Several days a week you can find Frances Davis working at her church. The devout Catholic is on staff and also volunteers because helping others is more than just following the tenets asked of her by a higher power. Davis leads social justice workshops at church, helps serve free meals to homeless people and often sits and talks with them.
She has personal experience with dealing with people on the margins. Her second oldest son, Donald Schultz was chronically homeless throughout much of his adult life. Last summer he died. The medical examiner listed the cause of death as cardiac arrest.
“I was always afraid they’re going to find him dead on the beach or find him dead in the woods. Because I knew he couldn’t continue that level of drinking and smoking. The two are not a good combination,” Davis said. “That’s probably why his heart gave out. But I knew he couldn’t continue living the way he was and live very long. He was 60 when he died.”
Davis didn’t understand the full spectrum of her son’s life until after his death. Homelessness and addiction can create barriers in families that make it difficult to maintain a relationship. Davis created the stipulation that Schultz had to be sober around her, which further complicated matters. Last year in King County 144 homeless people died, but Schultz didn’t pass away under the elements.
Call it cruel fate that Schultz passed away eight months after moving into an apartment. After spending six years on a waiting list, he finally had a permanent address. Davis said Schultz didn’t care for downtown Seattle and preferred to be outdoors. He was a skilled carpenter and painter, which afforded him opportunities to stay on a homeowner’s property while he performed maintenance work. Davis said those arrangements inevitably ended because his drinking would lead to conflict and the homeowners would ask him to leave. Schultz lived in a motor home at one point and even a driftwood shack he built on Richmond Beach. He became friends with his neighbors who lived in the million-dollar homes nearby and some attended his funeral.
Schultz was divorced with two children. After his death, his kids wanted to scatter his ashes. They eventually allowed Davis to place his cremains in a space she had reserved for herself. Given the way he lived his life, Davis wanted to lay him to rest with dignity.
“I wanted a place where he could be. Where we could go. He was alive, you know,” Davis said. “I don’t want to just throw him away. Because he — it was the alcohol. It just made him into something he wasn’t. And that’s what’s so hard to remember.”
Davis said that Schultz was always supportive around the house as a kid, helped take care of his younger siblings and maintained good grades. When he was 7, their home life changed dramatically. Davis said her husband abandoned the family. She later remarried and relocated from Idaho to Mountlake Terrace. During his freshman year of high school, Schultz played football but he stopped after he broke his thumb. Davis said the group of friends he hung out with changed, and soon after he dropped out of school.
“I’m not saying this is the reason for the drinking, but it just broke Don’s heart. When his father just was out of the picture, he cried and cried and cried. And that’s got to have an effect on a child,” Davis said. “He certainly had a lot of heartache. I mean how does a 7-year-old handle a parent that they’re bonded with just disappearing?”
Davis said his drinking worsened over the years. She described him as being in total denial of how alcohol negatively affected his life. As a result of his addiction, he was in and out of jail and treatment, he served time in prison for domestic violence, and eventually racked up thousands of dollars in fines related to criminal charges. Despite trying to help him, she eventually took out a restraining order on him in 2014 because he became abusive. It ended after a year but the two never connected again. Davis said she grieved the loss of her son for two years. She went into a depression and sought counseling.
“My doctor said to me, ‘Frances, it’s not your son. That’s the alcohol. The little boy that you picture running around that’s not him anymore,’” Davis said. “That helped me somehow to realize that the disease had taken over. He was no longer. Because the son I knew would never do that to me.”
Davis has more than just memories of her son. He left behind a large light blue suitcase weighed down with mementos of his life. To Davis’ surprise, she discovered a stack of old school papers from his children that were likely mailed to him since they lived in another state. She discovered an old Christmas card, old letters, photos, baseball cards and more. It’s a snapshot of his life and what he valued. Going through his belongings has challenged her beliefs of what he cared about. Their relationship was tumultuous for many years, and she described loving him as a process.
“He would do things that would just drive you up the wall. And at the moment, you never wanted to see him again,” Davis said. “Then it was forgiving him and loving him again. That’s what it was, a cycle of that, which is what Jesus asks us to do.”
Davis isn’t sure if her son would’ve gotten sober if he lived longer. She offers this piece of advice for loved ones of those suffering from addiction.
“In a sense you have to save yourself. Because all my grieving didn’t help him. It only made me go lower and lower,” Davis said. “You can’t throw away your own happiness for someone that you can’t help. There was nothing I could do to help him. So I just tried to start living for myself, and I did.”
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge Facebook
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