The loud rustling of leaves suffused the air around me as the strong winds danced with the branches on the dense oak trees nearby. The breeze on my face cooled the hot tears running down my cheeks, but did nothing to stop the flow as I sat on the side of a small mountain in Bergamo, Italy.
I had no reason to wipe my tears as I stared at the city far below, my solitude was complete and the tears were far from finished. I stared and stared into the open space in front of me, aware but not processing the sweeping views of the Italian countryside. The avalanche flowing from my eyes was nothing new, but the emotional force behind the tears was stronger than previous days.
This was the first time I cried alone.
For more than a week my family, friends, and fellow students surrounded my every waking moment until I had simply walked out of my language class hours earlier, craving absolute silence.
Five days previously, I said my final goodbyes to my big brother.
A mere three days after his funeral, and only at the fierce prodding of all those people in my life who I love and respect, I boarded an airplane bound for northern Italy to resume my summer study abroad program. The thought of continuing seemed ludicrous to me. Absurd. How could I pick up where I had left off? The Italian gibberish surrounding me was incomprehensible as my mind cocooned itself from others to protect me from the physical solitude I lacked.
The sympathetic and empty pats on my arm.
Askew glances from those unwilling to look me in my eyes and witness my grief.
So, I ditched class early and took the funicolare as far up the mountainside as it would take me. Bergamo is a city divided into two parts: the lower city, Città Bassa, and the upper city, Città Alta. What few realize is that the funiculare crawls even farther up the mountain, past the upper city and into San Vigilio, a quieter settlement with ruins and rocks and open space.
I ventured far enough up the mountain to see the entire countryside below me before I found a thick rock wall wide enough to hold my body. I hunched onto the wall, squeezing my knees to my chest and holding myself together as I tried to come to terms with my brother’s death.
Someone had asked me, “well, you knew it was coming right?”
No. Knowing it was the likely outcome of my brother’s opioid addiction never prepared me for the reality. I was blindsided by the fact that someone could actually die. Be gone. He was gone. No, there is no way to prepare. I had hugged my brother goodbye three days before I boarded my plane to Italy. I would never do that again.
No. I didn’t know it was coming.
I watched the matchbox cars drive the streets far below. The cacophonous rustling of the trees drowned out my racing thoughts.
I just wanted to stop thinking. I wanted my brother back. I wanted the pain to go away.
I hurled my thoughts into the circling wind in front of me. As curse words exploded into the air I realized it was me shouting those angry words. I flung the angry and unjust pieces of my broken soul into the wind. I sat on that mountainside and time stopped around me. If I sat there for long enough, if I released the pain and begged whatever higher powers exist for understanding, if I did that, then maybe understanding would come.
Hours passed. Maybe just minutes.
And as my fury subsided, grief settled over me again. I rested my chin on my knees and hugged my legs into my chest. I forced my thoughts and feelings back inside my head and heart. I wrapped my grief around me like a blanket, a protection from the platitudes coming my way the moment I returned to town.
Then the first gong of a church bell rang out over the city from Città Alta.
The breeze carried the crisp sound to my ears as I cocked my head askew, listening to the tingling ring fade away. Another bell clanged from the lower city, the sound drifting farther and lighter. It settled its music over my little piece of solitude. More echoes traveled up the mountain as churches all over the city began their evening aural ballet for one woman sitting, alone, on a nearby mountain.
And for perhaps the first time in my life, I felt connected to a pulse of shared humanity. Those bells, rung by the hands of humans miles away from my rock ledge, opened up a fissure of healing. Just a small, niggling piece of hope at that moment, but a connection nonetheless. A connection to to myself, to my brother, and to humanity. To this very day, each time I find myself standing at a spectacular vista somewhere in the world I take a moment to remember my brother, to feel gratitude for my life, and to send out positivity and love to every person on Earth.
One of my older brothers died in July 2005. He was just 27 years old—too young to lose his life. He battled serious addiction and died of a drug overdose.
This post was sparked by hearing conversations about addiction that range from vitriolic hatred to dispassionate misunderstanding.
The opioid crisis has taken a huge toll on American families. My story is one of many; unremarkable in many ways because it is, unfortunately, a too common occurrence across the country. My brother died early in the epidemic, before any national understanding about the tough situation facing us. Shortly after my brother died, my sister-in-law and cousin died of an opioid overdose, too. I’m from Florida, a state that was ground-zero for the crisis that would sweep the nation. But the knowledge about the opioid crisis—about what it looked like, about how to recognize and immediately treat overdose victims—would only come years later. By the time I understood what took my brother’s life, long after the shock wore off, that’s when I realized what was facing the entire United States. In 2005, my brother’s death was shocking. Then when my sister-in-law followed suit four years later, it was equally as shocking. Opioid abuse was not making headlines. One day my brother was just a phone call away, and then he was not.
My brother died of a drug overdose. Some may think that exempts him from compassion, but he was my brother. No fault or flaw or addiction changes that single fact. I rarely write about my brother publicly, but the lack of meaningful conversation about addiction is serious. We point fingers and talk about a person’s choices and yet don’t ask why addiction exists, we don’t ask about the role drug companies play in prescribing dangerous and addictive prescription drugs. More than anything though, we too often don’t see another’s pain as an opportunity to investigate what we are doing to as a society to help addicts. Why aren’t more of us fighting the misinformation and the society that has allowed an epidemic to rise to these dangerous levels?
Even beyond the death of the person—a tragedy—addiction splinters families. It rips apart the fabric holding loved ones together and for those looking on, it seems impossible to stop the spiral. It’s an out of control race to the bottom. And it’s hurting our country, our communities, and our families.
Losing a loved one hurts deeply. Hearing that loved one’s life summarily dismissed also hurts deeply. Let’s be better about talking about this crisis. Let’s do better about stopping the crisis and those profiting off of poor families. The very moment we stop feeling compassion and respect for each person on this planet, we lose a piece of our shared humanity. We can do better than we are right. We must.