Brenda Siegel: We can stop the suffering for other families

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On this day one year ago, I woke up and went to a hair appointment at Salon Jacque. While sitting there, I saw a call from Minnesota come in. I figured it was Kaya. We talked regularly, but I couldn't answer. After I went to Mocha Joes and ordered a golden milk, as I walked out, I listened to the message from Minnesota. It was Kaya's boss and he asked me to call him back.

As I walked down Elliot Street, I called him back. His boss said, "I called because you are Kaya's emergency contact " and then he rambled for a while. I then heard these words "I am so sorry to tell you this, but, Kaya died this morning." I was standing in front of Jasmine's bakery, it was a snow storm. I screamed "What? NO" I fell to my knees doubled over screaming. Parts of Kaya's life flashed before my eyes. The pain of my brother's death, his papa, flooded in. I felt my heart shatter and my organs be ripped from my body. I was still on the phone, he was trying to explain to me what happened. It felt like hours, it must have been just a few minutes.

I walked in to Everyone's Books, grabbed on to the counter and fell to the ground screaming. I put my phone on the counter and said, "please talk to him" to Nancy Braus and Ann Zimmerman. I screamed and cried. I called my younger brother hoping he would know what to do; he cried. My father had just had surgery the day before, should we tell him? Was it safe? My brother and I decided that he would tell everyone else, I would call his mom. I went to my friend Spencer's office, I walked in and grabbed on to the desk and fell to the ground screaming "I can't go through this again. I can't do it. No, not again." I just repeated those words over and over again. Then in calm, I looked up and said "How am I going to tell her?"

It was three hours between the call I received and the call that I made to Kaya's mom. In that time, I fielded calls from the police, the morgue and family, three hours that I have replayed in my head over and over again in the last year. When I finally called her, I just said it: "Kaya died this morning." She screamed, I felt horrible delivering this message, I felt like I was causing that pain.

The next several days are a blur, figuring out how to get him back from Minnesota, going to see him when he was back, making a cast of his hand, standing around him singing as family and friends, making sense of how this could have happened when he was doing so well. Taking all of our shoelaces out of all of our shoes and each of us tying a piece to his wrist and another piece to our wrists. That shoe lace still is tied around my wrist today. Then laying him to rest, next to his papa, my brother.

Over and over again, this summer I said the words "on March 7th, I decided for sure that I would run for governor and then on March 8th, my nephew died of a heroin overdose. He was the son of my brother who died 20 years ago of a heroin overdose." Here we are a year later, my feet have not touched the pavement where I heard that we lost him, I have not gone to Everyone's Books and I can not drink a warm ginger-based drink.

Shortly after he passed, I asked someone how many bills were in the Legislature dealing with our overdose crisis; the answer was two. That was not enough. I knew that this had to be a major part of my platform. I knew that to change this system that failed him, I would have to make it a prominent issue.

In the weeks that followed, I walked and walked and walked. Nearly every day, I wrote about the loss. In the months that followed my family grieved. Some of us wrote, some of us rock climbed, some of us traveled, some of us worked constantly, some of us delved into our art and some of us made a plan to save other people from this suffering. All of us did what we had to do in order to make it through this past year and loved each other.

We can stop this suffering. We can't stop mine, or Kaya's mom's. We can't make this pain go away for my son or Kaya's sister and brother, but, we can stop it for other families. In Chittenden County they are making change, it is impossible to ignore. Some of it is resources, but some of it is a change in the culture and language. It is a willingness to fight until there are zero deaths and refrain from patting themselves on the back. If we put harm reduction first, we save lives, we slow crime and collateral damage. If we put resources into treatment and recovery on demand, including low barrier medically assisted treatment on demand, we make progress. When we put real energy into dual diagnosis support then we reach the root causes, and when we have criminal justice reform we ultimately make our communities safer.

Kaya Siegel was an incredible writer and musician. His humor could bring down the house. He was excellent at sports. He fell in love with someone everywhere he went and was the warmest, most loving person anyone could know. There was a space for you and your needs even when he had his darkest moments. We never missed a chance to hug him and tell him that we loved him. For my family today, please make sure you let the people in your life that are suffering know that you love them. Please smile at the person you pass by who may be suffering. Please lend a hug to someone who needs to know that they are worthy of love. Please spread the love that Kaya offered the world and help stop the suffering that he lived. To Kaya today, "I hope you know that no matter what, we just love you."

Brenda Siegel is a former Democratic candidate for governor, founder and director of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, vice chair of the Newfane Democratic Committee and delegate to the Windham County Democratic Committee. She is an anti-poverty activist and single mom from Newfane. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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