opinion

The sign by the Betsy Ross Bridge that a mother can't take down | Mike Newall

Mike Newall, STAFF COLUMNIST

Updated: Friday, September 22, 2017, 4:50 PM

Kathleen Deacy Moore, whose son, Gregory Moore, died of a heroin overdose earlier this year, hung a banner about her son’s death in front of her house.

She first hung the banner in the yard, for the funeral.

Kathleen Deacy Moore wipes away a tear as she talks about her son, Gregory Moore, in her home. He died of a heroin overdose earlier this year. David Maialetti
Melissa Deacy says a prayer to her brother, Gregory Moore, as she waits for an early morning bus. David Maialetti
Photo Gallery: The sign by the Betsy Ross Bridge that a mother can't take down | Mike Newall

Kathy Deacy-Moore didn’t have the money for a service at a parlor, so she held it beside her Port Richmond home.

That day in June, she set her youngest son’s urn in the garden with a wreath and her statue of St. Francis, which sits against the towering concrete wall that separates her rowhouse from the on-ramp to the Betsy Ross Bridge.

A bagpipe played “Amazing Grace,” and by some miracle, drowned out the traffic.

Kathy’s son smiled down from the banner, which stretched the length of the front porch awning. The photo was a recent one, from his last stint in recovery. It read, “Gregory J. Moore – Age 32 – Rest in Peace.”

And above it, a quote she found on the internet, one that she felt encompassed the pain her son had gone through and the pain she still felt: “Addiction is a special kind of hell. It takes the soul of the addict and breaks the hearts of everyone who loves them.”

It’s not that she thought Gregory had no soul. Even in the depths of his addiction, her son was her creative, funny blue-eyed boy, her baby. But heroin had taken so much from him: his apartment, his painting job, at times, his freedom, custody of his child. She liked the quote, too, because she felt it sees both sides of the opioid crisis: the person suffering through it, and the family suffering alongside.

Eventually, the mourners left — Gregory’s friends from his high school band, Last Regrets; the friends from the recovery centers across Kensington whom he had met over the years. His sister and brother and neighbors.

In the quiet of the yard, Kathy made a decision. She was keeping that sign right where it was.

A small but powerful beacon

She had a captive audience: the cars that snake down Richmond Street, every morning and night, waiting to get on the bridge. She wanted to hold up her grief to the rush-hour traffic, attack the stigma of drug addiction and the silent suffering it begets.

Before Gregory died, at her Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernian meeting at Division 87, on Wakeling Street, Kathy had finally broken down and confided to a friend about her son. About his addiction.

“Kathy,” the friend told her. “You’re not alone.”

She hoped her banner would do the same for the strangers who passed by. Help someone feel a little less alone.

In the depths of a national crisis, Kathy Moore’s banner became a small but powerful beacon in one of the neighborhoods hit hardest.

People came knocking. And Kathy, small and redheaded and easy to talk to – and home all day because she runs a custom dog-collar business — opened her front door every time.

There was the garbage man, who pulled a medallion from his pocket and told Kathy how he had been sober for five years. How thankful he was for his job, and how sorry he was that she lost her son.

“You just made my day,” Kathy told him.

Then the pizza delivery girl, who had lost a sibling to an overdose. The women talked for a half-hour. “I’m sure some people got cold pizzas,” Kathy said.

And there was Michael McNeill Sr. A semiretired commercial driver, he saw the sign when he was getting on the bridge, heading home to Pennsauken. He thought of Michael Jr., who had battled an addiction to alcohol and pain pills. In December, Michael Sr. found his son hanging from a branch of a tree in the backyard. He cut the rope and lowered him gently.

So he yanked the wheel before the on-ramp and knocked on Kathy’s door. They sat in the living room. Michael told about his son. Kathy told about Gregory. About his humor, so like hers — which has gotten her through these torturous months.

She talked about that time he was an altar boy at St. Ambrose’s, and served a Mass alongside Cardinal Bevilacqua, whipped a pen and paper out of his cassock, and asked for an autograph, in case the cardinal became pope someday. About all those years playing football for the old Tabor Rams, a Feltonville football club. And his first childhood dream, of playing for Notre Dame. When Kathy and her husband, Garry, showed the 10-year-old where South Bend was on a map, Greg replied: “I can come home for dinner every night.”

She told the stranger about the painting job Greg worked with his father after graduating from North Catholic. “Peas in a pod,” she said of her husband and son. Best friends. Greg was 23 when his father died from a heart attack. Greg took it hardest.

She talked about the pills he started taking in high school after he was hurt playing sports. The heroin followed. After stealing Christmas gifts, he lost custody of his own son, then 3. A burglary charge led to four months in jail.

Kathy told Michael McNeill the stories of the photos on the wall — the collage she made for the funeral. The ones from before, when his smile was free and uncomplicated. The ones from his final years — a wedding he attended with friends from recovery where he was best man. The bride and groom are dead now from overdoses.

In the photo she chose for the banner, one of the last, taken at a recovery house after months on the street, he’d had his teeth fixed. He was so happy. “Mom, I can smile again,” he said. His victories kept getting smaller.

The tears came when she talked about the last time she saw him, days before his death. He was out of rehab, living in an apartment not far from Kensington Avenue.

She walked him to the bus — her blue-eyed boy, 6 feet tall. Kathy is 5-foot-2. She brought his face down to hers and did something she had not done in so long: She kissed him on his lips. She hugged him, and she wept.

“I think I just knew in my heart,” she said.

For eight days, no one heard from Greg. Kathy and her daughter, Melissa, plastered his photo all over Facebook. There were sightings at a recovery house in South Philadelphia where he inquired about a treatment slot and was told to come back the next day. There was no room. He never returned.

The medical examiner called on a Wednesday night. Gregory Moore had been found, dead from a fentanyl overdose, two days earlier in the Gurney Street heroin gulch in Kensington. She asked why notification had taken so long. There were just so many overdoses.

Sunday night support group

Michael McNeill Sr. left Kathy’s house, ducked under the banner, and felt a little less alone. “I could see it helped her,” he said. “And it helped me.”

He’s since started a Sunday night support group for family members who have lost a loved one to addiction. Kathy goes every time she can.

Melissa, Gregory’s older sister, is herself in long-term recovery from heroin addiction.

Every morning, on her way to work at a Center City sandwich shop, waiting for the 73 bus to come down Richmond Street at 4 a.m., she sits under her brother’s banner. It’s hard for her, but she knows it helps her mother, and the people who come knocking, over a half-dozen now. In the quiet of predawn, she prays to her brother.

On Thursday, Kathy awoke before dawn herself. It was Gregory’s birthday. She broke down crying. For not being able to hold him again, see him, hear his voice. She sat in the living room, surrounded by the memories of her son. She could see his face on the banner through the window. She waited for a knock at the door.

Mike Newall, STAFF COLUMNIST

Read full story: The sign by the Betsy Ross Bridge that a mother can't take down | Mike Newall