Rest in peace, Keegan

A friend posted on my Facebook news feed yesterday that addiction is a choice, unlike other diseases.
I fought hard to control my anger.
She couldn’t have known that just an hour earlier, my brother had called to say his son had died — his sweet, intelligent, good-hearted son.
Keegan did not choose addiction anymore so than others choose heart disease, or diabetes, or epilepsy or other diseases or conditions. He was born with it. It runs in the family. It is, truly, honestly, sadly, a disease.
Nor did he choose to die at the age of 30.
Why would he?
He had everything to live for and he wanted, so badly, to live.
He tried.
Hard.
He sought treatment beginning at age 15 when he showed his parents the whiskey bottle he’d been drinking from daily. He asked for help and they gave it to him time and time again, with no regard ever for the financial and psychological cost to the rest of the family.
They were there through every Code Blue (and there were many) in the emergency room, through every rehab stint, through every halfway house stay. They stayed even when the therapist said it was best to give up on him and forget he existed.
They loved him.
Over the years, alcohol, opioids, gambling, all kinds of addictions fought for control over him because that’s the way addiction behaves. It isn’t particular and it is incredibly selfish. It wants everything from its victims.
It is cruel.
We like to portray addicts as losers. It’s safer that way, to draw a line between us and them, to believe that it can’t happen to us because we are way too smart for that. We like to believe it is a choice and that we and the people we love won’t become addicts because we’re not stupid enough to make that choice.
Keegan was not stupid.
He was highly intelligent. He did well in high school and in college. He held patents from a major food company at a young age. He earned a master’s degree between stints in some of the most highly rated rehab facilities in the country.
I’m sorry, but you are not safe.
Your children are not safe.
No one is safe.
No one will be safe until we remove the shame, the stigma from addiction.
So think before you post.
Think before you degrade and judge.
Just think.
Rest in peace, Keegan.

Death: Getting it Right

The guy in the black clothing sneaks up behind his victim, slips his large hands around her throat and squeezes.
She desperately reaches for her throat, weakens and drops dead.
The teenager is dead on the pavement, blood gushing from the hole in his chest.
A masked man walks into a convenience store, whips our a nine-millimeter handgun and shoots the woman who tries to stop him, blowing her head off.
I cringe.
I don’t want to read these novels anymore.
I don’t stop because the scenes are frightening, shocking or gross.
I can handle that.
I stop because I have lost my suspension of disbelief.
The death scenes are impossible.
Inaccurate.
Unreal.
It takes about five minutes to die from asphyxiation and it’s a messy death, with the victim in panic mode, fighting with huge doses of previously unknown adrenaline for his or her life.
Hearts stop beating when people die, so blood stops flowing.
Nine-millimeter bullets might make small messes inside their targets, but not outside.
They certainly don’t blow heads off.
I don’t want to be that writer — the writer who loses readers who are familiar with guns, medicine or death.
And it’s amazing how many people know that stuff.
That’s why I appreciate people like D.P Lyle.
I met D.P. Lyle in August at Killer Nashville, a conference for mystery writers in Nashville, Tennessee.
I listened to him speak, chatted with him, bought two of his books and became a fan of his blog and podcast, Crime & Science Radio.
Dr. Lyle is a cardiologist, a novelist, a writer of nonfiction and a medical consultant for authors. He has worked as a consultant for such television shows as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.
His expertise is a big part of the reason I attended Killer Nashville, to improve my knowledge of forensics.
To get it right for my own peace of mind and for readers.
Every mystery writer needs a D.P. Lyle.
Who is yours?

Home is where the headstones are

With the twins entering preschool this fall, I decided it was time to reclaim my running legs. So I went for a walk/run the other day in my new town along a route recommended by my sister-in-law.
The route took me through a local cemetery, which was appropriate; By the time I got there, I wanted nothing more than to take a long rest.
So I walked.
I have run through many cemeteries over the years, but I haven’t walked though one in decades. Not since I was a child. As a child, I would run from stone to stone, seeking out familiar names and looking for the grave of my sister, who died as a baby when I was only two years old.
I derived a sense of comfort from cemeteries back then even though I was generally terrified of anything involving death. The bodies that lie under my feet were those of relatives or the relatives of friends. They were people who were part of my history.
I felt, oddly, at home.
But I did not get that sense here.
Here, in this cemetery, in the community where I will live for the rest of my life, where we will raise our four children, where my husband grew up, was evidence of a certain status I will never achieve. I am an outsider. I always will be, no matter how deeply entrenched I become.
And that is okay.
I have my own hometown.
My own cemeteries.
I have another place that has fused within my core and will always be part of who I am.
But our kids don’t have that.
Two were born in Arizona, and two were born in Cincinnati.
Their roots have easily come loose with each move, leaving little or nothing behind. (Well, not as easily for the older kids this time around. We had to tug a little harder and their leaves are still a bit droopy and wilted from the shock, but I am confident they will recover and flourish.)
I had never understood the need for the formalities of cemeteries before, for gravestones and memorials and family plots. My irrational fears dictate that I be cremated after death, and I hadn’t given much thought to where my ashes would land.
My husband has strong feelings though, so I agreed long ago to his request that, when our souls are long gone from this world, my ashes will lie with him, wherever he might choose.
But on this day, I started to understand something. I understood that this isn’t just about me. This is about our children and their children and their children. This is about that feeling, that sense of belonging.
Home.
Our hope is that this is the place where our children will grow roots so strong that no one and nothing can rip them out, regardless of where they settle in adulthood. This will be the place they can come home to no matter how long they have been away.
A sense of history and of their place within that history will help those roots grow thick, deep and strong.
Cemeteries provide some of that nourishment.
A great deal more than I realized.
And this cemetery, in particular, provided me with nourishment of a different kind. After passing all those gravestones– lingering long enough to read the names and the dates of death and birth and realizing that they were often far to close together –I found the motivation to pick up my pace again.
It was hot.
I was (and am) horribly out of shape.
But I ran.
Just a couple of quarter-mile stretches.
But I ran.

Still Alice

I had always thought that, should I ever develop cancer, I would forgo chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is poisonous and barbaric, I believed. It brings us to the brink of death and then drags us back and, some folks never do return.
I’d rather take my chances on clinical trials and new treatments, I thought. And I firmly believed that these decisions should be made while we are healthy, when our minds are not clouded by the subjectivity and irrational passion that comes with disease.
Then I read Still Alice, a first novel by Lisa Genova.
Now, Alice does not have cancer. She has early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. But, like me, the healthier, rational Alice believes that she knows what is best for the Alice to come. She creates a quiz for herself that she takes daily, thanks to the reminder technology on her Blackberry. If she can’t answer all the questions correctly, she is directed to a file that will instruct her to take a lethal dose of sleeping pills.
I won’t go into the rest of the story because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. But I will say that the novel has altered my perspective on terminal disease. The author, Lisa Genova, has a PhD in neuroscience and works with Alzheimer’s patients. She clearly knows her subject and almost seems to crawl into the Alzheimer’s mind.
Her depiction of the progression of Alzheimer’s is, admittedly, a bit too rosy at times.
Alice isn’t anything like my husband’s grandmother (Well, she wasn’t really his grandmother. She was his step-grandmother and, also, his aunt by marriage, but I won’t go into that here.). Alice doesn’t confuse real life with soap operas and accuse her husband of cheating on her.
She isn’t like my good friend’s aunt, whom he found strapped to her bed in a nursing home when he visited. He was told that she had lashed out violently and that they had no choice, but to restrain her.
But the author’s decision to leave out the nasty stuff doesn’t matter.
We do have an Alice in our neighborhood who lives with her son. She is sweet, kind and completely unaware of her surroundings. Alices do exist. All cases are different and the author doesn’t have to rely on the worst-case scenarios to get her point across.
And her point is more universal for me than it is, I think, for most.
Sure, she deepened my understanding of Alzheimer’s disease with her well-informed fictionalization. She helped me understand that we are more than our memories and that no disease can change our souls.
But, for me, the lesson was broader.
Through Alice, I came to see that I cannot make rational, informed decisions for myself before I face the possibility of death or terminal disease. I don’t know enough yet. I am ignorant, just as Alice was ignorant in the earliest stage of her own disease.
I am ignorant because disease is more than science.
Treatment is about more than medical cures.
And living is about more than being physically or mentally whole.
I am ignorant, but am happy to embrace that ignorance.
Thanks to Alice.