Second Life

During Donnie’s first week in the mixed unit (drugs and crazy), a girl threw a TV set out the window because she thought it was criticizing her. Donnie walked to the window to look. “Probably was,” he mumbled. He’d grown up with a mother who came alive when insulted. The guy sleeping across the room, who’d dealt heroin with his own now-jailed dad, was woken up by the noise and asked, “Are we dead yet?”

“No. You’re just sleeping,” Donnie told him, and the boy’s eyes closed again; his thin arm, with a tattoo of a serpent, hung over the side of the bed. In the southwest corner of the unit, a girl had turned into a horse. She moved on all fours, neighing. Rearing. You had to walk around her.

Explore the April 2023 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More

Donnie had been terrified when his sister and brother had left him at the hospital, off in a remote wing of the place where their mom had been for years now. The whole first month, the staff wouldn’t let him visit her. He didn’t want her seeing him like this anyway. He wondered if she knew he was here, or if she still pictured him in the town on the hill, finishing up his sophomore year of college. Instead, they were together in this run-down, not-built-right hospital compound in Norwalk, California, in 1981—the bottom of the world.

All day, he was herded into groups with the other drug people, where they told their stories of how they’d become bad. They allowed Sylvie, his dog, to accompany him. Others talked; Donnie kept quiet. It made sense that he’d ended up here. He’d been aiming at something for a long time—he just hadn’t understood that this place was the target. He liked being on the same grounds as his mom. Even if she didn’t know he was here. Some moments, remembering that she was less than a mile away, he felt safe.

The police had found him on the beach, south of LAX, with a cluster of homeless people and Sylvie. Months earlier, he’d followed some kids to the beach. They taught him to surf. It felt like being clobbered in a fight, and then he washed up onshore, somehow still whole. The rest of the day, his body felt looser. They made fires at night and, around those circles, a joint traveled hand to hand. Donnie passed it along. Until he didn’t. From one toke to being high all the time took only a heartbeat.

That was one of the ways to know that he was an addict, they told him in the unit. Most people came from families of addicts, but his had insanity, not addiction. His mother had sipped crème de menthe from a tiny glass once in a blue moon. But he was marked. Lina and Walter, his sister and brother, had always wondered if he was their full brother. Maybe somewhere in the world he had a junkie dad. Would’ve explained a lot.

Everyone in high school had found out what happened to his mother. He’d never told, but they knew. Girls wanted to talk about it, their voices pitying, hands eager. For the first time, he had the impulse to punch a person. He never touched those girls who wanted to soothe him. He turned remote because he would have liked to hurt them.

The unit had incredibly glossy floors. Public schools used these same tiles, but they gave no shine. Donnie asked one of the hospital janitors how he kept it up. A block of wood covered with a towel at the end of a pole was all. They let Donnie keep one in his room to polish his hall. He liked the back-and-forth motion. He did the homework here, in a way he hadn’t in college.

Caseworkers shuffled the group into a van bound for a gym, off grounds. After the third Thursday, he asked the trainer—a pert, tiny, muscular mother of three—if she could write down a program for him to do by himself.

“Do you ever run? That’s how I get my cardio. You’re outside; you see things.”

He’d hated going around the track in school, hated the gym clothes. But now he built the habit every morning and, by the fourth week, felt the return loop of reward. Sylvie began to trot along. Running was the first habit he learned in rehab that he knew he could maintain.

By then he had seen his mom and told her that he lived here now too, within the same chain-link fence. He called it the Humble Place. He told her only what he knew she could take. He told her how Sylvie had saved him. His mother patted the dog. Animals had always gone to her instinctively.

He and the rest of the group prepared for family week. Donnie had never been part of the drama department in high school, but remembering how his classmates had cycled through adrenaline to exhaustion, he thought this must be like what went into the annual Shakespeare play, only real, the long rehearsals culminating not in a performance but in face-to-face revelations and apologies, not conversations exactly, because they were so practiced. You were talking with the people who meant the most to you, who’d now seen into the box of your failures. Your betrayals, your lies, your greed, your cheating—they could pick them out one by one to examine.

Julie, his mom’s friend from nursing school, owed him nothing, but she still came for the week. When their mother had gone into the hospital, Walter was already at Berkeley, and Julie took in Donnie and Lina. Julie had laughed with Donnie, told him her daily news, learned to cook what he liked. They’d watched movies together, eating Jiffy Pop and almond brittle, most nights of the week. But then he’d stopped and left her alone to worry while he was out destroying himself. Not that it had felt that way at the time.

He’d prepared a long letter to read to Julie, but she didn’t let him get through it. She wanted to take the blame from him, to make it all her fault.

His brother was a cipher, as always. Walter went for a walk with Donnie on the grounds, and when they sat down, he said, “You know how when we were growing up, I was considered, like, at least in the family, smart?” Walter said. “When I got to college, I found other people way better at school than me. Even Lina. She likes all that. I’m good at finding things that have fallen apart and making something out of the pieces. I fix up old buildings so they can be used again. Maybe when you’re done with all this, you can come work with me.”

Later, when Donnie talked to Lina, she kept trying to jump down into the well of the past with him. She saw them as twins. And she was this goody-goody! He’d never been like that.

At his next meeting with Trish, his caseworker, she wanted to help figure out what jobs he should look for; she had a list of shops that hired kids from the unit. But Donnie hoped to work here, on the hospital grounds.

“Because you want to see your mom?”

“Yes. Other things too. I want to be near her kind of people.”

Trish seemed to take this as an acceptable answer. A calm seeped into him.

After putting in some calls, Trish found only one opening, in geriatrics. The head nurse there would take him but not the dog. “We’ve got more than enough incontinence,” she said.

“Sylvie’s house-trained,” Donnie argued, but the nurse wouldn’t budge.

Donnie decided to hike over to the adult wards to talk to Shirley, the nurse his mom liked best. Sylvie folded herself into a perfect triangle at his feet as he spoke. “She’s my luck,” he said. Shirley convinced geriatrics to give them a try.

When he started, the head nurse put him on diaper detail. “New person always takes it.” Her profile was like the cut side of a key.

Donnie had once told a girl who’d asked about his mom that it wasn’t all poetry. The girl had looked at him with pity and romance. But he knew he could handle this, with Sylvie looking up at him. He taught Sylvie to sit near the person’s head. Often a hand would reach down to touch her.

He wrote a letter to the only professor he’d actually talked to in college. He said that he hoped to return in a semester, or maybe a year. He was moving to sober living. It had taken Trish a while to locate a place that would allow Sylvie. The house she’d found was in the direction of the college. Donnie would have more freedom, but with that came responsibility. He was strong enough to manage, she said. And he could always pop in to see her.

“You’re going to be dazzled by choices. You’ll need your supports. Tell me your dailies.”

“I run.”

“What else? You’ll find a meeting there. Do you meditate or anything? You know I pray.”

“I read. I’ve been reading more.”

“You’ll need strong dailies to structure your recovery. Oh, and your house will have its own rules, but one thing we recommend is, and this comes from a lot of experience: For the first year, try to stay away from any romantic involvement.”

Donnie laughed. “No problem there.”

His last day in the unit, he saw Horsegirl balanced on two feet, looking the way dogs do when they’re made to stand. Chagrined. To go from being a beautiful horse to a mental patient pulled up by your parents: talk about a flat world.

He didn’t mind the new place. He called this one Humble House, and he abided by the rules. He ran with Sylvie, five, sometimes six miles a day. He drove his mother’s old car to the hospital for work, where he was assigned not just to diapers but to help care for a very old woman, Ida. He drove out again on Sundays, to visit his mom. She was used to Sundays.

Over the summer, Donnie and his mom worked next to each other in the hospital garden for an hour after his geri shift. He weeded and turned the hard soil with a hoe. He bought fertilizer from a nursery, and they scattered the pellets as if they were feeding ducks. They had done that together when he was small. They talked little. One afternoon, his mother said, “See?” and lifted his arm to point out a bird. Until then, Donnie hadn’t noticed birds, but he now grew attentive to their differences. Eventually he found a book in the hospital library. He pointed out birds to her too. At dusk, he identified owls calling from a stand of redwoods.

When Donnie or his mom offered a comment, the other would nod or make a noise. Their conversations didn’t catch, the way Lina needed hers to lock and turn together. The hour felt like more than an hour. Clouds stretched thinner. They washed their hands together in the shed when they finished. He took his mother’s hands under the faucet of cold mineral water and scrubbed her fingernails with a brush. He always made her a mug of tea before he left. He set her up with it on a table next to her, in front of the TV.

When summer’s end neared, Trish decided it was time for Donnie to move again, closer to the college. “Sober houses are expensive,” she explained. “You’ll be starting school in a semester or two.” She rested her hands on the mound of her now-pregnant belly.

Walter came to help him find a room. The 11th place they saw was in a garage, overlooking a garden. Donnie liked the woman renting it out, an assistant professor named Caroline. She was young, and her tanned legs sparkled with blond flecks of hair. Her house was orderly and pretty.

Later, Donnie left his boxes on the swept floor of the new place and went out for a long run. Sylvie stopped after a few blocks in the August heat, and she showed no sign of wishing to resume. So after he showered, he took her for a walk. Contentment fell over him in the soft air, his body loose, tugged by the gentle, roving tension of the leash.

The geri unit celebrated Ida’s 91st birthday with a cake—but her daughter, whom Donnie had never seen, once again didn’t show. He took pictures, the staff helped Ida blow out candles, and then he walked her to the library, where she could talk to her daughter on the telephone. The key-faced nurse had given him the code to dial long-distance.

Donnie wandered over to the metal shelves of periodicals to give Ida privacy, but he could still hear. Ida was keeping the conversation going. She asked questions. The answers seemed short. Finally, he heard “I love you. I hope so,” and then the phone being put down.

He asked her if she wanted to walk before going back. She said no, she was tired. “She does her best; she tries,” Ida said. “You see, I wasn’t a good mother.”

For a long time, Donnie hadn’t talked about his mother at meetings. She was a box with a lid. But now he began to. The way he wanted to remember her, she was keen-eyed, fun. A very particular person. She didn’t like yellow flowers. “How can you dislike a flower?” someone asked. But he understood; not much of her time had ever been her own. Her likes and dislikes defined her. She could turn a small room beautiful.

One night—it felt like ages ago—in a dirty sleeping bag by the thundering surf, Donnie had been alone in the dark, high on LSD. The stars sparkled closer. He wasn’t afraid to be alone. Then he saw a shape that was really there, not a person, just denser air. The height of his mother. She had tried to kill herself; that was why she was in the hospital. The figure stood there, the edge of its density waving a bit in the wind, like the edge of a cloth. Nobody told him, but the waves and the pressing stars and the figure had given him to understand. She’d wanted to die.

Telling these people he barely knew about his mother changed him. His life had broken—he’d broken it—and was nearly healed. Now he could feel himself trying to grow. Donnie got stuck on the Steps. He made inventories without much trouble, but when he tried to offer amends, nobody wanted them.

Like Julie, his family refused to forgive him; they blamed themselves instead. Lina said they were fine when he told her he needed to apologize. The only person who accepted an apology was his mother. She listened and murmured, “Mm-hmm.”

As spring arrived, Donnie felt that he would remember this time as the period when his character was formed. It could have happened anywhere, but it happened here. He was 20 years old, sober, and employed. He saw his mother every week through it all. It could have been anywhere, but it was here that his second life began.

Illustration of man gardening in side yard next to woman seated in chair under porch awning with dog curled up by her feet
Katherine Lam

When he talked to Caroline about recovery, she asked if he missed drugs. He didn’t think so. “I miss the places they brought me. I don’t have as many revelations.” She also asked about his return to school. He had no idea what to major in. He thought about it while running and afterward in the shower, the hot water voluptuous on his back. In the mixed unit, he’d learned to enjoy restoring order. The rote work of it. He’d spent hours going back and forth polishing that floor. He knew that there was such a thing as beautifully clean. Sylvie was always by him. Donnie made dinner for Caroline and her kids, Lily and Jasper—soba noodles every Monday, with a fried egg for each person (over-easy for Jasper) and snipped herbs from the garden. He didn’t want the summer to end.

His mother was rocking in a chair when he asked, “You going to be okay with me going back to college? I wouldn’t be able to see you every day.” She stared at her hands, not answering. “I don’t have to,” he said.

“I want you to,” she said slowly. “I wish I had gone for a higher degree.”

“You have a degree. You’re a nurse, Mom. You may not have become what you wanted, but what you are gave me my life.”

When fall classes started, he saw his mother less often. He was able to drive to the hospital only on Tuesdays and Sundays to wash her hair. He told her about his courses. Sometimes he brought his books along and did homework, reading little bits aloud. Often he’d come across something and say, “I have no idea what that means,” and they’d laugh. They could spend an afternoon together without saying much. When he left, he felt nourished, as if he’d eaten a light but healthy meal.

Donnie started to pick her up after his classes on Wednesdays to bring her to his place. He was planning a winter garden bed for them to work in together in Caroline’s backyard. He sat his mother in a lawn chair while he dug.

The second Wednesday she came, he and his mother picked up Caroline’s kids from school. Lily and Jasper were sweet with her, taking her hand as she got into the car. In the yard, they brought things over to her in her chair. Tea. A blanket. A peeled orange. For a while, she slept as the three of them moved around her. Donnie prepared a good dinner, but she didn’t eat much. Driving her back to the hospital, he asked whether she’d ever considered moving in with Julie.

“No,” she said.

Donnie was surprised.

“Never.” She shook her head.

She could still be adamant. That was a good sign.

Caroline suggested that Donnie bring his mother to the house for the week that Shirley, his mother’s favorite nurse, would be on vacation. The kids would be away on a school wilderness trip then, and they could clear out Lily’s room. If it went well, maybe they could reconfigure so she could be there more.

Donnie spent days preparing. He carried out six bags of trash, took down curtains and rods, and unscrewed hooks from Lily’s closet. He remembered the phrase danger to oneself or others, the way he’d stopped the first time he’d heard it. His mother had never wanted to hurt them. She’d only been after herself. She probably didn’t need these precautions anymore. Still, he thought he would close her into Lily’s room at night, with a chair shoved under the knob. Just so she couldn’t roam outside in the dark and trip.

Two weeks before Donnie’s mother was due to arrive, the next-door neighbor pounded a For Sale by Owner sign into his front lawn. It wasn’t a beautiful house. It was right next door, though; a garden could span both yards.

But he was getting ahead of himself. She was just coming to visit. The morning he was to pick her up, Donnie rose early. He diced vegetables for soup and tried to remember the last time he and his mother had lived together. He had been 13 when she’d stopped going to work. The sound of running water and the clatter of pots in the kitchen that had awakened him most days of his life no longer did. When he got home from school, she would still be in bed. He would knock on her door and ask if she’d like some toast. He made cinnamon toast, cut in fours, the way she had before.

At the hospital, the paperwork involved in signing her out overnight was time-consuming, and he found her sitting on the edge of her bed. Shirley had packed her suitcase. Finally, when they arrived at Caroline’s house, she seemed disoriented. She asked where the little girl was, though she knew Lily’s name. She didn’t want her soup. She didn’t touch the avocado either, once her favorite food. That night, she had trouble sleeping. She stayed up fretting her hands as Donnie sat with her. Shirley had given him her medicine for each day in a Ziploc bag, and she’d carefully written out the schedule. Caroline had sleeping pills, but they didn’t think they could give one to her without asking a doctor.

Julie was supposed to visit the next day. Then, Donnie thought, he could rest. He’d been awake for more than 28 hours. His mother didn’t seem happy to see Julie, but Donnie excused himself for a nap with Sylvie in his room above the garage. That night, while they sat at dinner—Donnie had made risotto with squash from the garden—his mother got up from the table and put her hand on the wall. She said she had to go to bed. It was 5 o’clock. She slept until 10. Then she was up all night again, wanting to walk outside. Donnie took her out on their quiet street. She kept turning to go the other way.

He wound up driving her back to the hospital after her fourth night. She seemed relieved to watch her clothes being put back in her cubby. She patted the top of her bed. They went to the community room, and she fell asleep in a chair.

Donnie told Shirley about the visit when she returned from her vacation. “We all get used to our routines,” she said. “And then we end up loving them.”

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Donnie said to Shirley.

Donnie sat with his mother in Ward 301, as he had so many afternoons. “You were a wonderful mother,” he said. “Thank you.”

“I did come,” she murmured.

“I love you.”

“That’s all we have to worry about now. That’s all that’s important.”

Those were the last things she said. Then she was gone.

Something he hadn’t thought about for years came back to him. His mother had once parked at the end of a dusty road lined with olive trees. This was somewhere in the Central Valley, long ago. A friend of hers was there, with a scarf triangled on her head, tied under her chin. Could that have been Julie? They’d parked behind a flat, one-story building that turned out to be a sanatorium, and his mom was walking toward the entrance. Her friend, who was Julie, he was now sure, acted as if this were a joke, a stunt his mother had cooked up for a laugh. A nun behind the desk gave his mom a clipboard, and she started to fill it out. They had her in the wheelchair already, another nun stationed behind, ready to push her by those two horns down a long, empty hall.

Julie said to her, “Come on, let’s go find a place to get ice cream.” And then, at the very last minute, his mother stood up from the chair and walked outside with them, a person rising from a grave. Exhilarating. They drove around looking for ice cream and finally found a stand with strange flavors. Avocado. Date.

Donnie understood that she’d come back to life for him.

This story is adapted from Mona Simpson’s most recent novel, Commitment, out in March 2023. It appears in the April 2023 print edition.

By Mona Simpson

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

The Atlantic