This season of life has been exceptionally hard. I’ve pondered a lot lately about life and loss. I’ve grieved for the goodbyes this season has harshly forced upon me. I felt so much end with abruptness, that I wanted a deeper meaning to death. Why? I lost someone who brought genuine friendship into my world, last year, and I still ache for this loss. Cal Heinen was my friend, and his death changed my world. Cal passed away November 21, 2019. Added to the tragedy of the loss is that it was an accidental fentanyl overdose. The one-night choice, that most college aged people make at least once- to take a pill. I have made that choice myself. He did not know that the pill he was taking was laced with fentanyl. The loss was devastatingly avoidable. My friend left this world with a lingering need for more. The “more” comes from more time that I needed with him (selfishly), and more time he should have had in this life to spread his talents and love. To feel that death is so certain, and final has been an ugly revelation for me. There are no more moments to share- only to reminisce. I started writing this piece when I was 23, shortly after Cal’s funeral. The same age that he lost his life. This piece reads as it was written, throughout the course of the year. My first year without Cal-
It has been two months since Cal’s funeral and a paper from his service still sits slightly crumpled in the back seat of my car. The paper has a picture of his face and in big font reads “23 words for 23 years”. In the words people honor and wrap meaning around Cal’s impact. Some mornings when I put my bag in the back of my car for work, the paper from his service flashes in my eye and I catch my breath. In those moments I hold in my breath, and I remember how truly gone Cal is. He is no longer here in my world, with everyone who loved him. Some days I’m torn between exhaling the breath and getting into the driver’s seat- or letting out a deep body shaking sob. I don’t know how to take the paper out. I don’t know how to put it away in my photo box where I keep important pictures and letters. It feels so rightly placed where I have to face the truth of this heart ache every time I look back in my mirror in the car, sharply coming into my eyesight when I turn around. I haven’t decided what the right thing to do is regarding myself and that little piece of paper, and I truly don’t have the emotional insight at the moment to make a decision- so there it will sit for a little while longer. Until I know.
Every season in life has a distinct feeling, or moment. The moments, when you look back to such specific smells and tastes that you can recall a chapter of your life, with that sensory attached to it. Grief is a fucking sensory overload. I know this season by the taste of spaghetti, weirdly and horribly enough it was the food I ate on the day I found out about Cal passing away. Spaghetti tastes a lot like loss. I can remember how the sky looked on that day, and the deep ache in my soul when I looked up with tear filled eyes. It is also weird the things you can’t remember with grief. I don’t remember what I said, or the bulk of the dreadful conversations on that day. But I do remember the specific burning feeling on the skin around my eyes where I rubbed paper towels to soak in my tears, because I couldn’t find tissue paper, and because the roughness on my skin was something else to focus on in that exact moment. I can remember people’s eyes when I first saw them after breaking the news. If eyes are the mirrors to the soul, the eyes of my friends were broken souls, that day. I remember their eyes. When we talk about Cal, now, I see a glimpse of that day in their eyes. It brings me back to that season, that I am still very much in, when I see my friends broken-soul-eyes. It is weird to feel days and months pass. More time on earth without him. When I am in my car, alone, I listen to music. I shuffle my playlists, and sometimes one of his favorite songs will come on, and I can’t breathe. I can’t inhale through the tears because I hear the lyrics that he loved. Nothing takes you back to the seasons with the people you have lost, quite like a song they cherished. Cal was one of the first people I listened to the Wu-tang Clan with. As we grew into young adults, he shaped my love for art. When I hear songs that he loved, I am taken back to seasons where his laugh boomed in my ear. That laugh was music in itself. Cal had the best deep laugh with eyes that closed tight when he found something hilarious. His whole body would shake with joy starting from his floppy short curls, down to his stylish sneakers. His energy wrapped around him in those moments, and it was contagious. I can feel it when I stop to reflect on my seasons with him. The songs he loved make me think of his vivacious soul, and that is almost too much grief for my body to handle. I do however think Cal would find it amusing that I cry when I hear Wu-Tang Clan or Kanye songs, because who cries to those lyrics!? When a song comes on that reminds me of my friend, it feels like when you have a really bad bruise, and you can’t stop pressing on it. Grief can hurt so good, because in the midst of the worse pain there is an understanding that it comes from BIG love. Because of that big, painful love, I play his songs on repeat.
This type of loss requires everyone to digest and metabolize it differently. Grief moves through us all, but not in the same ways. This was a lesson I have seen so clearly in the past year. I see everyone who loved Cal, but I cannot begin to understand how everyone is navigating this pain. I like to think of myself as insightful to other people’s emotions, but grief has been so difficult for me to fully understand in others. In part this is probably because I am in the midst of my own grief. It’s also because no one grieves the same, or wrong, or in easy patterns. Greif is messy and hard to watch, and the one thing I wish I could do is just not possible. I wish there were healing words that I could conjure up for everyone who loved him, but I have found how impossible finding any sufficient words can be in times of such loss. Grief is the consequence of love. If I could say something to ease the heart ache, I would. But that is not how death and loss goes.
This whole experience of losing Cal to an accidental fentanyl overdose is so wild to me. So fucking wild that I understand why it feels so out of control. Because life is out of my control. Up until this past year I have always felt expectations and growing older rushing up behind me like a sneaker wave on the Oregon coast. My mom always told me “Never turn your back to the ocean. The big waves can knock you over and roll you out to sea” I always felt like time was passing, and the goals I had not yet conquered were reaching made up due dates. I was constantly turning my back to those sneaker waves and feeling caught off guard with how life snuck up on me. When I read and reread my friend’s obituary the age 23 seemed so very young to me all of the sudden. Since starting college, I felt so many times the weight of getting older. The realization that my friend will never experience life ahead of 23 tore me open with deep mourning. I mourned that he would never see himself, or the people that he so deeply loved, grow old with wrinkles and tiny laugh lines as a map of a life thoroughly lived, he would never find his niche within the career he was just starting, never getting married or having children of his own. He would have been an excellent husband and father. It is worth mourning, because that is such a loss.
Cal was the friend who was there for me in all of life’s glorious and messy moments. When I think back on our memories I cry, but mostly laugh at our friendship. Cal was quick witted and ruthless with a good joke. My favorite college memories are of him and Sidney living together in 2016. I was technically living at home with my parents, but Cal and Sidney could argue that I was a chronic couch surfer at their apartment. I would stay with them more than I would stay in my actual bed. I loved every moment we spent watching music videos and staying up late eating greasy-cheap-pizza. That year he always wore this salmon pink sweatshirt that pops into my memories when I listen to a Kanye album, and when I close my eyes I can imagine being wrapped up in his hug, in that baggy sweatshirt. I think of all the brilliant ideas we had, and plans we collectively made for the weekends. Cal was such a big part of my young adulthood, and for that- I will always be grateful.
I feel helpless. Fentanyl took Cal from this world. From his family. I feel helpless because I want him back, and because I know this drug will steel again. More Cal’s. More sons, brothers, partners, and friends. Fentanyl will continue to steel brilliance and laughter from this world, because fentanyl is a thief. The kind of thief that is disguised to those who come in to contact with it. Fentanyl comes into your home and takes what is most precious to you. Cal drifted away into whatever awaits us after this life. I like to believe it’s heaven, and I hope it’s wonderful for him.
We have to do better, for Cal. I have spent this past year asking myself, why did this have to happen? In that question, the only answer I have found is that it didn’t have to happen. It doesn’t have to happen again. People who loved Cal have spread his story, with the aim to stop other people from navigating this type of loss. Cal was funny and loving- the kind of soul who changes your life for the better. His death has brought forth so much power in awareness for counterfeit fentanyl pills. The counterfeit pills that are being sold on the streets can be laced with lethal amounts of fentanyl. Every pill comes with an inherit risk, which can lead to such avoidable loss. My heart breaks wide open for the loss of Cal, and I can only hope that anyone reading this continues to share his story, and stop the silence and normality surrounding street opioids. Cal’s family has widely and courageously spread his message- Remember Cal, Remember Why.
Libby Anne Groseclose