The last time David Magee saw his son alive, William told him to write their family’s story in the hopes of helping others. Days later, David found William dead from an accidental drug overdose.
The officer standing in the doorway raised his arm when I stepped forward, blocking my entrance to my son’s apartment. I tried to peer over his blue-uniformed shoulder to gaze around the corner to where the body of my son sat on the couch. My precious William—I saw him take his first breaths at birth, and I’d cried as I looked down at him and pledged to keep him safe forever. Now, within a day of his final breath, I wanted to see him again.
“Please,” I said to the officer.
“Listen,” he said, and I dragged my eyes from straining to see William to the officer’s face. His brown eyes were stern but not unkind. “You don’t want to see this.”
“I do,” I said. “It’s my son.”
He glanced over his shoulder, then back at me. “Death isn’t pretty,” he said. “He’s bloated. His bowels turned loose. That’s what happens when people die and are left alone for a day or more.”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t.
“And there’s something else,” he said.
“He’s still got a $20 bill rolled up in his hand used for whatever he was snorting.”
I felt the pavement beneath my feet seem to tilt. I reached to steady myself on the splintered doorjamb one of the officers had forced open with a crowbar just minutes before.
At his hip, the officer’s radio squawked. I knew the ambulance would be here soon. “Your son—we found him with his iPad in his lap. It looks like he was checking his email to see what time he was due at work in the morning.”
Yes, William was proud of holding down that job at the Apple Store. He was trying to turn things around.
“It’s typical, really,” the officer continued. “That’s how addicts are. Snorting a fix while hoping to do right and get to work the next day. It’s always about the moment.”
This past year, William had been the chief trainer at the Apple Store, and he’d been talking again about heading to law school, the old dream seeming possible once more now that he was sober. He seemed to have put the troubles of the previous year, with his fits and starts in treatment, behind him. They’d kicked William out of one center in Colorado because he drank a bottle of cough syrup. Another center tossed him out because he and a fellow rehabber successfully schemed over two weeks to purchase one fentanyl pill each from someone in the community with a dental appointment. They swallowed their pills in secret, but glassy eyes ratted them out to other patients, who alerted counselors. When asked, William confessed, hoping the admission might move the counselors to give him a second chance. But they sent him packing back to Nashville, where his rehab treatment had begun. One counselor advised us to let William go homeless. “We’ll drop him off at the Salvation Army with his clothing and $10,” he said. “Often, that’s what it takes.”
We knew that kind of tough-love, hit-rock-bottom stance might be right, but our parental training couldn’t stomach abandoning our son to sleep at the Salvation Army. Instead, my wife and I drove five hours from our home in Mississippi to Nashville to pick him up. He was fidgety but he hugged us firmly, looking into our eyes. We took him to dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and, Lord, it felt good to see his broad smile, our twenty-two-year-old son adoring us with warm, brown eyes. We told stories and laughed and smiled and swore the bites of rib eye drenched in hot butter were the best we’d ever had.
The next morning, after deep sleep at a Hampton Inn under a thick white comforter with the air conditioner turned down so low William chuckled that he could see his breath, we found a substance treatment program willing to give him another chance.
“This dance from one treatment center to another isn’t unusual,” a counselor explained at intake. “Parents drop their child off for a thirty-day treatment and assume it’s going to be thirty days. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” My wife and I exchanged a look; that’s exactly what we’d thought the first time we got William treatment. Thirty days and we’d have our boy home, safe and healthy.
The counselor continued, “If opiates and benzos are involved, it often takes eight or nine thirty-day stays before they find the rhythm of sobriety and self-assuredness. The hard part for them is staying alive that long.”
When we left William in Nashville for that first thirty-day treatment, weeks before Thanksgiving, we imagined we’d have him home for Christmas. In early December, we bought presents that we expected to share, sitting around the tree with our family of five blissfully together. But William needed more treatment. Thanksgiving turned into Christmas, and Christmas turned into the new year, and the new year turned into spring. We missed William so much, but finally, the treatment was beginning to stick. We saw progress in William’s eyes during rare visits, the hollowness carved by substances slowly refilling with remnants of his soul.
Now, when parents ask me how they can tell if their kid is on drugs, I say, “Look into their eyes.” Eyes reveal the truth, and eyes cannot hide lies and pain. In William’s eyes, we saw hopeful glimmers that matched improved posture and demeanor. Progress, however, can become the addict’s worst enemy since renewed strength signals opportunity. Addicts go to rehab because substances knocked them down, yet once they are out of treatment and are feeling more confident, they forget just how quickly they can be knocked down again.
Yet we, too, were feeling confident about William’s prospects. He’d always been scrappy, a hard worker. In college, he ran the four-hundred-meter hurdles in the Southeastern Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championships, despite the fact that he had short legs for a college hurdler. He overcame that by being determined, confident, and quick. And all the time he was competing at the Division 1 level, he was an A student in the Honors College. He’d set his mind on law school and people had told us that with his resumé he could get into most any law school in America.
During that year after his graduation, in 2012, when William was in and out of treatment, I decided to quit my job as a newspaper editor to spend more time with him. I wanted to keep an eye on his progress and be there if he started to slide, so I visited him in Nashville every other week. He worried I was throwing my career away, but I would throw away anything to help him. Also, I had a plan. Instead of the daily grind of editing a newspaper, I thought quitting might provide the opportunity to return to a book project I’d abandoned. The Greatest Fight Ever was my take on the John L. Sullivan versus Jake Kilrain bare-knuckle boxing match of the late 1800s. The Sullivan-Kilrain fight was an epic heavyweight championship held in South Mississippi, lasting seventy-five rounds in sultry July heat, part showmanship theater and part brute brawl. I had researched the story for years and was once excited about explaining its role in the playing—and hyping—of sports today. I enjoyed sharing anecdotes over the years, like how the mayor of New Orleans served as a referee. Or that the notorious Midwestern gunslinger Bat Masterson took bets ringside on the fight, which set the standard for sports’ bigger-than-life culture that continues today.
I had written other books by then, including some that found commercial success, but looking back at them from a distance, I judged none to be as excellent and useful as they could have been. I wanted the Sullivan-Kilrain fight story to change that. But William noticed as we visited that my enthusiasm for the story had evaporated. I wasn’t spending time crafting the manuscript.
“You need to finish your book,” William said that April when I visited him in Nashville. We were eating breakfast at a café known for pancakes, but I was devouring bacon and eggs as William wrestled with a waffle doused with jelly.
“I’m trying,” I said between sips of coffee. “It’s easy to tell a story, but it’s more difficult to tell a good story. That’s what I’m working at.”
“You are a good writer. You can do it if you get focused.”
“It’s hard to immerse yourself in a championship boxing match from the 1800s when you and your family are in the fight of a lifetime,” I said.
William looked at me over his jelly-slathered waffle. He knew I wasn’t just referring to his struggles. I was referring to my own as well. Two years earlier, I’d almost destroyed our family completely through a string of spectacularly bad decisions, and we, individually and collectively, were fragile.
“William,” I said. “I’m worried about you. I’m worried about me. I’m worried about all of us.”
We hadn’t talked so much about my own self-immolation. But now William turned to me. “I’m sorry if the mistakes I’ve made were what made it worse for you. I mean—” he looked off and took a breath. “For so long, I thought drugs were for fun, and I didn’t realize how deep I was in. And then it was too late. I needed them. I’m sorry for making it harder on you and Mom.”
“No, William, don’t put that on yourself. I caused my own problems. And I want to apologize to you too. I’m sorry for when you struggled in college and I was so caught up in my own life or career that I wasn’t there when you needed me. I failed you.”
We went on that way for a while, saying the things that had burdened us, the things we’d needed to say for a long time. That weekend was our best, most direct connection in years. I was glad to sit beside my son over coffee and a breakfast we could live without for conversation we’d been dying for, glad I’d quit a decent editing job, glad even to stop pretending I was writing a book that no longer held my interest.
“Maybe there’s another book you should be writing, Dad,” he said.
I looked at his plate, the waffle barely eaten. I looked at his eyes, shining with encouragement.
“Do you ever think maybe other people could learn something from hearing about our story? I mean, when we were growing up, no one would have looked at our family, this all-American family that pretty much lacked for nothing, and predict how bad we’d crash. But maybe hearing what happened to us could help people. Maybe that’s the story you should tell.”
“Maybe we should tell it together,” I said after a bite.
“I’m not ready yet,” he said. “But one day, we’ll do it.”
“Yes,” I said, clutching his hand in mine. “One day, we’ll do it.”
We said goodbye then and told each other we loved each other, and I walked to my car.
“Dad,” William called out.
“Yeah?” I turned over my shoulder.
“Make sure you finish that book,” he said.
I stopped. “What book? The Greatest Fight Ever?”
He smiled and waved goodbye.
I wiped tears away, then drove home.
That was the last time I ever saw my firstborn child.
Five sleeps later, William died. He didn’t plan on dying. But the early days of sobriety can be the loneliest days. And it’s never hard for an addict to find an excuse.