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More Than Birds

** This essay was originally broadcast on The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright on CBC Radio. February 4, 2018. It is a response to the 2017 BC Coroner’s Report stating that 1422 people died of overdoses last year in our province. There is a link to the audio at the bottom of this post.**

I was unpacking toilet paper and library books when a police officer in a bulletproof vest knocked on my door. I don’t remember his face, but I do remember his heavy black boots in contrast to my bare feet. It was a bright, warm day and he asked me to come outside, into the driveway out of earshot of my daughter, then he informed me that my 21-year-old son had died early that morning.

I have hated our driveway ever since.

The officer wouldn’t tell me how Holden died, he just kept repeating, between my howling questions, that foul play was not suspected. He stood there awkwardly, not knowing what to do with his hands, while I curled like a fetus on the paving stones and felt my life slip sideways, several degrees off its axis. I remember thinking that the wrong person was wearing the bulletproof vest — I should have asked for it before he started talking, that may have prevented the bullet from entering my heart — but of course it was already much too late for that.

Many weeks later, the toxicology screening confirmed that our son died of opioid toxicity, otherwise known as a heroin overdose. To be more precise, an unfortunate mixture of alcohol and heroin. A combination of the two is often enough to slow and eventually stop even the youngest, strongest, and most beautiful of hearts. This is what the coroner explained as I stared out the window at our chestnut tree.

I am now one of the many mothers who have the coroner’s direct line in my contacts.

The coroners in Vancouver are very busy these days. So busy that my son’s body was driven 20 minutes away, to Burnaby General Hospital because the morgue at St. Paul’s was full to capacity.

But what really killed him? This is a harder question to answer, and one I have spent nearly every moment since that day trying to unravel. A grieving mother will never rest; she will not believe you if you tell her “it is what it is.” And she will never agree that he is “in a better place,” because a better place would be in my kitchen eating curry chicken and listening, with obvious irony, to Mariah Carey.

I am left holding one end of a devious thread. A thread that I keep pulling on and following, but like a magician’s trick, there never seems to be an end. Could the occasional beer I drank while I was breastfeeding have pre-disposed him to addiction? Did the fact that Holden’s father and I divorced when he was young leave his tiny psyche fractured? More likely it had to do with the disconnectedness he encountered as the first generation of kids to surf the early wave of the internet. Please tell me it wasn’t the video games. No, it must have been the anxiety and depression he struggled with, combined with the emptiness and pain he chose to numb. Maybe I can blame the destructive and yet highly creative people he surrounded himself with — graffiti artists on the fringes of society. Or, was it just the odds?

I don’t know why my son turned to heroin. I believe he used the first time in a reckless moment of depression when he didn’t care about anything, including himself. I have had similar moments so I cannot judge. I once climbed out the back window of a speeding Mexican taxi to surf on its roof. Dangerous, absolutely, but I did not want to die that night, I was just trying to have fun, trying to be cool, trying to figure myself out. Which seems to be what we are all doing here. By making mistakes and feeling the burn we inch closer to ourselves. And, let’s not forget, some of us are here because of one reckless moment.

If only he could have been as kind to himself as he was to the many people who have contacted me since his death to say, “Holden was the only one who really understood me, he was there for me when I felt completely alone, your son stayed up all night with me, he made me laugh like nobody else, he was the smartest person I’ve ever known, he was my boyfriend (there were quite a few of those), he was my best friend (there were many of those too).”

My son was not a haunted figure sleeping in a doorway. He was not someone you would be scared to pass on a darkened street; in fact, he probably would have smiled at you and tipped his baseball hat your way. When he took his final breath, he was strong and tanned from working hard in the sun. The last time I saw Holden, he told me a crow had eaten his lunch on the job site. So the next morning I made an extra sandwich, one for him and one for the crow, before kissing him goodbye and telling him “no I won’t give you a ride to work, you can get there on your own.”

I wish I had known that birds were not his biggest problem.

If I could, by some form of magic, go back and do things differently I would simply ask my son, “what is really going on here?” And I would wait until I heard what I knew in my heart to be the truth. I would wave off all of the, “nothing’s wrong Mom,” and “I’ve got this Mom,” and, “don’t worry Momz, it’s all good.” I would hold steady through the denial. I might say something like, “I can see you are in trouble. I don’t know what that trouble is but I do know that not talking about trouble makes it bigger. Let’s bring your secrets out into the light where they will shrivel. Let’s break them apart piece by piece so we can bury them instead of you.”

For now, the simplest tasks have become rituals to Holden’s memory. He watches me unpack groceries from his smiling photo on the fridge, I smell him when I take sheets out of the linen closet and he helps me choose which books to borrow from the library. And sometimes, when his sister walks out the front door and down that terrible driveway, I am able to see only her.

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/the-sunday-edition-february-4-2018-1.4516513/each-one-had-a-story-each-one-had-a-mother-behind-the-overdose-statistics-1.4516552

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Between Him and Me

        They told me his body lay on a mattress in a room that wasn’t so bad. They told me he was covered, and peaceful. They told me he spoke of love that night, that he laughed. They told me he made plans for tomorrow before he closed his eyes.

        Next morning, in the warm heart of summer, my son’s body lay cool and slack, the scaffolding that held up his being for twenty-one years, now absent. When his soul flew, the tent poles collapsed. Only a quiet skin inscribed with markings remained.

>>>>>

        Confusion isn’t new, Holden wakes up in weird places all the time. He is an accomplished couch surfer because he isn’t picky. The first question he asks himself most Saturday mornings is, where am I? The second, who is beside me?

        This is Kara’s place, a studio apartment in the Metropole Hotel in Gastown. He stays here sometimes when he is too tired to make it home, or too faded. Today something is different though and Holden is trying to figure out exactly what that difference is. He is on his back with a red pillow under his head. A colourful Indian tapestry drapes across his middle. Bare chest and feet, tattooed arms splayed by his sides, his mouth yawns as though he is about to say something, his eyes are closed.

        Once, a professor at art school asked Holden to walk around a nude model until he found a perspective that interested or challenged him. Today’s view is like that. Off kilter. He sees the room from a peculiar angle, and so, he knows a different truth. He isn’t awake. He is aware. The grey has cleared off and a pared-down crispness has taken its place. Rather than looking out at the world, he can see into it.

         A feeling settles in, something rare he hasn’t experienced in years, not without artificial enhancements anyway. He is, although the word is not quite right, buoyant. This lightness takes him some time to identify. It seems to be more of a non-feeling, a lack of sensation, and this nothing yells so loudly at him it commands his attention.

        Holden makes a sort of mental checklist starting with the physical differences; no headache, no urge to vomit, no parched dryness in his mouth. He is not agitated, aching or weighted with fatigue, which comes as a relief.

         The inner alterations are more perplexing; there is not a trace of guilt, self hatred or shame. There is no worry about being too little or too much. Dread has walked away for good. No discomfort of any kind is left in him and it is the vacuum created in the wake of their departures, that makes him realize something enormous has rolled away. He has been wiped clean.

         His leather steel-toed boots, caked in dirt, lie beside his body, laces snaking on the bare floor, harbouring no ambitions. They too have laboured their last.

        What the fuck? I was just trying to have a good time. I was just trying to feel better.

         Over by the brick wall, Kara sleeps, snoring softly, unaware. Her ivory face is smooth and young, unburdened by what she is yet to know. Kara is not his girlfriend any more but there is a place in her heart reserved for him. Her chest rises and falls with effortless rhythm. Holden notes the stillness of his own ribcage, the silence enveloping his frame. His thoughts hover as the realization of what has happened begins to crystallize. A blurry downloading picture sharpens into focus.

        Late last night they met up at the bar downstairs, played some pool with a few other friends and drank a few beers. He left for a bit to meet somebody and was back in ten minutes. Around midnight Holden started nodding off at the table. He needed a bed.

        Can I stay with you tonight K? I feel like shit.  

        Of course you can, just don’t barf, okay? Or you’re cleaning it up.

        I promise not to hurl, I just wanna sleep. He slurred.

        Together they rode the elevator up to her room above the bar. Holden draped his arm around Kara’s neck.
        Even though we’re both with different people at the moment, I will always love you. Can we just hang out all the time and drink gin?

        Sure, we can build a house with gin on tap and raise ferrets.

        I mean it K, one day I’ll get my shit together and we can try again okay? I’ll be whole-den. See what I did there?

        His heavy eyelids drooped. He leaned into her and rested his sweaty forehead against her neck, his scraggle of reddish beard prickled her bare shoulder. She stretched one thin arm around his low back to hold him up. They both looked across at their joined reflection in the elevator’s mirrored wall. Her pink hair loose and long. His head shaved close. She pulled the sunglasses down off her head, set them on her nose and smiled at him.

        We are BFF’s all day every day Holden. You’re just fine. What you need is a big glass of water and good night’s sleep.

        Inside the one room apartment Kara yanked the top mattress off the bed and let it fall to the floor while Holden slumped onto the only chair, fumbling with his phone. He nearly toppled forward but Kara put a hand on his shoulder to brace him just in time. She kneeled to help him pull off his boots, then his shirt. He collapsed onto the mattress and let out a long sigh. She propped up his head, slid a pillow under it, then she covered him.

        Thanks K-bomb, Holden said into the pillow. You’re one of the good ones. Can you make sure I’m up for work?

        He was asleep instantly. She bent down low and kissed his cheek.

         Good night you big mess. See you in the morning.

 

         A seagull screams outside the window, the ocean is close. A square of morning light glows from behind the blackout curtain. The fridge hums. Down in the street a man shouts. A truck hits its brakes then accelerates with force.

        Just last week Holden pulled a drowning man from the ocean at Wreck Beach. The man was drunk and went swimming wearing jeans. When the weight became too much the man had struggled and called for help. Holden didn’t hesitate. He ran across the hot sand, dove into the sea, swam out, hooked the stranger under the arms and dragged him coughing through the green salt water back to shore.

        So much for all those years of life saving.

        He remembers the fabric of his own t-shirt and cargo shorts curling around him like vines that day, strange and cumbersome against the skin of his chest and legs. Laundry swishing in a washing machine,  pulling him down.

        This morning the weight, the pulling and the awkwardness are gone. He swims naked, released from the resistance of gravity and fear. He is painless. He is free.

>>>>>

         Children are not bound by earthly constraints. The lost ones disregard the limitations of oxygen and blood. A mother’s child is a mother’s child always.

        I hold my son now, as I did for his breathing years, and I wonder how such a beautiful song could be so abruptly halted. From full throated choir to…echoes. He was fully and completely alive just a moment ago. It is impossible.

        Though he is gone, he is going nowhere. Sometimes, the ones we love most remain swirling smoke. No amount of sleuthing, guesswork or naive maternal assumption will make sense of this, but I have too much love left unspent to let him be. So, I follow the breadcrumbs through the forest.

        I dig to understand more of how his path led to the room above the bar with the brick wall and the colourful tapestry. Though I have uncovered some of the facts, truth is a slippery fish. My view is tilted too, making this an imagined story, and a reluctant one. It is a love song to my son, who grew too old too young.

         They told me his body lay on a mattress in a room that wasn’t so bad. There can be nothing good about the room housing the body of your child. They told me he wouldn’t have known what was happening. That he was asleep when that border was crossed. Someone said small mercy. It may have been me.

 

~ originally published in eMerge 17 – The Writer’s Studio Anthology ~ 

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The Biggest Headstone

I have no grave to place flowers by.  I have no headstone to polish and sweep.  I do have a beautiful, smooth, wooden box, made by my husband Cam, that we keep on the same shelf as the vodka. We don’t reach for the vodka often, or the box for that matter. The box contains the burned bones of my son.

And now I also have a sixty-five foot cement wall in a parking lot in East Vancouver covered in glorious red paint, at the centre of which there is a huge and uncanny portrait of my son Holden in black and white, smiling out at the world.  He looks truly happy.  I hope it’s true. There is no good resting place for your child, but this wall makes sense.   If there has to be a symbolic location for Holden to be recognized, well, this is his kind of place.  

 Continue Reading →

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Permission

“Mothers are all slightly insane.”

― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

*****

        First there is the sigh, then, “Why are you doing that to yourself, Babe?”  His voice drifts toward me from the other side of the king size bed jabbing at my bubble.  Just a slight whiff of exasperation trails along behind his words.  I wondered what he is talking about?  Doing what?  I blink a few times, sharpening focus.  He has cracked the shell leaving me no choice but to  look at what is exposed.   Oh God… it’s me, a curled up feverish child tangled in the rumpled duvet, clothes unchanged and musty, hair unbrushed, breath of the morning though it is night.  I have been here for hours, for days, for months sobbing quietly, or not so quietly, with a book in my hands and an unending stream of hot, fat tears rolling sideways across my nose onto the damp pillow.

        I am reading “The Catcher in the Rye.”  Well, trying to.  Swimming in it is more like it.  The quirky words, that gorgeous dialogue and the vivid scenes it creates scrape my heart raw but somehow this etching and scouring feels … right.  It’s a good kind of pain, like the sore muscles in your back after a day of gardening in the Spring. It feels right to me anyway.  As right as a table with three legs can feel.  I am desperate to spend time with any Holden I can find. Continue Reading →