LA QUINTA, Calif. — There is nothing left to do, no more frantic phone calls to make, no begging or fighting that can fix this because the worst thing that could happen already has, so Doug Biggers settles into his recliner and braces for his daughter's voice to echo through his head.

"Keep going, Daddy," she's saying.

It's been months since they knelt over his 20-year-old son on the bedroom floor. But in these quiet moments, her words haunt him.

"Don't give up," she'd said as he thrust down on his son's chest — his skin already blue, his hands already clenched. The 911 operator counted out compressions — "One, two, three. Push, push, push" — so he'd pushed and pushed, trying not to cry, trying not to be sick, trying not to imagine his son as a little boy, dressed like a cowboy and pulling a wagon, before his addiction turned their lives into a series of crises like this one: sheer terror and constant, futile thrashing to save him.

"Keep going, you're doing good," his daughter, Brittaney, had repeated until the ambulance arrived and they were shooed to the kitchen. The paramedics walked out, shaking their heads. Doug pounded on the counter and pleaded "no, no, no." Brittaney glanced at the clock on the stove to record the moment hope was lost: 11:43 a.m. on Nov. 21, 2017.

The autopsy that would later describe the morning amounted to what has become among the most ordinary descriptions of American death: Young, white, male. Acute heroin toxicity.

One of 70,237

Landon Biggers became one of 70,237 Americans dead from overdose that year. The death count from opioids alone has climbed higher than 400,000 lives as the epidemic enters its third decade.

For families like this one, the scars of the crisis will endure far longer.

In an instant, the yearslong cycle of treatment centers, detoxes and jail cells, the late-night phone calls, the holes punched in walls, the nights spent pleading with God, the emptied 401(k)s — it was all over. And a father, mother and sister were left to torment over what they should have done, or shouldn't have done, or done differently, or better, or sooner.

There are hundreds of thousands of families like them, and dozens more made each day, as the country continues struggling to contain the worst drug crisis in its history. They suffer in solitude, balancing sorrow with relief, shame with perseverance, resentment with forgiveness.

"I couldn't save him," Doug cries now, four words he's repeated again and again.

His wife, Mollie, is on the couch, watching a video of her son shouting at her just to hear his voice again.

Brittaney, 28, flops down next to her, having just worked up the will to get out of bed, a hopeful step because some days she can't.

The family went broke sending Landon to every type of treatment they could find, including one that promised to teach responsibility through raising a puppy; he named his Angel because he said she'd saved him. But now there isn't much left for them to do but stare at the box of his ashes on a shelf above the television, hidden behind a smiling photo of the family they always wanted but never really were.

Doug rubs his sneaker against Angel, snoring at his feet. He takes off his glasses and wipes the fog on his shirt.

"I'll forever hear your voice in the background," he says to his daughter. "Keep going, Daddy. Keep going."

Brittaney gasps.

A SISTER'S GUILT

She holds her breath when she walks through her house, each step threatening to crack her resolve not to think about that day.

Here is the spot in the kitchen where the paramedics stood and said, "I'm sorry, he's gone." Here is where she fell to the ground. Here is the stool where her father was sitting and she was certain he'd have a second heart attack.

Here's the door of the bedroom Landon died in. She has clothes still hanging in the closet, but every time she tries to go in, she imagines her little brother the last time she saw him, cold and stiff, and backs away.

"My house makes me sick," Brittaney says. "It's so quiet here now, I can physically feel his absence. It's like silence that slaps you in the face."

She had moved in with her parents to save money for her own apartment and planned to stay a couple months. Then her brother died, and she picked up a second job at a bar so she could work six days a week and be so tired on the seventh she wouldn't have to face it.

Now she has plenty of money saved, but she keeps making excuses. She feels guilty for staying, like she's robbing herself of what life could be, but she'd feel guilty for leaving, so when she's not working she usually stays in bed. "You hide out in there," her parents tell her, and she doesn't disagree.

Her mother is fixated on finding the good memories of Landon. She makes lists of all the things they did together, to remind herself that she'd done all she could. "I taught him how to swim," she added recently. She studies pictures chronicling his life: as a kindergartner tagging along with his father at work, holding his hand, wearing a hard hat; in the bathtub with Brittaney, with a beard formed out of soap suds.

"Just because he died is he sentenced to sainthood after all the destruction he caused?" Brittaney asks her, angry at this insistence to rewrite their history to remove the misery his addiction caused.

People keep saying to Brittaney, "You have to be strong for your parents," like her grief matters less. This is how it has always felt for her: passed over, second tier.

When Landon was alive, his struggles were all they ever talked about. "Do you even know where I work or what I do?" Brittaney once asked her parents. "When was the last time you asked how I am?" Her mother started crying. Her father looked at her like she'd slapped him in the face. She'd always been easy to raise, her life progressing in clean order.

Now her high school graduation portrait sits framed on the floor, unhung because they don't have a comparable portrait of Landon. His addiction got in the way of accomplishing anything that would merit one, so Brittaney's sits uncelebrated.

"It was like we were trying to get him out of the water before he drowned," Mollie says. "And she was lost on the path along the way."

Brittaney had gone to college a couple hours away with dreams of becoming a sports analyst for ESPN. But her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time, and Landon's addiction caused ceaseless chaos. Brittaney drove home every weekend to help, and eventually she gave up on school, moved back to town and got a job as a bartender.

She always thought she'd get through the present and build a future once Landon got better. He would stay clean, and they'd buy houses in the same neighborhood, have cookouts and take their children to Disneyland.

Now she feels like she's mourning a person who never existed: Landon as he could have been, not Landon as he was. She's mourning her parents, too, the version of them that existed before all this.

They dance around each other, afraid to say the wrong thing, afraid their words might echo in some unintended way.

"Keep going, Daddy. Keep going," she had said as her father tried to bring Landon back from the dead. She doesn't remember saying anything at all.

"I feel guilty," she says, driving through the California desert. She grew up in Oklahoma, but her father got a job here when she was a teenager and Landon was 9, and at first it seemed like paradise, a middle-class town ringed by mountains. Now it feels like a trap.

"I should have been quiet so he doesn't have that voice in his head," she frets.

Brittaney used to worry that her father would die from the stress of Landon's addiction. She was certain she would lose them both and always waited for the phone to ring. Now she worries her father will die from grief.

"I'm scared to lose you," she's told him over and over.

"I'm not going anywhere, sweetie," he always says.

She's not sure that she believes him. So still she waits for the phone to ring.

 

Recommended for you