MARK CROMER buries a friend
It’s never easy burying a friend you’ve lost to drugs.
But I can tell you it’s a lot harder to do when the guy’s heart is still beating. It’s a bit odd knowing he may try to call you after the services are over. Nevertheless, I went to the funeral. It was a little strange being the only one there.
I drove my Chevy up the mountain to take in the sweeping view of the valley we both once called home. Feeling a little symbolism might be appropriate, I brought a single beer and cigarette for a final toast to Kevin’s memory. Recalling all the good times, I held my own private goodbye to the talented young photographer I had known for five short years.
It had been a long trip since last April, when I wrote a column for The Times that chronicled the frenzied efforts my friends and I had made to save Kevin, who by that time had wasted away on heroin, crack and enough other hard drugs to do William Burroughs proud.
But it was a time when I still believed, wretched as his life had become, a happy ending was within his grasp. We had managed to get Kevin into a detox center and from there he transferred to a clean-living house in Santa Monica. He got a job at a camera store and, as a result of a felony possession arrest, was in a court-ordered diversion program. It looked as if he’d hit rock bottom and the only way left was up . . . or out–and I didn’t imagine he wanted to die at the age of 27. As the old saying goes, hope springs eternal.
Shortly after my column was published, I received a letter from an expert who knew better. Kitty spent years married to a heroin addict and had weathered the chaos of trying to save him. She’d been through the tangled webs of lies, the rampant theft and the midnight trips to the emergency room.
But she stuck it out and got him into a top-rated rehab center. She joined numerous support groups, determined to see him through it. Things started to look up. He promised her he would get clean and stay clean. He told her he didn’t want to lose his family.
Three months after he walked out of that rehab center, he overdosed on a cocktail of heroin and morphine and was left to die on his front porch by the junkies he’d been hanging out with.
Kitty’s letter was a salty rejoinder to my optimistic column.
“If it seems you have done something for your friend, well, you haven’t,” she wrote. “My husband was an addict and will forever remain so, even though he’s dead.”
Her advice was simple enough: “Look inside and heal yourself.”
At the time I chalked it up as the passionate but misdirected emotions of a junkie’s widow. Her husband was dead, but Kevin wasn’t; her efforts had failed, but our friend was getting on the straight and narrow. I filed her letter and continued to be confident that I’d yet again work and hang out with Kevin.
Eight months later I found myself sitting across from Kitty in a Sherman Oaks bar, thanking her belatedly for the reality check and searching for some perspective on where we went wrong.
Like Kitty’s husband, Kevin had slipped back onto the junk while in the clean-living house. One night he called me from Union Station so loaded he kept nodding out while I was talking to him. In an ironic moment, I asked why he wasn’t back at the house. “What good would that do?” he mumbled. “Ain’t nothing goin’ on there.”
A few weeks after that phone call, Kevin slid off the deep end for good. By his own account, he was getting sicker despite fixing almost daily and his dealer decided to cut off his line of credit. Desperate, Kevin said he tried to rob a kid on the street but botched it and nearly ended up getting caught at the scene by witnesses. He fled Santa Monica that night, jumping probation to hitch a ride up to San Francisco, where he has been living in shelters and on the streets ever since.
He told several friends he thought he had HIV and no longer cared what happened to him.
The last conversation I had with him he was a little more chipper, if only in a sinister sort of way. He said he was making $35 an hour selling dope to “college punks from Berkeley” in the Haight. I told him he’d be looking at three strikes before long and ought to come back to L.A. and face the music while it was still survivable. He laughed, thanked me for the advice and gave me his supplier’s number, in case I needed to get in touch.
Two days later, Kevin was arrested for being under the influence of crack and threatening a person’s life.
Kitty said she understood why my friends and I went to the extremes we did to try to save Kevin, but we were doomed from the start because the guy with his finger on the syringe really didn’t want to be saved.
“In all my naivete, I thought my love for my husband would conquer his addiction. But it didn’t and it never could have,” she said. “All of my energy was totally devoted to him, everything we did circled around him, it was phenomenally draining. And in the end, it didn’t make a bit of difference.”
Meagan Kramer doesn’t enjoy telling the families and friends of heroin addicts that there is little they can do to help their loved ones, but she has to do it almost every day. As a clinical social worker at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center, Kramer counsels heroin addicts and whatever support system they have left.
“I tell the family that in order for a junkie to kick, they have to get to the point where the drugs and lifestyle no longer work for them,” she said. “Unfortunately, a lot of addicts simply never reach that point.”
It made me think how far Kevin had fallen. An award-winning photographer who once captured the street hookers around Lake Elsinore shooting heroin into their jugular veins, Kevin had somehow morphed into one of his gritty subjects. He went from photo gigs that paid $100 an hour to selling food stamps on the street for a fix. If he hadn’t hit bottom by now, he never would.
Perhaps what haunts his friends the most is the question why? What happened? The physical addiction to heroin was bad, but it wasn’t impossible to shake. There was something else going on inside Kevin that the rest of us couldn’t reach.
Kitty had seen the same thing in her husband.
“The hardest thing for me is that the pain, the demon, whatever you want to call it, that he used the drugs to numb, I never knew what it was. He could never share that with me, his wife, his friend, his lover,” she said. “And now I’ll never know.”
It was refreshing when Kitty encouraged my friends and I to give up hope. Once we did that, it would be easier to let go of Kevin.
“You have to accept the fact that your friend, the guy you and your buddies knew, is history. He’s long since gone and he’s not coming back,” Kitty said at the bar. “If you really believe he’s dead, then accept it and have a funeral for him inside your head. It’s the only way you’re going to get closure.”
So a few days later I drove up the mountain and said goodbye to a friend who really died more than a year ago. I was glad for the time we had and bummed that things hadn’t worked out, but that’s the way it is. I wished his spirit peace.
And I know there’s a good chance I’ll hear a voice from the grave one night, probably calling collect, wanting to confide some new crime or share some new low or, naturally, ask for money or something pawnable.
When that happens, I’ll tell the operator she’s either got a ghost on the line or it’s a prank call.
And then I’ll hang up.
This column was first published in the Los Angeles Times.