12.  In the Air to Hazelden

After ten days at Miriam Hospital, Jonathan was ready to leave for Hazelden. But I was not ready to see him go.

The doctors had done a good job getting his blood infection under control, but they were frustrated. “We don’t really know how to handle a patient like Jonathan,” they explained. “We’re not trained to deal with heroin addicts.” They were sympathetic, but clearly content to see him on his way.

Driving on the highway with Jonathan from Miriam to Logan Airport in Boston for his flight to Hazelden, we listened to the news on the radio, reports humming with violence and trouble, and I thought about the brutality my father had known living as a little boy in Czarist Russia, the arrogance and misfortune easily recognizable in the faceless world that seemed to surround Jonathan now. I wanted Jonathan to be safe.

“I’m considering flying out to Hazelden with him,” I had told the staff there.

“That’s really unnecessary,” they responded. Foolish, they seemed to suggest.

Like Butler, Hazelden had strict rules about visiting. “Yes, you could stay overnight on the grounds once you arrive, but as soon as Jonathan is settled in his own room, you won’t be able to see him again,” they said.

In the end, I listened to them. I didn’t go.

Instead, I watched Jonathan’s plane rise in the sky above Logan that day, mesmerized by its spell. It moved slowly like a silver bullet floating across the puffy clouds, lonely in the heavens, quietly disappearing into the blue firmament. My eyes seemed fixed to it. When it became invisible, I held to the empty space just as I would a year later at Jonathan’s grave the day we buried him.

When Jonathan arrived that night at Hazelden, he immediately called to let us know he was there, safe and secure. They put him in a room with several other men, and he began the program, quickly adjusting to the official routine. Soon he had his own single room. Jonathan always got his own room eventually, a reward for doing well, he claimed. People liked him, even in these institutional facilities. “He makes us laugh,” they would say. “He cares.” I could hear his laughter welling up from deep within his body when they said that, resonant and spontaneous, exploding into the world.

Yet he was detached, separate from the rest, isolated and lonely. Heroin marked him out, even there. And it was just that, I suppose, that sense of being unique, special that destroyed him. Nobody could tell him anything he didn’t already know. He came to believe through his heroin deceptions he could outwit everyone. He was never arrogant, always gentle, often compassionate throughout this last year. But he really didn’t fit in. He thought I was too abstract, too intellectually removed, he once claimed. Later, he told me he thought reading was similar to taking drugs. Looking through the library one day after he died, I discovered an intriguing book that suggested how addictive reading could be.


On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, I flew out to Hazelden with Linda and Jeremy for a scheduled family program. We were together, resolute despite the rubble:

Linda, the mother, Tufts graduate, high school math teacher, secure with lists and numbers; she was fearful now, anxious she might say the wrong thing to her baby boy. She wished so much she could shake him out of this funk, tell him to “cut the crap,” as she liked to put it, cut the crap, return to me.

Jeremy, the younger brother, Tufts University undergraduate, deeply devoted and loyal to Jonathan; for him, Jonathan would always be the best friend, the older brother who babysat for him, taught him to ride a bicycle on the concrete playground in the back of our large apartment complex in New Bedford, endured his playful wrestling, brought him to college parties with real girls.

And me, the father, the professor, wondering, like the others, how our family and the world had been turned upside down and inside out.

I have a picture of Jonathan and Jeremy sitting close to each other on our couch early one morning in Walla Walla. It’s 1974. Jeremy, barely three months old, nestled in the arms of his big brother, the five year old. They are both in their cotton pajamas, gazing out the front window of our little rented ranch house with the asparagus garden in the backyard. The two brothers are riveted as they watch Linda slowly drive from the house down the street, taking me in our tan Plymouth Fury the few blocks to the college campus for my morning classes. Two young boys, pressing their sweet round faces to the glass, anxious and proud, soulmates alone for the first time. They sit together, not moving, waiting patiently for the return of their loving mother. It is not a photograph, but a picture that haunts me now wherever I go.

So we went to Hazelden as a family, rooted and determined, despite the whirlwind.

Hazelden is a large pastoral retreat, quiet and peaceful, stretching over many acres with buildings connected by an intricate network of corridors. It has a gym, an auditorium, eating areas, break-out rooms for meetings and discussions, a small detox hospital with medical staff, and an area for administrative personnel. We could only visit with Jonathan for short periods. The family program was an opportunity designed for us, an exploration of our complicity and co-dependency with the addict. We joined other families, mainly affluent middle class, exchanged ideas, went through therapeutic group sessions, and generally felt a sense of relief by recognizing others like ourselves experiencing similar pain.

Except for the assigned times, we were not allowed to see Jonathan, the rationale being that we were best off wrestling with our problems together with others in difficulty. On a few occasions though, Jeremy went over to see Jonathan in his dormitory, sitting in the Day Room with him, watching television together on the soft couch, separate from the rest of the family. Jeremy was worried about Jonathan, as we all were, particularly frightened about what would happen when he left Hazelden at the end of the 28 days. He couldn’t figure out exactly what to say, but he was glad to be there with his brother, sitting together, side by side.

None of us knew exactly what to do. I walked through the woods one day with a Harvard historian, recently divorced, who had just arrived to see his son and participate in the family program.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “Any ideas?”

I knew, like me, he wanted to know. I comforted him the best I could, trying to explain to him what I had been experiencing the last few days, what I had learned. Our talking to each other was valuable no doubt. But I had very little to tell him.

“We’ll have to stay in touch back in Massachusetts,” he offered as we approached the end of the path.

“Yes,” I agreed.


We met Vicki, Jonathan’s senior counselor, a former drug addict, in her early thirties, fragile and proud. She had been working at Hazelden for a few months, anxious in her devotion to serve, still tryng to pull herself together. I admired her tenacity.

At a family meeting near the end of his stay, she announced to us with some sense of victory: “Jonathan has agreed to go to our Fellowship Club in New York City.” It was a victory, she explained, because during most of his stay at Hazelden Jonathan had resisted the prospect of further treatment. She seemed pleased and satisfied. When I heard all this though, I wanted to take her neck in my bare hands and strangle her. For me, New York represented the ultimate risk. How could they dare send Jonathan back into the streets and neighborhoods he knew so well? Why hadn’t they at least arranged for a space in the half-way house Hazelden owned in St Paul? Didn’t this well-known institution know what it was doing?

I realize now it wouldn’t have mattered. A couple of blocks away from the house in St. Paul was a crack hangout. Jonathan could have scored drugs there anytime.


Fear dominated the entire year we all struggled for Jonathan’s recovery. I was afraid to say the wrong thing, afraid I might make him go take more drugs. Maybe if I had been firmer and said “cut the crap”—maybe if we had left him alone—maybe...who will ever know.


Jonathan was reading the novel Forrest Gump while we were at Hazelden. I walked by his room on the ground floor one night, saw him alone at the window, asked him about the book. “It’s a good book,” he said. “I’m really enjoying it.”

We talked through the glass for a few minutes. Jonathan, separate and alone, holding a book; his father outside, alone, looking in through the glass, wondering what his son is thinking.

He would often tell me about a book he was reading.

“There’s a book by a French writer about the power of stories,” he once said, a slim volume that had just caught his attention. “It makes me think about those stories you created sitting on my bed before I went to sleep at night.”

He would fall asleep to those stories when he was a little boy, and I would return to his room later to check on him, to be sure he was safe. Cowboy Jonathan would always be sleeping with his eyes shut gently like an angel after a long day.


In his room at Hazelden the next day, we sat on his bed, trying to talk to each other about important matters, but we never quite got there. After awhile, he took out a paper with a written exercise he had been given in his group. It was xeroxed with short statements designed to help two people share feelings. He went down the list on the paper, responding by talking about what bothered him about himself. Jonathan was a big man, overweight then, a lot of that weight gained over the last few years. “It disturbs me,” he said. “I know it’s something I should focus on.” As it turned out, he never would.

We tried to do the exercise together, joking at times from what must have been mutual discomfort and embarrassment. I am not sure if he suggested the exercise out of an assigned obligation or because he genuinely believed we could both find something in it. I felt I was not offering enough, although I wanted to. It was, after all, only an exercise.

By the time Jonathan was ready to leave Hazelden, he had heard enough about exercises. I had too. Jonathan knew what needed to be done. The rest was up to him.

The other places on his long and lonely journey— the half-way houses, the groups, the detox centers—would give him some margin of safety and some sense of rules and structures, some fellowship as well, but they would make little difference to him. He needed to connect with something deep within him, some essential self, if he could find it and if it were there. He needed a conversion to turn his life around. Perhaps if he had created a different image of himself, if he had a respectable white collar job, a slim body, suave clothes, perhaps then he would have made it through this brutal and arrogant world. But his inability or unwillingness to create this image can only be marked as a symptom of the problem. It wasn’t the cause.


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