Back in late February, when such a thing was still possible, VPR's Mitch Wertlieb visited poet Kerrin McCadden at her South Burlington home to talk about her new collection of poetry Keep This To Yourself.
The book is born from the grief that McCadden experienced when her only brother Jim died in 2018 of an overdose of fentanyl.
McCadden said her brother's struggle with addiction started in his teens, when he started pain medication after a dirt bike accident that left him with a broken neck. He turned to heroin as he got older. But McCadden said even in the throes of his worst drug lapses, her brother was someone people loved to be around.
"Regardless of how difficult his life was, or regardless of his behaviors, he was always an intensely sweet person," she said. "He really was a great father and a deeply loving person."
The poems in Keep This to Yourself are all about her brother and his death in his 40s. But many of the poems were written before his death and proved, sadly, to be prescient.
"The first poem in the collection, called 'When My Brother Dies,' was written years ago," McCadden said. "Just practicing, you know. With addiction, you sort of always — I was always convinced I would outlive my brother. Like, when is it going to happen. When is this illness going to take him? So I wrote that poem years ago. I wrote a bunch of them years ago. And then after his passing, within the few months after his passing, I wrote the other half of the poems."
You really don't have to read between the lines to sense that among the many emotions that McCadden has over her brother's death, anger is one of them. In the poem “My Brother Wailing” she writes:
There is a river outside my window, which is more
than I ever asked for. Sure, a river is a bigger monster
than I'm used to, but, most of the time, it is no worse
than my brother.
“You know, people who are addicted to drugs, they don't always act like themselves,” McCadden said. “And the things that they're driven to do out of desperation are monstrous.”
She added: “You have a family that you trust, and you lean on, and then you steal from them. Your parents give and give and give, and then you become a taker. You become reliant on that because you don't have what you need. And the desperation of his behavior, the way he would talk to people when he was desperate, was nothing like who he was deeply inside of himself. It's an illness that causes behavior that's monstrous.”
In talking about the title of the book, McCadden said she didn’t want to keep all of this to herself.
“I think that this scourge of this epidemic is that people keep it to themselves. It's that people are ashamed and people are cagey, if that's the right word, about these narratives,” she said. “You know, I think there's a great movement right now toward being accepting of people with mental health issues and mental illness as a thing that we're not ashamed of. And I think that addicts need us to not be ashamed of them.”
McCadden added that didn't mean drug addiction is OK, but that treatment is OK. At one point, she said, her brother was homeless because the shelters in Boston were on one side of the river, and his clinic was on the other.
“And he could not afford the transportation to get back and forth to get his treatment. What is that?” she said. “There's this huge city like Boston, deep in the throes of this epidemic ... I just found it utterly bizarre. And I tried to like, 'Well, maybe I can buy him the transportation if I can get him into a shelter.' I was working really hard on that. I couldn't afford it. So it's things like that.”
There’s quite a few references to rivers in McCadden’s book, and she said they were a source of frustration.
“It was another reminder that, 'No, we can't help him,'” she said. “I think a lot of families struggle with shame. And I think what that engenders is isolation and real, real grief.”
McCadden knows she's written a collection of poems that are not easy to take in. Collectively, they tell a story and paint a picture that may be achingly familiar to some, and McCadden hopes important for others.
“I really struggled with whether I was doing the right thing, writing about it,” she said. “But in the end, I don't want my brother's death to just have been another senseless loss. I want it to be — his death — to have been of some use.”
Below is the last poem in Kerrin McCadden’s slim volume. It’s called “Weeks After My Brother Overdoses”:
I search craigslist for sadness: a white couch the only result.
Happiness lands red shipping containers, and that’s it.
I wander through days like an envelope marked please forward.
Listen. My brother is a ghost. I keep thinking, I am not a sister
anymore, though others assure me I still am. Just sister them,
builders say to make a thicker beam, or to span a distance,
join the faces of two-by-sixes with nails, make more from less,
make do. No one will let me have my sadness or tally
what I've lost. I make lists like recipes for how to go on alone.
I draw his death when I doodle, making little crime scenes,
as if this epidemic were a murderer, a suspect, a criminal.
I draw him on every sidewalk to inflate the numbers, to give
my brother to everyone. Inside the outline, I do some math.
I add him to seventy-two thousand and subtract him from me.
Correction 8:50 p.m. 5/13/2020: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the substances involved in the overdose death of Jim McCadden. He died of an overdose of fentanyl.