Watching sweaty 13-year-old boys fire water balloons at each other in the fading light, racing around barefoot among the fireflies, it is clear that summer is here again. These humid evenings in the yard surrounded by the sounds of laughter or the thwack of the basketball on the driveway, always take me back to the summers of my own adolescence.
We played outside all day back then, making forts in ditches behind the house, drinking warm water from the garden hose and playing as many games of Kick the Can as we could get in before the streetlights came on. In my memories I am always sticky with sweat and bruised a bit and a little hungry, but always pretty happy.
These nights also take me back to the four summers I lived with my aunt and uncle and their two boys in a modest house in a Northern Virginia suburb. I was transitioning from a self-absorbed teenager into a clueless adult those summers, finding out some of life’s more painful truths as I started working full time and watching my young cousins in the evenings and on weekends.
Spending my summer nights with my cousin, Bobby, who was five at the time, and his little brother, allowed me to hold onto my youth for just a bit longer as we caught fireflies, rode bikes and built sheet forts in the living room. We played ping pong on the carport and tag in the yard. I can still see Bobby’s face flushed from being chased around the grass. He knew I would tickle him when I caught him and he would shake with both laughter and anticipation before I even reached him.
Summer nights are forever linked with Bobby and his brother in my mind, as I navigated my way to becoming an adult. Memories that are sweet little pockets of happiness as responsibilities began to take shape.
Bobby would be thirty-one years old this coming August. A man with responsibilities of his own. Maybe a job or family. Maybe a child who runs around the yard, laughing and waiting to be tickled.
He never had those things. Last year, exactly a year ago this weekend, Bobby died, taking any hopes of a future with him. He had not even reached thirty years old.
He didn’t die of cancer. It wasn’t a car accident or some freak medical problem that no one had known about. In a way, it was both a lingering illness and quite sudden.
Bobby was suffering from a disease, but it comes with such a stigma that it is rarely discussed in obituaries or at memorial services. It is nothing like cancer, and no one wore a ribbon to his funeral.
Bobby was a drug addict. Heroin to be precise. It started in college and laid waste to his twenties. By the time he got out of prison, he had spent almost a decade battling this particular disease.
On a warm summer night in Virginia, he went into a bar, and for reasons unknown, bought heroin from a bar patron after being clean for almost five years. Maybe he thought it would be different this time around. Maybe he thought he would have control of his addiction because his life was on track again. He had gotten a job, a new truck and a lease on life after years of struggle. No one knows what he was thinking because by the next afternoon he had used the heroin he bought and died almost instantly.
He wasn’t the only one who died that weekend from a heroin overdose. More than ten other people in the area he lived in also overdosed on likely the same batch and several could not be revived. Heroin can be laced with other chemicals and the mixture is often fatal.
The government is calling it an epidemic. The number of heroin-related deaths in the United States has almost quadrupled since 2001. It is cheap and shockingly easy to get, and use has increased across every ethnic group, race and income level. According to information from the Centers for Disease Control the rise in heroin use has a direct correlation to prescription opioid painkillers. Opioids are in the same class of drugs as heroin, and forty-five percent of people addicted to heroin were also addicted to these painkillers. The increase in opioid painkiller use and the overprescribing of painkillers for many years in the United States seems to go hand in hand with the epidemic this country is now facing.
That is how it started for Bobby as well. Surgery in his late teens supplied him with opioid painkillers like OxyContin. He quickly became addicted. From there it was a downward slide from painkiller abuse to heroin when he could no longer get prescriptions. Heroin was also cheaper and easier to buy. Along the way, he ran up my aunt’s credit card debt into the thousands, was arrested several times, lost jobs and destroyed relationships.
At the lowest point, my aunt had to tell him to leave her home to protect her other children. While going through some of his things in the closet of his room, she found a box containing his baby things. Wrapped in his baby blanket was a box of syringes.
Ironically, it was prison in another state that got him clean and moving forward with his life. He earned a degree, took on responsibilities and stayed clean...until that summer night last year.
I have done a lot of reading and research since the day I got the phone call that Bobby had died. I think I wanted to understand something that is inherently unacceptable. How could my sweet, summer boy no longer be here?
I didn’t know a lot about heroin, and I had no idea it had roared back on the drug scene with such a vengeance. During my research I ran across a blog from a mother whose son was a heroin addict. She describes the almost visceral anger she felt when his dealer pulled up in her driveway one night, and how she had confronted him. It was the kind of anger I imagine can turn violent. I feel anger too, but mostly it is a deep sadness for what could have been and the boy he was before.
My aunt feels a grief that is probably her constant companion. But she has taken everything she is feeling and channeled it into a determination to help others. She doesn’t hide in the shadows. She talks to people about Bobby, she tells his story to students and parents, and she is helping fight this epidemic in her own way.
On a breezy summer day last year, we all stood on the top of a mountain side and said goodbye to my summer boy. It had rained off and on that day, so the heat was not oppressive. The view was spectacular and I think Bobby would have enjoyed the location.
My two sons chased each other across the lawn, laughing as they wrinkled their good clothes in a game of tag. As the sun began to sink in the late afternoon, a rainbow appeared.