Two years after Valerie Bacharach’s son, Nathan, died at the age of 26 from causes related to his opioid addiction, she was still searching for ways to cope with her unfathomable loss.
The grief she was experiencing was overwhelming.
“To lose a child is the wrong order,” Bacharach said. “Your children should outlive you, not the other way around. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.”
When her therapist suggested she look to art as a way to express her feelings, Bacharach picked up some colored pencils and some paper, and tried to draw.
She hated it.
But one day, in yet another attempt to sketch a flower with a purple pencil, she instead jotted down a poem.
“It was a really bad poem,” she recalled, but nonetheless, the process of putting her thoughts to paper was cathartic.
That was seven years ago, and in that time, Bacharach — who has been engaged in poetry workshops through Carlow University’s Madwomen in the Attic program — has mastered the art. Her first collection of poetry, “Fireweed,” sheds light on a parent’s ordeal suffering through the addiction of a child, and, ultimately, his death.
The slim volume, published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company, contains just 30 poems, but within its pages lie a heartbreaking world of truths.
Bacharach, a special education teacher, had not written poetry prior to her son’s death, but once she began, she “grew to love it, not only for the way it helped me begin to cope, but I loved the act of writing,” she said.
Soon after enrolling in the writing workshops, she began publishing some of her poems, and eventually decided “to try to put a book together.” Just one month after submitting her manuscript to Main Street Rag, she heard back that it had been accepted for publication.
She was thrilled.
“I wanted Nathan’s story out there,” said Bacharach, whose other son, Jacob, is a published novelist.
Although Nathan probably had been addicted to opioids for years — he began using the drugs to treat pain from a broken leg when he was 18 — his parents did not realize that he was ill.
“The thing with addiction, especially when it is opioid, is that people can maintain for a very long time,” Bacharach said.
Her first clue that something was wrong came when Nathan was fired from a job as an X-ray technician at Shadyside Hospital, having been accused of coming to work under the influence. He denied the charges, and his parents longed to believe him.
“He was very defiant,” Bacharach said. “And we lived in the world of rose-colored glasses. We wanted to believe our son. What parent doesn’t want to believe? He was looking us in the eye and saying of course this isn’t me.”
Nathan, whom Bacharach described as “incredibly charming, incredibly good looking and incredibly manipulative,” got another job in Pittsburgh working at a local restaurant but was fired from that position for stealing.
Bacharach and her husband, Paul, had been living in Uniontown, Pa., and insisted that Nathan move back home, which did not help.
“He started stealing from us, credit cards, money,” she said. “He stole from where he worked. He stole from friends. We had to kick him out of the house. Then he moved back to Pittsburgh. He went to rehab.”
When Nathan left rehab and moved home again, the cycle repeated.
“He kept saying he was clean now, and he was seeing a therapist in Uniontown, who he fooled as much as he fooled anyone,” she said. “As I said in one of the poems, there was no walking into walls, there were no bloodshot eyes, there was no white powder under his nose, there were no needle marks on his arm. He was looking us in the eye and saying, ‘Of course this isn’t me.’”
The walls came crashing down one day when Nathan stopped answering his phone.
“My husband went over there to check on him, and Paul called me at work and said, ‘Something is wrong, the room is bolted from within, he’s not answering the door,’” Bacharach recalled. “And I ran out from work and drove there, and we had to call the police and the paramedics, they had to break down the door. And he was dead.”
Bacharach and her husband moved back to Pittsburgh from Uniontown in 2013, when Paul became president and CEO of Gateway Rehab, which was founded in 1972 by Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski and the Sisters of St. Francis to treat those suffering from alcohol and other drug dependencies.
Bacharach now volunteers twice a week, leading poetry workshops for women dealing with drug and alcohol addiction at halfway houses.
She encourages the women in her workshops to put their feelings to paper and shows them the power of their own words.
“I admire what these women are trying to do,” she said. “I don’t pretend to understand what they are going through because I have not suffered from the disease of addiction. I just know what I went through and that writing has helped me.”
Some poems in “Fireweed” draw from Bacharach’s Jewish tradition, such as “The Last Seder,” with its compelling final lines: “Why is this night different from all other nights?/Because on this night all of us teeter on the sharp/edge of pain, tilt slowly toward its open mouth.”
Others deal with the universal pain of losing a loved one, such as the poem “Some Days,” which begins: “it is all I can do to/remember/to breathe,/remember/how to stand.”
Through her honesty and facility with words, Bacharach’s collection is a salve to those dealing with loss from death or addiction.
“Opioid addiction cuts across every demographic,” she stressed. “It doesn’t spare anyone. It’s a scourge upon the land.”
Bacharach will read her poem “To Say Your Name” from “Fireweed” prior to Rodef Shalom Congregation’s Yizkor service on Yom Kippur.
“We are honored that Valerie has agreed to so generously share her perspective and heart with us,” said Rabbi Sharyn Henry of Rodef Shalom. PJC