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I was in my carport helping my mother pack and repack her green Honda Accord. My mother had been storing some of her furniture and personal items in our home, but we sold our house – divorcing, downsizing – and I couldn’t take care of her things any more. We were in a rush for her to catch the ferry from Victoria to Vancouver. There was a snowstorm heading for the West Coast and I wanted her to get ahead of the changing weather before she drove through the mountains toward the Okanagan.
My mother had no plan, no address to go to, only a storage locker somewhere in Kelowna.
“I’ll figure it out when I get there,” she said, as she jiggled an antique chair into the trunk of her car.
My mother is homeless. You wouldn’t know it to see her dressed in a pink Ralph Lauren blazer and black dress pants, a designer scarf tied around her neck. Her hair is perfectly coloured, highlighted and cut.
Being homeless is an unconscious choice she made five years ago, shortly after my brother died from an accidental drug overdose.
The news of his death was as if an atom bomb was dropped on our family obliterating what once was, forcing the rest of us on our own unique journey. Our family had spent years living with my brother’s addiction, we were hopeful his recovery would last. We were wrong.
My mother won’t talk about my brother, she avoids conversation about him at all costs. Instead, she packs up her car and moves from place to place. It’s as if she is running away, not allowing my brother’s death to find a place inside of her and, if she is quick enough, it may never find her.
“We all grieve in our own way,” my therapist tells me as I sit across from her tucked into the corner of a couch by the window of her office.
“How long does grief last?” I asked.
“There is no timeline, but usually a year,” she said.
My grief lasts for almost five years.
“Complicated grief,” another therapist tells me. A term used to explain that someone is having trouble recovering from a loss of a loved one. I would fixate on the last moments of my brother’s life, I blamed myself for not being there and had obsessive thoughts of him being alone.
Some friends showed up at the house after hearing about my brother’s death, toting bottles of red wine. They filled my glass and I drank quickly, happy to numb the pain.
“Where was he? How did you find out? When was the last time you saw him?”
My mind wandered while the barrage of unimportant questions continued. I wished they would shut up and pour me another glass of wine.
“Well, I guess if you’re going to do drugs it’s going to happen,” one of them said.
People will say all kinds of surprising things to you after losing someone to a drug overdose, they can’t help themselves. The stigma attached to drug addiction is far too ingrained in our psyche. But, what’s worse than the unconsidered comments? The silence, not acknowledging that you have lost someone, making small talk – avoiding the elephant in the room, as if the addict somehow didn’t matter. As if their addiction made them less than. As if we could love them any less.
When my kids were little, we would travel regularly along East Hastings Street, a corridor of Vancouver’s most vulnerable. Downtown traffic would force us to drive slowly. I would look through the rear-view mirror at my six-year-old daughter strapped into her booster seat.
“Do you see those people on the sidewalk?” I would say, “That’s what happens when you use drugs.”
My daughter would stare.
“That’s why you don’t do drugs,” I said.
I would almost feel guilty for using the addicts on the street as examples of what not to do, but not guilty enough to stop. I would wonder where their families were. I would wonder how many times their families tried to get them home.
I once thought all drug addicts end up on the street. I once thought drug-overdose deaths were limited to drug users on the street. I was wrong. Drug addiction does not discriminate. The drug addicts on the street are just a window into what’s happening in our society, the rest are hiding behind a suit, uniform or a closed door.
There have been 1,716 recorded overdose deaths in 2020, in B.C. Nine out of 10 drug overdoses occur in the privacy of someone’s home, the overdose victim is often alone.
My brother’s wife called me at 9 a.m. sharp in April, 2015. I had just poured myself a cup of coffee and sat at my desk to begin my day.
“He’s dead,” she said, her voice a whisper, barely audible.
Her words slowly trickled into my ear before their sharp edge cut.
“No,” I repeated over and over. I wouldn’t accept the news.
My baby brother, I remember. I held him when my parents brought him home from the hospital. We sat on a blue kitchen chair, at the blue kitchen table. I held him close as he wiggled, wrapped in his white blanket.
My brother didn’t live on the street, he had a home. He ate at expensive restaurants and heli-skied every winter.
My brother was alone when he died in his cabin in the Monashee mountains. The coroner reported lethal amounts of cocaine in his body and said that he had been dead for almost two days before he was found. My sister-in-law called the neighbour to check on my brother when she hadn’t heard back from him. The neighbour found him on the stone-tiled kitchen floor, his body decomposing. He had a deep gash on his face. We think he hit the corner of the kitchen counter before he fell to the floor. My mother said his body was too far gone to consider an open casket. I would never see my brother again.
My daughter is 19 now and my son is 12. I continue to talk to them about drug use, addiction and their uncle. The details are not spared. I hope the details scare them. I hope the details are enough to keep them away from drugs.
A few days before my mom packs up her car to leave, I ask her to consider housing for seniors that my sister and I have sourced out.
“We worry about you,” I said.
“I’m happy. I don’t want to be in a box,” she said.
She’s talking about being in an apartment, but I wonder if she means something else.
“I want to live,” she said.
As my mom backed out onto the street, she smiled, “Everything will work out,” she said through the open window of her car before driving away. Dark clouds called on the horizon and she’s racing to beat the storm.
Heather Lynn Roberts Young lives in Victoria.