Six months ago, I found my 26-year-old son, Derek, dead in his D.C. apartment from a heroin overdose. Our lives are shattered, our hearts broken.
Derek had big dreams. He wanted to go to graduate school and teach writing at a university. He left behind years of poetry to which we have access, thanks to Facebook. It is both comforting and sad to read his poetry. He never talked much about his writing and, frankly, we didn’t pay enough attention to it. His works are filled with clever and heartfelt references to his upbringing in our remote northern Minnesota town. He wrote about childhood toys, playing music with his punk band and talking by walkie-talkie to his Canadian girlfriend as she stood on a dock on the Canadian side of the Rainy River and he stood on our dock on the U.S. side.
After graduating from high school, Derek went to the University of Massachusetts at Boston for a year, but he set his sights on Georgetown, and he was surprised when his transfer application was accepted. It was a struggle for us to cover the bills, but we knew it was his dream. He loved living in the District, and he stayed after he graduated.
His substance abuse started in high school with alcohol and marijuana, as is common. A couple of years ago, he admitted himself to a 30-day inpatient rehab in the District. We found the journal he kept during his time there. It is difficult to read of his struggles, but it is a testament to his strength and desire to live a clean and sober life that he was able to pick himself up after rehab and begin to turn his life around. He had no job and no money and lived in a rough neighborhood where drugs were available day or night. He found work, moved to a new neighborhood and was applying to graduate schools when he died.
I had rented a house in Alexandria last summer. On Aug. 13, Derek’s employer called to say that he had not reported to work for two days. I think I knew immediately that he was dead. He would never miss work. He loved his clerical-administrative position with a large D.C. law firm. As I rode to his apartment in a taxi that awful day, we came up behind a young man jogging across the Key Bridge. For a second I was sure it was Derek and that the whole thing was a mistake.
Derek was an avid runner, a physically fit drug addict. That is just one indication of the dichotomy of Derek. When the building manager let me into his studio apartment and I saw him lying face down and fully clothed on his bed, I was relieved for a second and started to tell him to get up and get to work. But when I touched his back it was like touching a board, and it hit me that he was dead.
A syringe was neatly placed on his bedside table. His apartment was tidy and clean as always. All his work shirts were ironed and hanging in the closet. Police, emergency medical technicians and medical examiner staff came and went as Derek’s brother, his brother’s partner and I waited in the apartment hallway and an apartment next to Derek’s that a kind neighbor let us use as we cried and made sad phone calls. Everyone involved that day was extremely professional, sympathetic and sensitive. The detective gave me his card, and when I called a few days later with a question, he got me the answer I needed — even on his day off.
Because the death was unattended, we were required to identify Derek. We were expecting the worst, like you see on TV, with my son’s body lying on a steel table covered by a sheet in a cold room. But thanks to a program in place in the D.C. medical examiner’s office, it wasn’t as bad as we anticipated. The program provides for personnel from the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing, a grief counseling service, to meet with the family in a private room, where the counselor gives the family information on dealing with grief, and then the family is allowed to identify the loved one by a photo. When we expressed our appreciation for all of this, we were told it was a fairly new program that’s unique to the District. I’m sure it’s expensive and complicated to administer, but it’s completely worthwhile.
Derek died a few weeks after “Glee” star Cory Monteith’s alcohol and heroin overdose, and we had discussed Monteith’s death with him. Like Monteith and many addicts, Derek was a functioning and productive person. He lived in a nice apartment and had a college education. We encouraged our kids to dream big, not to be afraid to move to a big city and venture out on their own. Of course, we now wonder if that was a mistake. We are crippled by what-ifs. And Derek, like most addicts, didn’t start out using heroin. He started with alcohol, then moved to marijuana, then cocaine. It’s a progression, which is why I am angry about the push to legalize marijuana in the District and elsewhere. Legalizing marijuana can only facilitate the progression.
I would be happy if I could spare even one family from suffering a similar fate. I know most families don’t think this could happen to them. People think that heroin addicts come from broken families (Derek’s father and I have been married for more than 30 years) or they come from poverty (we are both gainfully employed) or have a history of problems with the law (no one in our family has a criminal history). But heroin addiction doesn’t follow any rules.
Certainly there were bad things coming for Derek had he lived. It would have gotten worse before it got better, if it ever did get better. Most likely he’d have lost his job and his apartment, spent his savings, gone to jail, failed again and again at rehab, lost his dream of grad school. And I know there are parents of addicts who spend every waking moment wondering, worrying and checking on their children to see if they are using. I know there is very little they can do. But I would give or do anything for one more chance for Derek.
The writer lives in Ranier, Minn.