We just said goodbye to a 26-year-old neighbor, a kid I watched grow up from sandbox to carpool to high school rock band to opera singer to drugs. His name was Noah. He could sing a seamless “Stardust,” and he loved the Italian opera singer Tito Gobbi, because Gobbi was a true character actor too.
Noah was my son’s oldest friend. My son sang, “I’ll Be Seeing You” at his funeral in Griffith Park near the carousel, where the boys grew up going to birthday parties and playing baseball.
A minister read the poem “There Are Men Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves.” That was Noah. Gentle, and then the disease sunk in its claws.
Sometimes, I think of the ones who brought the drugs as wolves, because a dark part of me hates them. But maybe they are just broken boys. One has a father who is an addict. Another lost a sister to drugs. One of the wolves is now clean, and I learned that he’d made amends to Noah. Did the wolf make amends to Noah’s parents, who lost their only child? Are parents worthy of amends? Or are we the ones who need to make amends for not protecting our children?
A few years ago, my younger daughter and I took Amtrak’s Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans to Birmingham, Ala. We didn’t have a sleeper, so we sat up for three days. I wrote a 10-page letter to Noah on that train.
That was before I understood that addiction is the armor against words. I told him everything I could remember about him. I didn’t stop writing until I remembered it all, and even then I knew it wasn’t.
Noah was a chubby toddler with thick blond hair who would sit in a sandbox and dig with methodical patience, while my son was a wild spider monkey. The boys painted Noah’s bedroom closet a bright green when they were 2 years old, triumphant with their masterpiece. They attended birthday parties in costumes, and on our street they had a boyhood cry, “Huu-huuuuiiee!,” that became their anthem and echoed through the cypresses and palms.
Like the forest in “Where the Wild Things Are,” they grew and grew, and the high school carpool became a battleground of getting to school on time. I remember how every other day, the automated voice would call to say what I already knew: “Your child has been reported tardy or missing from one or more periods.”
But I also recall the day of the sunflowers, when our older daughter took pictures of the by-now college boys with big yellow petals and green stalks coming out of ears, mouths and bellies as they posed in Noah’s backyard, almost as if they were warping into sunflowers the way the boys in “Pinocchio” turned into donkeys. I learned last week they were coming down off their first acid trip. I don’t know how much else I’ve yet to learn.
Noah was the quieter one, focused, onstage in the boys’ band, Flypaper Cartel. I was a roadie mom for a time, taking them to the Warped Tour and other gigs after they won Battle of the Bands at the Greek Theatre. They wrote and sang songs of “Jacaranda Girls” and “Last Trip to Mars,” and Noah, “the Raptor,” sometimes played the electric guitar wearing a velociraptor head because of his dinosaur obsession.
I drove them to Big Sur once, and now I wonder why didn’t I take them to the John Steinbeck Museum in nearby Salinas. Losing someone to addiction makes you think these crazy things — if only we’d gone to the John Steinbeck Museum, Noah might have found a new passion, which is ridiculous.
Our son went away to school, but Noah stayed home and went to Pasadena City College, where he found his love of opera and sang in several productions.
Noah’s father, Billy, teaches theater. His mother, Kate, a former costumer, is bedridden and has been for years, and Noah cared for her and made her laugh and told her stories. He was a boy who grew up to love music and art and who had friends who loved him. One traveled all the way from Samoa to make it to the funeral, 15 hours by plane.
Kate said, “I don’t want him to be remembered as just some drug addict,” because he wasn’t. He was so much more, but the disease got him like it gets way too many kids today, and now, instead of celebrating our children, we are watching them die. My son is also an addict working on his recovery. Noah’s death cut mean and close, and our girls are terrified of losing their brother too.
I go to Al-Anon. It’s been drilled into me to keep the focus on myself, because I can’t control anything about this disease, which is absolutely true. But I still ache to toss a bunch of words in the air and let them rearrange themselves into magic that will somehow prevent kids from saying yes to the wolves, or becoming them.
I went to the funeral, ready to face the wolves who had brought the drugs to our street. But a kind of miracle happened. I didn’t see them. Some were there, of course, but something prevented me from recognizing them until later, when I realized — oh, that’s who that was. But by then the day was over, and I’d been able to focus on what mattered — Noah and those who loved him.
We watched a grainy selfie-video of him singing Tito Gobbi while driving through the streets of Los Angeles late at night. Billy sang his son Elvis’ “Milky White Way.” Noah’s high school drama teacher spoke of his many gifts, and so did his music teachers, who got up and sang, “I Shall Be Released.” They sang for all of us, but most of all they sang for Noah. There were sunflowers everywhere.
Kerry Madden, the author of “Nothing Fancy About Kathryn & Charlie,” is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.