My son died on a Monday. Mondays have an annoying habit of repeating themselves every seven days or so and as a result each occurrence is like a slap in the face. An unneeded and unwelcome reminder, since there is no danger of me ever forgetting, thank you very much.
Eventually Mondays lost their edge and my wife and I would notice a Monday here and there slip by where our every waking thought wasn’t dominated by that Monday. In the meantime, the third of each month got its turn to poke us on the shoulder and hey don’t forget your son is dead and don’t forget you could’ve done something to prevent it if only you could go back in time and do things differently and oh yeah make sure you don’t forget about your other son who is still alive and also hurting and how can you be sure you’re not a terrible parent who fucked up your kid somehow and you deserve this?
But I digress.
As you may have guessed, Holden died on the third Monday of the month. April 3rd, 2017 to be exact. I wish I could give you the precise time, but unfortunately we’ll never know for sure. Even his death certificate issued by the state of Wisconsin can’t help us there. Every one of the forty-nine fields on the form from his middle name to social security number is spot on, with the exception of field number 33 which lists TIME OF DEATH (24hr): 17:40 (ESTIMATED). That was when the parametric or the police officer or whoever else was in the room at the time checked their watch and declared Holden was dead to make it official.
That morning of April 3rd started out like most Mondays. The weekend had wrapped up as a pretty decent one after Holden and I spent the majority of our time swapping bedrooms. Our family has a rich and somewhat odd history of moving bedrooms around way too often. Once again we decided that he could have the upstairs bedroom with more space and more privacy. My wife, Tammy, and I would take his room on the first floor. Less stairs to climb for Tammy’s arthritic knees and fewer steps for me to hit the head in the middle of the night, so what the hell.
Holden was upbeat all weekend and enjoyed setting up his new room and getting all of his computer and music equipment set up just right. He went out with some friends Saturday night. I don’t recall the details of who, what, and where, but Tammy and I were always glad and relieved when Holden did something social and got out of the house for a while.
I suppose that’s a decent enough segue to mention Holden’s past, which had been difficult for him and us over the last few years. His history of suicide attempts and self-harm started in April (yep) of 2013. I have no doubt he’d been struggling prior, but that’s when Tammy and I got our wakeup call after he swallowed most of a bottle of his brother’s Ritalin. After a short stay in Children’s Hospital, he was transferred by a police car to Rogers Memorial psychiatric hospital.
Over the next four years there were ups and downs. Various medications started, altered, and stopped. Different therapists with poor to fair results. Holden’s second stay at Rogers was shortly after his first in 2013, this time Tylenol instead of Ritalin.
The next incident was in July of 2015. He lost his nerve and couldn’t go through with his original plan of jumping from the eighth floor rooftop garden at St. Luke’s Hospital. Fortunately for him, his backup plan of drinking a bottle of bleach in the car didn’t pan out either. The failed jump/bleach incident had Holden admitted to Rogers for the third time for eleven days.
Just two days after coming home, Holden went right back to Rogers after he sliced up his arms and legs with a knife and stabbed himself in the neck. The house had been virtually stripped of anything remotely dangerous, but he found a way. For almost two days he hid the wounds from us, even going to work and a session with his therapist, hiding the wound on his neck with his hoodie. Blood trickled down his skin under his shirt while the three of us in his therapy session reviewed the progress he’d made from his inpatient stay and his plans for staying healthy in the future. The next morning he reluctantly showed me the gaping hole in his neck, so deep I could see exposed muscle or tendons. He didn’t see home for the next thirty three days.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Like I mentioned earlier, there were good times and bad and I always tried my best to maintain cautious optimism for Holden’s future. Although he never seemed to get much out of talk therapy, Holden learned a lot from his experiences, did some growing up, and things slowly stabilized for him. He stopped self-harming and eventually came off of antidepressants. A few days before this eighteenth birthday he turned type one diabetic but he took it in stride and did a good job of taking care of himself. Despite struggling with school most of his childhood and missing so much time due to hospitalization his junior and senior year, he graduated high school in 2016.
Holden didn’t really have any plans for after high school. He was never a very good student and had such low self-esteem when it came to his talents and abilities that he dismissed the notion of going to college. He’d worked for the better part of a year as an intern where I worked and after graduation he’d been hired on full time as machine operator at a different plant. He lasted just one day. From what I gathered, it was a combination of the guy training him not being very good at explaining the job, Holden not speaking up with questions, and his anxiety getting the best of him. On his second day he got ready in the morning and made it as far as the car before finally sending me a text letting me know he couldn’t do it. Mostly he felt bad for letting us down. It didn’t bother me too much because I’ve been there too. Who hasn’t had a rough start at a new job and never went back, or at least was tempted not to?
Unfortunately the first few weeks of unemployment eventually turned into months and Holden made no efforts of looking for a new job. He convinced himself he couldn’t handle it, no matter what the position was. After the relationship with his latest girlfriend ended, he rarely left the house at that point, much less his room. He’d stay up most of the night playing video games, tinkering with his music equipment and a dozen used Macintosh computers he’d bought to refurbish and sell for a profit.
I realized as I wrote the last couple of paragraphs, I described what sounds like a depressed young man who was broadcasting warning signs to his naive parents. But that’s the thing, Holden wasn’t actually doing that bad at the time. Slacking for sure, but he definitely wasn’t the first to drift aimlessly right after high school. His mood had the normal ups and downs that everybody experiences and even though he did spend a lot of time alone physically, he was always talking to somebody on one social media or messaging platform or the other. He did his share of laughing and screwing around with his unique sense of humor and did go out once in awhile with his slowly expanding group of post high school friends.
I tried to take things in stride even though it bugged me that he was making no progress toward building a life of his own outside of the house like his older brother did. I often wondered if we, as parents, were handling it correctly. Should I have dragged him out of bed every morning at dawn and shove the classifieds in his face? Demand rent because he was an adult and threaten to kick him out if he didn’t pay up? Were we too soft on him because of his past? I did my best to suppress these doubts and maintain that cautious optimism, telling myself that eventually Holden would get his act together. Eventually he’d realize he didn’t want to live with his parents forever and he’d have to at least get a job.
On the morning of April 3rd I got ready to feed our three cats but came up one short. Kitty had heard the usual breakfast antics (our elderly and deaf cat Flanders screams like a banshee when she’s hungry) from upstairs in Holden’s room and was scratching at the door. I opened the door a crack to let him out and stopped halfway down the hall before a nagging feeling told me to go back and check on sleeping Holden. Before we break out the dramatic music and label that as some ominous significance, I still don’t consider that moment really anything out of the ordinary. I think most parents do a double-take once in awhile to look at their sleeping kid just to confirm that yep, they’re in their bed, chest is moving up and down, and everything is A-OK.
I stuck my head in his room and Holden snored once. A-OK.
A few weeks ago I stumbled onto some article that described what happens to a person physically and mentally as they’re dying. The subject has crossed my mind a lot more that it has in the past as you can imagine. A few months after losing Holden, my Uncle Larry and Aunt Joan passed away within days of each other so the subject of death is never far from my mind.
One of the things described in the article is the so called “death rattle,” a sound often produced by someone who is near death as a result of fluids such as saliva and bronchial secretions accumulating in the throat and upper chest. It occurred to me with somewhat of a growing sense of horror that what I heard that morning was not a normal snore. What if my son’s heart was stopping just as I was filling Kitty’s food dish downstairs?
Thinking back to that moment I can convince myself that what I heard was a normal snore because that’s exactly what it sounded like. Even though I’ve never heard a death rattle I’m almost certain that wasn’t it and how can you be so sure if you’d just gone back upstairs and shook him a little you would have seen something wasn’t right and called 911 and they probably maybe could’ve saved his life how could you be so stupid. With the cats and dogs fed I got into my car and headed into work around 7:00 AM.
That day at work was uneventful. Or maybe it was, who can remember? All I know for sure was the sound I heard as I pulled into the driveway around 5:20. As my car rolled to a stop I heard my wife laughing from inside. I mean, really laughing the top of her lungs like she does sometimes. My initial thought was that one of the dogs probably did something really goofy to get her going.
By the time my hand reached for the car door handle and my foot hit the driveway, the smirk on my face quickly fell when I realized she wasn’t laughing at all. She was screaming. Again, my thoughts went to the dogs, specifically to a few years back when our old dog Sandy who was prone to aggression attacked our other dog Lilly. When Tammy called me at work after finally separating them, it literally took a few minutes for her to calm down before I could out make over the phone what she was sobbing about.
I slammed the car door shut and took a step for the door as her screaming grew louder. She must have seen me pull up just as she’d ran into the living room to grab her phone. She pulled the front door open and managed to get a simple sentence out between sobs that turned my blood cold.
I cleared the distance from the living room to the stairs in what felt like single bound, taking them four or five at a time while Tammy tried to keep up behind me on those arthritic knees.
I think I called out his name. I dropped to my knees and touched his leg. That’s all it took. A second earlier I was certain my wife was wrong. It just couldn’t be possible. He was in the exact same position as I saw him that morning, sleeping peacefully on his mattress on the floor, snoring once to let me know he was A-OK. All it took was to touch his cold and stiff leg and see the dark red splotches on his nose and his horribly pale face to know. My wife had screamed HOLDEN IS DEAD HOLDEN IS DEAD and now I believed her.
I stumbled out into the hallway as Tammy tried her best to coherently explain the situation to the 911 dispatcher. I never went back into his room that night. The next time I would see Holden would be at his funeral four days later.
Tammy’s version of that day was no easier than mine, that’s for sure. Whenever my brain wanders and decides it would be a great time to relive her screams echoing through my head (which is a lot), I mention it to her sometimes. She always feels the need to apologize for putting me through that experience which is sweet but ridiculous. She was alone in the house when she’d made the awful discovery. It would only be a few minutes before my car pulled into the driveway, but if we’re keeping score, what she went through was a lot harder.
Holden was a night owl, always had been. It wasn’t uncommon for him to stay up into the wee hours and sleep for most of the day. I was never crazy about his third shift lifestyle which had only increased once his daytime demands of work and school no longer applied.
When Tammy didn’t hear a peep from him upstairs for most of the day she didn’t give it much thought at first. Usually she’d peek in on him once or twice when his bedroom had been on the ground floor, but since he’d just moved upstairs, it didn’t happen that day. She had no reason to pass by his upstairs room, so no peak in.
As you can imagine, Tammy beats herself up often for not checking on him earlier. Just like I have to live with not actually going into his room that morning and having a closer look, she has to live with letting the hours slip by before realizing she hadn’t heard anything from upstairs until after 5:00. She has to live with the fact that while she watched TV her son was dead directly above her. Like I said, if we’re keeping score…
It’s hard not to play the what if game and I do my best not to go down that road. I can honestly say I don’t begrudge my wife at all for not going upstairs sooner and I hope she can say the same for me when I checked in him that morning.
After finding Holden that evening, the next few hours went probably how you would imagine them. Even if you’ve never lost a loved one, it’s not hard to picture the scene. Within minutes our house was swarming with police officers, EMTs, and other various officials and emergency volunteers.
I wandered the house with my heart pounding, eyes bulging. My hand never leaving my mouth as I muttered oh my god over and over. Our son Keegan arrive at some point, making the trip from Milwaukee in what felt like seconds. The dogs barked madly non-stop at the army of strangers in their house.
Eventually the first police officer at the scene came down into the kitchen, pen and pad in hand. He flipped to a new page in his little notebook. “Well, first of all, I’m very sorry for your loss.”
Tammy sobbed and I bent over, hands on my knees, hearing confirmation for the first time from a third party. Even though we were already certain that Holden was gone, hearing a police officer say it out loud was the second hardest thing I’d heard all day.
Of course our first question was how he died, but it was too soon for him to make a guess. I tried my best to answer his questions as I steadied myself on the kitchen counter. A short while later a woman gave us her very preliminary opinion - early signs pointed to an overdose. Something about liquid in the lungs or something.
A small baggie with white granules was found in his dresser drawer when the police searched his room. We held our breath while waiting to see if they would find a suicide note or any other form of evidence we weren’t ready to hear about. Along with the baggie they took his computers and cell phone hoping to find answers we desperately needed.
Eventually a vehicle designed to take Holden away and the two men tasked for the job arrived. The three of us went into our bedroom and closed the door. I don’t think we said a word as footsteps carrying a heavy load stomped down the stairs on the other side of the wall. Just a few minutes later we found ourselves alone in the suddenly quiet house, a business card from Officer Erickson on the counter in exchange for one less family member.
Hours of pacing the house and no food since lunch took its toll and I eventually collapsed on the couch, drained of every ounce of energy. I stared at a spot on the floor for what felt like hours as I sipped a scotch and soda, heavy on the former and light on the latter.
We’d taken turns earlier making that dreaded phone call, as hard as you could imagine it would be. I got as far as my Dad and sister Kathie and asked her to kindly spread the word to my other two sisters. I just didn’t have it in me for any more. My boss at work had to settle for a text message.
One of the hardest things about that first night was the suddenness of it all. My entire world instantly rocketed to a million miles per hour at 5:20 PM and it screeched to a halt shortly after the last police officer left our house. I don’t think any of us really knew what to do with ourselves. Sleep came at some point in the early hours of the morning, but not well.
I’m not much of a dreamer and I rarely have nightmares, but that night I had a doozy. I went upstairs in our house which wasn’t really our house (why is that always the case in dreams?). Holden’s bedroom was at the end of the hall in this particular version of our house and he’d just finished getting out of the shower.
I stood in the doorway as he was toweling off, his back facing me. His skin was grey and covered with large open sores and I realized I was looking at...well, whatever was in his room wasn’t my son.
I slowly backed away and said, “I love you Holden,” as loudly as I could. It came out a whisper. I turned around and walked for the stairs, that creepy it’s after me feeling so common in dreams growing stronger with each step. At the top of the stairs I couldn’t resist looking over my shoulder.
The bedroom door was open just a crack and the thing that definitely wasn’t my son was on its hands and knees watching me through the gap between the door and the carpeting. Even though I could just see one eye I somehow knew it had a humorless grin on its face.
If there’s one tired cliche in TV and movies I could do without, it’s that scene where our hero sits up in bed, gasping for breath and covered in sweat after a horrible nightmare. But damned if I didn’t do just that. I guess they’re called cliches for a reason.
The answers to Holden’s death came slowly, but plenty are still left unanswered. We found out how he died but the why still haunts us. We’ll never know for sure. An autopsy the next day confirmed it was an overdose but the toxicology report could take months thanks to the overwhelming number of overdose deaths in our part of the state. In the meantime the baggie of powder was sent off to a different lab and the police tried their best to get into his computers and phone. Holden encrypted both, so they were never able to get in, despite a few different police departments and a private company specializing in that sort of thing. If you’ve got your devices encrypted you can rest easy.
In the meantime, rumors started floating around as they’re apt to do. Word had it that Holden bought some Fentanyl on the dark web, using bitcoin to pay for it. As ludicrous as it sounded to us as the time, it eventually panned out as looking like that’s exactly what happened.
The mystery baggie was no longer mysterious when we finally got the death certificate. Field 41, Part I. The conditions listed are the diseases, injuries, or complications that caused death. Conditions leading to the immediate cause are listed sequentially and the underlying cause it listed last. Immediate Cause: (a) ACUTE MIXED DRUG (FENTANYL, ETHANOL) INTOXICATION.
When the officer in charge of Holden’s case showed the baggie to somebody that worked in some other office or lab (can’t remember the details) he immediately responded, “Oh yeah, dark web for sure.” Officer Erickson was just as curious and confused as I was when he told me, but apparently the other guy had seen enough similar bags and powders to know exactly where it came from. I started poking around in Holden’s bank account and sure enough, he’d made a purchase of over a hundred dollars in February at a Bitcoin broker website.
The other field on the certificate we’d been dreading to see but relieved to read was Field 28. Manner of Death: ACCIDENT.
Suicide was always a possibility of course but the truth of the matter is there was zero evidence Holden overdosed intentionally. On each of his previous attempts he’d always told somebody something. With the Ritalin he texted his girlfriend who texted us. The Tylenol same thing, although he texted me directly that time. “I did a bad thing.”
Before he intended to jump off the roof at the hospital he sent a text to Tammy, “I love you mom,” and told his girlfriend (different one) what he was doing. She tipped us off.
That Sunday night when he decided to dip into his baggie of dark web Fentanyl with a tracer of an unknown alcohol source, Holden didn’t say a word to anybody. No texts, no calls. No note tucked under his mattress.
In the days and weeks leading up to his death Tammy and I had zero warning signs. And believe me, when it came to Holden and his mental health we had spidey senses like a mother fucker.
Just the simple fact that he enthusiastically agreed to swap bedrooms just two days before he died is enough evidence in my mind. Who agrees to a weekend of back breaking work if you’re planning on doing yourself in a day later? Not to mention he made a few purchases that week, one of them a CD that shipped from France and arrived in the mail a week after he died.
So that leaves the question of why he bought the Fentanyl to begin with. Besides smoking pot a few times, Holden wasn’t into drinking or drugs at all. The likelihood that he bought it with intentions of getting high for fun seems unlikely. More rumors and hearsay, third hand reports of somebody giving advice that Fentanyl was the way to go if you wanted to kill yourself. Taking with alcohol increased the effects.
If Holden bought the drug in February, why did he wait until April to take it? Did he change his mind shortly after it had arrived? Why the early morning hours of April 3rd? Was he just experimenting? Did he know all it would take to kill him was the equivalent of a few grains of salt?
These are the answers we’ll never know and frankly at this point I don’t really care anymore. I know I speak for Tammy on that too. Whether it was an accident or intentional doesn’t really matter because our son is gone and nothing is going to change that. I’ll admit it’s possible that something happened that night that depressed him so deeply and so profoundly, he gave into the impulse and dipped into that baggie knowing exactly what he was doing. Label me in denial as much as you want, but that wasn’t Holden. That wasn’t his modus operandi. I’ll take that opinion with me to my own grave.
As I write this it’s been a week shy of six months since Holden died. It feels like it happened a lifetime ago and just yesterday at the same time. There are two things I still struggle with on a daily basis. For one, I miss my kid. If you have children, take a moment to imagine that it’s been six months since you’ve had any contact with them whatsoever. No face to face conversations, no phone calls, texts, hugs, or keeping up with their Facebook posts. It’s a simple enough concept, but it seems like most people I know don’t really get it. Every day that passes just makes us miss him more. It doesn’t get easier, it gets harder.
Tammy and I also struggle with an almost daily sense of total disbelief. At this point it seems odd, but it’s like I still can’t wrap my head around the notion that he’s really gone. I still can’t believe it, and every day it’s like a slap in the face that sometimes makes me pause whatever it is I was doing.
Apparently that’s part of the denial phase of grieving, but I don’t think that’s an appropriate way to describe how it feels. I don’t deny that Holden is dead but I still can’t quite figure out how it’s possible.
The world has been a very lonely place these past six months. We received a massive amount of love and support immediately after Holden’s death but it didn’t take long after the funeral for life to go on. For us it didn’t. Still hasn’t.
So that’s my story, I guess. As I sat down to write this I didn’t really have a point in mind and as I wrap it up I’m still not sure that I do. It’s not a column on the do’s and don’ts of dealing with grieving parents. There’s plenty of content out there for that if you’re interested. It’s not a warning of the dangers of opiates and how they can destroy families either. All I know is over the last couple of weeks I felt the need to write about this and sometimes all you need to get started is the first sentence. My son died on a Monday.
I hate Mondays.
11/18/1997 - 4/3/2017