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When my mother called at 1:39pm on a Thursday I knew immediately that something was wrong — I call my mother, my mother never calls me (“I don’t want to bug you if you’re busy!”).
My oldest brother’s childhood best friend, Joshua, was dead from a heroin overdose. His younger brother had died from a heroin overdose the year prior.
I sat on the scuffed floors of the hallway at the school where I was teaching and held my forehead in my hands and said, “It’s just not fair”, again and again, until my mother started crying on the other end.
I’ve always considered myself a number when it comes to family. My parents were both eights. Eight brothers and sisters apiece. I have two brothers. We are a three. I am a three. Josh’s family was a three, too. Three boys. Three brothers.
The only one left in their three now is the oldest brother.
I held the phone to my ear that day and the last thing I said before hanging up was “We’re a three and they’re a three and now they’re not.”
I loved Josh from the first moment I can remember seeing him. He met my brother at kindergarten orientation, when I was a newborn, and they were inseparable every year after. Their family was always in our life. Josh was either at our house, or my brother was at his.
We grew up together, all of us. Same schools, kindergarten through 12th grade. Same friends, same social circles, same church.
Josh had beautiful dark long hair and a soft voice. He had sharp cheekbones and quiet humor. He was good at street hockey and never spoke to me, but I called him by his first and last name in my head. I adored him from the safe distance of friend’s little sister. The number of times we spoke for the first two decades of my life can be counted on my two hands.
I saw him for the first time in many years at my brother’s wedding in 2010 and he told me how beautiful I looked, how happy I seemed. I remember melting even then, hearing him say these things. I got to tell him then that I’d always had a crush on him, watched for glimpses of him through the years, and he kept saying, “No way!”
He made me feel warm and perfect and whole.
I don’t know if he ever felt any of those things about himself.
In the days after he passed the only thing I wanted was to sit near ocean water and talk to him. I opened the map on my phone and searched around the DC area for relatively close beaches. I saw a place called Gibson Island, one hour and nine minutes from my apartment.
I called my mother on the way and we talked about Josh. Talked about whether anyone realized how much he was struggling.
Last spring, my little cousin came to spend time in DC with me. She was in the process of deciding which college to go to and had a preference for a city school while her parents preferred a more suburban one. On the phone with my mother, who told me not to try to sway her or interfere, I said, “She’s an adult and it’s her decision.”
She responded, “She’s not an adult. She’s only 18.”
While I drove to the beach and said I wondered how hard some friends and family must have fought for him, my mother said, “He was an adult, though.”
What makes us an adult? When does it happen?
When I arrived to Gibson Island there was a security gate and a white office with black tinted windows. In the distance, I could see open ocean. Gibson Island, it turns out, is a gated community that limits access to residents or people with a formal reason for visiting. Joshua’s death was not a formal reason.
I googled everything I could about the island when I got home. The median home price on Gibson Island is $2,765,385. This makes Gibson Island the most expensive zip code in Maryland and the 23rd most expensive zip code in the country.
It was easier to find information about Gibson Island than it was to sift throught the many unhelpful results for “How can I help with the heroin epidemic?” All that came up were ways to not do heroin. If you’re prescribed pain medication, only take as much as you need and then properly discard what’s left over. Nothing tangible. Nothing I could wake up the next day and help do in my community. Just page after page about how not to do heroin.
I drove home angry that day. What a horrible and lazy metaphor. An island you aren’t allowed on. Peace and quiet and a beautiful beach you can’t quite reach.
A year before Josh died, but only a few months after his brother had passed from an overdose, I sat through a birthday dinner for a roommate I did not like and, somehow, heroin came up. She said, “I just, like…don’t, like, get how you do heroin. How do you get wrapped up in that? It’s so gross. Like, how do you decide to try heroin? I’ve never know anyone!”
I sat silently, two shades paler, for as long as I could handle and then spoke. I said something about it having nothing to do with family or wealth or being dirty. Something about how I had the same exact upbringing as my friend and here I was, at dinner with them, and there he was, decaying in the ground in Buffalo.
One of the women at the table was a doctor and she quietly validated some of what I’d said. Everyone but the birthday girl looked shamed, silenced, where moments before they’d been saying, “I know, right?”
Heroin is not dirty. Heroin is not hard to get into. Heroin is not a word we should whisper or share in disbelief about at dinner parties. I guarantee that someone in your life, and likely someone you love, has struggled with opioid addiction. I bet some of you reading this have dead family and friends because of heroin.
If you’re reading this thinking, “I’ve never know anyone”, you probably have.
The day before Josh passed away I read my kindergarten and preschool students a picture book called How Big is the World? and I asked them that question before we read it. A lot of them had answers like “Superman size!” or “Super super super super super big”, but one little girl raised her hand and said, “We can hold it in our hands”. And, a few answers later, another little girl raised her hand and said, “Bigger than all of us.”
Children see things so clearly. Adults get lost.
Joshua is gone and so is his brother. That feels so much bigger than me. Bigger than I can understand and fathom.
But I also remember holding Josh’s hand in my hand while we danced at my brother’s wedding and feeling like that was everything.
Months later, when I was home for the holidays, I drove to his childhood home and parked my car outside; a second attempt at saying goodbye. I told him that I was sorry. I told him how much he meant to me. I told him about driving to the island to say goodbye to him and not being let in. I told him what a weird metaphor that was for heaven, which I don’t believe in, but think he deserves. I told him I’d do my best to have a big and full life since he couldn’t.