Ben was an addict. That declaration is enormously painful and takes even more courage to write than Ben died at age nineteen. He was an honor student, football captain, neighborhood skateboard star, altar server, little league all-star, and lead singer in a punk rock band; he was handsome, popular, kind, and gentle. He was my first born, my only boy…he was an addict and heroin killed him.

When Ben was in the throes of his disease, I would jolt awake, stare at the blank ceiling, feeling my blood turn to ice. With my hands slipped under my lower back and my fingers spread so my body heat could radiate through my arms, hands, and fingers, I’d say the Lord’s Prayer, trying to obliterate the swarming fears.

Obsessed with this prayer, I studied Emmet Fox’s Around the Year with Emmet Fox before bed each night. Reading and dissecting the prayer by phrase, I studied each word on every page, searching for an answer to my never-ending question: “How can I save Ben?”

I also wrote in journals, pouring out my heart to empty space. Addiction is lonely and isolating, and it leaves a trail of “Whys?” and “Could haves?” I’m still haunted by the idea that some kind of trauma or horrible encounter unleashed a beast within my son. Why didn’t I see it? Why didn’t Ben feel safe enough to tell me? Was the disease so embedded in his DNA, that there was nothing anyone could do? Did I fail him? That is the hardest question of all: Did I fail him?

I sometimes wish Ben had died of cancer. People understand that disease. Addiction carries an insidious stigma, casting out its victims and relegating them – and their families – to society’s margins. There is no respect attached to such conditions. Police officers don’t touch the brim of their hats in homage, and no other fanfare takes place to mark the grievous occasion of loss. There is only mourning…and those damn unanswerable questions.

But yet, there are times in the stillness of my grieving years (almost seven years now) that I can cease my internal wrangling and remember my son: his dirty-dog smell and little boy’s giggle, the dime-sized mole on his left butt-cheek, his fondness for canned peaches and Jell-O chocolate pudding; I reminisce about his talent for building medieval castles out of Lego’s, his knack for altering his own clothes with dental floss, instead of thread (a habit which earned him the nickname, “Stitch”). In the echoes of my mind, these recollections linger to the accompaniment of the gentle melodies he would play on his guitar or keyboard the few times we were alone together at home.

As I integrate these cherished memories into this present moment, I realize how much I have changed since Ben’s passing. I once was a harried college administrator balancing career and family, living for others and not seeking to find myself buried under the avalanche of external demands. I now spend summers with my parents, and volunteer at elementary schools teaching struggling kids to read while reassuring them of their inherent worth.

I lunch with my high school girl friends, study water fowl as it dances across our lake in the fall, grow grapes, and eat kettle corn while watching romantic comedies. I spoon with my husband in our backyard hammock, and allow myself to be transported by the breeze that rustles in the olive trees. I marvel at the drone of bees as they pollinate the apple and plum trees, and laugh at the blue jays as they make mischief. I listen for God’s whisper, beckoning me to live; and as for the unanswered questions, I cast them aside for another day… and then, another… and then, the next.

 

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Joni Norby

Joni M. Norby retired from California State University, Fullerton where she served as Associate Dean and Lecturer for Business Communications. She earned her MBA from Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas and has studied creative nonfiction and poetry as part of Stanford University's Online Writing Series and at The Loft Literary Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Along with writing, Joni owns and operates a vineyard in California's Central Valley along with her husband, Dave.

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