My husband turned 41 and was informed he was teacher of the year at his school last week, but instead of celebrating, he got to drive back home to central West Virginia to attend the funeral of a childhood friend. While he was away, I was going to attend a baby shower, but somehow I got the date wrong and ended up missing it.
I never do that. I never lost keys or misplaced invitations or forgot to pay bills until I had two kids and a full-time job, 57 students turning in research papers who have to pass a standardized test from the state in two days, a cat, two lizards, two turtles, a bunch of fish, and two feet that need surgery sooner or later.
But enough about me. Back to my poor husband, whose birthday fell in the middle of the week on the day of his daughter’s first-ever ballet class. I’d baked him a lemon cake the night before his birthday, and he kept promising to eat a piece of it when he got a chance.
The truth is, he’s not much of a sweets person. And he’s not a social networker, so no one but the other teachers at his school knew that he was teacher of the year. He had to ask me to look up his friend’s Facebook page when he got the news of the untimely death.
Your 30s and 40s are very strange decades. You have friends getting married, friends having babies, friends dying of heart attacks, surviving breast cancer, and now, friends dying of drug overdoses. The drug overdose thing seems to be a sort of new normal for the whole country.
When my brother died last year, I went to work the next day sick to my stomach, and I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. I had just started the job a couple of months earlier, so no one knew me enough to care about my brother.
And if I had told them that my 32-year-old brother had just died, they would have said what the florist said when I ordered flowers for my brother’s funeral, which was that he was awfully young. It would have been a declarative statement with a question mark at the end. I didn’t know if I wanted to answer the questions.
I would have had to tell a long story that started about 20 years ago, and even the therapist I don’t have doesn’t have time for that.
In the months after Troy died, the paper was filled with stories of others like him. Young men and women who at some point took the wrong pill and liked it and then they did it again and again until one day they couldn’t stop. And then, one day, they died.
In the months after Troy died, I saw many more posts on social media about friends and relatives of friends who died young. Sometimes you get an idea of how they died from the obituary, but more often, you don’t. When it’s someone in his 30s, and there’s nothing about a hospice donation in lieu of flowers, it’s becoming a safer assumption these days that he or she died of a drug overdose.
Shortly after his 41st birthday, my husband told me that if he dies anytime soon, I should put the cause of death in his obituary, so people don’t get the wrong idea.
I told him to make sure no one plays pop music of any kind at my funeral.
Do you want to hear a sad story? Keep reading if you do.
When I was 6, my sister was 4, and my brother was 2, my parents moved us from a little log cabin in Frederick County, Virginia, into a drafty old farmhouse in Hampshire County, West Virginia. There was a neighbor who used to babysit us while my mother was at work. She had a daughter my age, and made wonderful brownies. We became friends with her little girl.
Once, when the girl and I were playing Barbies, we got into an argument over whose mother made better brownies. It was a real argument. I told my own mother about the fight and she said it was ridiculous, because obviously our neighbor made better brownies than she did.
So one day when my parents were home, my toddler brother decided to walk to the neighbor’s house, in his diaper, to get a brownie. Keep in mind, this was Hampshire County, West Virginia, and when I say neighbor, I’m not talking about someone whose house you could see from ours.
He walked a long way, in just a diaper, to get that brownie.
My parents had just noticed he was missing when our neighbor called to say he was at her house. In his diaper. Eating a brownie.
Last year, my mom invited a lot of her friends and family members to her home for a memorial service for my brother on the day he would have turned 33. The neighbor, who became one of my mother’s best friends, was too sick to attend, but she sent a plate of homemade brownies over with her daughter.
People keep dying and the newspaper keeps running stories about the heroin epidemic. There’s one today on the front page. Some people are saying that it is possible for addicts to get better, to really recover and not use drugs anymore, ever. I’ve thought a lot about it, and I can’t say for sure, because I haven’t experienced heroin addiction, but I think the one thing we can and should do is be more open and honest about the situation, about the people we’ve known and loved and lost, so that those who want help can think about trying to get it without having to worry about being fired from their jobs and unfriended by those who just don’t want to associate with an addict.
Of course, if you’ve ever known an addict, you know it can be a very difficult association, wrought with drama, turmoil, broken promises, and deceit.
Some want help and some say they want help, but they are already making plans for the next fix.
It’s taken me this long to talk about it because I didn’t know what to say before. And because I was afraid of the judgment and I felt guilty about whatever bad influence I must have been some 20 years ago when I was the oldest teenager in our family.
I smoked cigarettes every day for 10 years.
My friends and I talk about our sugar addictions, and they worry about GMOs and high-fructose corn syrup. And when we talk about our struggles, they don’t know that sometimes I’m thinking that high-fructose corn syrup might be really awful, but it’s not as bad as, say, heroin.
I still don’t really know what a GMO is or why it’s bad.
Your 30s and 40s are the best and the worst of times. (OK, your 20s were better, but your teens were not.) You know people buying timeshares and people living in their cars. You have friends dying of overdoses, and sometimes, friends who die young of natural causes. It’s hard to say which one is more disturbing, but it’s pretty obvious which one should have been preventable.
So now I’ll log on to Facebook and hope for some happy news, like a post about a wedding or a message from a friend who wants to take our kids to see an animated film.
If you see my husband, you can tell that old man congratulations on being teacher of the year, and on making it 41 years without so much as a data plan.