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Denise Sandul walks through rows of more than 100 wooden crosses at the corner of Paris and Brady Streets in Sudbury, Ont., where families are commemorating the lives of loved ones who died of opioid overdoses.Gino Donato/The Globe and Mail

Denise Sandul felt relieved when there was a knock at her door one morning this September. Her son Myles Keaney, who suffered from schizophrenia and often used street drugs, had failed to come home the night before. This must be him, she told herself. She could stop worrying and get ready for work.

But instead of Myles, she found three uniformed police officers on her doorstep. Her first thought was that her son must be in some kind of trouble. Then they asked her to sit down. She knew at that moment that what she had feared for so long had come to pass. Myles, 22, had died of a drug overdose. Ms. Sandul went down to the hospital and sat next to his body, gently closing his eyes with her fingers.

She decided right away that she was not going to make a secret of what happened to Myles. He was sick and there was no shame in it. Myles himself was someone who never judged anyone. So she put a wooden cross with his name on it at the spot where he died next to a downtown firehall. She attached a laminated picture of her grinning boy, a 6-foot-3 star athlete whom his friends called King Keaney.

Ms. Sandul posted a note on social media asking whether other families stricken by the opioids crisis would like to add crosses of their own. That was when something extraordinary started happening. Within days, three more crosses appeared. Within a week or so, there were a dozen. Moved to a bigger site down the street, the memorial grew to 20 crosses, then 30.

Ms. Sandul asked her son-in-law to make crosses for those who wanted them. He built 60 in his garage workshop. It wasn’t enough. By the end of this week, more than 100 crosses stood row on row in a patch of grass at a busy intersection, each one bearing the name of someone’s daughter or son. A mother’s modest act of remembrance has become something much bigger, bringing grieving families together and illustrating better than any blank statistic the terrible cost of Canada’s other health crisis.

Subury’s mayor praises Ms. Sandul’s courage. Friends and relatives have been trooping down to the site to leave flowers and mementoes. Passersby stop to stare, amazed, at the lines of simple white crosses.

Standing at the corner of Paris and Brady streets, across the road from City Hall, they make a haunting sight. A pair of tiny toy skates hang from the cross dedicated to Sherry Fillion, who died March 21 at the age of 35 and loved playing hockey. A slice of pizza and a cigarette have been left for the comfort of Jordon Cullen, who died at 23 only last week.

Forty-three of the victims died this year, as overdoses surged across Canada in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Most were in the prime of their lives. The youngest was 18, the oldest 47. Among them are two brothers who died within a week of each other and three sisters who died over the course of several years.

Ms. Sandul, 58, goes down to the memorial most days to push new crosses into the cold, hard earth. Wednesday found her planting numbers 103 and 104 for Angèle Charron, the 30-year-old mother of a young son, and Jessica Otosquaiob, 22, who had a four-year-old daughter.

Denise Sandul and her daughters Brittney Sandul and Christina Pisanti visit a memorial cross for their son and brother, Myles Keaney, who died of an overdose in October, 2020.Gino Donato/The Globe and Mail

Afterward, she stopped to talk to Shelley Trudeau, who came with her family to pin a photo to the cross of her son Blade Trudeau-Roy. A 24-year-old from an Indigenous community on Manitoulin Island who loved the music of Johnny Cash, he died on Oct. 4.

Ms. Sandul hopes the memorial will awaken the people of Sudbury to what is happening all around them. The opioids crisis has hit the city of 165,000 especially hard, far eclipsing the pandemic. Only two people have died of COVID-19 in and around Sudbury. Preliminary figures show 41 people died of opioid-related overdoses in the first six months of 2020 alone, up from 29 for the same period in 2019. Three 14-year-olds were among the dead, according to a local outreach group.

Their passing rarely makes headlines. “We will have four deaths in a week and nobody notices it,” says Ms. Sandul, who works in children’s aid. When Myles overdosed, she realized that, to most people, “He would be just another addict that died.”

She knew better. The fourth and youngest of her children, with three sisters ahead of him, Myles was a happy kid, but started hearing voices inside his head as he grew up. He turned to drugs, first cannabis then speed and crystal meth. He tried several times to quit, only to relapse and start again. Ms. Sandul would find him sitting at the dining room table with tears trickling down his face. He would tell her, “I want my life back.”

Myles Keaney tried several times to quit drugs, only to relapse and start again. He died at age 22.Courtesy of family

Though they quarrelled over his drug use, Ms. Sandul says he remained a loving son who even as an adult would sometimes fold his tall frame into bed with her when he was frightened.

She hopes the crosses will lend his life a purpose he never found when he was living it: reminding the world that the victims of the opioids crisis are more than just faceless figures huddled in alleyways, shunned when they walk the earth and little noted when they leave it.

She would like to see the city put up a permanent memorial for them one day. Till then, she will keep planting crosses. There are four rows of them now and the beginning of a fifth. Requests for more come in every day. Ms. Sandul planted the 109th and 110th as the afternoon light faded on Thursday. The one that started it all, the cross for Myles, stands at the centre of the front row, topped with a gold dove.

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