The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

'Everyone is trying to keep their loved ones alive, but I'm too late for that'

People have babies. People make art. People get sick with things other than COVID-19. People die. Strange as the world is right now, life — and death — do carry on. The opioid crisis certainly does. Mary Fairhurst Breen knows this too well. Here’s her essay: Grievous Injuries.

Mary Fairhurst Breen lost her daughter Sophie to an opioid overdose in early March

Mary Fairhurst Breen and her daughter, Sophie. (Submitted by Mary Fairhurst Breen)

Mary Fairhurst Breen, special to CBC Radio

On March 3, 2020, around 8 p.m., my daughter texts me: "Love you lots." I text back, "That's a nice text to get! I love you lots too." Then she signs off with a blowing-kiss emoji. It's a lovely gift. Just a little while earlier, she had texted her drug dealer to thank him for the fentanyl that has taken away her pain. She is feeling good at this moment, really good. I can't make sense of this. I once took a single Percocet I'd been prescribed after surgery and hated the high so much I couldn't wait for it to subside. But my daughter has had to live in a very different body than I do; she was always at risk for addiction. I couldn't even get addicted to cigarettes as a teen. In this regard, I am simply lucky.

My daughter will send a few more nice, ordinary texts over the course of the evening, to her fiancé and her sister. And to her drug dealer again, to indicate she'll need more fentanyl to provide the relief she has sought for so long.

It is a gift, but I feel uneasy when I get her warm, sweet text. I know how desperate she has been to find effective treatments for her physical and emotional pain. It crosses my mind that she is signing off permanently, but I push that thought aside. It is not unusual for her to send a random message of love to me. After many challenging years — all of them since she was about six, in fact — we are in a very good place as mother and daughter. I have finally gotten the hang of supporting her unconditionally. For several months, she has been as abundant with her appreciation as she was previously with her frustration.

Whenever I say the words, 'My daughter has died,' I leave my body and hear myself talking from some distance.- Mary Fairhurst Breen

The police reach me around 8 a.m. the following morning. I crumple and wail. I can't stop. I haven't wailed like this for 30 years. I don't know how I'm ever going to stop, or stand up and support my own weight. But eventually I do. I have to make a series of excruciating phone calls over the next couple of hours. Whenever I say the words, "My daughter has died," I leave my body and hear myself talking from some distance. It is disconcerting but I assume this phenomenon will pass, and after that first day, it does. I fall asleep in the afternoon. I will sleep a lot in the coming days, my body and brain involuntarily but mercifully shutting down at regular intervals. I am so grateful for this stress response.

For a week, I can't stop wondering what my daughter felt when the second dose of fentanyl hit her system. I can't stop myself from Googling in search of what I want to be true. Let it have been instant, my mind repeats. Evidence suggests it was — her chair overturned, her food and drink spilled. She had taken lamb chops out of the freezer to thaw. She must have intended to cook them the next day. She must have intended to be here to cook them the next day.

Small holes spontaneously appear in my skin. They look like spots where something poked me. After a while, they close over. I also get patches of hives and rashes. An area of my surface will suddenly itch like mad, as if to remind me I'm still here. Weeks later, I'm still getting mysterious bumps and lumps and sores that appear and disappear. The huge hole that will never scab over is not visible.

My hair is turning white. Its pigment hung on for a long time, but just in the past month, this vestige of youth has bid me adieu; every time I see myself in the bathroom mirror, there are more and more colourless strands among the blond. One day I notice that my eyelashes have become completely invisible, and my eyebrows are quickly disappearing too. I look old.

While I wasn't paying attention, the whole world went on bereavement leave with me ... Only what I'm in is different.- Mary Fairhurst Breen

For nine days after my daughter's death, I had my other grown child to cling to. We could spoon on my spare bed and indulge in a communal sob for as long as it took. I could hug my baby granddaughter, and the friends who brought food, and my daughter's devastated fiancé. We were able to gather — about a dozen of us — to talk about the young woman we had all loved and lost. On that day, Mar. 14, gatherings of 250 people or more were discouraged. By the next day, there were rumblings that getting together in groups of any size was perhaps ill-advised. The day after that, everything started to stop. My surviving child and her family flew home to the other side of the country. We had no idea we wouldn't be in the same city again for months. And I was suddenly solitary, confined to my apartment.

I no longer dare to sob uncontrollably. I take control of all the objects surrounding me, culling them, organizing them, moving them, storing them, placing them just so. I take control of my food intake — enough but not too much. I take control of my torso and limbs by moving them around a bit so they'll keep functioning. I take control of my brain, offering it distraction and enough stimulation that it won't start seeping out of my ears. My senses barely engaged, I remain "OK" because I don't know what the alternative to "OK" looks like, and I don't want to know.

While I wasn't paying attention, the whole world went on bereavement leave with me, and now we are all "in this together." Only what I'm in is different. Everyone is trying to keep their loved ones alive, but I'm too late for that. I am painstakingly keeping myself alive because my family is already way too small. And I have a granddaughter who will need to hear stories about her beautiful, brilliant, courageous, resilient, passionate aunt.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.

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