When Mizue Baker got off the bus at the Greyhound station on Carrillo and Chapala streets five years ago, it had nothing to do with visiting Santa Barbara.
“I was looking for a place to die,” she said. Torn by guilt, loneliness and feelings of worthlessness, Baker, who was about 70 years old at the time, was at the end of her rope and had stopped caring about what she was doing and where she was. She was headed to San Francisco from Las Vegas that fateful day, planning a suicide — the one that would be successful this time.
“I don’t know how to swim,” the Garden Court resident said. “So I thought I would try to drown myself in the ocean.” San Francisco or Santa Barbara — it didn’t matter anymore to her.
Baker’s story goes back decades, back to when she had a family. The wife of an U.S. soldier, the Tokyo native had three sons and a daughter, and a life in San Francisco.
Things started downhill for her when her daughter, at 17, was diagnosed with lupus, a devastating autoimmune disease. Baker, who was baptized into the Christian faith in 1981, remembers her efforts to reconcile her faith to the situation.
“I thought, if I was really, really good, my God would make her better,” she said.
Instead, she was in for trials and tribulations of biblical proportions.
First, her marriage collapsed. Her husband couldn’t handle the amount of time she was putting into caring for the sick child. They became estranged.
Still, she continued to care singlehandedly for her child, until her daughter was taken away by authorities who believed she was making the situation worse.
Her purpose taken away, her miracle denied, Baker tumbled into a black depression.
“I stopped praying. I didn’t think about God anymore,” she said. “I thought, ‘God doesn’t care.’”
Her restless spirit had her wandering. She wound up in Las Vegas, where she spent several aimless years. When she wasn’t working as a Keno caller, she was living a hard life.
“I was drinking,” she said. Over time, things got worse, to the point that she found herself and all of her worldly possessions in two suitcases headed back to San Francisco in a Greyhound bus to see her old pastor, and to find a way to die.
But something compelled her to get off in Santa Barbara instead. “I felt like I was pushed,” she said.
Then a chance meeting with a kind stranger who brought her to the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission took the elderly woman off the streets. Later, through the help of more people, she ended up at Garden Court, a low-income senior housing facility on De La Vina Street.
It wasn’t instant, but the depression she was carrying with her lifted. She unpacked her two suitcases in one of the facility’s small studio rooms, and what other few things she needed, Garden Court tried to provide.
She had people to talk to at her new home, things to do, friends such as Sandie Smith, resident services director, who saw to it she was adapting to her new life.
“It was like I was dreaming,” Baker said. At last, her restlessness faded.
A few years later, her old demons are not fully exorcised, but now she has other things to think about, such as the people she donates her crocheted blankets to, or the babies in Bali she knits little birthing caps for, from the endless supply of yarn people give her. It’s part of how Garden Court keeps its residents engaged in their community.
She even re-established her relationship with God, whom she credits for the nudge that sent her off the bus at the stop just around the corner from where she lives. He had not forgotten her, she said.
Baker, now 76, still shies away from taking care of people, because it reminds her too much of the time with her daughter, but she’s nursing one of the facility’s pet finches back to health. She’s active and busy — in fact, it seems she’s busy enough to forget that she’ll be entering into her eighth decade in a few years.
“I used to volunteer at Casa Esperanza every day,” she said. “But the last two years I’ve been slowing down. I must be getting old.”
“Talking About My Generation”
Garden Court will be holding an event to benefit the Garden Court endowment, which, according to Executive Director Tim Durnin, goes to a range of things for the senior, from supplies to prosthetics.
Celebrity journalist Rona Barrett is the honorary chair of the event, titled “Talking About My Generation.” The benefit will honor Charles Slosser, outgoing president of the Santa Barbara Foundation. KEYT-TV news anchor Paula Lopez will be the benefit’s emcee and local architect Brian Cearnal the live auctioneer.
“Talking About My Generation” will be held at the Canary Hotel, 31 West Carrillo St., from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday.
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