give all others in my family – to be, to mess up, to be loud and mouthy and without filter often at the moments I need to filter most, to be angry with myself and also to shield myself.

And I will know, even if that woman will never believe it, that when I wished her a gold star in heaven, I meant it. Where my voice betrayed my anger and my sarcasm, the words themselves were achingly and so painfully sincere. Where I could not be, where I was never called, where I was locked out of – she was allowed.  When my mother needed urgent medical care, it was not me or my sister or my brother who were called.  It was this devil woman who scares dogs and frightens my father’s coworkers that dialed those three numbers to get my mother in an ambulance and to the doctors who could save her neglected life.  I sincerely wish her that shiny symbol of a good achievement, of humanity in the middle of a tableau so disfigured, and send her my silent, broken thanks at the same time that I wish her out of my face, wish her silent and mute, wish her and her whole family out of my house and my history.

And this is what it is about those that I have encountered along the way – you are a reminder.  Of how we’ve failed.  Of what we can not do alone.  Of what we wish we could be left alone to do.  Of how the system that fails us, has failed us over and over, is also the same system we need, claw at over and over and over.  Living, breathing, inquiring reminders that we can not be left alone to deal with this, that the world never ever affords any of us that freedom.  We simply try to gather enough towels to stay the spread of the puddle that spills out every time I have to explain to you what this helplessness looks like, what it has caused, who it has hurt.  A reminder that I am accountable to you at the same time that I am not.  You can never know.  And yet we try, all the time, to explain.  To understand each other.  To save each other from the worst of it all.  Even failing, we still try.