I met a gravedigger today but didn’t get his name. We met along the side of the road where he had just finished toping a grave with January clods of mud. We talked about the newly departed, at 31 years of age this man was too young for the darkness of the grave. He informed me that the 1885 cemetery was full and bursting at the seams. “Drugs,” the Gravedigger said, “We can’t fill the seats in the church anymore but we fill the cemetery to overflowing.”
As I walked along the road past the tiny white church and cemetery, down the curving hill to town, I found more signs of the true plague of Appalachia. The results of a generation who knew nothing of the risks, destruction, and power that a Poppy flower could have.
Along the graveled berm of the road near a hospital, I found the waded remains of a blue latex glove and the unsealed foil wrapper of prescription medication. Suboxone printed clearly in bright blue letters on the label of the wrapper. I knew the name and its use; I had heard it many times on the local news. Even members of my own family have sat at the dining table discussing if this was the answer.
Conversations about heroin, death and opioid addiction are an everyday thing. The statistics flood the television and the internet. We are in a state of addiction and all the struggles that come with it. I take photos of the hospital, the glove and the wrapper and walk back to my car.
The Gravedigger has finished his job and sits in the cab of his blue pickup as I walk up to his window. I tell him about the trash that I found and he nods his broad heavy head. “No needles this time?” He asks. “No…. not this time”, I say looking at the gravel-covered ground. I think about the needles I have found on the street. I never need to find more. I think about the young man I watched shoot up and about the families I know who have lost parents to the Gravediggers shovel. I finally look back up at the Gravedigger and say “Well, maybe this one will get clean.” The Gravedigger and I both know what I said is a lie. It is false hope about the future of this town.
He looks up at the little white church through the windshield of the truck and says to me, “It was the faith in God that got our ancestors here, it was faith the kept them in these hills and it is faith that will get them through this, there is no other hope.” I nod my head and say goodbye.
Driving down the hill away from the Church I pass the little hospital. A beautiful new and clean facility where every day they fight for our lives. Where every day they fight this plague with millions less than the Pharmaceutical companies that planted this rotting plague in our mountains.
By the end of the day, I hear on the news that the CEO of a large Pharmaceutical Company gets sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for bribery of doctors to prescribe a killer Opioid. 5 years… 5 years, is what the courts thought fit to sentence a man who has not only destroyed one life but also hundreds of thousands of lives. Where is the justice for the fatherless children I know?
He and men like him have drained every county in Appalachia of funds because each dose of Narcan is $150 dollars and each county has to pay for the medication to save hundreds of lives. He has drained my state of families who can raise their own children. We are now the #1 state in the country with grandparents raising their grandchildren. He has brought more crime to small towns as addicts steal to fuel their addiction. He and his company are draining the churches and filling the cemeteries of Appalachia with the young men and women who were supposed to be our leaders. Too many of them ended up meeting the Gravedigger I met today.
There are no easy answers and no easy solutions for the people who live in one of the highest Opioid addicted states. It is one of the problems that each of us who chooses to live here thinks about and wants to change. It is something that I worry about when I think about my 11-year-old and how will we handle his future. It is something my company talks about when they can’t hire a clean and sober employee. It is what the preachers in all the churches preach against and it is what is killing not only the young but the very state I live in. Today was just another day in Appalachia.