FAMILY: Seeing My Mother/Family Face-to-Face for the First Time in 18 years
My mother's sermon on her 75th birthday
Many homeless people have lost contact with their families for various reasons and I'm no exception to the rule. In some cases, it's in direct connection with them having become homeless. I would dare say that, more often than not, it is the homeless person's sense of shame and not the family's rejection of them which is to blame for the loss of contact. In other cases, a person becomes a substance user and gives little or no thought to the concept of family. Still others develop mental illness that diminishes their ability to relate to or interact well with others and which may even cause them to develop unacceptable, problematic behaviors that their families are not capable of dealing with. Then again, even homeless people can have falling outs, vendettas or long-standing disagreements with family members just like housed people often do, as was the case with me. Nonetheless, my story ends well. As a matter of fact, things went so well that I decided I would tell it to other homeless people (and maybe a few housed people, for that matter), encouraging them to reconnect with family.
On Friday, August 24th I flew to Florida and visited my adoptive mother Joanne Elizabeth (Tedesco) Sheptock (JETS) face-to-face for the first time in 18 years. I really wanted to be there for her 75th birthday celebration on the 26th and I put a lot of effort into making it happen. I stayed until the morning of August 27th then flew back to DC. As you can imagine, there was a lot of family news to catch up on. And I'm glad to be able to say that there was no animosity concerning the 18 years that I'd gone without visiting or the 11 years during which there was no phone communication. My mother was simply glad to see as many as possible of her 36 surviving children (1 having died) and 42 grandchildren along with several relatives and friends. When I called her in August of 2009 for the first time in 11 years, she seemed calmer and more peaceful than I'd ever known her to be in the past and that hasn't changed to-date.
On December 13th, 2010 I was featured on the front page of the Washington Post due to being a homeless homeless advocate who uses computers and had, at that time, 4,548 Facebook friends. Nathan Rott had interviewed me and followed me around on about five different days over the course of three weeks in November 2010. As it turns out he (like Pam Fessler of NPR) had contacted my mother while writing the profile of me and included her words (which I didn't fully agree with) in the article. (He actually asked several people their opinions of me.)
I called my mother on Christmas, at which time she told me that she heard a radio personality discussing events in DC and said to herself, "He's going to talk about Eric". Sure enough, he did. She explained that what he said was not good and she went on to express support for what I do, even suggesting that she might be called of God to actively support me in the near future, even traveling to DC. During that conversation, she also told me that she wanted to have a family reunion on Thanksgiving 2011.
On Thanksgiving, I called her to say that I was sorry that I couldn't make it. I actually felt ashamed, knowing that I'd had 11 months to save money for the trip. It was welcome news when my mother told me that the family reunion had been postponed until her 75th birthday nine months later. I purposed in my heart at that time that I wouldn't let it be said that I couldn't save enough money to make the trip with a full 20 months to do so -- nine of them still in front of me.
I began to tell people about my plans immediately after the Thanksgiving phone call but didn't begin to plan in earnest for the trip until April 2012. I e-mailed people to let them know that I needed work -- if only doing odd jobs -- so I could buy a round-trip plane ticket and have some pocket money. I wanted to save $1,000, though I figured that I wouldn't spend more than $600, all things considered. As I did yard work, moved furniture, spoke for NCH (National Coalition for the Homeless) and received donations to help me make the trip, I surpassed my goal. Then life happened. Unforeseen needs of mine as well as my girlfriend ate up much of what I had saved. Nonetheless, my ticket was purchased in June and the final challenge was trying to hold onto some pocket money. But I knew I would make the trip, if only with the clothes on my back; because, I had the ticket already.
On the morning of Wednesday, August 22nd, just when I was beginning to think that nothing else could go wrong, my cell phone began to malfunction. I didn't have the time or money to get it fixed, as I was busy making last-minute preparations for the trip. Those preparations included picking up $40 that I was owed on Thursday the 23rd and receiving a $40 donation the same day. (Upon my return to DC, my phone would eventually cost $60 to fix. It needed a new screen.)
I called my mother and a sister who lives near her from a pay phone on Thursday night. Neither one answered. I had no way of reminding my mother, whom I'd last spoken to in June, that I was coming. I tried again the following morning from the DC airport, but to no avail. (They may have been wary of answering numbers they didn't recognize.) I called from the airport in Gainesville, FL after landing and was finally able to reach my mother. My sister Mary Grace picked me up from the airport less than an hour thereafter and drove me to Mom's place in Interlachen, FL. I had a measly $70 in my pocket but was glad to reconnect with family. (I ended up not spending any of it and was actually GIVEN money while there.)
I would turn out to be the first arrival of many who came from out of town to visit my mother on her 75th birthday. I spent the evening visiting with my mother and the seven children whom she still cares for (3 of whom I'd never met) as well as my sister Mary Grace. The following day, my sister Mary Frances arranged for the family as well as friends and relatives who'd traveled from Georgia, Mississippi, south Florida and elsewhere to celebrate Mom's birthday (a day early) at Napolitano's Italian restaurant in Gainesville, FL. (Mom is Italian -- a 2nd-generation American.) There were about 3 dozen people in attendance. During the dinner, my mother made a speech in which she admonished her children and grandchildren to be kind to everyone. The following day, on her birthday, she would preach a sermon entitled "The Hope of Jesus", during which she explained how she is looking forward with anticipation to the day she'll go to Heaven and meet Jesus. My brother Robert sang three solos which were intertwined with her sermon at Bethel Assembly of God of Interlachen, FL.
While the visit was a pleasant one, I either heard some bad news for the first time or received confirmation for what I suspected. I've known about my father's death for quite some time now, though I didn't hear about it in time to make the funeral. I knew that my brother-in-law Dan Robinson came down with scleroderma in 1984 -- an autoimmune skin disease which can take 15 to 20 years to kill a person. By 2009 I had begun to suspect that Dan had passed, though I'd not heard about it. I saw while on Facebook last year that my sister Mary Frances (Dan's widow) had a new last name: Buckland. My brother Steve confirmed my suspicion several months ago in a phone call. There was further conversation about Dan Robinson during my trip last weekend. But I received the surprise of my life when I heard that my brother Jonathan (MY middle name) had died at the age of 31 from a rare kidney disease. He was an autistic savant whose thing was dinosaurs. He knew everything there is to know about dinosaurs. I also heard about health problems which some of my surviving siblings have come down with.
While I can't bring back deceased family members or change the past in any respect, I CAN encourage those who have lost contact with family to reconnect with them. As my story indicates, the internet is a great way to do that. The person who gave me the $40 donation encouraged me to spend as much time as possible with family so that I have no regrets 30 years down the road. I sensed that he spoke from experience. I admittedly had some apprehensions about how the visit would go; but, they all dissipated as I met my sister at the airport and then received a warm welcome from my mother upon my arrival at her home. She has entered a phase of life during which she wants to let bygones be bygones and sleeping dogs lie. I concur. She wants her loved ones to visit as often as possible, never knowing which day will be her last on Earth -- when she'll meet her Maker. It's safe to assume that many elderly parents share such sentiments.
But elderly parents and siblings are not the only loved ones that the homeless need to try and reconnect with. Many of the homeless have children of their own whom they haven't seen in quite some time. Whereas parents and siblings WANT to see their homeless family members, children NEED to see their parents and to feel loved -- even if the parent is homeless and broke. Love doesn't cost a thing. So, while I SUGGEST that the homeless reconnect with parents and siblings, I IMPLORE them to reconnect with their children if they've lost touch.
All of this raises the question: Do I support efforts like those of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to reconnect homeless people with family as a way of getting them out of the system? As his policy stands, I don't support. With a few tweaks, I would. Homeless service providers should afford the homeless as many opportunities as possible to speak to family by phone. Then, if and when it looks as though the broken relationship has been mended, the homeless person should be given a round-trip ticket to the family member's home. If the attempted reunion doesn't work out, they can always return to the city in which they were last homeless. The second ticket should be a one-way ticket which they only receive after it is all but certain that a meaningful relationship has been re-established and the homeless person won't be needing homeless services anymore.
Such a program would most likely put a sizable dent in the homeless community. One can only hope. The cost would be justified insomuch as buying the train or plane tickets would get homeless people out of the system -- people who cost an average of about $15,000 per year to shelter and feed on the city's dime. If you're not sold on the savings, maybe you'll buy into the moral, loving imperative which is being set forth here. If that doesn't win you over, maybe there's no hope for you until you experience homelessness. After all, you're only a paycheck or one bad decision away from being homeless.
A Timeline of My Life as a "Sheptock"
August 1974: having been born in Atlantic City on February 15th, 1969, I had my skull fractured at the age of eight months. I spent almost five years in foster care. Rudy and Joanne Sheptock picked me up from Atlantic City in August 1974 after having picked up a girl named Becky from Morristown, NJ on the same day. We were their ninth and tenth children. Six of their seven natural children had been born and they'd already adopted two girls.
August 1975: The family moved from Chester, NJ to a 13-bedroom mansion in Peapack, NJ. That same month Becky and I got adopted in Elizabeth, NJ. My mother had recently converted from Catholicism to (non-Catholic) Christianity and made a rule that everyone had to have a name from the Bible. Becky became Mary Elizabeth and I went from being Eric Gooden to choosing the name Eric Jonathan Sheptock (a tough choice for a six-year old).
December 26th, 1984: Most of my family moved to Interlachen, FL. (I believe my parents had 32 of their eventual 37 children by this time with four having grown up and moved out.) I was one of at least a half dozen who stayed in New Jersey with Dad until Mom returned for the closing and he went to Florida.
March 29th, 1985: Having turned 16 a month and a half earlier, I was one of six family members who flew to Florida that day on Piedmont. We flew out of Newark at 4:35 PM and landed in Jacksonville at 7:10 PM.
June 1987: I graduated from Hollister Christian Academy in Hollister, FL. Through a friend from church who also worked for the Job Service of Florida, my mom was able to get me into Job Corps even though you aren't supposed to attend job Corps unless you drop out of school or were in the military.
March 1988: I returned to Mom and Dad after being wrongly terminated from Turner Job Corps in Albany, GA. Due to there being some friction, I moved to a trailer park about a half mile down the road.
May 25th, 1988: I began working at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, FL. I would end up working there until February 14th, 1994.
Christmas 1994: I visited my family face-to-face for what would turn out to be the last time for the next 18 years, having first experienced homelessness ten months earlier. I recall telling my mother about Joyce, my girlfriend of four years who died on August 11th, 1994.
April 1998: I made the call to my parents which became the reason for me not calling for 11 years thereafter. It would be the last time I ever spoke to my father.
September 13th, 2000: My father died from triple cancer (prostate, bladder and pancreas). Because I was not in contact with my mother, I didn't receive the news for quite some time.
September 2002: I put my then-wife Angela in contact with my mother (in keeping with a promise I'd made) but didn't get on the phone myself.
2004: My mother and several siblings moved from Florida back to New Jersey.
2007: My brother Jonathan and brother-in-law Dan Robinson died.
August 26th, 2007: I tried to call my mother from a friend's phone; but, I couldn't because I was unaware of her move back to new Jersey. I began to think I'd lost contact with family forever. (I wasn't on Facebook or Twitter yet.)
June 2008: I began to blog and I found info about my dad's date of death on-line. I began to use Facebook and Twitter that year.
August 2009: Due to having been on NPR, I regained contact with my mother. We discussed my father's death but not the other two deaths.
Christmas 2010: my mother expressed support for what I do.
August 2012: I saw my mother and other family members face-to-face for the first time in 18 years.