Every mother has a nightmare list filled with awful “what if’s,” from teen pregnancy to drugs to car crashes to … well, you know the list, mom.
One El Cajon mother has seen her list become reality. Her son disappeared into the maw of the streets a quarter-century ago. Sort of in plain sight. To her sorrow, that’s all she knows. Her name is Garet Hegner and her son is Ross Gregory Hegner.
Garet is 86 and silver-haired, but you can get that Grandma Moses image out of your mind. She’s lively, bright and has a quippy sense of humor. She’s slim and short, what used to be called petite. She’s the type who, as a girl, would have been called perky and cute. Her given name was Margaret, but she dropped the “Mar,” sort of on a whim. Garet is a “Why not?” woman who went back to school and got her degree at 53.
However, that was back then. Today, she has something troubling on her mind, and it won’t go away. She wants to see her son “before I die.” That doesn’t seem imminent, but at her age, the possibility is no longer an afterthought.
Ross is now 62 years old. That makes him about 100 on the streets, and causes Garet to preface a statement with, “If he’s still alive.”
She is not a teary woman, and she is not a hand-wringer. She just wants to see her son again after 24 years of being gone into that broad, empty “somewhere.”
He was an average boy growing up in the L.A. area with three sisters. Mischievous, but not to the bad-boy level, he did his school work and didn’t give his mother grief beyond the manageable. And when I say “his mother,” I mean only his mother. There was a gap in the family circle. His father’s presence was an event that seemed as frequent as a birthday.
Garet married her husband at age 20 and stayed in that unblissful coupling for two decades in their Downey home. After working to put him through law school, she was repaid — well, she wasn’t repaid.
“I got a PHT, ‘putting husband through’ Loyola Law School. He had the highest score in his class. He was a pretty smart guy.”
Turned out he was also a bigamist — married to Garet and to the bottle.
Were you abused?
“A lot verbally. Once he hit me, and I told him if he ever did that again I’d kill him. He was gone all the time. It was a joke at the house that when his shaving kit was present he lived there, and if his shaving kit was gone he didn’t live there.”
Were there other women?
“I think he was so damned drunk all the time they wouldn’t want him. He did have an unemployed baby sitter for a girlfriend, and he would beat her up in front of her mother. Why would her mother allow that?”
You say your daughters have handled their father’s behavior better than Ross. Is a father’s rejection tougher on an only son?
“Has to be, but Ross didn’t really get into any trouble until his last year of junior high. His father had been drinking very, very heavily the night before, and ended up drunk underneath the glass coffee table. The next day Ross and a friend wrote graffiti on the school walls. He got suspended.
“So he had to be home for 10 days. Like I said, it wasn’t real bad; a lot of kids have done it. Then his dad came in one afternoon and he said to Ross, ‘You’re going to stay right in the house. You’re not leaving the house.’ I just rolled my eyes. Fatherly affection.”
When Ross was 16, Garet decided to get a divorce. Soon thereafter, her 40-year-old lawyer-husband hit a freeway abutment head-on and was killed.
“He was drunk enough and mad enough because he had gotten the divorce papers. As to why he did that, I have no idea.”
In 1967, Garet moved her family to San Diego and into a routine life.
She says her son was an above-average student, active in sports, and a normal kid throughout high school. She never sought counseling for Ross because he never seemed to need it. After high school, he attended California State University Fullerton and graduated with an accounting degree. He got a bookkeeping job and married. So far, so good.
“He and his wife were getting along fine, except she went home to mama all the time. He said choose: your mother or me. So she chose mama.”
There were no children. Ross moved to Mexico and lived in a small village. He was down there for two years. His mother didn’t know where he was.
So this is when he kind of went around the bend?
“Yes, he started to go around the bend.”
When he returned from Mexico in his mid-20s, he moved in with Garet, but she says he became very controlling. “I didn’t like that, so I asked him to move. I feel guilty about that, because maybe he wasn’t ready to move, but neither was I ready to have some kid control me.”
Ross got a job in Carlsbad and a low-rent apartment in Point Loma. He eventually bought an old truck and a cement mixer and went into the stucco business. However, that didn’t last long, and he went broke. Garet says that must have crushed his self-worth, because he got a cheap hotel room downtown and dropped out of sight. He would show up only for Christmas.
Every defeat seemed to put him into a tailspin — his marriage going south, his business failing …
His alienation continued to grow. His younger sister asked him to give her away at her wedding, and he bluntly refused.
As the 1980s progressed, he became increasingly reclusive. He would stop and see Garet at odd times, sit and talk, then disappear. He also became more quarrelsome. He once asked her for 35 cents so he could buy a hamburger. She offered more, but he said no, only 35 cents. One cold winter night, he stopped to see her, then left to catch a bus for downtown San Diego. He was barefoot and wearing a flannel shirt.
She realized he was pulling away. One day, he called and asked her to clean out his little apartment.
“I asked where he was going. He said, ‘I’m going to take care of myself.’ I told him I’d be willing to help him, but all he said was he was going to take care of himself. That was the end of the conversation.”
She didn’t think he was into drugs or alcohol, and she was no novice at recognizing that.
The last time she saw her son was 1989.
Through the years, she has repeatedly searched every public record and reached out to every agency she could think of to locate him. She contacted El Cajon police, who opened a file on him, but that was all. Whenever she read about an unidentified male body being found, she would contact the coroner’s office, but it was never him. No matter how she tried, Ross stayed lost. She has a sense of futility because she knows her amateur efforts must have left many search possibilities unexplored.
Garet is quite aware that a man of 62 on the streets is prey to everything from — well, from everything. She realizes Ross may well be dead. She hopes not, but she’d like to know.
Has this hit you harder recently?
“At Christmas, I was just a basket case.”
It must be very painful.
“Very painful, yes. I’m ready to let go right now.”
What do you mean, “let go”?
“Just cry and cry and cry. I feel guilty having a man like that be their father. I feel guilty about that.”
Were you a good mother?
“The three girls think I was.”
I ask Garet if she has a picture of Ross. She says her daughter has family photos, but she herself has never been a picture taker. She sorts through a desktop and finds a photo of a little boy with his hair slicked back and a big smile and extends it to me.
“This is all I have,” she says.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected]