Published on November 11th, 2014 | by Tara Dorabji



I never thought I’d close the door on you. You were sixteen. It was Sunday. I wedged my body between the door and the frame. You didn’t have a key. I ran that one by the family counselor. How could I not give my son keys to the house?

He has to earn the keys, the counselor had said. It’s OK to set limits. We drew-up limits like lines in the sand, but it wasn’t the wind that blew them away. You stepped over. I stood in the doorway.

Why are you late? Two hours and twenty minutes late home from work on a Sunday. It was the first violation since you’d moved back in with me. CPS had come on Wednesday and we sat around the table drawing up a contract of expectations for you to come back and live with me.

Your twin sisters slept while we ticked off agreements. There would be substance abuse counseling. No weed. No alcohol. We signed on the line.


This was your first and only attempt to move back in with me since you had left a few months ago. I can’t remember who called me first: you or the counselors. You were back at Huckleberry House, a temporary youth housing program. You had been there more than a week. They needed to move you out.

I didn’t ask what happened between you and your dad. I knew it was explosive and that was enough. It was clear to everyone that you weren’t going back with him. Every agency began calling me—CPS, the county, the counselor.

It was September when you walked out the door that first time. We both thought it would be temporary. I’d found weed and a pipe, again. I think I flushed the weed this time. It was weeks after I picked you up drunk and hurling from the beach. Your best friend had called me: We have problem.

It was four months after your father and I split up. Your father left one day. We didn’t talk about it. Finally, you said, I’m not stupid I know he left.

What the hell did you want me to say? I’m not stupid either. I knew he had left, too. But I had no legal right to you. I feared that I would lose you.

Your sisters were four then. They had tantrums day and night. I worked. I cooked. I cleaned. I gave until I could not see, until literally everything was blurry. I took care of all of you, because that was what I knew how to do.

I died a million deaths when I sat down with you after your father left and said, I have no idea what is going to happen with you. It’s up to your dad and he’s not saying anything.

We worked it out in time, but you ended up leaving anyways. Your father took care of your sisters one night a week, and you we split 50-50. I’d been raising you since you were six. No blood or laws binding us together, only our beliefs. To this day, I’ve not met your birth mom. We are curious about each other. I am glad that she is back in your life. I wonder what she will say to me when we meet. Will she take my hands in hers?


The first night you left I found your weed and pipe and you ran away from me at a Cupertino gas station into the suburbs. I found you and wrapped my arms around you and told you that you were getting back into my car.

We went back to the city, you and me. I left your sisters with my mom. You were supposed to stay with my mom that night, too. I had a lover then. He was grilling me grass-fed steaks that he’d gotten special from the Farmer’s Market. I felt guilty about planning to spend time with him that night, for receiving. After you left that night, he came to be with me. I was dead on the inside. Nothing could reach me. He watched me cry. We broke up six weeks later. I told him I needed marijuana out of my life. He said he’d made his choices and couldn’t be judged for that.

You left me for the same reason.

Now that your dad was gone, I could finally say, No more weed in the house. I noticed you getting stoned and coming home drunk. I let you know that I saw, but I needed you to keep it out of the house. I needed certain illusions maintained.

But you weren’t down with: Don’t ask; don’t tell. School called—you’d been caught stealing alcohol. This was when my grandmother broke her hip. Your dad was going to watch your sisters, so I could go and take care of her, but now he had to pick you up from juvie. I was left caring for two four-year-olds and a ninety-year-old woman with a broken hip who couldn’t use the bathroom by herself. I screamed your sisters to sleep that night.

The third time I found weed on you, knowing you had no job yet, were carrying an eighth, and a nice glass piece, I knew you were either stealing or dealing and most definitely lying.

At home we sat across from each other. I need you to commit to six months of sobriety, I said.

We talked in circles until you said, You aren’t my mother. You can’t tell me what to do.

My voice got calm and cold and deep. Then why are we sitting here? Why am I taking care of you if I’m not your mother?


I was done, ironed flat by life. The next week I would get laid off from work. My daughters would scream in the middle of the night. They would throw fits before we left for school. I would care for my grandmother. I was hemorrhaging away.

All I knew was that I couldn’t go on counting the money in my wallet to make sure you weren’t stealing. I couldn’t take the calls from the school, the police—I needed it to stop. I needed something from you. I needed help.

You said that marijuana was part of who you were and that I needed to accept you for who you were. You walked out the door. Maybe that was the first time you went to Huckleberry House. I don’t know. I can’t remember where you went, but you were gone.

We both thought it would be temporary. You lived with your dad, he let you party. My rules were too rigid.

I still got calls from your friends. You were cutting yourself. There was the night that I finally made it out to a bar in North Beach. My dad was watching the girls. I had a boyfriend, now. It was all my college friends plus my cousin from Germany. For a moment the crushing reality of life lifted. Five minutes later, my dad called; your best friend needed to talk to me, it was urgent. He was worried that you would commit suicide.


You were at your father’s house. Your dad’s cell phone was out of service. We drove cross-town to the borderline of the Bay View. Nobody answered the doorbell. At 11pm at night, I was yelling outside of your dad’s house to open the door.

Your dad stuck his head out of the window. What the hell is going on? His hair was warped from the pillow. He let me in. My boyfriend sat outside in my car.

You were drunk and irate. I don’t know if you remember what came out of your mouth that night, better to forget. Your dad decided to admit you to the emergency child psychiatric ward. He called the police; they came fast. Your dad brought you there, but in the end he couldn’t institutionalize you.

We walked on eggshells. You kept cutting yourself. A few months later, you and your dad exploded. I still don’t need to know the details. There were only unreliable narrators.

But you were ready to talk about coming home, about sobriety. I had a sinus infection like never before, green gunk all up in me. I was still unemployed. Your sisters were five now. They started asking me where you were. Your sister told me that at your dad’s house she just stood at the window waiting for you to come home, but you never did.

They asked me if they were naughty would I throw them out of the house, too? First your father left, then you. But it was true–in both cases I was the one to lock the door.

You agreed to sobriety. The family counselor at Huckleberry met with us all, one-on-one and then as a family. Your father came.

I called him to tell him that you were coming back and we were working on a contract. He said he wasn’t sure. All he could think about was you killing yourself and your sisters being the ones to find you. I pushed those words out of my head and removed the image from my mind. If you were willing, I would take you, always.


The counselor said that you were a unique case of suicidality. Generally boys don’t threaten, they do it. You had several failed attempts. You seemed to be focused on asphyxiation. He had spoken to you earlier and you’d said that you weren’t suicidal. He believed you in that moment. Still, we had to be careful.

The door to his room should stay open. Remove objects that could be used for strangulation: ropes, phone cords, electronic wires. We don’t want to tempt him.

I called my boyfriend later that day—Hey can I run something by you? Can you help me think this through?

I laid out the facts: fast and swift. We agreed that I couldn’t do anything about electric cords, but ropes, strings, your capoeira cords all needed to be taken. I swept through the house. It was like baby proofing all over, except that there was no way I could prevent you from killing yourself. My boyfriend said he’d take the ropes home with him. I put them in a green crate. There was nothing to say.

I went for a family counseling session at Huckleberry. You’d been there 12 days. Three or four nights were generally tops. The counselor told me, If he doesn’t go with you, he goes to Diamond Youth Shelter. That place is for street kids. He’s not a street kid.


You came home with me. We laughed on the way home. I missed you so much. Our conversation flowed with ease. We had a new contract—you and me. You were to be shackled to me unless at work, school or counseling. We went to birthday parties and meditations. You were home. You’d been missed. For a moment we were whole. I picked you up on street corners after work. Your sister asked you how long you would stay.

You said, I don’t know.

She begged you not to be a bad boy and drink alcohol.

You laughed a strange laugh.

Everyday more agencies called. The substance abuse referral with Horizons wasn’t coming through fast enough. I emailed your boss to make sure that you showed up at work. I was big brother, watching you.

You lasted five days, until you missed that Sunday dinner. The girls were in bed when you finally got home.

I opened the door, but wedged myself in the space. You were late. Hours late.

Spin me a story and we could go back to believing. I could open the door. The bus was late.

I smelt alcohol. Or thought I did. I will never know, but this was not a court of law and you were not innocent until proven guilty.

I smell alcohol, I said.

You would think that. Oh my god. Is that what you think of me? You turned around and walked down the stairs.

Huckleberry was on board with your release contract. They wouldn’t take you back if you violated our contract. I was the enforcer, investigator and sentencer. Next stop was Diamond Youth Shelter. That place is for street kids.

I let your dad know. I let Huckleberry House know. I let CPS know. I went down the twelve numbers of agencies in my notepad. You were gone.

Was I wrong? Had the bus been hours late? Sunday buses run slow in the city. Was it mouthwash not alcohol? I wanted to believe. I called my sister-out-of-law that night. I cried. She listened. She said I was OK. That you needed boundaries. There was nothing I could do.

I felt so guilty. I wanted so badly to be wrong. The next morning your sisters woke up and asked where you were.


Your dad called the police. You were a 5150. The police came to my house, again. This time your sisters were home; I went to talk with them outside. Your sister watched from the window, crying. She thought that they would take me away. She thought it would be like Oscar Grant and they’d shoot me in the back. She thought I was leaving, too.

They picked you up at work at the Exploratorium. Even though you stopped going to school, you went to work. You can hold down a job. This makes me proud. Your boss was proud, too. They took you in handcuffs.

Next stop was Diamond Youth Shelter. You stopped going to therapy. Mostly didn’t go to school. Horizons kept calling me; a spot was open in the substance abuse program. But it was too late.

Still, you kept your job.

The morning after you left, I went down into your room. I found my bottle of Nyquil, nearly empty. You’d taken down three quarters of it, using it like narcotics. A freshly sharpened kitchen knife was next to the bottle.

I was right. The broken contract stared me in the face. I wanted so bad to be wrong.

The counselors still called me. The messages from your school played on my answering machine: Your son or daughter was absent from one or more periods today. Your friends called me and told me how worried they were about you. This girl called and said that she saw you cutting yourself at a party. There was so much blood. She didn’t know what to do. I didn’t either. I didn’t see you anymore. I couldn’t force you to do anything, but experience your own consequences.

We didn’t try living together, again. We couldn’t find a place to meet.

I see you sometimes, now. We always have more to talk about than we have time. You’re starting your second year at community college. You have a job. You are always broke, but not broken. You don’t have any student loans. We high five on this. You want to start bartending. I know you’ll make lots of tips.

You call me when you need something. They are smaller things now: a birth certificate, a ride, someone’s phone number. I took you to get a cat. I am sad when you miss my birthday, when you don’t call on mother’s day. But you do remember your sisters’ birthdays. You took them to the boardwalk. They hold your hands.

You are 19. You live with your dad. You have a job. You are going to school. According to Facebook you smoke lots of weed. Sometimes, you call. We’re no fairytale by any means. There is still pain and hurt, but that is life. We are alive. You are resilient and I am proud.


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About the Author

Tara Dorabji is a writer, radio journalist, mother, filmmaker and Vice President at The Center for Cultural Power, a home for artists and activists. She currently serves on the Advisory Boards for Color Congress and Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. Her work is published in Al JazeeraThe Chicago QuarterlyHuizache, and acclaimed anthologies including: Good Girls Marry Doctors & All the Women in My Family Sing. She received a 2019 & 2021 Arts Commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission for her writing and documentaries on Kashmir. Her first film, Here Still, was screened at over a dozen film festivals throughout Asia and the USA, and were an official selection of the Jaipur International Film Festival, the world’s largest competitive film festival. Awards include Asia’s Best Independent Documentary Film at the All Asia Independent Film Festival 2020, a Silver Medal at the 2020 Asia South East Short Film Festival, and a 2021 Semi-Finalist Award for the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival.


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