“Heroin was a secret in my family. It was a secret people tried to bury deep down until it’s ugly mask came out full force. ‘Heroin doesn’t happen to families like mine.’ But it did. I grew up with a very normal childhood. My parents let us kids do any activities our hearts desired and we went on family vacations every single year. Our home life consisted of chores, dinners around the table, and hosting many family holidays in our beautiful home. Looking back, I’m not sure it could have been a more perfect upbringing.
My parents didn’t divorce until I was in college and my father quickly moved on to a much younger woman. She was only 7 years older than I was and only 5 years older than my older brother. I really didn’t mind since she was nice and made him happy. I felt as though my father was allowed to live his life however he saw fit.
Fast forward to March 2016 when my world was rocked. I received a phone call stating that my father’s wife had died in their closet and there were needles and heroin found next to her. I thought about all the signs leading up to this moment. The times my husband was convinced she was on drugs, yet I failed to believe it. My father would never be involved with someone who was addicted to heroin. I was so blinded by my own love for my father I couldn’t even see the reality of what was happening.
I boarded a plane and flew to Michigan with my 7-month-old twins right after the phone call. Who else was going to take care of my dying father suffering from stage 4 pancreatic cancer? He also had a 2-year-old son named Easton. Someone needed to stay with him as well.
When I arrived, I started to piece together the details of her death. My 85-year-old grandfather had come home from morning coffee to find Easton running around the house unsupervised. Easton could barely say words, let alone have a conversation with you. According to my grandfather, he asked Easton where his mommy was. Her car was parked in the driveway when my grandfather left for his morning outing, and it was still there when he returned. So, they both walked around the house looking for her and yelling her name. After about 10 minutes of not being able to find her, my grandfather called my uncle. By the time my uncle had arrived, my grandfather had found Easton’s mom in the closet. My uncle attempted to do CPR until paramedics arrived, but it was far too late to save her.
In piecing together the details from the night before, we know Easton slept in his mommy’s bed instead of his own crib that night. Sometime in the night, his mommy overdosed just feet away from him as he slept soundly in her bed. Easton was in the same room as his mom when she overdosed on heroin. That next morning, he woke up and wandered the house for an unknown amount of time. We thank God that he didn’t leave the house, as we know he had the ability to open doors.
The rest of the day was a blur. My father was in the hospital and I headed there because I needed answers. I needed to know how long this had been going on, as this was all a huge family secret that had been busted wide open. How could he keep this whole heroin-addicted-wife information from all of us? How did he succeed in keeping us in the dark? I was so angry and I was so embarrassed that he would be with someone like this. This wasn’t the man who raised me. This man, my father, loving a drug addict? It was such a foreign concept to me. This wasn’t my dad. I felt like I was living a real-life Lifetime movie.
I walked into that hospital room to a man who was barely hanging onto his own life. My heart went from pure anger and resentment to complete and utter heartbreak. How do you have this conversation about why he chose to be involved with someone like this, when there’s so many other things you need to say? He had days left on this Earth, yet this new information brought on so many other questions that needed to be answered. How do you begin to dissect this? Is it even worth it? Is it even worth discussing when you just want him to say how much he loves you? Is it even worth degrading him for his choices in his last days? Is it even worth hearing about why he made those choices when instead all you wanted to be hearing are the reasons he’s proud of you?
It was a battle. This huge family secret was just exposed and you want so badly to know more about it but at the same time, you don’t want these conversations to be your last memories. How could the man who was such a normal person in your life, a man who was highly admired by his community, get involved in a situation like this? Did he know from the beginning? Did she only just become addicted recently? Was he blindsided by this information once he was diagnosed with cancer?
I laid my head on his bony chest and none of it mattered. My best friend, the man I held so dear to my heart was dying. It didn’t matter why he stayed with her or why he never told us. We never once talked about heroin in his last days. I never asked any questions about it. I knew he was horrified at what had transpired and I didn’t care to belittle him or press the issue. What was done was done. At least that’s what I thought.
My father died 12 days after his wife did. His son, my half-brother Easton, came to live with me and my family in Washington.
A few months later I returned to Michigan and obtained Easton’s medical records. There were hundreds of printed out documents that laid in my hands. I started from the beginning, flipping through them one by one. I skimmed the first few pages but then on page 4, my whole world was rocked by heroin once again. ‘Drug withdrawal [Heroin] NICU stay=15 days.’
Every single ounce of my body went numb, then I became sick. I felt like I was going to throw up, or pass out, or have a heart attack. Maybe all of the above, actually. Another giant family secret he didn’t feel the need to share. So many thoughts flooded my brain: ‘Does this explain why Easton can barely say 3 words at age 2? Is this why he was supposed to be tested for some early childhood intervention? Is this why he seems so much more out of control than our other kids?’ Then the anger set in. I was so extremely angry at my dad in this moment, I prayed he was sitting next to me in the car. I acted as if he were and I just let him have it. I looked at the passenger seat as if he were sitting there. I screamed at him at the top of my lungs in the car, parked in the middle of this pediatric doctor’s parking lot. Tears fell from my face as betrayal and horror came out of my mouth. I couldn’t believe his child was born addicted to heroin and he didn’t think that information would be relevant to me, the new caretaker of Easton, before he passed away.
My mind flashed back to the day Easton was born. I was told there were complications, but he had some ‘stomach issue’ he needed to go to the NICU for. I don’t even remember Easton spending 2 weeks there. Although, I did live on the other side of the country when he was born, so it would have been easy to hide from me. Stomach issues? This poor baby was going through drug withdrawal and shaking uncontrollably like those babies you see in those horrific videos. He was one of those babies! He was forced into a drug addiction from the woman who carried him. The woman who is supposed to protect him did the complete opposite of that. And my father chose to stay with her after all of that?
I was so angry with my dad. I sat in the car until there were no tears left. My throat was hoarse from yelling at an imaginary person and my body was exhausted from trying to put together the pure dishonesty my father showed me for the last 2+ years. In that moment, I regretted not asking about the heroin in his last days. Now I felt like I needed to know the details of it all more than ever: did he know from the beginning? Or did he find out when she was pregnant? Or was he blindsided at the birth? When? When did he know? Why did he do nothing about it?
I’ll never get the answer to those questions. I think that’s now the hardest part of my father’s death. Before I knew about Easton being born addicted, his death was hard because he was one of my best friends. Now, his death is hard because a door was slammed shut and locked forever. That door holds information that would be of value to me, or at least would give me some comfort that the man I said goodbye to was not a total stranger.
While I have since forgiven both my father and Easton’s mother, I still wish I knew more. I realize now that she wasn’t always a heroin addict. I may not have known her best side, but that doesn’t mean it never existed. My anger and resentment weren’t because of who she was as a person. I truly didn’t know heroin could affect people you love so much, even those who are only trying to help others and never touch the substance themselves.
She gave me my son. My father gave me my son. For that, I will be forever grateful.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Molly Schultz of Tried and True Mama. Do you know someone who has overcome their addiction? We’d love to hear from you. Submit your story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.
Do you know someone who could benefit from this story? Please SHARE on Facebook to make them aware there is a community of support available.