I’ve never had the drug talk with my twelve and fifteen year old daughters because I’ve never felt like I had to. So many people in our lives have died from alcohol and drug addiction that discussing the point seems moot. Death has been talking loud and clear.
My daughters’ first life and death lesson with addiction came when they were eight and eleven. I was picking up the youngest, Dev, from an after school activity one early fall afternoon. A bunch of us parents were waiting in the school parking lot for the kids to be dismissed, when a young girl ran up to me.
“Excuse me, Dezi’s mom,” she said, tears about to spill out of her eyes. “My dad drove me here to pick up my brother, but he was driving weird.” Her dad was drunk, she said, and she didn’t want her or her brother to have to get back in the car with him.
Stacy was a sixth grader like my daughter, Dezi. Her brother and my youngest daughter were in the same elementary school. I didn’t know Stacy well, but she had been to our house once and Dezi had been to hers. The smell of brownies baking greeted me the day I went to pick up Dezi at Stacy’s brand new luxury condo. The gleaming granite counters, the rich wood cabinets and all the new chrome appliances were the picture of perfection. We were about to move to Stacy’s neighborhood into a fixer-upper with few traces of luxury. Our new house was almost a century old with kitchen appliances almost as old as me. I remember a jab of jealousy as Stacy’s mom handed me some still-warm brownies in a Ziploc to take home. It was hard to imagine that Stacy now needed my help.
“Should I call your mom to come get you and your brother or another relative?” I could see my daughter and Stacy’s brother coming out of the building and her dad approaching us from across the lot. Stacy shook her head. Her mom was on the other side of the country at a funeral. There were no other relatives around. Dad was in charge.
I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to lie.
“I promised your wife I’d pick up the kids today and have them over for dinner,” I told Stacy’s dad after I introduced myself as his wife’s good friend, reminding him of our girls’ playdates together. “It’s all arranged. They’re coming home with me.“Drug free for years, this dad gave heroine another try and, about a month after cleaning up again, he went to sleep and never woke up. Another dead dad.
His eyes were glassy. His face was red. He didn’t argue; he just asked if I was sure it was okay. Then he pointed his finger at his son and told him to behave before he turned and walked away.
I didn’t know if I was angrier at myself for not trying to make sure the dad got home safely or at him for driving drunk with his daughter in the car and not thinking twice about turning his kids over to a complete stranger. I could have been Jackie the Ripper for all he knew. But the kids had to be my priority.
On the car ride home, I praised Stacy for asking for help, and when Dezi got home from school I applauded her for being such a gracious host to surprise visitors. She was pretty shocked to see Stacy and her brother in our kitchen, but she just rolled with it. That night, the four kids ran around the backyard playing tag and chasing down the last of the fireflies while I made pasta and contacted Stacy’s mom on the west coast. Stacy’s mom sounded sad and tired, but she did not sound surprised. She thanked me for taking in her kids and accepted my offer to have them spend the night.
Later when my daughters asked why they were allowed to have a sleepover on a school night, I told them there was an emergency, a sickness in Stacy’s family. This time, I didn’t lie. The sickness was alcoholism, and it runs in my family too.
I stopped drinking with the help of a fellowship when I was 21. My kids have never seen me have a drink. But they’ve been to meetings and sober celebrations with me, and they’ve heard addiction and recovery stories. Sometimes those stories include laughter, and sometimes they include death.
A year after the school night sleepover, my husband and Dezi went to the funeral for Stacy’s father. Stacy and Dezi were twelve. Stacy’s father was in his early 40s. A year after that, just shy of my 23rd sober anniversary, an old friend of mine died of a drug overdose. He was 46. The whole world seemed to know him and mourn him.
I was getting ready to watch the Super Bowl with my family when my husband called me into our tiny butler’s pantry where we keep the family computer. He wanted to speak to me in private. I saw Phil Hoffman’s face on the screen before my husband could tell me what happened. I threw my hands over my mouth to keep from swearing and stomped out of the room to the front door. I hurled epithets at the melting snow on our front walk out of earshot of my daughters: “Shit, motherfucker, no, no, no!” I was pissed at addiction.
I met Phil almost exactly 23 years before he died. I was ten days sober in my last semester of college and afraid that if these meetings didn’t help me, I would end up in an insane asylum or dead. After the meeting, this tall redheaded woman came up to me and invited me out to lunch with a big group of people, including Phil. Phil had been about a year sober and was young, 22, just a year older than me. He wasn’t famous yet, but he was like a god in my mind. How did anyone stay sober a whole year?
I counted my days in meetings and in my journal at home and did what the sober people told me:
Day 20. Lunch with Richard and Phil. They’re hysterical.
Day 21. Went to a sober birthday party with Meghan #3. Phil, Richard, Laura, Eric and my sponsor were there!
Day 29. Had lunch with Phil, Richard and the Meghans. Bent Phil’s and Richard’s ears about this guy, another actor, 13th stepping me. They say that guy’s in trouble.
On day 51, I shared about the memories of sexual abuse that I feared would make me drink again. After, six women spoke with me and gave me their numbers. Phil stuck around while I collected those numbers, then, during the long lull until my next class, he hung out with me in the shadow of budding forsythia bushes and cherry trees in Central Park, making me laugh, his specialty. That night, I stapled those numbers to my diary along with a gratitude list, a little something my sponsor asked me to write every day to help change my attitude. The first thing I was grateful for were those six numbers. The eighth thing was hanging out with Phil in Central Park, spring blooming all around us. That’s how I wanted to remember him – young and hopeful and helping me.
My daughter came into my room to kiss me good morning the day after Phil died, then climbed under the covers and snuggled with me. At thirteen, she barely lets me touch her, so I soaked up the rare opportunity. My hands burrowed deep into her thick curls as she showed me a funny photo she received from a classmate whose Dad had also been one of my sober friends. But my daughter didn’t know that. Drug free for years, this dad gave heroine another try and, about a month after cleaning up again, he went to sleep and never woke up. Another dead dad.
And there were dead children too. Another Phil, my neighbor’s son, who was in his last year of college when he OD-ed. And Samantha, who I squabbled with over a boy when we were young, who hung herself after a long battle with addiction. And Paige, whose big brother misses her desperately. And Sean, who looked like a baby even though he was 40. Christine, a lawyer like Stacy’s dad, left behind a teenage daughter, and Patty left behind a daughter too. Patty had stopped drinking and drugging but tried it one more time and somehow slipped and fell off her balcony. Something similar happened to Damien. So many slips.
Before I let my daughter wriggle out of my grasp that morning, I told her how grateful I was that she still lets me hold her, that I knew her classmate’s father and the nature of our connection.
He’s now among the angel-teachers of all us left-behind, accidental students. We’d rather have our loved ones than a life lesson, but what’s done is done. Death speaks louder than any words I could muster, so the best I can do is ask my daughters to listen.