Vox Populi

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Valerie Bacharach: Elegy for Nathan

Our younger son, Nathan, died July 30, 2009 from an addiction to opioids, nine days after his 26th birthday. Somewhere, I think, there must be clues we overlooked, perhaps hidden under seat cushions or in the refrigerator behind onions and potatoes. How could we have been so blind, unable to see our son disintegrating, bits of him peeling off as drugs assaulted every atom of his body, turned him into an alien creature beyond our grasp.

Nathan broke his leg when he was a freshman in college. A pick-up soccer game, a tibia snapped in two. My husband and I brought him home; the next day an orthopedic surgeon pounded a metal rod into bone. Of course he was given opioids for pain. Oxycodone, the same pills his grandfather took every day for a bad back. Where does addiction begin? Is it inherited, born into one’s DNA? From that first day, the damage was done, my son’s cells rejoicing in the drugs he put into his body.

An addict is an actor, able to look you in the eye, smile, and lie so convincingly that you begin to question yourself. Nathan was a superb actor, so good he ultimately fooled himself most of all.

After two mediocre years at college he dropped out, came home for a while, then moved to Pittsburgh. Or maybe he stayed in Uniontown, the small town where we lived. Grief disassembles time, reconfigures it in some strange way that skews memory. I know at some point he worked at a hair salon for several months, sweeping floors, washing hair, charming the older women who came in weekly, and getting high with the owner’s nephew.

This, of course, is the part of his life we didn’t see, as if our vision only noticed what we expected; a handsome son, his strong body and clear eyes. Our son had no white powder beneath his nose, no stumbling words, no needle marks on his arms. He lived a parallel life, whispered phone calls, friends we had never heard of, late for meals, running out at odd times, yet we remained oblivious.

My husband talked to him about his future and Nathan decided to apply to the X-ray Tech program at Presbyterian hospital in Pittsburgh. He got accepted, earned straight A’s, and all the while used opioids daily. But he needed more and more to maintain that feeling of invulnerability, so he began to crush the pills and inhale them, sending them straight to his bloodstream. Yet he graduated, and was hired at the hospital to work in the X-ray department.

Here is when shadows appeared, when the story goes dark. Nathan began to lose control, needed more and more drugs to maintain the high, was often late for work. A suspicious nurse, a required drug test, and he was fired. When we confronted him, he became furious, denial after denial after denial until he convinced us it was a one-time aberration. He wasn’t an addict, he didn’t have a problem, how could we possibly believe otherwise? This is loving’s terrible magic, the willingness to grab at what we desperately wish to be true.

He found work as a bartender, a bad choice for an addict. He began stealing tips, stealing from the cash register. The owner, a friend of the family, called us at home, told us he was so sorry, but Nathan had a drug problem and he was going to fire him. 

I can’t remember the things we said to Nathan over the next few weeks, but he eventually agreed to go to rehab. He called us every night, said he didn’t belong there, he could handle things on his own. He was there for 14 days, then came home to Uniontown. Things seemed good for three whole days. Then new friends appeared and money began disappearing. He stole from friends, from the part-time job he had. He stole our credit cards, money from our wallets. I felt as if I lived in some perpetual fog that slowed my brain, my body. I spent days driving around our small town, paying people back. We ended up making Nathan leave, paid for him to stay in a cheap motel, bought him food, put gas in his car, tried to get him to go to counseling. 

He died alone, in that motel room. We had to call the fire department and the police to break down the door. It was too late by then, the paramedics went in, came out within one minute. Here is what I remember; how hot it was, the parking lot shimmering in July sun, how my husband’s eyes were frantic, how I told the motel owner we would pay for the door. I was numb, disassociated from everything. I felt like that for months. It was terrifying.

I seemed to live in some altered time. Days flew by, one week, then two, yet minutes seemed to drag, as if held down by deep gravitational pull. I remember people telling me how brave I was, how strong, because I returned to work or picked up my husband’s shirts from the laundry. They didn’t understand that my husband and I had to make a choice; either live or die. It was that simple. Yet I was scared all the time. The first time I went to the grocery store I couldn’t get my breath. I was petrified I would run into someone I knew, would have to speak, explain, see the pity in their eyes, see their relief that it wasn’t their child who was an addict.

I find it unfathomable that 11 years have passed. There are still days I have to push myself to get out of bed, remember to breathe. I visualize my heart as scarred, pitted, beating some grief-filled pattern as blood flows in and out. I carry my son with me every second of every day, try to hold those memories of when he was alive, was healthy, before addiction stole him. I dream of him, often as a young boy, my arms outstretched, my hands open. He is always just beyond my reach.

Copyright 2021 Valerie Bacharach

Photo: Johns Hopkins University

6 comments on “Valerie Bacharach: Elegy for Nathan

  1. allisonfine
    February 21, 2021

    Thank you for sharing. I have a son too. It breaks my heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      February 21, 2021

      My son is now doing fine. He owns his own contracting business and his customers value him. He has a partner and a stepson and he treats them well. I am so proud of him!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. rosemaryboehm
    February 21, 2021

    I am teaing up.

    “This is loving’s terrible magic, the willingness to grab at what we desperately wish to be true.”

    Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      February 21, 2021

      Yes, I felt very moved when I read this essay. A terrible beauty is in this piece.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Barbara Huntington
    February 21, 2021

    No words. Just a long distance hug.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Don Krieger
    February 21, 2021

    Dear Valerie,

    Thank you for this fine and courageous write.
    Here is a small echo from my life, originally published in The Asahi Shimbun.

    each morning
    I draw breath

    All my best – Don

    Liked by 1 person

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