Every addict’s mother learns to fear the call. The one that begins: “Is this the mother of …?”
Evelyn Pollock lived with that fear for two decades. Her son Daniel left home at 15 and went into a spiral of drug and alcohol addiction that saw him sleeping in a church doorway, a broken remnant of the strapping hockey player he had been. Ms. Pollock knew the phone could ring at any time. She braced herself for the worst.
Then Daniel started to straighten out. He got a cat, T.J. He moved from Toronto to Orillia, Ont., where his parents had a place. He settled into a neat mobile home with T.J. and planted a tiny garden. Ms. Pollock felt the dread recede a little. Hope established a foothold.
Ms. Pollock grew up in west-end Toronto, the daughter of a book-mad amateur scholar who became the director of a well-known synagogue, Beth Tzedec. She got a job teaching school and married a good man, David Pollock, who became a respected GP. She would go on to become a school trustee and successful management consultant. When the couple discovered they could not have children, they adopted Daniel.
“It was on the fifth day of your life that we held you in our arms for the first time,” Ms. Pollock was to write later. “Your dad and I fell in love with you immediately … so tiny, so beautiful, so perfect, with a full head of platinum blond hair and sparkling blue eyes.”
The trouble began when Daniel started school. He began acting out in class. He struggled to read and write. He threw terrible tantrums. His family learned later that he had fetal alcohol syndrome.
His parents took him to a string of doctors and psychologists. They put him in a private school. Daniel started skipping classes, smoking cannabis and taking LSD. He quit school, moved out and took a job in a skateboard shop. He graduated to cocaine, then heroin. Back then, no one had heard of fentanyl, the reaper drug so potent that a few grains can kill.
Daniel’s girlfriend had a baby. He thought it was his. When a test proved otherwise, he went on a bender. He started panhandling for drug money and living on the street. He got caught smuggling drugs from the Caribbean and went to jail. He sold drugs out of his apartment. When one deal went bad, he woke up to find a man knifing him in the stomach.
Ms. Pollock did everything she could think of to help him. She set him up in apartments, only to see them turn into flophouses and drug dens. She paid to send him to rehab in Quebec. He got expelled once for taking drugs, then again for kicking a fellow resident in the head.
At one point in his long descent, his parents would see a man panhandling on a ramp of Toronto’s Don Valley Parkway. It was their son. There was nothing they could do. For long periods, he would have little contact with his parents, usually approaching them only to demand money they knew he would squander on drugs and booze.
Finally, at 33, Daniel decided he had had enough. He realized how alone he was on the street. He wondered if he would die there. He called his parents just to hear their voices.
He started taking methadone, the substitute drug that helps addicts wean themselves off other opioids. He found an apartment with the help of a streets-to-homes program. Ms. Pollock took him to the Humane Society to find a pet. He chose a tiny abandoned kitten. “He looked me in the eye and licked my fingers, and I felt an instant connection in my heart,” Daniel said in a memoir of his life on the street – dictated using a tape recorder his mother gave him.
At the mobile home in Orillia that he shared with T.J., he found a kind of stability. He made friends with a retired couple next door. He would draw back his curtains every morning to let them know he was awake. Then he would join them on their porch for a cup of coffee and a smoke.
At the urging of his mother, he took up stone sculpting. He delighted in fashioning geometric shapes with buzzing power tools. He went boating on the lake with his dad. One day, Mr. Pollock found him down at the marina washing the boat. “Hey, Dad! I’m just protecting my inheritance,” a grinning Daniel said.
Last year he made plans to travel to Alberta to meet his birth mother. Ms. Pollock was to go with him. They had the plane tickets, and Daniel was excited. Talking about it over lunch one September day, he assured Ms. Pollock she would always be his real mother. Leaning in close, he sang: “You know I love you, love you, love you, Mom.”
He called her the next afternoon to tell her about how he was struggling to pull up the stubborn roots of an invasive hosta plant in his garden. “The damn thing is just so big,” he told her. At 6:30, he called again to say he had put three of his sculptures where the vanquished hosta had been.
The next morning – Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 – the curtains didn’t open. Neighbours went to look and found Daniel lying on the bathroom floor. He was holding a syringe in his right hand. Ms. Pollock was having tea at home with a friend when the phone rang. It was the call she had hoped would never come. Her son was dead of an overdose at 43.
Daniel had survived the years of binge drinking, reckless drug use and living rough. He had put his body through every kind of abuse. When he finally came off the street, his 6-foot-3 frame weighed just 140 pounds.
What he had not reckoned with was fentanyl. Toxicology tests found high levels of the synthetic opioid in his system, along with traces of cocaine. Fentanyl can be 50 times as powerful as heroin. Dealers often mix it in with other drugs. The wrong dose slows the respiratory system dangerously, smothering the user. As Ms. Pollock puts it, “It stops the brain from sending a message to breathe.” The syringe in Daniel’s hand was still two-thirds full.
Although Daniel was “a million times better” than he had been at his nadir, Ms. Pollock had a feeling he was using again. Drugs are easy to find in Orillia. Like many smaller Ontario communities, the historic city 90 minutes north of Toronto has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. Simcoe Muskoka, the region that includes Orillia, recorded 46 opioid deaths in 2016. Fifteen were related to fentanyl – twice the number in 2015.
Ms. Pollock hopes the story of Daniel’s life and death will serve as a warning about the scale of the fentanyl crisis scything through Canadian cities and a reminder that the ragged addicts we hurry past in the street are real people – people with families, feelings, hopes and a chance, if they are lucky, to recover and make a life.
Despite the roller-coaster journey Daniel took them on, Ms. Pollock says she is grateful to have been his mother. She wants the world to remember her son not as a scrounging addict but as the fun-loving, fiercely independent, kind man he could be; the man who was devoted to his bubbe and zayde, Ms. Pollock’s parents; the man who gave a beautiful Torah reading at his bar mitzvah; the man who was a childhood hero to his younger sister, Karen; the man who was heartbroken when the son he thought he had was taken away; the man who would labour intently over his sculptures.
The inscription she has drafted for his gravestone reads: “Daniel Stephen Pollock: Adventurer, sculptor, author. Lived life reaching for the stars.”
Ms. Pollock has just turned 70. She and David live in a big country house near Orillia. Its light-bathed rooms are adorned with pictures of Daniel with his family. As she tells Daniel’s story, T.J. glides into the dining room for a visit. The sleek cat was about all he left behind. Daniel had $25 in his wallet when he died and 11 cents in the bank.
After his death Ms. Pollock put out a fresh edition of Daniel’s memoir, Thirty-three Years to Conception: A Voice from the Street. She gives the slim book to anyone who might learn from it. A new afterword tells the story of how Daniel died. After all those years of worry, she writes, “There will be no more fear of that dreaded phone call and no more secrets.”