Threatened Refuge : A Mother Faces Eviction for Nursing Her Dying Son
They don’t have much, but they have each other.
And soon they may not have even that.
Shirley Lewis was dealing as best she could with the agony of watching her son succumb to AIDS. The nausea, the weight loss, the gruesome viruses, each symptom was enough to break her heart, if not her spirit.
Fixing Steven’s meals, fluffing his pillows, monitoring the plastic box that holds his 46 daily pills, she fought to ignore the fact that she was losing her last blood relative on earth, her only boy.
Then came the final straw, the event that finally left her devastated. Last weekend, Shirley received a tersely worded notice from the management at her Huntington Beach mobile home park, reminding her that all residents must be at least 55 years old.
Because Steven is 39, the notice insisted, he must vacate the premises by Friday, or else Shirley faces eviction and repossession of her mobile home.
“Most people out there are planning their Thanksgiving dinners right now,” says Shirley, 61, holding the notice gingerly in her hands. “We’re planning how we’re going to stay together.”
A woman in the office of the Huntington Shorecliffs Mobile Home Park said management would have no comment about Shirley or the terms of her rental agreement.
Shirley and Steven, however, fear the reason for management’s position may not be age, but AIDS, so she’s hired a lawyer and served her own notice:
“I won’t put my son out on the streets,” she vows, gazing fondly at Steven. “I will not put my son out on the streets.”
Smothering a cough, Steven smiles at his mother and gives her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. Despite a day of debilitating nausea, he has found the strength to join her for a few moments on the sofa.
“I feel so bad for her,” he says. “She’s got high blood pressure, and she doesn’t need this.”
Nor, he adds, does he.
“I’ve got a lot more things to think about,” he says, “than where I’m going to sleep.”
It’s that in-between time of day--a few minutes after sunset, a few seconds before Shirley remembers to light the living room lamps--so a heavy half-darkness fills the house that Shirley bought four years ago with most of her life savings. This is the only house she’s ever owned, she says, but she’ll risk losing it before disrupting her son’s fragile, fading life.
“I want my son to have the best possible quality of life for the time he has left,” she says. “And I think any mother, any parent, would feel the same way.”
In fact, Steven’s other parent does not feel the same way.
Upon learning of Steven’s disease, his father severed all ties two years ago.
“He said, ‘My son is dead,’ ” Shirley recalls. “And then he hung up the phone. Well, his son might be dead, but my son is not.”
Besides his absent father, Steven has no brothers or sisters, no cousins or grandparents. He doesn’t wish to burden his mother, but he also has no friends to whom he can turn.
“They’re all gone,” he says.
Like Steven, Shirley is alone in the world.
“We have no family we can go to,” she says. “It’s just Steven and I. And when he’s gone, I’ll have no one.”
Isolation makes a mother and son very close, Steven says. Through the years, they’ve been more like best friends, or roommates, and it was a reluctant parting when he turned 19 and struck out on his own.
“I made sure he knew how to do his laundry, cook, iron, write a check,” Shirley says proudly. “This is the first time he’s ever had to move in with me. The first time he’s ever needed my help.”
The day did not come without warning, of course, since Steven’s HIV was diagnosed in 1987.
Knowing their time together might be short, Shirley decided two years ago to take him to Europe, to “see all the things he’d always read about.”
With the last of her retirement nest egg, she took Steven to Greece and Italy, making a few lasting memories among the ruins of Athens and the gondolas of Venice.
“He’s always been fascinated by all this ancient history, ever since he was a child,” Shirley says. “I like to say he’s an old soul. I like to think he’s been there before.”
When shopping for mobile homes, Shirley was mindful of what lay ahead. She says she warned management at Shorecliffs that she would someday have to care for her son.
“I was very open with them,” she says. “They didn’t say anything.”
In April, the inevitable came, Shirley says: “Steven was no longer able to care for himself and his savings had run out.”
At first, management was sympathetic to her plight, and no one mentioned the age restriction.
“They can flex the rules as much as they want,” says William B. Carolan, Shirley’s lawyer, who notes that the mobile home would have no problem if it was Shirley who became ill, and a 39-year-old care giver moved into her house.
Why management chooses not to make an exception for Shirley and Steven is a mystery, Carolan says.
“I hate to think it’s my HIV status,” Steven says. “I keep a low profile. I know about the age restriction, so I don’t use the pool, I don’t go in the Jacuzzi.”
Mostly, Steven passes the time tending a small garden and doing pen-and-ink drawings. He sometimes doesn’t leave the house for days, and in the evenings, when he can’t sleep, he watches TV.
Lately, when Shirley hears him stirring, she knows that more than his illness is troubling his sleep.
Likewise, when he sees a light shining under his mother’s door, he knows that more than her high blood pressure keeps her awake.
“We’re both worrying about each other,” he says with a bitter laugh, “not thinking about ourselves.”
“I have to tell you,” Shirley says grimly, not seeing the humor, “I’ve shed a lot over this, a lot of tears.”
She turns to Steven and looks as if she might shed a few more.
But he reaches an arm around her waist and gives her a hug.
“We’ll get through it,” he tells her. “We always do.”