"The Ghosts Who Carry Us"

Written By

Elizabeth Devine

My mom took the seat closest to the door.  I studied the auditorium, which dipped downward. Each table was positioned to face the podium below. 

I saw Marshall Rancifer, former member of the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, sitting at the opposite end of our table with a plate of three slices of pepperoni pizza in front of him. I sat on one of the chairs and rolled over to him. “Do you need some help setting up your table?”

He shrugged. “I was told there were no more available tables. I’ll just watch.”

“Should I stand out there and maybe hand some stuff out?”

Marshall shook his head. “Just watch. We’ll hand out plenty next outreach. The moms are dispensing more Naloxone at the Burger King parking lot afterwards.”

Jeremy Sharp, president of the University of North Georgia’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy, mounted the podium and tapped on the microphone. Someone behind us closed the doors. I looked around the room and spotted many gaps between small groups of people. There were slightly more than thirty people in a room made for over a hundred.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for attending our first Opiate Overdose Prevention forum. We have an amazing group of people here tonight who pushed the Medical Amnesty law into success, and they’re going to show you how to use Naloxone to save a life.”

A woman wearing a silver charm necklace came around and collected the photos of deceased young adults, which were placed at the center of our table, facing the entrance of the auditorium. As she brought them down to the podium, I had the absurd notion that my dad entered the room behind us and met a bunch of college kids at the entrance, and they all sat in the empty seats between my mom and friends. I wondered whether my dad would be annoyed by or friendly with the young people who came to see their parents continue to fight for them.

“My 19-year-old son was at a party with some friends and he overdosed. These kids panicked; they didn’t want to go to jail, so they drove around with him for over an hour thinking of dumping him at a hospital until they realized he had died. Then, they decided to dump him on my lawn near the door. That’s where I found my son. If there had been a law extending medical amnesty in these situations and they had known about it, these kids might have been brave enough to call 911 and save my son.”

I thought of a blues player I know named Doo who found his 26-year-old son Jacob in his bedroom after what was later called a seizure from a medication-mix-up or overdose. “I touched him…” he once told me, “And God, I just knew…”

When I returned my attention to the podium, another woman was speaking. “A woman I know going through cancer overdosed from her prescribed dose of Oxycodone. She was revived with Naloxone and now keeps some at her home. We’re looking into ways of encouraging doctors to prescribe Naloxone right along with opiates. They sometimes prescribe too many things or too much of something, especially in cases like cancer.”

I looked over at my mom and saw her nodding with her chin resting in her hand, which covered her mouth. I remembered what she must have been reminded of: the assorted pill bottles of every size and shape lined up on one side of the dining room table, on the window sill, on his nightstand. I remember watching my mom stick a needle in his belly, as he sat back against a dining room chair with his head flung back and eyes closed, and I wondered if he had already been thinking of an existence without pain.

When I blinked back, a blonde mom put on a latex glove and stood with Naloxone kits in front of her. 

“Naloxone is also called Narcan—” she said. “Narcan kits come in a small variety, including this one with two syringes, and this one that’s a nasal spray,” she continued.

I raised my eyebrow and wondered how much easier it would be to get perfect strangers to accept a life-saving medication if they didn’t have to stab someone with needles. 

The woman, a nurse, spoke through the same steps I’d given to a tattooed man under an overpass near downtown Gainesville earlier that day, only she included a more physical demonstration. She filled one of the syringes with 1cc of Naloxone to demonstrate how to use it. The steps I had already memorized were: rub the sternum to check for responsiveness, call 911 right away if none is found, begin CPR, administer 1cc of Naloxone and wait for responsiveness. If there is no responsiveness in two to three minutes, administer another cc of Naloxone. Be prepared to duck punches, because it brings the person into immediate withdrawal. Get the person quickly to professional help because if it works, it will only do so for thirty minutes.   

My attention wandered as I scanned the room, wondering exactly how many people were there because they’d lost someone. I searched for drooped shoulders and baggy, empty eyes. I looked at the empty seats and imagined each person had brought a ghost or two with them, missing chunks of themselves they searched for in lectures or good deeds. The air buzzed with constant motion around still seats…

‘Stop it,’ one of my colder voices hissed. ‘What you’re feeling is probably closer to phantom-limb-syndrome than anything else. Some kind of phantom-dead-loved-one syndrome, where you can’t take in any sensory input of him and never will, so you’re projecting him everywhere.’ 

And just like that, the seats were simply that, empty seats, and the room was colder than I remembered.

A Q&A went on around me. One dad in the group of presenters played mobile microphone so everyone could ask a question or speak. Marshall spoke about how difficult it was to get the Medical Amnesty bill to pass, and how much everyone owed it to the parents and their dedication that it happened. The parents promised to distribute Narcan at the local Burger King parking lot that night, in case anyone wanted a kit on-hand.

After enthusiastic applause, Jeremy Sharpe got back on the podium and, after a sound-test tap, thanked everyone for attending. He thanked the speakers and then pointed up at Marshall and me. “I’d like to also thank Marshall Rancifer and Eliza Devine. They’re our local Naloxone distributors who performed an outreach today, bringing food and Naloxone to some of the Gainesville homeless population.”

I waved vaguely at the people who suddenly looked up at our top-row table and applauded. I put on the plastic smile everyone seemed to like best.

Once the crowd had started to disperse, I gave my mom a long goodbye hug before she left to return to Marietta. I went back into the auditorium and down the stairs towards the podium where Jeremy and a couple other members of SSDP were speaking with the parents who had presented. I nodded to each, mostly keeping quiet until I saw the woman with a charm on her silver chain I had spotted at the beginning of the event. “That’s a beautiful necklace,” I said, already suspecting the significance. 

“Thank you,” she smiled, then held it up to show me. The silver charm was a parent holding both hands of one child. I felt the weight before the words: “He was my only.”

Something inside my chest constricted. “I’m sorry.”

She smiled that same smile I’ve practiced in the mirror sometimes. It was tight around the corners of the lips and eyes. The other presenting parents and nurses filed out of their seats and began to climb the stairs. Each carried a picture of their child, and the woman I spoke to picked up her own. 

“It was nice to meet you,” I told her, “and thank you for fighting so hard for that law.”

“It’s nice to meet you, too,” she responded, “and thank you for distributing.”

I watched her walk away. 

Jeremy followed her but turned at the door. “Eliza, you need a ride?”

“No, my car’s in the next parking lot, but thanks.”

“Cool.” He disappeared, likely to help the rest of the SSDP and Students for a Progressive Society members figure out how to break everything down.

I stared at the rows of empty tables and chairs. Ask any friend of mine, and they’d likely tell you I’m the last person to leave a party. Studying the empty room in front of me was easier than thinking about unwinding and processing the day. It was easier than thinking about the crusades that death lays on us, like when my close friend’s brother died from a careless driver blazing by on a motorcycle. He flew into the air like an angel, then shredded unrecognizably on the pavement, later identified by a leg tattoo. Now my friend keeps a “watch out for motorcycles” bumper-sticker on her fireplace mantel under his pictures, and safety for motorcyclists on the road has become her and her mother’s crusade.

I thought of my dad burned to ash and bone fragment, some of which I kept in a tiny vial around my neck and wondered if I would have done the outreach that day if I didn’t have a desire to do something noble to honor him. I had a paper to write on the event, too, and I didn’t know where to start. What had I learned? I learned we’re propped into our roles in life by the ghosts who carry us.

Elizabeth Devine travels all around the country to model, act, wrestle, dig up dinosaur bones, and write poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. She is a survivor with PTSD, a sex educator, a guerrilla gardener, a former Dominatrix, will probably run for office, and may have ADHD.