Landon Biggers, age 20, was one of 70,237 Americans to die of overdose in 2017. The opioid death count has climbed higher than 400,000 as the epidemic enters its third decade. Uncounted families grieve as the nation struggles to contain the worst drug crisis in its history.
LA QUINTA, Calif. (AP) — 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.
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“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.
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.”
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.
A FATHER’S QUESTIONS
For months, Doug sat silently. He pretended when he could that it wasn’t real. He nailed two coat hooks to the wall in his home office and hung Landon’s jackets there, as though his son had just stopped by.
He would have wished for death if he didn’t have Mollie and Brittaney, so instead he started talking to the box of his son’s ashes. He said he was sorry he couldn’t save him.
Before Landon died, Doug had prayed every night for God to help him live another day. After his son’s death, he said to God: “You didn’t do it. Why didn’t you?”
A devout Christian, Doug had never before doubted the existence of heaven. Then, after his heart attack in February 2017, he died four times on the operating table. The family blamed the relentless worry over his son. Even Landon came to the hospital to weep.
Doug had always heard stories about people on the brink of death seeing the afterlife. But there was no bright light for him — only darkness. He wonders what that means for Landon.
“If there is a heaven, I didn’t see it. So where is he?”
Doug and Mollie used to think they were the only parents living this nightmare. Their mission to save their son had been so all-consuming they realized only after it ended that they were just one part of a disaster unfolding all around them.
Landon’s longtime girlfriend, Megan Dealbert, is now a single mother, raising their baby daughter, Aubrey, alone. Her half-sister died of an overdose a year before Landon. Their father buried her in the cemetery plot that had been meant for him.
Brittaney stormed into the house one recent morning. She’d just learned that another friend had overdosed and died, and now she has to count on her fingers how many people she’s lost. Her brother, four close friends, three more in her circle.
Doug imagines those parents staying up all night, like he did, desperately trying to manage a system that seemed incomprehensibly broken. He had a son with a disease, and yet they couldn’t just take him to a doctor. He had to call every place he could imagine, begging for help, and still that didn’t work.
“Any other health crisis that had this many people dying from it, this entire country would be up in arms,” he says. “But so many people still view addiction as a moral issue: You’re not strong, or you don’t have self-control.”
“Or you have bad parents,” his wife moans.
For years Doug lived in shame, keeping Landon’s addiction secret. He wasn’t ashamed of his son but rather himself. Co-workers would talk about their children going to college, getting married. Then they’d ask about his.
“How do you explain he’s living in his car in a Walmart parking lot and trapped in a cycle of drug use and despair?” he asks. “How broken was this family that this could happen?”
He doesn’t like to talk about how much they lost trying to contain it. He guesses $100,000, although his wife says “way, way more than that.” They spent their 401(k)s and more money they didn’t have on rehabs, rent at sober living homes, down payments on dental work to fix rotting teeth — $50 here, $100 there. Doug’s credit score dropped 200 points. He’d do it all again, even though at 61 years old, he doubts he’ll ever be able to retire from his job in construction.
Now he reads everything he can find about the opioid epidemic, and his shame is morphing into anger. He can’t watch the news, because it reminds him that the world is marching on in the face of calamity. The vastness of it overwhelms him, but it also provides a sort of cold comfort: They aren’t alone, not even close.
Doug had a dream one night a few months ago. He doesn’t usually remember his dreams, but this one jolted him out of bed. They were all at the beach, and Landon sat, facing the water. He kept calling Landon’s name, but he wouldn’t turn around. He never saw his face.
Was he forgetting his own son?
He realized when he awoke that his great fear is that Landon is nowhere, just gone, doomed by his addiction to leave no legacy.
“I can’t keep doing nothing,” Doug thought, and he climbed out of bed. He went to his home office and started searching the internet. He called Denise Cullen, who runs an organization called GRASP, for parents of the dead from addiction. He said he needed to do something so that his son’s life might not be meaningless.
This deep into the opioid crisis, Cullen gets dozens of these calls each week, as parents emerge from the fog and start looking for a new purpose now that their old one — saving their child — has failed.
Cullen told Doug he’d have to wait; her organization doesn’t let parents begin support groups for at least a year after losing a child. Her own son died 10 years ago, and for that first year after she sat alone in the dark, just staring. It’s usually not until the second year that parents realize how bad the grief can get, she says.
So the family’s quiet days marched on.
Doug and Mollie went to see a war movie, believing it would be a two-hour distraction. One soldier was injured and another tried to save him, telling him: “Stay with me, buddy.” Doug choked. That’s exactly what he’d said to his son that morning.
He wept and begged his wife to forgive him for being unable to bring Landon back. He told her he’d been living with a secret fear that she hated him for it. It hadn’t occurred to her to tell him how relieved she’d been that Landon hadn’t died alone, that there was nothing he could have done.
And still one day, Doug says, he’ll apologize to Landon’s daughter, when she’s old enough.
“I still feel like I need to,” he says.
“For you?” his wife asks him.
A MOTHER’S AWAKENING
Mollie checked the mail one afternoon about six months after her son died. In the stack of catalogues and bills was an ordinary brown envelope, “County Coroner” stamped as the return address.
The last time she saw her son, he was lying in the coroner’s office and she tousled his hair. He’d let her cut it until he was in high school, and she’d loved it. He’d felt in those moments like her little boy.
She always thought Brittaney took after Doug, smart and steady, and Landon took after her, impulsive, funny, creative. When he was little, he liked to dress up in costumes and decorate the house for holidays. They thought he’d grow up to be a set designer for the movies.
Instead, he lay on a gurney. But Mollie thought that for the first time in a long time, he looked peaceful. She felt relieved.
“I know mothers aren’t supposed to think those things,” she says. “Only people in our shoes can understand it.”
His addiction had been so terrifying she’d dreaded her own home. She’d turn the corner into their subdivision and her throat would be on fire. She swallowed antacid tablets by the handful. She imagined her son dead. She imagined the house burning down. She called it “catastrophizing” — so much had happened that anything seemed possible.
It’s hard for her now to recount it all. Landon took anything he could find: Xanax, pain pills, medications Mollie was prescribed as she battled cancer. He was in rehab by the time he was 15 and got expelled from school. There were arrests, car accidents and armed drug dealers who broke into the house.
He punched and fought when he was desperate for drugs, so they installed locks on their bedroom doors. He stole from them, so they bought a safe. He pried it open, so they bought a stronger one.
They tried psychiatrists, treatment centers, medications. They tried tough love and told him he couldn’t come home. He lived in his car, using blankets as curtains. He called them all night, begging for money.
Mollie confessed to her therapist that she sometimes secretly wished Landon would die. His death had come to her to seem inevitable. They were just living through hell in the meantime, and she wasn’t sure any of them would make it out intact.
“I knew how much pain he was in. I knew the mountains he had to climb. Maybe it was the only way he’d ever find peace,” she says.
She wasn’t home that morning when Doug poked his head in to check on Landon. “He’s dead,” her daughter had screamed into the phone, and at first Mollie thought it must have been Doug who died because, even after everything, it still seemed impossible to comprehend. Mollie ran into the house just as the paramedics were wheeling the body bag out the door.
She did not see what her husband and daughter had seen. In her vision of his death, Landon looked like he was sleeping. She comforted herself with that, and for six months she believed it might make this bearable, even as her husband and daughter could barely bring themselves out of bed.
Doug started taking sleeping pills to quiet his brain, and when he wasn’t working, he mostly sat in his recliner. But Mollie kept busy, convincing herself that her son’s battles were over and he’d finally found rest.
Then she tore open the envelope from the coroner.
“Name of decedent: Landon Biggers,” the autopsy read. Mollie had loved the name Landon. Doug had wanted to call him Mike, but she’d insisted on something special.
“Age: 20,” she read, and it suddenly occurred to her that he’d only gotten to use that name for 20 years.
“The body has been refrigerated,” the autopsy said, and she heard herself heaving and wailing. This was her awakening, she’d later realize. For the first time she saw it as her husband and daughter had seen it — not peaceful, but brutal. The end.
“Toe tag,” she read. She suddenly wondered: “Did Landon think I turned my back on him?” The question has consumed her ever since.
“Brain weighs 1,570 grams.”
Her son had been taken apart and reduced to ashes, like he never existed at all.
Those ashes sat on the kitchen counter for months in the same box they’d picked up from the crematorium, still wrapped in brown parchment paper, “like a raw salmon,” her daughter had observed. They considered sprinkling them in the ocean, but then he’d be gone forever. Instead they moved the box to the living room, so he’d be with them, and hid it behind a picture, so they could pretend sometimes that he wasn’t.
A FAMILY’S UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Mollie rewinds the video to watch it again.
“I’ve got a mom who doesn’t want me near her,” her son is saying.
Doug listens from the recliner, uncertain he wants to watch. Angel jumps up on the spot on the couch where Landon used to sit, and Brittaney rubs a foot against her.
In the recording Landon is high, they can tell. He’s standing in a doorway confessing he’d broken into their home. Mollie is facing him, arms crossed.
“Brittaney doesn’t even look at me anymore. Dad doesn’t want to say he loves me anymore,” he’s saying. “Angel doesn’t even come in the room when I go to sleep anymore.”
Brittaney found this video on her phone. She remembered taking it a year before Landon died, standing in front of the bedroom where his baby daughter was asleep. At first, she was excited. For the two minutes and eight seconds it ran, she could pretend he was alive. But then the misery of what she was watching settled in — her brother fighting with her mother and that she’d felt the need to record it, just in case something really bad happened and they needed evidence.
Most of what they have left of Landon is like this, fraught with lost hope of what might have been: a handful of sobriety tokens but few that make it past 30 days, an empty wallet, a handwritten list of goals he never accomplished, the dog that was supposed to save his life but didn’t. Mollie’s car is covered in dents and scratches, from when he’d be in withdrawal, fly into a rage and beat it, and she doesn’t want to get it fixed. Those dents have sentimental value now.
“I’m tired of living this way,” Mollie hears herself say to her son in the video. He storms down the hall, and she watches herself turn to the camera, stare vacantly, then shake her head. Now she gasps, terrified that this fight might be the sole record on earth of her son’s voice. Her child — defined only by the madness of addiction.
He was funny, on the good days, and she’s afraid of forgetting the sound of his laugh. She frantically scrolls through her phone, looking for a video or voicemail — anything — to replace it in her memory of him.
“Something nicer,” she says. “Something where we’re having fun.”
She scrolls by a photo taken the night before he died, two days before Thanksgiving. For the first time in years, he’d seemed clear-eyed and sober. He told his mother that he’d finally found his rock bottom. He was living on the streets, starving and thirsty. He gave his last $10 to a dealer for a fix, and they’d stolen his money and given him no drugs. He walked to a detox.
He’d stayed clean for the longest stretch in years. They all fixed steaks and decorated the Christmas tree, then sat around the fire pit. Mollie took this picture of him looking down at his phone, grinning, lit by the fire. They said “I love you” and went to bed.
The next picture in her phone is the following night, after the ambulances left and friends had come to comfort them. She toggles between the two photos.
“This is one night, and this is the next. He’s here, he’s not.”
The next photo is of herself, several months later. She’s holding Landon’s daughter on her lap, trying to smile, but with a faraway gaze and dark circles around her eyes. “That just does not look like me,” she says.
She’s always been the sort of person who laughs easily and tries to find joy in each day. After Landon died, she started losing things. She lost a key to Doug’s car, she lost her glasses, she lost the lists she’d made of all the things she did for her son to remind herself she didn’t turn her back on him. Everything seems scattered, like her life with her son had been.
She worries she’s losing the only thing she was ever really sure of about herself.
“I’ve always enjoyed life,” she says. “And how do parents enjoy life after their child dies?”
Doug and Brittaney recently told her that she seems angry all the time, so easy to set off.
“I’m obsessing,” Mollie says, still scrolling through her phone. “Where are the videos where he is actually talking? I can’t find them.”
Brittaney searches through her phone now, too. She pushes play on a video, taken months before Landon died.
Mollie leans her head against her daughter’s, and they watch it together.
Landon’s daughter, Aubrey, is wearing cupcake pajamas, squealing and jumping on the couch. Landon is sitting next to her, just out of the frame. But for a moment, the camera captures the side of his face.
“Wait,” Brittaney says, “you can hear him laugh.”
They rewind it to listen again.
People keep telling them all that the second year is worse than the first, so they dreaded that day, Nov. 21. They struggled over what to call it, thinking the English language lacks a word for such things. “Anniversary” seemed celebratory.
They considered going out of town but chose instead to stay and tried to pretend it was just another day.
Brittaney went to work, and Mollie kept herself busy trying to calculate where her son’s name would fall in a chronological list of the 70,237 dead in 2017: Some 62,400 died before him and some 7,600 after. She thought if she could turn it into a math problem, maybe it might make some sense, but it didn’t.
All day, Doug carted the box of Landon’s ashes around with him. He sat it on his desk as he worked in his home office and put it in the passenger seat as he tooled around town running errands.
“I hung out with Landon today,” he told his family, before he put the box back on its shelf, in the living room, close by.
Click here for more on Cullen’s group, GRASP.
AP National Writer Claire Galofaro has reported for years on the opioid crisis across America. Follow her on Twitter at @clairegalofaro or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org