Chasing the Dragon
by Vicki Addesso
Blonde. Not white-blonde, or dirty-blonde, or tow-headed. Golden. His hair was a golden blonde. I’d hold my hand next to his head, match my wedding band against the color, and tell people, look, my son has golden hair. Blue-eyed. Chubby-cheeked. Laughter like jingle bells. My golden child.
Six years old. I see him in a far-off memory, but clear as day. Standing in front of the television set, controller in hand, playing a video game. He has become a knight in shining armor, wielding his sword against the monstrous dragon. Small fingers fly over the buttons, and he grunts as he pushes down, sways as the character on the screen that he has become battles his enemy. When this mighty miniature knight who is my little boy is defeated and consumed in flames, he slams the controller to the ground, screeching in anger, screaming not fair, not fair, not fair.
Now he is twenty-six years old. It is his birthday. Today. I stand next to the hospital bed where he is thrashing about, trying to bite out the I.V. There are fat white mittens taped onto his hands. This is the same hospital where I gave birth to him, where he was born. Back then the nurse slid tiny mittens over his hands so that he would not scratch his face. Arms moving all over the place. He looks like he wants to flap his wings and fly away, his father said. I tried to calm him, cuddling him, holding him to my breast, but he turned away, and he felt like a tight spring ready to pop. Now he is a young man. Is this the day he will die?
My son chases dragons. He is not a knight in shining armor, and he is not fighting an enemy. No, he has befriended the beast. He is a heroin addict, and when he is chasing the dragon he burns the powder on a piece of tinfoil and then closes his eyes, moves it close to his face, breathing in the fumes. Through his mouth, into his body, into his brain.
His golden hair has darkened to a light brown. It is long, past his shoulders; sometimes he pulls it back in a rubber band or pins it up into a man-bun. His beard is full. From a distance he looks like Jesus, or at least a version of what Jesus looks like to some people. To me he looks dirty, sick, and my heart breaks when I see him.
I don’t want to see him. But he comes to me. I want to send him away, but I can’t, I don’t. I give in. I give him everything.
Can you tie his hands down, I ask the nurse. He tells me no, it is against the law. I am worried that he will hurt himself, or me. I have a bruise on my left cheek and a cut on my right hand. Now I place one hand on his shoulder and the other on his chest and tell him, calm down, try to sleep. The plastic bags hanging above the bed are filled with fluids, to hydrate him, calm him, undo the damage that has been done by the dragon.
He is detoxing. Withdrawing. He has survived an overdose, but the battle has just begun. His brain is damaged. Toxic leukoencephalopathy.
Why won’t he calm down, I ask the nurse. His drug tolerance is very high, he tells me. We can’t risk sedating him. His breathing is not good.
My son is three years old when the pediatrician tells me, I’ve never seen tonsils this big, we need to take them out. My beautiful boy, so special with his giant tonsils. It’s why he would gag and gasp for air sometimes, why he never slept through the night. He would wake himself up, and me too, choking for a breath. What if he hadn’t? What if I had slept through it?
And here we are now. It happened. The night before last. I slept as he got out of his bed, walked to the bathroom, fell, and stopped breathing. His little sister heard him, a thump in the middle of the night. Mommy! Mommy, get up! I woke up and found my son not breathing. 911. Paramedic. Narcan. Ambulance. Emergency room. MRI. Brain damage.
When he woke up he could not talk or walk. His hands shook. The sounds coming out of his mouth were guttural and animal. His blue eyes opened wide and screamed. His motor and balance area. His white matter. Most likely permanent, irreversible. Wait and see. Wait and see. They move him to intensive care.
The nurse sits still and quiet on the other side of the bed. The small room is filled with machines that click and beep and hum, flash numbers and symbols on screens. So many tubes and wires attached to my son who shifts and twists and turns under sheets and blankets.
His father is not here. We divorced soon after becoming teenage parents. He moved to the West Coast, I moved back home with my parents, and when I called him yesterday to tell him what had happened he said, too bad. Do I blame him? Do I blame us? Yes, and yes. Him for leaving, and me for everything else.
I have been standing for hours. I am exhausted beyond knowing. My husband walks into the room. He stands behind me, puts his hands on my shoulders, tells me to go home, he’ll stay. He tells me our daughter is with his sister, so I can relax, rest. I’ll stay with our boy, my husband tells me. But he is not your boy, I think. He is my boy. He’s mine.
My son was five years old when I met my husband. I was cutting hair back then, and I fell in love with his thick, dark, curly locks before I knew anything else about him. Just a trim, he’d say. Once a month for five months, and then he asked me for my number. He had just finished dental school. He lived in the town where I worked, which was not far from the town where I lived. I had gone on a few dates with some old high school friends over the years, but this was different. He was someone brand new.
A year later we married. Then it was the three of us. My husband and my son got along; they grew close. My husband disciplined my son, firmly but lovingly. Like father and son? I don’t know. I was an only child. I was practically a child when he was born. I grew up because of him. He existed because of me. He was mine, nobody else’s, not ours.
I tell my husband that I can’t leave my son. He tells me I must. You look like death, he says, so I grab my coat and my bag and I leave. I find the restroom and as I squat over the toilet seat my thighs shake. Wipe. Stand up. Wash my hands.
When I was thirty-five I became a mother again, this time to a baby girl. My husband was so happy; we had a child. My son had just gotten his learner’s permit. Six months later he had his driver’s license and my husband bought him a nice and safe used car. I won’t blame my husband. Let’s blame the car. My son got behind the wheel of that car and took off. A key turned, and suddenly, my son was gone.
My car. Where did I park it? I didn’t. I had pulled up behind the ambulance at the emergency room doors and left it there, running. It comes back to me, a nurse saying she’ll have someone from valet services get it. Later, as I stood on the other side of a curtain while a doctor and two nurses were working on my son, someone handed me a ticket. The back pocket of my jeans. When did I get dressed? It had been the middle of the night when my daughter had screamed for me and I had found her kneeling next to her big brother who was lying on the floor of our upstairs hallway. Our daughter saved him, my son.
No tip for the valet, and did he give me a dirty look? I don’t care. I drive toward home on what feels like autopilot. I do not see roads, stop signs, traffic lights. I see my son. In court, in handcuffs. Standing there, next to three of his so-called friends, unshaven, unwashed. They’d gotten into a fight with two other young men who were selling them weed. He was seventeen. We got him out. We sold that car.
I pull over at the corner of Main and Cooper. I go inside the liquor store to buy a bottle of wine. Back in the car I call my sister-in-law to check on my daughter. She is fine, I am told. Go home and rest, I am told. I will bring her to you after dinner.
I can’t go home yet. I pull onto the parkway, just to drive, to be anywhere except in my life. But my life is stubborn and intrusive. Visions of my son over the years in various states of stupor. One year of college and that was it. Several jobs, none he could keep. Rehab, twice. Thirty-thousand dollars, times two. Still, he was not an addict. Not to me. I told myself he was drinking, smoking pot, maybe taking pills. He didn’t use needles, he didn’t shoot up. He was just doing drugs. I’d done drugs. Didn’t everyone do drugs at one point or another? Then he disappeared for a while. Gone for a month. He called. I drank. My husband said maybe it was good, that he’d learn some responsibility. Our daughter asked when her brother would visit.
When he did come home it was not to visit, but to take whatever he could from each of us. Money, jewelry, even his sister’s Beanie Baby collection. My husband changed the locks, but my son found a way in. I think back to that one awful night, the two of them at each other’s throats. Call 911, my husband yelled. I should have.
A car horn, loud and insistent. I have swerved into the other lane. I need to get off the road. I take the next exit and head home.
We stayed up that whole long night. My daughter, after the terror of witnessing her brother and father beating each other, finally cried herself to sleep around five in the morning. I kissed the top of her head, those thick, dark curls like her father’s. We are ruining her, I thought. My son and I.
My son’s face that night. Blemishes, cuts, sores, the sallow tint of his skin, his cheekbones so sharp they looked like weapons. My husband, eyes red, crying, exhausted. Somehow, by early afternoon, the three of us were in the car, headed to a new rehab facility. For another month my son was safe.
I pull into our driveway. I look around to see if any of the neighbors are about, but our cul-de-sac is deserted, everyone else at work or school or running errands.
Corkscrew. Wine glass. A sip. Another. I am alone in our home. My son is in the hospital. He has brain damage. Will he get better? Will he die? An anger, stronger than any emotion I have ever felt, fills my chest, rides up through my throat, burns in my eyes. I finish the first glass of wine and pour another, head upstairs, bringing the bottle with me. From my top dresser drawer, under my bras, I pull out the bottle of Klonopin. I swallow two with another sip of wine. I need to stop thinking. I need to sleep.
Instead, I walk to my son’s bedroom and open the door. The sour odor slaps me in the face. Clothes, garbage, clutter everywhere. The curtains drawn closed. I sit on his bed, his dirty sheets. I let all of this happen. I made this. I created this person. I blame myself. The anger is for me.
I begin my search. I am determined to find every bit of whatever he has hidden. Then maybe I will be able to see him. My golden child. Squares of tin foil with burn marks in the center. Tiny, empty plastic bags. Straws. Pipes. Empty cigarette packs.
Under his bed. In his closet. I open every drawer, pull dusty books off shelves and rifle through the pages. I tear posters off the walls. I look inside photo frames and video game boxes. I find remnants. Dustings of white powder. Marijuana seeds. Empty pill bottles with the labels ripped off. Lighters that no longer light. Matchbooks without matches. He must have been so empty to try so desperately to fill himself.
But now he can get better. I sip my wine. My son is in the hospital with brain damage, but he is alive. The doctors are cleaning him. The drugs are leaving. I lift the bottle and pour more wine into my glass. Another sip. Brains are resilient, aren’t they? Brain cells are malleable, isn’t that true? There are therapies and treatments. Miracles.
Sitting on his desk chair I notice a tear in the box spring of his bed. I walk across the room and sit on the floor. I poke my hand around inside. I feel a plastic bag and pull it out. Several folded packets of yellow and pink paisley patterned paper. I take one out of the bag.
I go back to the desk to unfold the paper. I see the powder; it is fine. It reminds me of the cocaine my first husband and I used to do. I remember the feeling, the first hit, another, and I remember the fun, and I remember how it made me need more. But I was never an addict.
I take another sip of my wine. Another. The bottle is empty. I am feeling relaxed now. The anger has dissipated. I should take a nap. I should leave the room and go to my bed and sleep. Instead, I pour the powder out on the desktop. I reach for one of the straws I’ve found. Without making neat lines, without thinking about anything, I put the straw into the small pile and lean over it. Straw in my nose. I snort. Once. Then again.
I slide to the floor. My eyes are closed. I am lying on the ground. The sun shines. A breeze blows. The grass feels scratchy against my back. Then it is dark. I hear someone calling Mommy! Mommy! The voice is distant. It is high-pitched. It is in my ear. I open my eyes and see his golden hair glistening in the moonlight. It is late, I whisper. Let’s go home, I say.
Vicki Addesso has worked in various fields over the years, full-time and part-time. In between family life and bill-paying endeavors, she works at writing. Co-author of the collaborative memoir Still Here Thinking of You~A Second Chance With Our Mothers (Big Table Publishing, 2013), she has had work published in Gravel Magazine, Barren Magazine, The Writer, Sleet Magazine, Damselfly Press, The Feminine Collective, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, and Tweetspeak Poetry. A personal essay is included in the anthology My Body My Words, edited by Loren Kleinman and Amye Archer. Her story, Cinnamon and Me, published by Sleet Magazine, has been nominated for a 2022 Pushcart Prize. You can follow Vicki on Twitter @VickiAddesso.