A Hollywood thespian died of a heroin overdose. And the world reacted to this tragedy. Hollywood lights were dimmed. People who knew him well and those who only knew him through his movies were simply heartbroken and devastated.
He made an awesome Capote, they said.
Strangers and friends pledged to pray for him, his soul, for his family, his three kids. Every news story that eulogized the actor gave a glowing account of his illustrious career and almost always ended with survived by his three children. Fans memorialized the sidewalk outside his upscale Greenwich Village apartment. They took to social media … amongst other things they expressed sadness for his kids. To lose a father at ages 6, 8, and 11—how awful.
Think of his kids, they said.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death prompted discussions on the sudden spike in heroin use and tainted drugs responsible for more deaths, but never what it must be like to be the children of a drug user; an addict, a junkie, albeit a famous one—an Oscar winner no less. Reading all these stories on the actor’s death, I wondered if his children knew. How could they not? Surely the oldest had to have guessed. Eleven year olds these days are a sharp bunch.
I though back to my niece and nephew who grew up in a household with a drug addict for a father and a boozer to boot. My cousin, their father, was an addict before he married. Like Hoffman, he had started young. By the time he married, he had been in and out of rehab programs more than a few times. He was pretty much a well-established junkie by the time the kids came along. They knew. How could they not? Passing off a lengthy stay at rehab as a work trip only works one time … maybe two. Pretty soon, feeling unwell and a rough day at work become euphemisms for drunken rages, and a lousy acid trip.
I had witnessed one of his trips gone awry when I was 11, around the same age as Hoffman’s oldest child. My cousin was a skinny 18 year old, no taller than our fridge.Yet, it took three grown men to restrain him and a couple of shots of sedative to calm him down. Safe to say he was having a rough day. Some junkies start off violent and stay that way. Others start off calm and get violent as they progress down the slippery slope of addiction. My cousin was the former.
When he returned from a two month rehab stint, he was unrecognizable. He had aged. He shivered uncontrollably and walked like a zombie. I was so disturbed by this mutation that my English teacher noticed and invited me to tell the class about what was irking me so much. I gave my class an impassioned speech on why drugs were bad and purged myself of my disgust and horror, but never of my fear …
Years later, I heard he had married. And my fear returned. We were practically strangers now, not having seen each other for many years, yet I feared for his unsuspecting wife (it was an arranged marriage) and for the children that he would father.
I was right to be scared for them. At some point, he crossed the threshold of doing his drugs and drinking surreptitiously and began doing them at home, not caring if his kids saw. I guess he figured, why bother? It was no secret. Coming to think of it, his addiction had never been a secret. The entire neighborhood knew. Word has a way of getting around. Servants talk, neighbors gossip…
His children heard. Worse, they now had ring side seats.
He was gentle to his daughter—never a harsh word or gesture. His wife and son bore the full brutal brunt of his rage, his suspicions, his mood swings, his apathy toward life—his and theirs. When he died, it was not as dramatic as Hoffman. There wasn’t a needle stuck in his arm. Nor were there envelopes of heroin scattered around the place with furtive tags like Ace of Hearts and Ace of Spades. There wasn’t a cup of used needles nearby. He simply sat down to catch his breath and found he couldn’t.
He was 52.
I called to offer condolences. His son, who was an adult by then, answered the phone.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.
He scoffed. “That’s alright, aunty,” he said. After a pause he added, “It’s done.”
In those few seconds during the pause, I heard resignation, relief and hope. If he felt any sadness, I’m willing to wager it was for the loss of his childhood innocence, for his sister who was the only one to genuinely grieve for the brute they called Dad (she had loved him and was likely grateful that he spared her the pain he so lavishly dished out to the rest of her family), for a mother’s anguish for not being able to protect her children from the horror of living with a drug addict, for her abandoned hope of a normal family life.
News reports say that the day Hoffman died, he was supposed to pick up his children from the home he shared with his partner and mother of his kids. By all accounts, he was high the day before he was discovered in his bathroom with a needle still stuck in his left arm. Had he not overdosed that morning, I shudder to think what condition he would have been in when he went to get his kids. I mean, five bags of heroin later, just how functional (for the lack of a better word) can one be? I, for one, am glad his kids didn’t have to see him that way. I hope they were unaware of his deadly habit and hold a more pleasant picture of their father in their heads than my niece and nephew do of theirs.