by Judy Chicurel
Here’s how I imagined it would go over the summer: He would have come up to stay with me and my husband for a long weekend, maybe a week even, away from the friends who gave him shelter when he was using drugs. From the specter that seemed to surface every few months like clockwork. We’d known him since he was in the womb, but that wasn’t the same as knowing him now. Still, we thought he’d come to stay and go to the beach nearby and body surf and stroll along the esplanade, smoking, gazing out at the swans and the geese he loved to feed back when he was a little boy and would come to visit.
And at night, I hoped, he’d go fishing. In the bay inlet; maybe standing on the small footbridge connecting two neighborhoods, where older, more weathered fishermen halted their tangled lines as pedestrians passed behind them, trying to step over the fish that lay flapping in nets on the ground. I thought we’d buy him a rod at the ancient bait and tackle store on the other side of the inlet; we thought he’d like it, going there to browse, and then maybe we’d get coffee and pastry next door at the new place that used to be a Dunkin’ Donuts.
He’d pick out a rod and then, at night, I’d park my beach chair not too close but not too far from him as he stood against the railing, one foot bent up on the concrete sea wall, and the sky would pulse with stars and maybe there would be one of those fat moons that lit a path across the water. We’d talk about everything and nothing; we would avoid speaking about the future or rehab or anything that would cause him to crawl back into himself and become invisible.
Maybe later in the week, we’d take him to an event at the college down the road; a concert or an art show; he’d be too polite to refuse outright and we wouldn’t stay long enough for him to get bored. We just wanted him to see kids his age, going to classes, a campus surrounded by a shallow beach, to spend time in spaces where there were no dingy floors littered with needles. He had tried college, actually; called us weekly for a short while to talk about his classes, his teachers.
But then he disappeared again, into himself, turning off his phone against the barrage of frantic texts and phone calls from his family, pleading, demanding: Where are you? Call us. Call us, please, call us. The latest disappearance no different from the others, always similar in their desperation. His. Theirs. Ours. Should we come down? I asked, several times.
I hate the word “intervention,” but what else could we offer? The calls, the letters, the emails that went unanswered; he didn’t like texting, strange in someone of his cohort.
And now rehab again. Thirty days, because the insurance won’t pay for long-term, which has proved more effective, at least in some cases, but costs the earth. He’d become more closed off than even before the drugs; difficult to reach, to know what was happening inside. “I just get anxious,” he told me once, building a fire in the fireplace against the night chill, even though it was August, explaining why he sometimes smoked a joint before going to bed. I nodded, no recriminations.
I can’t get into arguments about pot as a gateway drug; I’ve known people over 40 years who still smoke a joint before going to sleep and never graduated to anything stronger. The gateway to all of it is life; what happens, what you experience, what you choose to take in and decide to leave behind.
I had thought if he came to see us, while he was casting his line into the water and the music from the party boats floating in a stream down the bay, that maybe he’d say something, give us some clue that would unlock his stoic silence. Something that would explain the lost chances, the ennui that led to another bout, another stint in rehab.
But even if he did, what, after all, would we say in return? He wouldn’t find solace if we told him, “You’re not alone; it’s an epidemic, ravaging the country.” It might make him feel smaller, somehow, more lost in something so huge. You don’t have to do heroin to understand that it must be the greatest escape on earth. Why else would people endure the things they do for a fix?
Whenever the edges of exasperation curled around our conversations, whenever I was tempted to say, “Fine! Go then!” I’d think of people like Philip Seymour Hoffman, and how wonderful heroin must be for someone with a life like his to want to leave it for something like that. We always make excuses for the rock stars, though; that somehow, it’s more tragic, a greater loss. But what if you don’t possess some superlative talent, if you’re not the greatest drummer or photographer or playwright who ever lived? What if you’re just a boy who’s known setbacks and heartbreak and fear of what lies ahead?
How many times do you write and say, “We love you so much, we believe in you,” before it begins to sound as hollow to him as all the “This is the last time, swear to God, I’m done with it” starts to sound to us?
The first time he overdosed, his brother heard the thud as he hit the ground; the third time his father found him, sprawled on the floor of his bedroom. How many times in rehab, now? I don’t like to ask. We’re past “three times is the charm,” that’s for certain.
I hope this is the last time. I hope he can finally feel the love that surrounds him. I hope the day arrives when he does come up to visit, maybe later in the fall, when it’s less crowded and we can pick him out a rod and sit together, watching the water ripple beneath the bridge, him feeling the tug on his line, talking about nothing and everything. I hope this really is the last time, so there never is a final thud on the floor.
A friend, reflecting on his own son’s opioid journey, once remarked, “I wish I’d held him closer.”
Is it ever close enough?
Judy Chicurel is the author of “If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 8, 2017, on Page SR7 of the New York edition with the headline: Fishing for Hope in the Face of Addiction. Today’s Paper|Subscribe