I WAS HAVING LUNCH at a Brookline restaurant with my wife and one of our three sons when I got the call that my only brother, Jamie, had died of a drug overdose. I went outside to better hear, or, frankly, grasp, the words coming from the phone. The sidewalk heaved like a pebbled ribbon; I got my balance back by staring down at a crack in the concrete. The day we knew would come, this dreaded day, had finally arrived. I sobbed in quiet jolts, overcome with loss and shame and guilt.
Weeks later, the medical examiner in Philadelphia issued a cause of death — fentanyl poisoning. Jamie, or his dealer, anyway, was riding the wave of drugs laced with fentanyl, an opioid 30 times more powerful than heroin.
He was 55 when he died in May. Outwardly, Jamie had the sheen of success. He had been a writer and researcher at Golf Magazine, his dream job, and went on to be a stockbroker at the financial services firm where our father was once CEO. At night, he was a renowned guitarist and singer, appearing in the bars and music halls of suburban Philadelphia, confounding all of us who had snickered at the humid hours he’d spent as a teenager playing guitar in his underwear in front of his bedroom mirror. Born to privilege, he wore Belgian loafers to blues gigs. Yet jobs and commitments never lasted long with Jamie. He had brown, gentle eyes and an eager, forward-leaning posture — his enthusiasm for conversation often brought him too close to you. He had our mother’s broad forehead and open, Irish smile. He was a quipster, often tossing off withering assessments and asides. He specialized in strong forces and human conflict, bingeing on Shark Week, ranking the best rogue waves on YouTube, reading World War II histories, and issuing urgent family e-mail alerts about hurricanes spinning up from the Caribbean. You could catch a sadness in him in off-guard moments, but mostly he was quick to laugh and projected easeful warmth. He was two years younger than me.
Jamie died at a time when drug overdoses are on the rise all over the country. Governor Deval Patrick even declared a public health emergency earlier this year, noting that opiate overdoses in Massachusetts had jumped 90 percent from 2000 to 2012. Still, the fact that Jamie was a statistic — a victim in a broader, vicious epidemic — brought no succor. The dread of his death had been replaced by something new, something equally insidious, and I was haunted by a simple question: Had I done all that I could?
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