29 September 1977–24 January 2017
So what becomes of all the little boys
The sandman takes you where
You’ll be sleepin’ with a pillowman
On the Nickel over there. (Tom Waits)
On January 24, 2017, my son Eric passed away. It was the end of a long battle with addiction. I doubt that he even shows up in the official statistics. While he was an addict, while he hadn’t used drugs in at least seven months, he did not die from heroin directly. No, by that time his body had been colonized by bacteria. They had taken over his entire body, and his official cause of death was listed as “sepsis.” But make no mistake about it, he was killed by drugs.
But, of course, the story does not begin there.
His mother and I were far too young when Eric was born. We divorced when Eric was very little. She remarried, and Eric loved his stepfather. When that marriage split, Eric was devastated. His home life may have been a factor in his stability, his coping skills, and his ability to form attachments. Shortly thereafter, he came to live with me permanently. He was soon failing in school. Frantic, I tried everything I could to help — counseling, reward systems, modeling. None of it helped. The spiral had begun. By the time he had reached junior high, he was skipping school, and the county put him in jail.
First, it was for a weekend. A failed attempt at “scared straight,” I suppose. After further truancy, he was jailed for a week, and then longer. A stupid, misguided practice, it did not put him back on track, but rather, hardened him to the process and the system. As a small child, he had been kind, and loving, and smart, and curious. He was filled will potential. Those stints in jail took some of that away. He later dropped out of school altogether.
Shortly after that, we moved to Long Island, and he moved ever farther away from me. He made questionable friends. He took up dangerous practices. He ended up in prison for a while. After prison, he tried to go “straight.” He married, bought a house, got a 9-to-5 job. But it was an impossible way of life for him. He couldn’t maintain a relationship; he couldn’t stay in one place; he couldn’t stay clean or sober. Oh, he’d go through clean patches. After another stint in jail, he came out clean and looked great. We really thought he was going to make it that time, but the odds are long for a heroin addict.
At his funeral, I was approached by so many people, some of whom I knew, many of whom I did not. They praised his generosity of spirit, his generosity of time, and his generosity of knowledge. Person after person told me how much he had helped them, how much he had given to them, how much he had taught them. To be honest, those exchanges were bittersweet. Knowing that he had a life with friends was comforting. Knowing that he was the kind of person who thought of others and helped others was gratifying. It made me proud. But it also reminded me that that presence was gone from the world.
Eric was no angel. He found trouble throughout his life. With friends, with family, at school, at play. He smoked, he drank, and he used drugs. While he was predominantly kind and loving, he could also be violent. For all he helped people, he also sometimes hurt them — psychologically, emotionally, and physically. And, for me, I need to remember the bad along with the good. He was a whole person, an all-too-flesh-and-blood person, not some romanticized memory.
To some extent, we all lose our children. They grow up, they begin to prefer the company of friends over parents; they develop lives and customs and routines of their own. But for most parents, their children will then outlive them. They will carry some of their parents on, in their genes but also in their tastes and beliefs and practices.
Eric and I shared pleasure in food. We cooked when he was young, and until the end of his life, he would comment on things we had made together. Out of the blue he would call me to ask about a recipe, and he would make it for the people in his life. We also shared a love for music. Despite our differences in taste, and despite the fact that he hated Tom Waits’s music when he was young, it ended up being the thing we held in common. And I’ve lost that — and so much more. Now that little boy is sleeping with the sandman.
My wife and I are now raising three of his children. It’s not easy to be a parent again at this age. All three children look like him. People tell us that we have the best of him with us, but I’d give anything to go back, to have Eric get clean, to have my son back, to see him raising his own children. I suspect they’ll have almost no memories of him when they’re older. Just pictures. And just maybe, a love of Tom Waits.
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of a book on feminist science fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.