I’m driving from New Jersey to my sister’s house in Rhode Island and, as always, I must stop in New Haven, Connecticut, a city that I both love and hate. A city that has brought me both joy and sadness. It is one of my favorite places due to some wonderful memories and yet it is a city that has brought me deep sorrow.
I cross the Q Bridge on Route 95 and take exit 50 onto Woodward Avenue. I turn left at the second light and drive mindlessly through the streets until I find myself driving alongside the Quinnipiac River. It is a peaceful area. The homes in the area have a quintessential New England look. Across the river a single church spire peeks through the treetops and the Grand Avenue bridge comes into view. I drive until I find my son’s tree. I park alongside the road and catch my breath. It is always difficult for me to visit, and yet, I cannot drive by without stopping.
I get out of my car, open the trunk and take out my gardening tools. I have vowed to take care of my son’s tree for as long as I am physically able. I've brought along a shovel, a trowel and gardening gloves. I hesitate for a moment and take a deep breath before crossing the street.
I approach the tree, put down my gardening tools and walk around to inspect it. I look closely at the leaves and see that the tree has produced seed pods again this year. I stand back and survey its height amazed on how tall it has grown since its planting eight years ago. I look down and read the granite plaque.
In Memory of Eric Burns
I bite my lower lip as tears begin to well up in my eyes. I again take a deep breath, reach for my gardening tools, and begin to loosen up the soil so that I can pull the weeds that have grown around the tree since my last visit.
Yes, I will take care of my son’s tree for as long as I am able.
Once I finish weeding, I sit on the bench next to the tree, have a drink of water and eat the snack that I brought. I scan the area and my eyes lock on the building at the far end of the park, where Eric once lived.
I think back at how ecstatic he was when he called me after he moved into that building. He was so excited to be living in an apartment and having a kitchen to cook in. The building is located right on the river, so he was taken aback with the view. It didn’t matter that he shared the apartment with five other guys and that it was a halfway house. He just wanted to continue with his recovery and begin working towards independence.
I visited Eric every other weekend during the eleven months that he lived in New Haven, and during that time we both learned to love the city. It is a small city compared to other cities, such as New York or Chicago, but that it was we liked about it. It was big enough that you felt a city vibe when you walked around its downtown and yet small enough that you had room to explore without bumping into others.
Although it lacks the tall skyscrapers found in other cities, it has a character of its own. It is home to Yale University so its downtown weaves in and out of the university’s campus sometimes surrounding you with gothic style buildings. During many of my visits we would walk through Yale’s campus enjoying its many green spaces while taking in its unique architecture. We visited its library, built to look like a gothic cathedral and the Beinecke Rare Book Library which has a Gutenberg Bible in its holdings.
Besides Yale’s facilities, there are many small museums and shops throughout the city that we often frequented along with many different types of restaurants. We would go to lunch during each of my visits allowing us to sample the many different types of cuisine offered.
The center of the city is home to The New Haven Green, a sixteen-acre grassy expanse. This Green is surrounded by historic buildings and beautiful, mature elm trees. On many weekends, there were concerts or fairs being held so we would meander through the crowds enjoying the festivities.
There were times, though, when we didn’t go downtown but instead opted to visit Wooster Street, New Haven’s Little Italy. A small vibrant neighborhood just east of downtown where a curved arch that spans the street welcomes you. The street is lined with historic buildings many of which are home to Italian restaurants. After enjoying some delicious Italian food for lunch, we would often stroll through Wooster Square Park, a small green space that is home to many beautiful cherry blossoms.
Regardless of what we chose to do during my visits, we would spend the entire time talking.
Eric talked about his pain and what may have caused him to become addicted to drugs. He spoke about his newly found sobriety and how excited that he was to have been given a second chance in life.
It was a long, difficult road that brought us to New Haven, but once Eric was here, he blossomed and recovered from his drug addiction. He became a leader in the sober community, began to forgive himself for his past mistakes, began to love himself and became the young man that I always knew he could be.
During one particular visit we decided to walk into the downtown for ice cream. During our walk, he told me about his faith in Jesus and how that would allow him to succeed in his quest to recover. He talked about his adoption and how it may have negatively affected him. It was wonderful to see him so excited about his life and his future! While eating our ice cream, he thanked me for all that I had done for him and told me that I was his best friend which brought tears to my eyes. We had been through so much together and, yes through it all, we had become best friends.
At this point he was working full time and was saving money. He had begun to take care of himself and had lost forty-five pounds. He grew out his hair and looked amazing. He held his head high and spoke with such self confidence that I never saw it coming.
Addiction is a disease of the brain and sometimes those who recover are forever haunted by the drugs. Eric called it having a mental obsession with the drugs. He said it was the hardest thing about recovery. I have to assume that although he seemed to have beaten his addiction that the drugs haunted and taunted him until he broke down and used one last time. Although he was seen as a leader and had helped many with their sobriety, he was unable to maintain his.
His death came as a shock to me and all of those who loved him. He wasn’t supposed to die. He was supposed to get better and live to be an old man. After all that is why I sent him to New Haven to get well, not to die.
But in February 2012, I found myself burying my oldest son. He was only twenty-two. Eight months later a tree was planted in his memory. The tree that I now sit next to. The one I come to visit a couple of times a year so that I can keep the ground underneath it neat. This tree will always remind me of the beautiful memories that I made with Eric while he lived in New Haven. The tree will also remind me of the brokenness that will abide in my heart for the rest of my life.
I get up from the bench and stand for a moment and survey the tree again. I will take care of this tree for as long as I am able.
I pick up my gardening tools and walk back to my car.
This is a true story. My journey alongside my son’s addiction is chronicled in my memoir, “Saving Eric.”
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