Inspiration and example
Years ago, Chris Hayward glanced out the car window to the sidewalk in front of a Main Street church. He noticed a woman with eyes very much like his. Not smiling as his often did, but strikingly similar nonetheless.
Riding in the back seat with his parents up front, the 16-year-old teen had heard stories about how his biological mother, Beth Cooper, was forced to give him up days after his birth because of her alcoholism.
He knew she lived in the area, and he noticed a bottle in the woman's hand, her leathery skin and clothing badly in need of washing.
"Is that my mother?" he asked his adoptive mother, Esther Hayward. Esther paused, giving Chris a strong hint that he was right. Then she confirmed what he'd suspected, asking if he wanted to meet her.
"I said no," Hayward recalled last week. "I had a great love for my adopted family, and they're my parents, my real parents. All the hard work they had put in, and I felt almost as though she (Cooper) didn't deserve to meet me."
Hayward, who lives in Allenstown, would eventually meet Cooper, who died this month of cirrhosis of the liver. He met her in the apartments where she lived, but he steered clear when her demons seized control, when alcohol and recklessness forced Cooper into the woods and tents and culture of Concord's homeless.
"I didn't want to remember her that
way," said Hayward, the 33-year-old manager of a local home improvement store.
He lives in Epsom with his wife and two daughters. He wants to talk about Cooper, despite the pain and sensitive nature of her past, because he wants to talk about homelessness.
Soon, he'll start his first winter volunteering at the South Church shelter, inspired by Cooper's life.
And her death, at age 52.
"He is doing more for other people now, and he realizes that to be part of a community you need to give back," said Esther, 69, of Concord. "I'm glad he sees the value."
Hayward said his feelings toward his mother and her life are mixed, adding that he stopped feeling after a while.
"I feel a little bit of anger that she couldn't hold herself together and fight the disease and win," Hayward said. "But when she died, I was kind of numb after so many years. I knew it was going to happen eventually if she kept drinking."
Cooper tried to quit, and that becomes evident when Hayward spills the aluminum chips she earned at Alcoholics Anonymous onto his kitchen table.
He found them in a glass jar while cleaning out Cooper's North Main Street apartment last week. The chips have Roman numerals on them, signifying in months how long she'd quit drinking at different junctures in her life.
They also illustrate her seemingly endless fight to stay clean, a few steps forward, a few back, over and over.
There are four separate chips for one month of sobriety, another four for two months, another three for three months.
And, most telling, there are eight chips for 24 hours.
Once, she made it five years, even speaking at Bow High in the late 1990s, telling students about her experiences.
Hayward is ambivalent about Cooper's story. He knows alcoholism is a disease. He knows Cooper suffered emotional trauma, from the death of her mother when Cooper was a teen; from the state taking her two babies, including Hayward's half-brother, who lives in Florida; from the beatings she sustained by the down-and-out boyfriends in her life; and from the death of one of her nicer boyfriends, killed when a heater set the couple's tent on fire.
So he mixes his understanding of a disease and Cooper's bad luck with his own inability to accept the past.
"I definitely felt like she made a choice," Hayward said. "But at the time I was young and really didn't understand addiction and alcoholism, and I felt she chose that over me, and essentially she did. But as far as I've been told, she always wanted and always tried to have me in her life."
It happened while Hayward was a student at Bow High. He'd been adopted by Rex Hayward, who did electronics work for the phone company, and his wife, Esther, who ran a day care in her home and later waited tables.
Hayward is careful here, careful to show how grateful he is to these people.
"Let's face it, without them, I would have led a terrible life," Hayward said. "I wanted for nothing growing up. I always had clothes on my back and new sneakers on my feet."
Rex and Esther knew Cooper's living conditions. They'd seen her around town.
"I'd ask my parents about her," Hayward said, "but psychologically I put it out of my head that I was adopted."
Then came that day in the car, when Hayward asked Esther about the woman on the sidewalk.
"He had the strangest feeling," Esther said. "I don't know if he had heard us talking or he saw us nudge each other when she walked by, but he knew."
After choosing not to meet right then and there, Hayward said he changed his mind about a year later. He got Cooper's address and knocked on her door.
"That was the first time I could ever hear my heartbeat in my own body," Hayward said. "That's how intense it was and how fast my blood was flowing. Almost everything paused there for a minute."
The two sat and talked, beginning a relationship that had good times and bad. Sometimes Cooper got sober and had a place to live, other times not. Sometimes Hayward felt good about seeing her, other times he stayed away.
He last saw Cooper at a convenience store shortly before her death; she didn't recognize him. She must have been drinking again, he assumes.
He and his aunt made a collage for her funeral. There are pictures of his mother wearing a pretty blue dress and warm smile, pictures of her standing near her car after getting her license at age 42, pictures of her giving the middle finger while sitting on a motorcycle, pictures of a woman beaten down by life, her forehead lined like dry riverbeds, her face burnt from too much sun.
The collage was displayed at Cooper's funeral, at the South Church, where Hayward will soon start volunteering. He'll sleep over once a month.
"I distanced myself from my mother toward the end," Hayward said. "I had a little bit of guilt when she passed, and I maybe didn't do enough for her. So many things can be done.
"I wish I could do more."
(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)