I wrote this piece whe at the Bear River Writer’s Conference in Northern Michigan. It was sponsored by the University of Michigan. It was a writing assigment from author and poet Thomas Lynch in response to a New York times Op Ed.

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Ryan was a clean, almost preppy kind-of-guy, who decided (for reasons we’ll never know) to give heroin a try. He was already dead when his friend, Matt, dropped him off at the hospital. Matt told the lady at the registration desk that he decided to drive Ryan himself, rather than call 911 or wake up family members – asleep in the next room – because he panicked. The detective told us that Ryan was the third guy Matt had dropped off in the past few months.

Apparently, heroin is migrating – moving from its former urban digs and invading the otherwise pastoral setting of suburbia and rural America – the heartland. I know this is true, in part because of Randall Archibald’s New York Times article that proclaimed, WAR WITHOUT BORDERS – In Heartland Death, Traces of Heroin’s Spread (May 31, 2009). But I knew it anyway – because Ryan OD’d. Call it what you like: dragon, hero, Big H, China white, black tar, black pearl, brown sugar, Mexican mud or plain old smack, it’s a big deal these days, and it’s more lethal than it used to be.

As soon as I arrived at the hospital to be with Ryan’s parents we were escorted to the emergency room where all five feet ten inches and one hundred seventy pounds of Ryan lay – his collar length, medium brown hair falling in strands over his unshaven face. The detective said that a sample of his hair would be tested to try and determine if Ryan had been a long-time user or if he was new to the drug.

To force myself to stay in the moment, I blocked out the hospital surroundings and made believe that Ryan was a wax figure in a museum – a coping mechanism I’ve taught myself over the years as a local church pastor in a small Michigan town. It doesn’t work. It’s the smell.

His father slumped in a heap on the backless physician’s stool, then he dropped his head and folded arms on the dead boy and sobbed like a baby. His mother and stepfather turned my way. I was trying to comfort them when his older sister came in the room and started yelling and calling him a stupid f’’r, because he was only thinking of himself, and he was the fourth f’n friend to die in six weeks. She pressed her fists together in front of her bowed head, sobbed and drew her shoulders around in a standing fetal position. She didn’t budge when I put my arm around her. Stupid f’r, she whispered again.

Mr. Archibald’s article is about families in Grove City, Ohio who have been stunned by the drug’s arrival. It’s here in Brighton, Michigan as well. He reports that human smugglers called coyotes bring the stuff into the States from Mexico. Then it’s delivered to cells that move around every few weeks to avoid detection. These days, the heroin is often laced with fentanyl, which is cheaper than heroin, but a hundred times more powerful. That way, the dealers make more money and the drug is more addictive – and deadly – often on the first hit. Stupid f’rs!

When Ryan was still alive, he enjoyed acting and playing practical jokes. Fittingly, to ease the tension and anger for a brief moment, his mother instructed the undertaker to bury him in a pair of red sparkly tights she found in his room. Truth is, the entire week of Ryan’s funeral was totally cheerless – until his sister stepped to the podium during the service to say a few words. I think we all expected more anger but she didn’t go there. Instead she recalled good times: like when Ryan decided to trespass at a local ski hill and challenge his friends to a midnight butt race; or some contraband antics he pulled at a nearby golf course; or his bazaar Halloween costumes. In spite of the awkwardness of the moment, nearly everyone in the church responded with belly laughs at the memory of this otherwise happy boy. But laughter won’t push heroin out of the heartland. We may have all laughed, but we didn’t mean it.

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