A Series of Unfortunate Events
When my friend Ted visits from Canada, we drink cappuccinos and talk books. We met about 15 years ago when I worked at the university’s literary archives and he came to research a manuscript on Virginia Woolf but fell in love with Austin instead. Now he visits every May, and sometimes also in the fall, ostensibly to do more research but really to drink Shiner Bock during Hippy Hour at the Continental Club. For a while he seriously thought about buying a tiny house here, a place to keep a motorcycle, a bed, and a bookshelf. It would be the perfect lifestyle, really, Texas winters, Alberta summers.
Ted and his longtime live-in girlfriend, Hsing, live the exotic life of the childless, traveling to India last year with little notice, drinking gin-and-tonics in a former palace of the Raj and climbing into the Himalayan clouds. But Ted is actually a father of two grown children, a fact that doesn’t come up when we indulge each other’s literary obsessions. We also don’t talk much about politics—we’re both left-wing doves.
During Ted’s visit last May, when we were waiting for our coffee to be rung up, glancing at the stack of newspapers nearby, he said "you." As in, “you have your hands full in Iraq these days.” And we both looked at each other. If I had been editing a manuscript of his I might have jotted in the margin: “Pronoun ref?” We both laughed at the idea that I, a mother, nonprofit fundraiser, writer, wife, swimmer, gardener, yogi—someone who definitely has my hands full—was also juggling Iraq! But before our coffee was cool I understood why, for Ted, "us" has shifted to "we" and "you."
It was a gorgeous spring day in British Columbia, where Ted’s ex-wife and son live, when the two headed out on a bike ride through a wooded park by the ocean. James is in his twenties but remains close to his mother since together they’ve done battle with his mental illness. Though he cannot work full-time, James has his own apartment and is stable in his own version of adulthood. I don’t know whose idea it was or whether anyone had second thoughts and tried to talk the other out of it or whether it was the kind of lark one must take on spring’s first great day. But when they reached the fence that marked the end of the park they rode on through the opening and continued south on the trail. Their hope was to see the jagged shoreline better from the lookout that lay just ahead. Just as they got off their bikes, gazing at the sea, two patrol cars appeared out of nowhere and four officers quickly arrested mother and son for crossing the border illegally.
After questioning, James’s mother was released that afternoon. But James was moved to a facility for holding illegal immigrants and detained for six days. He spent 24 hours a day in a large room filled with cots where other men slept and watched Spanish-language television. He was denied the right to read the books he had with him or any that his mother might bring, and his application for a library card was not processed in time for him to use it. He was bored and scared and lonely. James takes medication that enables him to live a fairly normal life. The institution where he was held had no medical staff. His medications were dispensed at night, not in the morning when James normally takes them.
Meanwhile, Ted spent days frantically calling anyone he knew who might be able to help get his son out. He managed to learn that the reason James was being held was that in addition to crossing the border illegally he had two prior misdemeanor offenses in Canada (shoplifting and a brief joy ride, both before his illness was diagnosed and treated). The combination of a “criminal background” with the border crossing had triggered this hell.
Finally, after nearly a week of phone calls, meetings, lawyers, and paperwork, James was free. Or at least not stuck in the U.S. Due to the backlog of cases that our strict “homeland security” measures have spawned, James had to wait until fall for his review. All summer he could not leave his hometown, while Ted worried that his son might be barred from ever entering the U.S., just for riding his bike over an unmarked border.
But James stood to lose much, much more.
“He’s changed,” Ted said with a parent’s concern. He explained that though James had been home a few weeks, he was having nightmares, displaying symptoms of his illness they hadn’t seen for some time—paranoia, irrational thinking, confusion. He had lost some hard-won independence, and so had his mother who is his primary caregiver. Our friendship, centered on books and their worship, grew in that moment into one crossing a boundary between two governments.
If life is, as John Lennon said, what happens to you when you’re planning something else, then waging war is what you do while you’re busy paying bills, mowing the lawn, watching Desperate Housewives, or reading A Series of Unfortunate Events to your kids.
This isn’t the news and it isn’t a wicked children’s tale. It’s the son of my old friend. And as a U.S. citizen and a voter, I am partly responsible. So are you. And you. We helped buy those cots and that TV and we pay those guards. We can’t stop trying to take back our country from the Count Olaf disguised as our president or so-called “homeland security” measures will lead to other “unfortunate events” for our friends and our children.
note: I wrote this essay last summer,
shortly after Ted related the story to me. He asked me not to publish it
until after his son’s hearing. It saddened me that the actions of my
government made my friend, who once crossed Afganistan alone on train,
feel unsafe about my essay appearing on a website for mothers in Texas. It’s proof we are all connected, even in ways we don’t intend or
can even imagine. Ted reports that James is doing better. He’s allowed
to travel in the U.S. but he was encouraged to apply for “pre-authorization” rather than
just showing up at the border. The stress resulted in him quitting his
once-a-week job with Loving Spoonful, a volunteer group that provides
meals to people with AIDS and other disabilities. He’s applying for an
official pardon from Canada for his youthful law breaking. Hopefully his government is more
forgiving than mine. Thank you to both Ted and James for letting me
share this story.