1993 – I was working on a project on urban poverty. Every Thursday, I met with a doctor, a social worker and a nurse, who cared for the Aids patients at the Ambassador Hotel, an SRO flophouse in a neighbourhood littered with crackheads and soup kitchens. One morning, I met Julie, standing in the lobby with a newborn baby in
her arms, pants half zipped, her then-partner Jack at her side. They said Rachael gave them ‘a reason to live’.
Julie said yes to being in the project. I hoped that she would let me get closer.
When I knocked on Julie’s door, sometimes she would answer and other times she would say, ‘Not today, bitch.’ Jack was happy being a speed freak. Julie did not want to lose Rachael, so she left him. We would sit on the floor in the lobby or a hallway of the hotel and talk about Rachael, Julie’s past boyfriends; she would ask questions about my life.I wondered if she was lonely, wondered why she was letting me into her life.
Rachael didn’t crawl until she was two, because there was no room on the floor. She was a sweet baby, didn’t cry much. Julie read to her, loved her. I can’t forget Rachael sitting on the soiled, stained carpet in the lobby of the West Hotel when Julie slapped her across the face, leaving her handprint on the baby’s cheek. I took the photo. Felt like shit for doing so. Rachael cried and Julie clenched her teeth, started to pull her hand back to slap Rachael again. I said to Julie, take a time out and I will deal with Rachael. I tried to calm her. Julie walked away.
Julie did the best she could with what she knew. Her first memory of her own mother was getting drunk with her at six; then there were years of being sexually abused by her stepfather. They lived in an SRO, blocks from where Julie lived now, in a room divided by a sheet on a string.
1996 – Julie gave birth to Tommy. The father wanted nothing to do with them. The next Christmas, she met a man named Paul at the Salvation Army. She moved out with Tommy and Rachael to be with him, to live in the suburbs. I thought the story was going to end here.
1998 – In January, I got a phone call. Julie was in the hospital when the cops came and told her that Paul had abused Tommy. He was found with adult bite marks on his torso and legs, covered in vomit and blood. Tommy and Rachael were taken away.
1998 – Jack died of Aids. Julie visited him before the end. I wondered if she knew this would be her fate too. We never talked about it. That same year she met Jason and became pregnant with Jordan. Julie had tested positive for drugs and, afraid the baby would be taken away, she and Jason kidnapped him from the hospital. I told her that she shouldn’t run. Julie and Jason got nine months in jail. They would have two more sons, Ryan and Jason Jr., taken away at birth.
2005 – I found a posting on the Internet by someone looking for a ‘Julie Baird, born 10/10/73’. It was her father who had been looking for her for thirty-one years. I told Julie to call. Julie and Jason moved to Alaska to be with him. Weeks later Julie was in intensive care. Mr Baird met me at the airport. We hugged. He was thankful and the tears in his eyes looked like they had been there for years. Julie’s father thought she looked like a crackhead but ‘loved her just the same’. For two years Julie had a positive family experience before her father passed away on an Easter Sunday. He died knowing his daughter, finally able to let go of the hurt that had haunted him for years.
Months later Julie called to say she was pregnant with Elyssa. ‘I don’t think you should have the baby, it could kill you,’ I told her. I said that I was ‘sad but happy for her’. Around the same time, a woman named Karen called me after finding my website. Karen had adopted Julie’s son Zach (also called Jason Jr.) who Julie and Jason had not seen since birth. That summer Karen, Zach and I made the journey to Alaska. After Zach left, I was doing a video interview and Julie was giving canned answers. I asked her if this was what she wanted her children to remember. We started again. Julie fell apart, her hands trembled and tears that had been trapped for years escaped. I cried.
2009 – The last couple of years were the hardest. I watched Julie fade. Her weight was dropping off and her legs could barely hold her. Jason, Julie and Elyssa moved into the wilds of Alaska, near her uncle Mike. To save money, they lived in a small trailer, with no running water or electricity. They lived off the grid in the beautiful wilderness, in a yard littered with broken-down cars and appliances. Things were bad. Julie was taking thirty-five pills a day. She could not hold Elyssa any more. We sat in the yard and she started to get angry, saying how she did not want a child to see her die, but Jason had just wanted one he could bring home. Julie knew she was dying. I drove to see her one last time. Every minute seemed like an hour. When I walked in, we held each other. My eyes fought like hers to hold back the tears. I started to speak but she stopped me: ‘You have been in my life the longest and you can do whatever you want.’ All I could say was thank you. I brought Julie pictures from her life, ones I thought she would like, for her to hold, to see. Days ended up being weeks. I watched her sleep, tanked up on morphine so she would not feel pain, waiting to die. I sat with her for hours and days. Not wanting her to be scared when she saw people in the room that were not there. Not wanting her to be alone. Each night I left in the darkness, alone on the road. Falling asleep, all I would see was Julie gasping for air.
I try to remember her and all I see are my photos in my head.