Each time Chera Kowalski saved someone’s life in front of me, I thought of my brother.
Chera is the librarian at McPherson Square who uses Narcan to revive victims who overdose in the park, in the heart of Kensington’s opioid crisis. Each time I saw her bang open the library doors and race out to the grass, I wished my brother had been on that lawn.
But John died against a bus stop fence on Long Island in 1999 on his way back to a halfway house. Buses passed by. No one stopped. My oldest brother was 34 and had been battling addiction since college. First alcohol, then cocaine. Later, after five years of sobriety, pain meds prescribed after neck surgery. At the end of his life, heroin.
At least once paramedics had to restart his heart. Doctors had told him that if he did not stop abusing alcohol and drugs he would be dead in six months. He did not last that long.
That December day by the bus stop, his heart stopped again. “Accidental overdose,” read the report from the Suffolk County medical examiner. In his system they found alcohol and heroin.
I’m not sure if anyone could have saved my brother. Narcan was not in wide use. It was the earliest days of an epidemic. We used different language then to talk about those battling addictions. After the funeral, my family, myself included, had a falling-out with the priest who during his eulogy spoke again and again of my brother’s “demons.” John had been so much more than his disease.
John was handsome and charismatic, kind and sensitive – smart enough to land a scholarship to Fordham University and a job offer in its computer-science program. He was also a talented guitarist and songwriter. In high school, the day after John Lennon was killed, a priest at Cathedral Prep in Brooklyn found him crying at his locker. As John grew up, he played in bands that gigged at CBGB in the East Village. He had the patience to teach me to play the Beatles tune “Rocky Raccoon.” Or at least he spent countless hours in our attic trying. He had this great big warm smile – and body-shaking laugh. He had the best head of hair of anyone I’d ever met.
I haven’t written about my brother this summer, but he’s there in every line of every column since that first day on the library lawn. I can’t keep writing about this opioid crisis and not tell about him.
My parents, like so many parents, did everything they could to help their oldest son. Detox. Rehab. Soft love. Hard love. Love. In his deepest despair, John knew he always had a place to sleep, clean clothes, food. Now, my mother, who did all she humanly could, lives with the unfounded guilt that it wasn’t enough.
Every night, she prays to her gone son, whom she calls her angel: “Good night, my beautiful, brilliant, handsome hunk of a son. Why did you die?”
And many mornings her heart breaks as she reads stories about other parents, almost 20 years later, who know the same unbearable pain.
The morning after my brother died, I remember coming downstairs, the wails of my sisters and mother filling the house, to find my dad, a retired firefighter, at the kitchen table polishing John’s shoes for the burial. He had put everything he had into fighting for his son; now it took everything he had to hold himself together. And it took all he had with me on the phone earlier this week to get the words out: “It’s an open wound,” he said, his voice raw. But my parents told me to tell my brother’s story. “If it saves one life,” each of them said.
I see my family’s pain writ large in Kensington. Nowhere is this increasingly devastating opioid, and now overdose, crisis more visible – in open-air drug markets, on library lawns, in abandoned churches, all along the avenue. On corners crowded with people who themselves are the center of some family’s private struggle.
You can’t spend more than a few months in Kensington without concluding that as well-intentioned as the city’s – and country’s – response to the crisis is, it’s still shaped by stigma and shame. It still relies on backward treatment programs like the detoxes my brother powered through again and again, only to relapse. It shies too often from evidence-backed solutions like medically assisted treatments, and yes, safe injection sites, which at least keep people alive, and usher more into treatment, and offer neighborhoods relief from the daily trauma.
The conversation has come far. We recognize addiction as a disease, as a public health crisis. But still, the stigma surrounding addiction persists. Nearly two decades after my brother’s “demons” were eulogized as much as he was, we still argue about the very vocabulary surrounding this devastation.
You can’t spend more than an hour in Kensington without realizing what’s happening there is a humanitarian crisis as much as a public health one. For that, you only really need to listen to a few minutes of one of Elvis Rosado’s Narcan training sessions, which he holds up and down Kensington Avenue. Elvis, a light of hope among many in Kensington, will explain how to recognize an overdose from fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that is now the biggest killer. The deadly drug does its work instantly, compressing the person’s lungs, and causing the air to come out in a rush. Fentanyl victims, Elvis said, sometimes touch their lips in shock, then fall.
Such an intimate gesture. A last terrible acknowledgment of everything that brought them there, and everything about to be lost.
I wonder if my brother touched his lips.
Elvis trained Chera Kowalski how to administer Narcan at the library. A few months later, he taught me, too. I carry it with me every day. I don’t know if I’ll ever have to use it, but I know I can.
It’s something I can do for my brother.