Mr. and Mrs. Mendoza looked tired sitting across from me, telling me about their son, Mike. They were Mexican Americans who spoke good English, had good jobs and high hopes for their children. Mrs. Mendoza told me that Mike, their youngest son, hadn’t always used good judgment in the past, but he was finally getting his life together. He had found a good job and was living at home with them, in a safe place, trying to make a new start after a difficult marriage. Like a lot of young men, he had confused lust with love, and by the time he had figured out the difference, he had three children, several thousand dollars of debt, a soon-to-be-ex-wife described as a “Fatal Attraction” type, and a past he wanted to leave behind. Mike’s mother told me Mike’s soon-to-be-ex could really turn on the charm when it served her purposes, and she had been doing just that for last several years. When she wasn’t being charming, she could be cruel and even violent, character traits Mike had tried to keep hidden from his parents. He wanted them to see him as a grown-up who could handle his own affairs and take care of his own family problems, just as he had watched his father do when he was growing up.
The strains of waning love, three children frequently mistreated by their mother and a growing inability to fake it any longer, brought Mike to the realization that he couldn’t continue the charade. He couldn’t ignore the thrown dishes, the name-calling, the accusations and the threats, so he finally left. When he admitted the whole truth to his parents, they confided they had always believed his wife’s pleasant personality was only a façade, but they were reluctant to interfere in his life.
They respected his right to solve his own problems the way they had done, but they both had a nagging feeling things weren’t going to be so simple for Mike. They feared for his safety when he lived with “that woman” and that fear didn’t go away when he finally moved back home. Most of all, they feared for the safety of their only grandchildren, who were still living in a home where screaming and throwing things occurred more frequently than discussion and tranquility. The day “that woman” threatened the children with a knife, the Mendozas called the sheriff, but by the time the deputies arrived, she had reverted to her calm self, her functioning, charming self, and she convinced them it was all a big misunderstanding. The deputies checked the kids over and found them without injury and without any apparent fear of their mother. They were well dressed and clean. Going by the book, there was no cause for further action.
After the sheriffs left, the children were locked in a closet for three hours, then rewarded with ice-cream because they didn’t cry. No one knew about it until several other bad things happened, and by then it would be too late.
Every time Mike went for his visits, his wife screamed at him and told the children he was a bad man. Because he wasn’t, he didn’t scream back and he didn’t hit her. He always tried to stay calm around the children and act as if nothing bad were happening. He hoped that when the judge finally had an opportunity to read an account of these incidents, Mike would be awarded custody of the kids, and they would all live happily ever after with his parents. Good people. Loving people.
But things got worse. At first, Mike didn’t want to believe his wife could hurt the children, but there was no other way to explain the burns. Later, there was no other reasonable explanation for the bruises, so one day, he did what any good father would do; he kept the kids longer than their weekend visit. He told his wife he wasn’t going to bring them back and she could call the sheriff if she wanted to.
Surprisingly, she responded reasonably to the situation. Too reasonably, the parents thought, but Mike was trying to act responsibly toward the woman he had once been in love with. He agreed to meet her and discuss their problems, to try to find a solution they all could live with that would guarantee the safety and health of their children. She agreed this would be in everyone’s best interests.
They could meet at Mike’s parents house—a neutral zone, she suggested. When she arrived, she seemed calm and rational, ready to work things out. Mike’s parents were a little apprehensive, but went along, taking the kids to Chuck E Cheese so that the couple could have the privacy they needed.
When they returned home a few hours later, they found their son on their kitchen floor, bleeding profusely through multiple bullet holes in his body. They reacted quickly, calling 911 while attempting to stop their son’s bleeding. The paramedics arrived and rushed Mike to the ER.
A sheriff’s deputy conducted a short interview with Mr. and Mrs. Mendoza, after which, they came directly to the ER, filled with self-reproach. They told me they had never trusted Mike’s wife. A mother’s intuition, Mrs. Mendoza said, a mother’s guilt for not having done more about it. But it was Mike’s life and she didn’t want to interfere. And now, that life was slipping away.
As the parents sat holding hands in my office, the news got progressively worse. In a distant operating room, trauma surgeons struggled to keep Mike alive but his blood pressure kept dropping. Blood was running out of him faster than they could put it back in. He had holes everywhere, including places they couldn’t even see. We knew he would die, and I think with mother’s intuition, his mother knew it to. She was crying, of course, and his father sat mute, as he came to realize he was about to lose his favorite son and in a sense, his wife, as well. She would never be the same after this. They were all engaged in one of life’s battles in which there is no winner. In fact, we would all be losers that night.
A hard silence fell over us until a nurse poked her head in the door. “Louie’s in room six. They found him behind the liquor store again. We had to cut his clothes off and shower him so at least he’s clean. But he’s naked. You got some pants and a shirt for him?”
It seemed a strange distraction from the sadness that had permeated the room—a bit of comic relief, well-timed. Mike’s parents burst into laughter at hearing Louie’s plight, escaping their tragedy, however briefly.
“Is it part of your job to take care of everything?” Mrs. Mendoza asked, wiping away a tear.
I reflected for a moment. “Yeah, I guess it is. That’s what I do here. Everything else.”
The chief trauma surgeon came into the room and sat down. I introduced him to Mike’s parents. “I’m sorry. We did everything we could but it didn’t work. We couldn’t save him. He died.”
“Can we see him?” they asked, without tears. They had already accepted his death. Perhaps they had been sensing this outcome for a long time. Mother’s intuition. Mother’s love. And now there was no place for it to go except to the grandchildren. She would raise them the way she had raised Mike, and she would always see him in their eyes. She would love them as her own and always treat them as her own. But it would be a love shadowed with sadness, because she could no longer give her love to Mike, her youngest child raised only to lose him to the actions of a bad girl.
The family viewed Mike’s body. They held his hand and kissed his face. The parents held each other and then they cried together. When they left, almost an hour later, they thanked me for helping them. I wasn’t sure what I helped them with, but I knew they were sincere. I wished we could have helped them a lot more, but mostly, I wished that Mike had lived.
A week later, when I came to work, there were two large plastic bags in my office with a note attached to one of them.
“Dear Social Worker Bob: Our son was brought in last week and died here. You were very kind to us and I know Mike’s clothes will go to a good cause. Thank you again. The Mendozas.”
The tears I didn’t show the night Mike died burst from my eyes. I closed the door and stared at the bags. All that was left of Mike except for memories was inside of that plastic. A wonderful mother, in the middle of her own grief, had taken the time to think about the small kindness she could offer a stranger.
I wish Mike was still around so he could watch his children grow with the love and warmth his mother obviously had to give. Who knows, maybe he is? And if he is, he probably will feel the same sad love his mother feels when she watches them. Some day when they are all together again, even heaven will be a better place for it.