Push Down and Turn

Push Down and Turn

“We’ve seen a lot of fentanyl overdoses lately,” the medical examiner said. It wasn’t a surprise that David overdosed, but I had never heard of fentanyl. Over the 49 years of my brother’s life, 37 had been spent testing his body’s limits of receiving toxins: marijuana, nicotine, cocaine, ecstasy, oxycodone, though never heroin, and through it all, alcohol. And with these, their natural accompaniments: jail cells, homeless shelters, rehab centers, hospitals, eviction notices, missed weddings, awkward Christmases. I had already mourned him for much of my life.

I should have known who my brother was, but I’m not sure I ever did. I knew him for 45 years. We lived in the same house for eight years, in New Hampshire. I had dozens of phone conversations with him: birthday calls; him calling to check in to see how I’m doing (“How’s work?” was his usual opener); his calls from rehab; my call to invite him to my wedding; several quick chats to finalize plans to see each other every Christmas or so; quite a few drunken calls (his last voicemail to me was from a bar: “Hi, Cheryl! It’s your brother. I’m calling because that song ‘Send in the Clowns’ by Judy Garland is playing right now and it made me think of you. I know that you loved that song growing up. See? I love you.”); about four of me calling him to tell him the latest update about our father, who was dying from lung cancer. Half of those weren’t actual conversations but voicemail messages telling him that Dad was asking for him. There was also the message I left the night Dad passed away, on Christmas. I saw my brother for the last time the day before Easter, on Saturday, April 4, 2015.

In the years before my parents divorced, we lived in a canary-yellow Cape on Cutler Road, in Litchfield. It is now a pass-through road, a shortcut to Route 3. But in the ’70s,  kids rode their bikes in the middle, always without helmets, and we knew which cracks to avoid. The street is lined with tall pines, which seemed to tower over all of us—as we rode our bikes, as we played in the ditch at the end of the street, as we swam in each other’s pools, and as we took turns sitting in the rusted-out car at the bottom of the hill behind the Rosiers’ house.

Inside our little house, I see David, playing with his racecar set in his room upstairs. The wood paneling made his room dark, like a cave. In my room across the hall I’m playing Mouse Trap, which requires at least two players but that doesn’t bother me. Mom’s downstairs fixing supper. Dad’s not home from work yet.

When I hear the kitchen door bang shut and my father’s deep voice, I pass by David’s room as I rush downstairs to hug my father.

▲           

“When David was born, your father wasn’t ready,” my mother told me, years later. He was too young, she said. Dad wouldn’t hold him as a baby; he was afraid he’d break. He would also leave for days at a time. When he was home for dinner, he’d yell at David, “Eat with your fork! Don’t chew with your mouth open! Look at me when I’m talking to you!” One night my mother finally said “Knock it off! He’s just a boy. Can’t you see you’re making him a nervous wreck?”

By the time I came around, four years later, my father was ready. He never yelled at me at the dinner table, or anywhere else.

I paid for that special status with cuts and bruises inflicted by David. I have a scar over my right eye from when he pushed me onto the coffee table edge when I was two. And I was about five when he pushed me so hard on the front lawn that he fractured my collarbone.  .

I fought back the only way I knew how: ratting on him every chance I could. And then David would be sent to his dark room, alone, which to him was like being told he was unloved and no one wanted to be with him. “He would go to his room only if you were playing in your room across the hall,” my mother said. “He hated being alone.” I was both the object of his hatred and a source of incidental comfort.

“David is doing drugs,” my father told me one day. It was 1981, and we were in his living room of the house where he lived with his new family and David. He stood in front of me, both hands on my shoulders, as if bracing me for this new reality; my stepmother looked over his shoulder at me, eyebrows raised. I immediately thought of the “street drugs” I’d just learned about in science class, the tables laid out with pictures of barbiturates, amphetamines, PCP, cocaine, small, colorful pieces of paper called acid.

When I asked what kind and my father said it was marijuana, I thought, that’s not that serious. It wasn’t like David would become an addict and live on the street. He was in 8th grade.

A few years later, David had had enough of my father’s rules and moved in with my mother and me, in an apartment complex near our old house. I dreaded afternoons alone with him. There was a space of a few hours between getting home from school and when our mother got home from work. I would get home first, and turn on V-66, Boston’s music video channel. I’d be sitting on the floor watching a Duran Duran video when David would open the door with a bang, booming “Shut that shit off!” We’d battle over the TV for about two minutes. He loomed over me at 6’4: and he’d yell in that deep voice he’d inherited from our father. I always lost. He’d sit down in his favorite blue chair and crank up Ozzy on his new stereo, screaming “I’M GOIN’ OFF THE RAILS ON THE CRAZY TRAIN!!!!” He didn’t care that our neighbors throughout the apartment building could hear everything. It was the contrast that hurt; one moment breezy Simon LeBon was singing to me, perched on the edge of a yacht in glistening blue water, and the next I was looking at my tall, lanky brother sitting there, laughing (if his eyes were red), making this annoying clicking sound in his throat, in between taking long drags of his cigarette, and jiggling his knees, screaming Ozzy (or Zep or Skynard or Aerosmith), all while I sat on the floor, in disbelief, again.

One afternoon, he had a few friends over. I had been in my room and smelled this strange, sweet odor and wanted to see what kind of weird candle they were using. His face straightened up when he saw me come into the kitchen.

“Don’t tell Mom,” he said.

He turned to his friends, who couldn’t stop giggling. “Knock it off!”

He looked at me again and said in a much quieter voice, “Go back to your room.”

It was only at his high school graduation that I found out how popular he was. When the principal called his name (David Tucker) to the stage, it seemed the whole school rose up and shouted “Tucker!” all at once. How could this be the same guy who would chase me around the apartment and give me noogies? I didn’t even know people called him Tucker.

In my sophomore year of high school, I left Litchfield to move to my father’s in Amherst, a town without David. I came to think of my brother and his friends at school as “druggies,” and I didn’t want to have anything to do with him or them. I wanted to go to college. David meanwhile had moved into an apartment with his girlfriend in Nashua.

When it was my turn to graduate from high school, I was waiting in line with my fellow students, and I saw him walking around the group, long-legged, his loud voice shouting out “Cheryl, where are you?” I didn’t say a word. One of the students near me said, “Who is that guy?” The memory burns. (Later I would remember those words as “Whose brother is that?”). I was ashamed of him, of his long-legged, loud-mouthed stance. He was probably wearing those big white sneakers that drag after him, shoelaces untied. He was also probably making that annoying clicking sound with his throat.

 ▲

In the 90s, we’d visit David and his girlfriend, Kim, for Christmas. They had young boys now, whom I tried to spoil with hugs and books and attention. David and Kim moved a lot because they were often evicted for not paying rent, so over the years we’d see them in various apartments. Most of them were on one of the “Tree Streets,” the troubled streets in Nashua—Ash, Palm, Pine. I remember one Christmas sitting on the edge of their couch, right next to the blaring TV, reading to my nephews or to myself, in the midst of plumes of cigarette smoke. The women were all in the kitchen. David and Dad were in the living room with me; David in his chair (he always had “a chair,” wherever he lived) and Dad in another. They’d talk about the game and various players I really didn’t care about. Every once in a while, David would shout at one of the kids “Get off the couch! Did you hear me? Get. Off. The. Couch! You wanna go to your room? Listen to me when I’m talking to you!”

There was always plenty of chatter at these dinners, David’s and Dad’s voices rising above all. The clatter of silverware and easy laughs would make everything seem okay. I would tell the boys how handsome they looked. David would insist on carving the ham. The men would drink beer and the women would drink wine out of glasses that clinked with charms.

On the drive home, my dad or stepmom might say how good the ham was, then we’d all watch the road in silence for a while, until, inevitably, we’d ask each other, How could they live there? How long until they would move again? What about the kids?

We knew David was doing drugs but I had no idea how much until later, when I talked to his ex-girlfriend about those years. She told me that he had been using cocaine before they even moved in together, then ecstasy for about five years. He soon started to mix his drugs, so much so that Kim would force him to drink Ipecac syrup so he would throw up and not overdose.

When he started hitting her, she broke it off. It was soon after that that he started using crack cocaine. Later, he would switch to pills, mostly oxycodone, but anything really.

▲ 

The first time David went to rehab, he called me in North Carolina, where I was going to college. I was housesitting, I remember, seated at someone else’s dining room table in the still-dark morning.

“Do you ever think about the divorce?” he asked me.

“I do,” I said.

“I knew it. We’ve never really talked about it. Like, really talked about it. I’ve been talking to a lot of people here about that time. I can’t blame my drinking on that, you know?” he said. “That’s the past.”

There was a sweetness to his voice; it felt strange, awake and alive. I liked it. It was yearning and searching, quiet. I talked and talked, too, happy that a space had finally opened up.

▲ 

In 2003 or so, after I’d moved back to Boston, David called about meeting up in town for lunch. His friend from the moving company where he worked needed to come to Mass General Hospital so his wife could get treatment. David was going to come along, just so he could see me. I met him and his friends at Government Center and we walked over to the Black Rose, an Irish pub. I watched a polite lunch turn too comfortable, the tall glasses lifting up, the foam sliding down, the quicker laughs, David’s loud voice, and him saying every few minutes, toward the end, “This is my sister!”

The first few times he said this I raised my glass, smiling as much as I could. After a while, though, instead of feeling closer to David, I felt as if somebody whom everyone in the room was afraid of had just walked in and sat in between us.

▲ 

The happiest I’ve ever seen David was when he was in rehab in Nashua in 2009. For eight glorious months, he took care of himself and his friends in recovery with him. He reconnected with his kids. My parents were cautiously relieved to get their son back.

I was living north of Boston with my mother, and we visited him every Sunday. Every Sunday, I could access my brother. We could laugh and joke; it was like we were kids again, only better. On one Sunday when my father was there, too, we walked, our original family, on a path along the river near the rehab facility. The Tree Streets felt miles away, even though it was only a few blocks. It was fall, and the river was spotted with red and orange maple leaves; birches leaned down into the water. We talked about the distant past because it was safe.

“Don’t tell me you still like Duran Duran,” my brother said, walking ahead as usual.

“I actually like them more now,” I said. I told him how when I was living in Florence the summer before I’d ride my bike through a large park almost every day, listening to Duran Duran’s Greatest Hits on my earphones.

“They’re still bad, you know. I never understood what you saw in them.”

“They’re good!” I said. “They make me happy.”

“They’ll never be as good as Ozzy.”

 When the walk was over, we chatted in the parking lot to say our goodbyes. Just then, David spotted a nice car, I don’t remember what kind, and he quickly asked me to take a pic of him in front of it. He rolled up his sleeves and flexed his biceps, with a wide, toothy smile. “Muscle Beach!” he said to the camera, which is what his friends used to call him when he was a teenager. He made me promise to email the pics to him when I got home. We hugged tight and I told him “I’m so proud of you.” This was David, alive.

▲ 

Later that fall I met my future husband and moved to Boston. I had heard from my mother that David was now allowed to leave the rehab center to work, which meant he was connecting with old friends. She was worried. “You’re being too negative,” I said.

In March 2010, I called David to invite him to my wedding in May.

“I can definitely come. Where is it?”

“At the Arnold Arboretum and then afterwards we’re going to go to lunch at an Italian restaurant in West Roxbury. Dad will pick you up. He already said he would.”

“Wow. That’s great. When is it again?”

“May 22.”

“Okay, Cheryl, okay. Sounds good. Wow. Getting married. Is he good to you? He better be taking care of you or I’ll deal with him. Be honest now. You can tell me. I’m your brother.”

“He’s fine. He’s better than fine. I’m marrying him.”

“Okay, okay. All right. What day is it again?”

“May 22.”

Even when you’re half-expecting to be disappointed, it still feels terrible when your father tells you within seconds of walking through your door on your wedding day that your brother couldn’t make it. Wedding days are emotional enough. It hurt because I had allowed myself hope that this time would be different, that this time he would come through. I smiled through it and forced myself to focus on getting everyone to the park and on the joy of starting a new life.

At the wedding luncheon, I tried not to think about it. I wanted to be present for everyone who was there. I looked around the full table, feeling the warmth from the fireplace on my back, and then noticed that Dad at the end of the table had nodded off. I signaled to Jane, my stepmom, and she nudged him awake. “Sorry,” he mouthed across the table.

When I asked her about it later, Jane said that he does that a lot. “It’s this patch he’s on. It makes him sleepy,” she said. He was taking a painkiller patch for his lower back pain—his vertebrae were rubbing against each other.  From then on, I paid attention when Dad would start to nod off when driving or suddenly slump over in his chair when he was visiting us in Newton.

By June, David had left rehab, and my parents and I worried about what would happen next. Later that month, my mother called with the news that he had been beaten up on the street in Nashua.  He was in the hospital and had no vision in his right eye. My mother’s and father’s reactions were the same: “Drug deal, no doubt.” A week later, she said that I could look it up in the Nashua Telegraph.

Tucker, a 44-year-old furniture mover, went for a walk through downtown June 27 as he often does and stopped at the Walgreens at 283 Main St., to buy a phone card. He left the store shortly after 8 p.m. and remembers being hit hard on the left side of his head from behind . . .

Tucker had a concussion, blood around his brain and hemorrhaging in the back of his right eye that damaged his optic nerve, he said. He also had fractures in his temple, eye socket and nose and nerve damage on the right side of his face. At one point doctors thought they were going to need to drill into his skull to relieve the pressure the blood was exerting on his brain, he said . . .

Tucker is at a loss to explain the attack. He said there was no confrontation ahead of time. He hadn’t even talked to anyone nearby. He said he can’t think of anyone that would have a grudge against him. Most of the time during his walks downtown he is greeted with a wave and a “Hey Tucker” . . .

“I’m just a normal working guy,” Tucker said. “A lot of people in Nashua know me. No enemies” . . .

The Telegraph published a follow-up story, covering the court case of the attacker who had been accused of assaulting David, along with other crimes. According to court documents, the newspaper reported, David “theorized that the alleged attack may have been over $40 Tucker owed Olson. . . . He told police Olson gave him money to buy crack cocaine a few days before and that he used it to buy drugs for himself and planned on paying Olson back . . .”

“He lost his eye over forty dollars!” my father kept repeating to me.

▲ 

In 2012, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was a long-time smoker, and his body had finally given in. It seemed really bad, stage 4, and then, after surgery, he got better. He stopped smoking for a while. When he visited us in Newton, he still fell asleep in the living room chair, but he took walks with us around the neighborhood.

In November, my stepmother called to tell me that he wasn’t doing well. He was fatigued and in pain. We should start spending more time with him, she said. I called David.

“I know, I know. I should go see him,” he said.

“He really wants to see you, Dave.”

“It’s just so painful. I can’t. I can’t see him like that. I’m sorry.”

“But could you do it for him?”

“No, nah. I can’t.”

The rest of the time I left messages, asking for him to go visit, but he never did.

On Christmas Eve, my husband and I and the kids were driving up to New Hampshire to visit Dad and Jane. I called to let her know we were on our way.

“Cher, I should tell you that your father’s taken a turn.”

“What do you mean?”

“He doesn’t have much time. It could be any day now.”

I called David and left him messages.

▲ 

When we arrived at the house, Dad was lying on a hospice bed in the living room, unresponsive. My husband and oldest son left soon after. I kept my 8 month old with me; his soft skin on my cheek and his warm, sweet body a comfort.

For the next 24 hours, Christmas music played continually on Pandora while my stepmom, a trained hospice worker, periodically took my dad’s vitals. The room was stiflingly hot and the lights were kept low. On Christmas night, I was alone with him, holding his hand.

“David isn’t coming, Dad. You can let go. He loves you very much. I want you to know that you are the best father I could have asked for,” I said. He stretched his neck up and made a sound.

Within a half an hour, he was gone.

I called my mom first and then tried David. I left him a message.

▲  

In 2014, David met Pamela, a woman in her 40s who had a quick, hearty laugh. “You can call her Pam,” he’d said, before they came to my mother’s for Christmas. They looked good together. Pam would chide him gently about something, maybe smoking too much, and then laugh, looking at him with so much love. “I know, I know,” he’d say with a loose smile, walking off into the kitchen. He rubbed his sagging right eye a lot, probably hoping we weren’t staring at it.

Pam texted me days later, telling me that she loved my brother so much but she couldn’t take his drinking. David told my mother that they’d broken up, but didn’t say why. Over the late winter months, they had an on-again, off-again relationship. When we learned in the early spring that they’d gotten back together for good this time, we were relieved, grateful for the stability.

We made a plan to get together at Mom’s the day before Easter. “We’re bringing eggs to hide for the boys! Don’t tell them, though. I want it to be a surprise,” David said. I waited to tell my boys about the eggs until we knew he was really going to come. I wasn’t surprised when my mother told me that they didn’t have enough money for gas.

But then, somehow, they did. As I was letting David in the door, I said “Thanks for the call about Judy Garland.” “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, don’t remind me,” he said, waving me away and smiling.

I don’t remember what we ate for lunch; I just remember the sweets. Mom made strawberry shortcake, David’s favorite. His bowl was stacked so high I took a picture and sent it to him. This man loves whipped cream, the kind in the can. I hadn’t heard it, but when my mother was doing the dishes and he was prepping his shortcake, he’d said to her, “Drugs? Oh, I haven’t done drugs in ages.” After dessert. Mom brought out chocolate bunnies for all. As David looked at the package, I noticed the skin below his right eye didn’t sag so much.

The plastic eggs they’d brought had beautiful designs on them—some were gold, with a rough texture that made them feel substantial. They were filled with candies and a couple of dollars. We all stood around as the boys looked under the bed, in the planters. My little one shrieked with excitement at the ones he found without help. Afterwards, the boys ate their plunder in the living room. On the coffee table in front of little Johnny, every candy wrapper lay open and crumpled. Before David and Pam left, Pam sat on the couch with Johnny, who bounced back and forth with such gusto we thought he’d fall. All laughter, all almost normal.

At 7:30 in the morning on May 14, 2015, David was on his friend Sylvia’s couch, yelling at her roommates for waking him up. He’d been out the night before and didn’t get home until 2. David stormed out of the house and went to a friend’s. He called Pam to make a plan to go to the noon AA meeting. He really needed one, he said.

During the course of the morning, David visited friends, and drank. At one point, he’d taken a pill.

Pam couldn’t go to the meeting, because she promised to go with a friend to a doctor’s appointment. At the meeting, David broke down crying.   

Afterward, David went to another friend’s, and said he wasn’t feeling well.

David probably had wandered to the cement steps of his house on Ash Street feeling dizzy, maybe a little sick to his stomach, and extremely sleepy. Maybe his goal was to just get home. Sitting down felt better. Fentanyl, 50 times more potent than heroin, streamed through his veins as he bent his head down; the pressure in his arteries relaxed, his heart received less blood, his cells less oxygen and fewer nutrients. His breath slowed to a whisper. In his mind, he was riding his bike on Cutler Road, careful to avoid the long cracks in front of the Cooks’ house. He felt the wind on his cheeks, watched the branches of the tall pines gently sway, back and forth, back and forth, and was amazed by how deeply blue the sky was, and how it seemed to be getting darker.  

People walking by on the street didn’t think they were looking at anything other than a man taking an afternoon doze. His roommate Barry walked right by him, going in the other door. He went to check soon after and it was only then that he saw that David’s face was purple. The paramedics came and tried Narcan, but it was too late.

It seemed the whole of Nashua came to David’s service. Neighbors from Cutler Road and Litchfield were there, too. His friends had made a board for him, with “R.I.P. Tucker” in the center, and a picture and notes of love to say goodbye. His friends, one by one, came up to me telling me what a good person he was, how he made them laugh, how he helped them through a tough time, how he had loved and missed our father. The man whom I’d met in Boston, his coworker, approached me. It had been ten years since we had that lunch. He told me that as the train pulled out of the station that day, David had tears in his eyes. “That’s my sister,” he said.

Visiting my stepmother, weeks after David died, she asked me if the toxicology report had come in yet. I apologized for forgetting to tell her. It was fentanyl, I said.

“That was the drug your father was on.”

“What?”

“Yeah, that was the patch he had that made him so sleepy all the time.”

Then I remembered Dad sleeping at my wedding luncheon, starting to doze off in the car, suddenly nodding off at our house in Newton. Jane told me that he had asked his doctor to increase the dose so many times that the doctor made him sign a document promising he wouldn’t ask her again.

I started reading about this drug, which is 100 times more powerful than morphine. Two months before my brother overdosed, the DEA issued an alert on fentanyl, that it was a threat to health and public safety; six months after he died, the agency said that deaths from drug overdoses killed more Americans in 2013 than car crashes and gun injuries. The same year my brother died, the CDC wrote that New Hampshire ranked ninth in the country for the number of fentanyl confiscations. I also read that in the previous 10 years, the number of prescriptions for opioids quadrupled in the United States, even though Americans’ reported level of pain had not changed.

I learned that it’s likely that David didn’t know he was taking fentanyl. If he had been abusing it for a long time, his roommates and Pam would have known. He would have been depressed, dizzy, nauseous, wouldn’t eat, and would likely be consumed with figuring out how to get his next pill. The body builds a tolerance to fentanyl very fast; the dose that would give the user the high he wanted would need to be increased only a few days later.

My father’s back pain was no doubt excruciating, but his body became dependent on this powerful drug. His dependency didn’t cost him his life or destroy his livelihood and relationships, but it did make him miss out on moments he would have treasured had he been awake for them.

Since my brother died, I’ve learned the clinical difference between dependence and abuse. My father was dependent on fentanyl. My brother abused all kinds of drugs, and that day, it was fentanyl. I learned how the drugs they used had changed the way their brains functioned; addictive drugs find a back door to the brain’s reward system by filling up the nucleus accumbens with dopamine. The hippocampus then responds and lays down the track for it to happen again and again and again.

After extended abuse, the brain is reformatted to the point that when the body is deprived of a drug, the signals that are sent to it are as alarming as those that are sent when the body is starving. The deprivation is all-consuming, until the void can be filled again.

On the surface, my father and brother both wanted to reduce their pain: my father’s pain was caused by two vertebrae rubbing against each other in his lower back; my brother’s was caused, at least partly, by his difficult relationship with our father. In reality, they were both battling a physical fight. It’s as if the body is tied to its own conclusion.

More than 23 million of my fellow Americans are suffering from addiction. Families, friends, and partners make up millions more who are trying to help them. Like so many others who have lost someone to this disease, I ask myself if there was anything I could have done. I don’t think the 100th phone call would have helped David. He knew I loved him.

I commune with David when I’m alone in the car. I turn on the classic rock station, turn up AC/DC, Led Zeppelin sometimes, even Ozzy. I scream it so loud so that he can hear.

Cheryl Pappas  is a writer whose essays and fiction have appeared in  Tin House ’s Open Bar,  Ploughshares  blog,  Cleaver Magazine ,  jmww Journal ,  SmokeLong Quarterly , and more .  She lives in Boston.

Cheryl Pappas is a writer whose essays and fiction have appeared in Tin House’s Open Bar, Ploughshares blog, Cleaver Magazine, jmww Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, and more. She lives in Boston.

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