Who is David?
David was born on a warm and sunny Memorial Day Monday morning in May 1974. He immediately began to thrive as he quickly pushed himself into life and stuck his thumb into his mouth to soothe his cries. When he was just big enough to sit in his high chair, he began to assert himself. One day, he looked straight at me and loudly banged his hand on the high chair’s tray. I looked back at him and said, “David, stop banging on your tray.” He continued to look me straight in the eye as his little hand banged on the tray.
“Daaavid, stop banging on your tray.”
Still keeping his eyes on me, David continued to hit the tray, though not quite as forcefully.
“Stop hitting the tray!” I screamed at him.
David didn’t flinch and kept hitting the tray lightly, never taking his eyes off me.
Without another word, I gave him my best “do as I say” Mom look. David took his tiny index finger and very lightly tapped the tray without making a sound. We stared eye-to-eye as he scrunched up his little nose, squinted his eyes, and turned bright red—a distinct facial expression that accompanied him into adulthood. He silently dared me to tell him to stop again. I didn’t say a word.
Testing the limits of his behavior became one of David’s hallmarks. He was determined not to be told what to do or how to follow some designated system of rules. When he was seven or eight, he informed me that punishing him was a waste of time and would never work to make him change or correct his behavior. Overall, he was right. When punishments mounted up and it looked like he was going to have to spend the rest of his life in his room, I had to think up reasons to “recalculate” past punishments to avoid ridiculously long stretches of punishment that lacked any effectiveness. It wasn’t that David was a “bad child” or mean or wanting to cause harm to others; he just didn’t want to be limited to a prescriptive way of doing things. When drug addiction took over his life and punishments came from the government, he was insulted that the government labeled him a drug addict. He defended himself by writing, “I am only a man. The labels they want to put on me are their labels. I refuse to allow them to tell me who I am.”
To get his way, David became an excellent manipulator long before he started using drugs. The ability to manipulate is a trait often identified with drug addiction, along with denial. As David readily admits, he manipulated others to get what he wanted, and he denied his bad behavior over and over, regardless of the consequence. In May 2009, David was required to attend a “show cause hearing”* and to write a “show cause” letter to a judge in the District of Columbia court. He later titled this letter, “The Final Refuge of a Scoundrel.” His motivation: To prove his argument that people are bound by their perspectives. In an excerpt from the letter, David wrote: “. . . this letter is in no way sincere. It is the final refuge of a well-spoken, manipulative person who doesn’t want to go to jail. The reason I have put it with my writings is to study my manipulations, to understand what I believe my drug-addled mind was trying to do . . .”
Despite his manipulative skills, David was an adorable and inquisitive child. He grew into a handsome man, a kind, funny, and very likeable man, which made it even more difficult not to give in when he deserved reprimand.
A Childhood Friend Remembers
On February 3, 2015, a year after David’s death, I received an email from one of David’s childhood friends, who graciously shared her “David” story of growing up one street over from us. Our neighborhood was brand new when we all moved in, and most of the new homeowners were in their thirties with young families, which set the stage for close knit friendships and tight bonds among the parents and the children that continue to this day. Her older brother and Bill were best friends growing up and remain best friends today. When David died, we were blessed to have many old friends and former neighbors come to give support and to help us say good-bye.
Her emailed story, which she referred to as a “rugged diary of despair,” provides years of memories of her friendship with David, which began when she and David were six years old. She wrote that her friendship with David was one of trust and respect. She describes childhood antics of sailing through open windows on stacked mattresses, car-tag games, and what the neighborhood looked like from every rooftop. Her willingness to share her grief and her memories helped to ease the pain of losing my son. Here’s her email:
"David is sleeping in my parents’ basement. David is sleeping in my college dorm room. David is sleeping in my Woodbridge Apartment. David is sleeping in my Arlington Apartment. I recognize his gait in the dark. I am so relieved to see my friend as I am weary. I need his advice and inevitable ribbing. His tattoos manifest one after the other; I visually trace his binary tattoos over and over until I dizzy myself. I am riding in David’s blue Camry. He’s in the hospital, he’s smiling although he has just suffered severe trauma. David implores us to help him clean before his Mom gets home. Prairie Day in fifth grade is rained out—we all solemnly roll our homemade Conestoga Wagons inside around the pod. We got all dressed up for prom and can’t wait to leave so our group can be alone again. When we are, at last, we are at ease and laugh freely. Everyone shouts his name in unison when he arrives at the party. He shoulders his way to the center of the group and raises his arms for a photo. He teases the teachers; they find him endearing. I wait for the phone to ring; no call means court did not go in his favor. He has an excuse; it’s not his fault. I tell him he’s full of shit. He concedes. He cocks his head before he volleys a riposte as the boys insult each other for amusement. He lifts me up when he hugs me. He’s happy to see me. He’s in a hurry. He pays me the finest compliment I have received since returning to NOVA. He’s late for work so he borrows my T-Shirt. I have a belt that I am sure will fit him; it looks better on him. He postulates driver etiquette to the ‘joker’ in front of us, and I laugh. He peevishly asks again, ‘Can I move yet?’ I admonish him to stay perfectly still as I only have two more nails to polish; he scoffs but he’s not really annoyed. As I come back from the restroom he smiles and raises his drink. He beams with pride when I photograph him cutting hair. He snips my bangs before we head out. He tells me secrets over drinks. He asks me about college and expresses regrets about his jailhouse education. He brings me philosophy books with the pages earmarked. He slipped five dollars into this young boy’s backpack on the school bus in eighth grade because the boy lived in a small, dilapidated house. We do not laugh when driving to school; it’s too early. We laugh when we slip out of school unnoticed.
"The first time my dad steered our station wagon into our new neighborhood, our family had just completed a 10-hour drive from Massachusetts. I could see my dad’s patience waning as he waited for an assembly of kids to laggardly move their bikes, bike ramps, skate boards, balls, etc., so he could park at our new house. My interest in the new bedroom waiting for me dissipated as I zipped around in my seat to survey the impediment; I was overcome with relief. KIDS! KIDS! There were so many kids in this Virginia place! They were all boys but I didn’t care there wasn’t a girl among them; I merely thought, I need a bigger bike.
"I could never unlearn all David taught me or credit anyone else for propping me up when I fell from grace. When I was pained by friends not thinking of me what I thought they should, David would bring me a book to emotionally fortify me because "Life will never be as easy as the fourth of July when you’re sixteen." He said that often—few understood it."
The Beginning of the End?
On a Saturday afternoon in November, 1989, when David was 15, I received a telephone call from his good buddy, Geoff, who said, “David has hurt his foot and might need a few stitches.”
David and Geoff had begun working a couple afternoons after school and on Saturdays at a plant nursery near our house. On this particular Saturday, they were moving a small tree using a Bobcat; Geoff was driving. David dropped a tree into the shovel and hopped up onto the Bobcat. At the same time, and before David got settled, Geoff began raising the shovel. That simple innocent action pulled David’s right foot into the shovel’s hydraulics.
When David’s dad and I arrived at the nursery, he was in excruciating pain, pain so bad we didn’t even take time to look at his foot, which was still covered by his bloody sock. We rushed David to the hospital where he remained for six days. Emergency room personnel immediately started working on David, giving him an IV of morphine. Blood instantly splattered from the IV, and a red rash rose up David’s neck. The nurse had difficulty getting the IV right, but David recovered quickly, calmed down, and the rash disappeared.
At around 3:00 a.m. the next morning, the attending orthopedic surgeon updated us on David’s condition. His recommendation was to amputate as soon as possible all but the big toe on his injured foot. David loved to be outside, riding his skateboard and bike. He was a beautiful athlete, who played football and baseball at his high school. The doctor assured us that because David’s big toe was not hurt, amputating his smaller toes would not impede future physical activity. He also assured us that a clean amputation would prevent infection and future complications, making recovery easier and quicker.
While the doctor’s recommendation slowly filtered through my brain, all I could think about was counting David’s little toes after he was born. After making one of the most difficult decisions of our lives—perhaps the worst decision—his father and I did not allow the doctor to amputate. As the doctor predicted, David’s recovery was painful and slow, and several surgeries followed. For the six days he remained in the hospital, David used a morphine “button” to ease his pain. David eventually lost his third toe after it turned black and shriveled up. His other toes survived but he was left with a mangled foot and refused to go barefoot, always wearing a sock. Never again did he wear flip-flops.
Almost 20 years later, on February 19, 2010, David appeared in Fairfax County court. He had been arrested for drug possession, unauthorized distribution and control of drug paraphernalia, and driving while intoxicated and without a drivers’ license. The following scenario, written in the Notes app of David’s iPad, shows the impact of memories from that long-ago day in 1989, when he first felt morphine run through his veins to alleviate the severe pain of having his toes crushed in the hydraulics of a Bobcat.
I Just Can’t Do It!
“It was the 19th of February 2010, and I woke up early to the loud reminder of what today was to bring. As I opened my eyes, I felt the pain settling in my body and the fear overwhelming my mind. I reached over to the drawer of my bedside table, already knowing the dope was all gone. I sifted through the pile of empty baggies in the hope to find salvation. Nothing was to be found. I sat up and felt the cold floor on my feet and put my head into my hands. It’s gonna get way worse before it gets better, I thought.
“My wife was running around, picking out my dress clothes and laying them out. ‘Get in the shower, honey. That will make you feel better. You have to be in court in an hour, so you don’t have any time to play around.’
“I stood on the cold, faux hardwood floor and went to the bathroom. I got in the shower with only one thought on my mind—heroin. I had a little money to get some, but I just didn’t have the time. I started to plan for the possibility that I might not go to prison on that day and how I’d ease this pain when I left the courtroom. This thought was replaced by the realization that I had exhausted all of my continuances.6 The truth started to settle into my consciousness that I was going away today and there was nothing I could do about it.
“I looked down to my deformed 4-toed foot, and I started to reflect on how I had gotten to this place. I thought about that first shot of morphine I received when I injured my foot. I never, ever forgot that feeling. All the pain—my toes had just been crushed in the hydraulics of a Bobcat, and they were completely mangled. It hurt so bad, and I was just a kid. I hadn’t deserved an injury like that. But when they shot that morphine into me, everything just went away. I remembered that feeling in such a profound way as I stood under the warm water of the shower. I thought about my simple life and mind from that time and wondered, how did I get here?
“I started to go through my life in my mind. I knew today was going to be a day I wouldn’t forget, and I started to go through other days I could not forget. I thought of joy, and I thought of pain. I purposely navigated my memories to elicit responses from myself. I was trying to find something inside of myself to give me the strength to face this day. But alas, I could muster very little. I got out of the warm shower and dried myself off. I walked out of the bathroom and started to put on the clothes my loving wife had laid out for me. I thought about how she bought clothes for me. I dressed, then went to the bathroom to brush my teeth.
“I brushed my teeth, put a little gel in my hair, and started to have visions of the jail I was headed to. This was not my first time going to jail, and I knew exactly what was in store for me. I started to envision the receiving area of the county jail and the bologna sandwiches. I thought about how I would once again have to establish myself. I thought about my last probation, which I had already violated. I thought about how, once I was established and comfortable in the county jail, they would snatch me up and transfer me back to the city jail. I thought about the receiving area in the city jail and the animal house that is the cell blocks. I thought about how I would be the only white boy and how I would have to be so strong. I looked in the mirror at my face and searched for the strength I was gonna need. It was not there. I looked at the track marks I had on my neck and the old tattoos on my shoulders. I looked at my pale skinny weathered face and said to myself, ‘I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.’ I looked down at the sink and saw the dried up blood drops that were spread across the sink and I wished I had just one more shot of dope. Just enough to get me through this.
“Then my wife came to me and said, ‘Come on, honey, we have to go.’
“I looked at her with desperation in my eyes and said, ‘I can’t do it, honey, I just can’t do it.’
“‘Can’t do what?’ she asked.”
In January 2012, David sent a Facebook message to a friend about receiving morphine for the first time when he injured his foot:
“I got morphine when I injured my foot and loved it. Then I tried heroin. I have battled that addiction for most of my adult life. I don’t want to be seen as that, but it’s the truth. But now I am free, and I feel that what I have learned from that experience has enabled me to find a level of peace and acceptance of myself that has changed me for the better forever.”
After David passed away, I saw a therapist to help me cope with his death, which I knew couldn’t be dealt with until I found a way to close the door on the 15 years of unsuccessfully grappling with his addiction. After all those years, it had never occurred to me, until the therapist pointed it out, that November 4, 1989, could have been the beginning of David’s addiction. How could I have missed that?
In February 1991, we received a notice in the mail that David had gotten a traffic ticket in Washington, D.C., which convinced his police officer father that he was using and selling drugs. I refused to believe it. His father went ballistic, and they had a huge argument. David left home, and we didn’t know where he was for three days. Our marriage, which was already on shaky ground, rapidly deteriorated.
By spring, David’s father and I had separated. David was in his junior year of high school. I rented a townhouse across the street from his high school, which I thought was a grand idea. Our family home had been quite a distance from David’s school and, most mornings, he had to be at the bus stop before dawn, which was difficult for my night owl son. At our new location, he could sleep in and just walk across the street. Also solved was the problem of transportation to and from after school practices and activities.
We stayed in that rental until our family home sold, which took most of David’s senior year in high school. Unfortunately, living across the street from school didn’t work out quite like I had intended. David now had more freedom than he was used to, as I worked long hours at a new and demanding job in Washington, D.C. I had to leave in the mornings before he got up, so he was often late to school. I also had not given thought to our rental being the place to hang out during the school day, but how convenient for him and his buddies!
I cannot say for sure what drugs David took while in high school, but drinking alcohol and smoking pot became a problem. During David’s senior year, I arrived home one evening to find him depressed and crying, balled up in a corner of the couch. He gave no reason. By the next day, he seemed fine. He always seemed to bounce back with a happy and mischievous grin.
That first year of family separation was difficult for David and me, but it also engendered a closer bond between us. When Christmas rolled around and I could not afford a Christmas tree, David brought home a “Charlie Brown” tree for us to decorate. And we especially liked to sit together and watch storms roll in. Even when he was older and conversations between us became difficult and angry, one would call the other to ask, “Are you watching?” when a storm appeared on the horizon.
A senior in high school, in 1991, David was asked to write the following letter to describe an incident during which he was arrested for disorderly conduct:
“I went to a party on Monday night, December 30. I was there with all of my friends, and we were drinking and having a good time. There were about 100 people at the party. I would say the majority of people there were intoxicated or at least drinking socially. I was intoxicated, but I wasn’t that bad. I was walking around, talking to people.
“Around 12:30, the police showed up on a complaint of too much noise and to break up the party. So, I left the party. I was one of the first people to leave. I began walking up to my car, which was about a quarter mile away. I got to a corner and stood there, waiting for my designated driver and my friends. I was having trouble trying to light a cigarette because the wind kept blowing out my matches. I could not cover the flame from the wind because of my broken wrist. Officer V approached me and asked me how old I was. I told him I was 18. He asked me for an I.D. and I said I didn’t have any. Then he reached in my back pocket and proceeded to take my wallet out of my pocket. He didn’t like the fact that I lied to him, so he said he was going to arrest me and take me down to the station and call my guardian.
“I, and my friends, pleaded with him in a very civil manner, but he wanted to take me down anyway. My friends started getting mad and were yelling at the other officers. I told them not to do that because they were making it worse. I had not gotten3 upset yet. The officer proceeded to handcuff me and put me in his car. My brother, who was 21, tried to get him to release me to him, but they wouldn’t do it. While driving to the station, I asked the officer to please let me go. I pleaded with him, knowing that I would get in a lot of trouble. He said he wasn’t going to let a little loser go and he hoped I got in trouble. I asked him why, when there were about 50 drunk people walking up and down the street, he picked me to arrest. He said I looked like I was the worst, when about 50 feet away from me there was a guy puking all over himself because he was so drunk. I told him that if they arrest one person for committing a crime, they should arrest everyone committing the same crime. He said if there were a whole bunch of murderers somewhere they couldn’t arrest all of them, so they’d arrest the one they didn’t like.
“I don’t understand why they would tell one person he better leave and arrest another person when they did the same thing. So, I told him what I thought of him and he told me what he thought of me. The name calling went on into the station. When I got there, other officers started laughing at me. I retaliated with words, and they did too. I asked Officer V to please come in the room so we could talk civilly, but he refused. So I started yelling and they started yelling back.
“My mom showed up and she asked the same question I did. Why did they pick me? Then the officers began to badger my mother, saying she’s a no good mother and she didn’t raise me right. One officer got in my mom’s face and very abusively told her she better sign the summons. I got between them and told him, no one gets in my mom’s face. They finally let us leave and while we were walking out, I made a mistake—a very big mistake. My mom asked me why they picked me. I yelled, ‘Because they’re motherfuckers.’
“In the officer’s report, he claimed that after I said that, he came to get me and said I was under arrest, and I tried to push him. This is not true. He didn’t say anything to me. Four officers came running down the hallway and beat me up. One officer was pushing my head against the brick wall and squeezing my neck. I could not breathe, and I almost passed out. The other three officers were hitting me and kicking me, leaving cuts and bruises all over my body.
“Later that night, my brother talked to one of the officers who was there and the officer said that beating me up made his night. Then, Officer V took me to his car to transport me to the detention center. During this ride he told me he wished we had met on other circumstances because he would kick my fuckin’ ass. So I said, ‘Let’s do it, stop the car, you take off your badge, gun, and stick, and we’ll see what happens.’ He said he’d love to but he can’t do that. So, the name calling started again.
“I’m not saying my actions were right, but I was intoxicated and I was only 17. He was a sober police officer and all he did was make things worse. The police are supposed to protect people, and I was not doing harm to anyone. If you give some people a little power and authority, it goes straight to their head. I guess some people just cannot handle certain authority positions. A mountain was made out of a molehill, resulting in much unneeded pain and trouble. N.W.A.”7
I was notified of David’s arrest and told to come pick him up. It was the middle of the night when I arrived. I was not initially allowed to speak with him, and the officers would not give me a copy of the arrest warrant.8 David’s letter accurately describes what a terrible and humiliating scene it was. Granted, David was obnoxious, but I had never been talked to in the insulting and abusive manner that the police officers used with me. Their demeanor and harsh words effectively frightened and intimidated me.
David did screw up, and he made the situation much worse when we were almost out the door. It was my first opportunity to ask him what had happened and why they’d picked him up. Instead of giving me an answer, he yelled back at the police officers, calling them “motherfuckers.” Then all hell broke loose before we could get out the door. I watched as four police officers barreled toward us, grabbing him and slamming him against the brick wall before dragging him back down the hallway. I blamed David because we could have been on our way home if he had held his temper and kept his mouth shut. I blamed myself, too. I should have waited to ask him about the arrest. The police officers’ intimidation tactics worked beautifully—I felt like a no-good mother.
I hired an attorney, and David was sentenced to 40 hours of community service, which he completed without complaint. This was a very trying time. For the first time in my life, I was living on my own with a very troubled young son. After working on this memoir, I now realize that he was more troubled than I ever imagined.
David sent me a note a few days after the disorderly conduct incident:
“Mom, I’m sorry about doubting you. I know that I’m trying to get easy ways out. It’s just that I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. I’m terribly unhappy with my situation, and I guess I’m just desperate to get out of it. Alcohol is a crutch. A vicious cycle. It offers temporary relief but really just makes things worse. What does one do? I will climb the mountain. I will go to school and do well. This will help me achieve a good future. I’m sorry I’m so selfish. Someday I will not be so self-consumed. It’s just hard, Mom.”
In February 2012, twenty years later, David sent a Facebook message and apologized to the guy who had the party in 1991:
“Hey, man, it’s good to hear from you and I am glad to hear that you are doing well. I truly mean that! I know that you are a good man cuz everyone has told me you are and I believe it. You and I were just caught up in some foolishness that really wasn’t about us. Childish shit. But we are grown-ups now, and it is important to allow the past to be the past. When we do that we free ourselves to have a future without bounds. I think you and I would have been friends under different circumstances, and I hope that we can be now. I am going to send you a friend request although it is perfectly understandable if you don’t accept it. One thing I always wanted to tell you about that night—in the pitch black dark when so many of your friends came through those trees to defend your party, almost all of your friends ran away.
“You didn’t. You stood your ground, and I always respected you for that. Ultimately, though, it was me who was in the wrong. What I did that night has always haunted me, so I want you to know that I am truly sorry for what I did. Take care. Maybe you will let me buy you a beer sometime. David”
Party Guy messaged David back:
“David, wow, man . . . what can I say? I think you are exactly right about us being friends if under different circumstances. The reality of that night is that ultimately I was to blame. I beat up --- that night, and I too have been regretting that for years. Most of the friends I had that went to my high school were pussys, and it didn’t surprise me that they ran away. At any rate, David, I want to extend a long overdue hand to shake and look forward to having a beer with you. Call me anytime, bro. Seriously, call me when you can.”*
*A “show cause hearing” is meant to force someone to present themselves before a judge to explain why they should not be held in contempt of court. They have to provide a reason, or show cause, for why they ignored a court order. The full text of David’s “show cause letter” is included with David’s collection of writings.
* I don’t know if David and Party Guy ever physically connected, but the incident obviously stayed with them both, and it was important enough for David to base his fictional story, “The Certain Eventuality: A Memory Yet to Come” on this event and arrest many years later.