When the phone rang, Sheryl St. Germain was playing World of Warcraft.
Her son, Gray, introduced her to the game when he was stable, maybe even happy. He had a steady-enough job, then, delivering food in Denton where he could play regular shows with his band Ghosthustler, an outlet for his otherwise introverted, obsessive modes of composing music. (Usually Gray’s R&B-blissed, synth-y tracks materialized during long, vampire hours and remained on his computer for no one to hear.)
Gray hadn’t been in touch with his mom. In that moment of 2008, though, on a visit to Pittsburgh where St. Germain taught creative writing at Chatham, they spoke easily, trading recommendations for role-playing games. In WoW, “You can be a healer,” he told her. “It doesn’t have to be all about killing.”
St. Germain found herself drawn to the game–the shapeshifting night elf druids, the kindly virtual friends she found in her guild–and continued to play it for years. It was a world she could share with Gray when the physical, immediate one was so fraught with real danger and despair. Since he was a teenager, Gray struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol, a disease his mom had managed to survive.
On December 9, 2014, while St. Germain was somewhere in the vast fantasy landscapes of WoW, she got the call from Gray’s dad: Their son was dead at 30 years old. It was a heroin overdose.
The essay in which St. Germain tells this story is called “Parking Lot Nights.” It’s named for a Ghosthustler song, the one with the Nintendo glove in the video, the video that caught the attention of Spin magazine and prompted Gray to reach out to his estranged mom. In a book of essays called 50 Miles out now via Etruscan Press, St. Germain grieves her and her son’s stories in parallel.
“I’ve asked myself many times, ‘Why did I come out of that river and Gray not? And I don’t have an answer, and the book doesn’t pretend to give any easy answers to that,” she says.
Heroin-involved overdose deaths more than doubled in Texas from 2007-2017 according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. National CDC numbers tell us males ages 25-44 had the highest heroin death rate in 2017. Through her personal memories of Gray’s childhood and on, St. Germain brings to light the complicated situations that led to the overmedication of young boys with “behavior problems” in public schools, on whom Adderall was pushed hard in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
The loving documentation in 50 Miles is St. Germain reaching for her son’s heart as he grew. And it’s an attempt to reunite the parts of her own mind with the elements of his that are so similar–a voracious curiosity that lets no detail through the sieve, and a capacity for darkness that, as the poet Maggie Nelson writes, can be so “dazzlingly bright.”
During a recent reading in North Dallas at Interabang Books, St. Germain read from an essay she especially wanted to share in North Texas, where Gray lived and died. “It’s Come Undone: Crocheting and Catastrophe” is about a practice St. Germain began before her son’s death and continues to rely on for healing. Knitting, crocheting and other fiber arts have sustained her, she says. She remembers Gray sleeping in a hat she made for him not long before he died.
“It’s really hard to love someone who’s caught in the cycle because sometimes they don’t let you touch them, or speak to them,” St. Germain says. “And so, my way of speaking to him and praying for him and loving him was to make these things for him centered me in a way.”
I met Gray when he was trying to get sober. One of the first things he told me, at dinner at Greenhouse in Denton on a weeknight, was that his mother is a poet. We drank cranberry juice together at a music festival in Denton called Hot Wet Mess, where we put our phones in ZipLoc bags and avoided the above-ground swimming pool where vodka was flowing.
He started reading Nick Flynn’s memoir about addiction in his family, a book I passed to him, as it began to get cold outside. He loaded my iPad up with apps no one else was using yet, like Stitcher and Waze. The Gray in 50 Miles, who went to jail and lit a garage on fire and told his mom he hated her, wished she would die–that was another Gray, the old one he told me a little about, one I never witnessed myself. We fell out of touch for about a year before he died.
St. Germain and I have kept a correspondence since. I wanted to know which of the essays in 50 Miles he read; some of them were written well before he died, contained in a space without the punctuation of an end. Gray was one of those writers-in-hiding who would send long emails and texts full of funny, true things and blow their cover. St. Germain, who remembers fondly Gray’s long email rants about “some obscure technological thing,” considered deeply what Gray would say about the essays he didn’t read. She had a road map, because much of her writing about his life she’d already shared with him.
“It’s funny. What he commented on, usually, was the form, which was so Gray,” St. Germain says. “Not necessarily the emotional stuff, because he sometimes was uncomfortable with that. But he would say, ‘I liked the way you did this.’”
St. Germain wanted to write a book that complicated the cliches about what it’s like to “be an addict,” to hold on day by day amid the thievery of chemical dependence and the constant threat of loss. She has mixed feelings about most memoirs she’s read on the subject, she says.
“It’s very rare that you see a trauma narrative of any sort that’s related to drugs or alcohol where someone dies,” she says.
Ed Hirsch’s Gabriel is one St. Germain does recommend. It’s a work of journalistic poetry about his son’s death, one that’s “starkly honest,” she says. As a parent who’d lost a child, it was affirming to read.
St. Germain worried to Hirsch about the right way to make sure people find her book.
“You can’t market books like this,” he told her. “They can only fall into the hands of people who need them.”