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Lost Vessels

Jehanne Dubrow

Years ago, I went to an exhibit of ancient ceramics so beautiful that for months after, I dreamed about them. Displayed behind glass, they were of all colors and sizes, decorative and practical, formed on the wheels of Japanese potters across many centuries. I remember a bowl so large it could have been used to bathe a newborn, although its walls were as thin as an April leaf, and the same translucent green. I remember shades of clay layered like earth on earth, and something glazed a cornflower blue, as if blossoms had been turned vitreous and permanent. 

But a long time later, when I sought out evidence of what I’d seen—a newspaper article, a photograph perhaps—I couldn’t find the year or the name of the show. Proof of the exhibit seemed to have disappeared. The ceramics existed now only as glistening shapes in my memory. Only in the barely-lighted rooms of imagination, could I open one of the cases and remove a cup, hold its roundness in the curve of my palm and run my finger along its edge.

Beyond the ceramic objects I’d seen, I remembered the building that housed them: the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which is part of the National Museum of Asian Art. These days, it takes a series of clicks through the Smithsonian’s website to access the page that lists Arthur M. Sackler as a principal benefactor of the museum. The biography tells us that he “devoted his professional career to the advancement of medicine,” but he also had a passion for collecting Asian art, which ultimately became one of the foundations of the museum. 

People who knew my cousin, Adam, well described him as a sweet boy. Even as an adult, his features remained round as a boy’s. And maybe it is kinder to think of him as always young, sucking his thumb, falling asleep against his older brother. Remembered like this, he remains a child, unable to twist open a plastic bottle with its safety cap. He is forever years away from his first opioid. 

No one would have called Arthur M. Sackler sweet. His presence—on museum signs and in promotional materials—is now barely visible, as if a heavy curtain has been drawn across the man. In recent years, the Louvre renamed its Sackler Wing of Oriental Antiquities. The National Portrait Gallery turned down a £1million gift from the Sackler family. The Guggenheim Museum, the Tate, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced they would no longer accept donations from the Sacklers. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is legally prohibited from striking Arthur M. Sackler altogether from its edifices, but in 2019 it underwent a major rebranding campaign. 

Here’s the thing: the Sackler name has come to mean OxyContin. It’s hard to take pleasure in the beauty of a lighted display of pale jade cups and bowls when one is distracted by thoughts of powdery white, extended-release tablets that have killed so many.

When I think of OxyContin, I’m led to hazy and smoke-filled thoughts of my cousin. 

I barely knew Adam. If I try, I can more easily summon an image of one of the lost vessels from that vanished exhibit at the Sackler Gallery than I can my cousin’s face. When he does appear clearly, it is his large hands I remember. They hold a peanut butter sandwich or finger the red stitches of a baseball. People are meant to touch or be touched, unlike precious objects in a museum. 

Purdue Pharma released OxyContin in 1995, eight years after Arthur M. Sackler’s death. A statement on the Smithsonian site takes great pains—a careless idiom, takes great pains—to emphasize that “Arthur Sackler died several years before his younger brothers, Raymond and Mortimer, launched Purdue Pharma, the company behind OxyContin. He is not named in any of the current lawsuits against the company.” 

But he did own a third of Purdue Frederick, the predecessor of Purdue Pharma. He built his wealth on the marketing of pharmaceuticals. His tactics could be dishonest, and he possessed a genius for identifying ways to increase demands for drugs that had limited applications. In the 1960s, for instance, he developed a campaign that urged doctors to prescribe Valium for non-psychiatric symptoms. Decades later, Purdue Pharma would employ a similar strategy with OxyContin, downplaying the drug’s potential for addiction while persuading doctors that it was safe for chronic pain. As an analgesic for pain associated with surgery or cancer, OxyContin had a limited, short-term patient base. But prescribed to help muffle the hurt of cracked vertebrae, swollen finger joints or generalized muscle aches, well, this was a drug that could generate billions of dollars.

My memories of Adam come from childhood when my family used to visit my grandmother at her condominium in Miami. I can picture him in those rooms of dense, brown carpeting and gold-mirrored walls, his rounded cheeks and coiled blonde curls. 

Adam was gentler in those moments, his sturdiness softened. Although three years younger, he easily outweighed me and was several inches taller. He could be rough. An only child at the time, I wasn’t yet used to the bruising play of boys and often ran from his contests. When we played thumb wars—one, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war—he pinned down mine much longer than the obligatory three seconds, my fingers turning pale under his grip. I ran from his big brother, Jeffrey, as well, who preferred taunts over physical power. He could make me cry with a few whispers. “What a baby,” he’d say. Or, “stupid girl.” 

Their father was still around in those early years, laughing somewhere in the background of every room. He was a man most at ease in the clamor of a party, a glass of some liquid seated in his palm, the ice sliding from side to side with any wide gesture of his hand.

Once, I asked my mother what she thought of my uncle. We were sitting close together on a white plastic chaise beside a swimming pool, while she rubbed smears of sunscreen into my arms. I watched the swish of water, wishing I could leap into the turquoise glittering where my cousins already splashed.

“That man could charm a snake,” my mother said. She drew a line of sunscreen down the length of my nose. If she was around, I would never burn, never enter the pool without my water wings. “He could charm a snake,” she repeated.

While Jeffrey had their father’s quick way with words, Adam had his father’s coloring, a golden tan, the same bold nose. Soon their parents would divorce, and Aunt Susu would be left to raise her two sons on her own. 

Writing this essay, I experience the difficulty of recreating Adam—the way he held a melting ice cream cone, the shelves of sports memorabilia in his bedroom, how he laughed. The words are pieced together slowly. Memory is not kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing damaged ceramics with a mixture of lacquer and powdered gold. There are ugly seams. There is no glittering dust poured into the fractures between sentences. 

At seventeen, Adam went to a wilderness school for difficult adolescents. As we moved into adulthood, I heard occasional stories about him, my mother offering brief updates over the telephone. He was lifting weights and sober. No, he was back in rehab. No, he was working out and healthier every day. My memory of these stories is faint as smoke lingering in an empty room. I don’t know what led him to the pills. A sports injury? A car accident? About another portion of the narrative, my mother recalls one part (his time in prison), and I another part (when he got out on bail). Once too, I asked my father what he remembered about those times. We were eating lunch, and he jabbed his fork at a translucent slice of onion. “I don’t know,” he said. His numbed response was an answer, I suppose, something to do with the guilt one sibling might feel toward another, my father’s life so fortunate when his sister’s was so full of grief. The sharp tines scraping against the plate, the onion glistening with pearlescent tears—these weren’t images of silence but of what my father seemed unable to say. 

If I’m honest about things unsaid, I’ll admit that I can’t bring myself to call Aunt Susu. I could ask her about the specifics of Adam’s twenty years of addiction. But I prefer incomplete memory. I wonder if she does too.

In “Bride in Beige,” Mark Doty explains why an essayist might choose to leave a recollection inchoate, the page not always a site of certainty but of mist and blur. Questions, he writes, were central to his memoir, Firebird, including those his sister could have answered. “Why not just ask her?” noted an editor in the margins of the manuscript. “I hadn’t wanted to know,” Doty realizes, wanting instead to be “allegiant to memory”—even its inconsistencies and failings—“not to history.” 

Shortly after another stay in rehab, Adam told his mother, “I don’t think I can get out from under this. No matter how much I take, it’s never enough.” He was dead at 37. 

The doctor who prescribed Adam oxycodone five days before his death was sentenced to four years in prison. A press release mentions a patient who died of  “acute combined drug toxicity.” I believe this must be Adam. I have seen those same words in a newspaper article about his death.

According to the article, Adam had gone with his brother, Jeffrey, who told the doctor that Adam did not have pain; he was simply addicted to the pills.  I imagine the brothers sitting together in the scuffed waiting room. Maybe under a poster of a cloudy blue sky written across with dark letters, We Care About Our Patients! Maybe there was a dim aquarium in the corner, a single fish flicking its tail, and other patients sitting in plastic chairs, some very still, others drumming their fingers on cell phones. A place, kept very cold, the air conditioning always set high, the room smelling of fear-sweat, sharp and sulfurous.

My mother’s fibromyalgia. The arthritis in my father’s fingers. My old injury from the years I rowed crew in college. The slipped disk in my husband’s spine. Each of these sufferings could have led to OxyContin. If any of us had ended up in that waiting room, we too might have left ten minutes later with a prescription folded damply in our hands.

At first, the doctor prescribed my cousin Suboxone, a medicine used to treat opioid addiction. But then, for “reasons unknown,” as the article says, he began prescribing oxycodone again. For “reasons unknown,” but how I want to know why. Was it indifference or callousness or greed? Again and again, the doctor tore a prescription from the pad. I can hear the quick sound of tearing and the soft shhh of the paper in my cousin’s hand. 

There are other things I wonder. Was Adam able to sit with a therapist every week, the two of them talking in the pastel light of an office? Did he hold a crumpled tissue? Stare down at his sneakered feet? I wonder if one day he just said, fuck this—and who could blame him, OxyContin notoriously difficult to quit, wrenching the body with withdrawal, coughing and hand tremors, the crawling of ants across the skin—who could blame him if he chose instead to sit on his patio drinking a beer and watching geckos skitter across the tiles. 

Purdue Pharma aggressively promoted Oxycontin to primary care doctors. The company pathologized pain, persuading both doctors and patients that all pain could and should be avoided; with the right dosage, it could be medicated into nonexistence. 

Picture that: a life emptied—like a bottle—of its pain. 

This is what I do in trying to compose a more complete image of Adam. I read the report from the medical board, which revoked the doctor’s license. I cross-reference court documents, including a memorandum in which the judge denied recent motions for compassionate release. I wander through these documents online, each one like a bright, cold room in an addiction exhibit. My research leaves me with a clearer understanding of my cousin’s opioid dependence but not a real picture of who he was. 

On some days, when it feels like a stone has been jammed behind my shoulder blade, deep in the muscle, I lie on top of a hard rubber ball, pressing against it until the twinge dissolves. I take ibuprofen, accepting the danger to my kidneys, and if the stone is unbearably sharp, I’ll drink a glass of wine. At such times, I understand why someone would want to erase pain, even if its erasure might lead to the disappearance of other sensations as well. Eventually, the whole person might disappear.  

Is this what Adam wanted? He must have hurt so much. 

When I was fourteen, I stayed with Aunt Susu for a few days. In the afternoons, Jeffrey’s buddies would come over to play poker. I watched the teenage boys seated in a circle on the floor. Their legs had outgrown the rest of their parts; cross-legged, they resembled piles of pick-up sticks, their limbs haphazardly thrown. But when they placed bets, tossing plastic chips with flicks of their wrists, they were suddenly graceful. 

During one game, Jeffrey lost very badly to a friend. “Don’t worry,” the other kid said, smiling in a way meant to show munificence, “you can pay me next time.” I bit my lip to keep the surprised oh! inside my mouth. They were playing with real money, not board game currency. I squinted at the scrap of paper on which my cousin wrote, IOU $110, signing his name at the bottom. 

Adam watched beside me. He was, as Jeffrey declared, too young to join the game, but he commented on every card. “Yes!” he exclaimed, or “dammit!” He leaned toward the circle of taller boys, desperate to join in their strange agreement to owe and be owed, to bet and risk. His face was still rounded like a child’s, his cheeks flushed. He held a new pack of cards as a spare, its discarded shrink wrap lying in a shriveled glob on the carpet a few inches away. My memory holds onto this image, almost photographic in its clarity. Sometimes he squeezed the whole deck in his fist; other times he rubbed a finger across the sharp edges, a gesture reminding me of how I loved to stroke the deckled edge of a book. 

Watching the boys play poker made me feel like I was running around the track in gym class, dizzy, trying to catch my breath. But in Adam, it seemed to evoke a different emotion. On his face, I saw what looked like happiness. Want.

I eventually give up searching for proof of the Japanese ceramics exhibit which I had attended so long ago.  I don’t need documentation to remember that I held my breath in the Sackler Gallery as I moved softly between displays, afraid that my footsteps might tremble a vase. I can still see the blue glazes gleaming on the bright surface of porcelain.   

Nor are my recollections of Adam made more vivid by the articles and press releases that name—or don’t name—him. The many documents provide me with dates, doctor’s names, and the results of my cousin’s autopsy. I learn about the fatal interactions of opioids and benzodiazepines. Nothing about Adam.

But memory is not a historical record. It is a form, as Mark Doty says. Mine is chipped at the edge. It has a hairline crack running through it. 

Beyond the fact that we were cousins, what was my relation to Adam? Why can I more easily evoke the inanimate, ancient artifact than I can the human being? Truth is, I know very little about Adam because I wanted the glass between us. For so much of my life, he was an artifact—first of boyhood, then of addiction—an object to consider from a reassuring distance. To come closer would have required me to examine my connection to the terrifying, muscular child, and also my link to the grown-up man who took up such scary space with his wide, bruising shoulders. When we were little, his strength frightened me, his fingers smothering mine in thumb wars. After we grew up, I was afraid to feel anything about him at all: fear or, worse even, love. 

Finally, I do call Aunt Susu. “I remember so little,” I tell her on the telephone. “I want to write what I don’t remember.”

“I shut down things too,” she says. But then she starts talking and talking, about how in the courtroom the doctor “didn’t look at us, didn’t turn.” About Adam’s arrest in his twenties. About the two hundred pills he picked up once a month. About the five-minute doctor visits where he got his prescriptions. 

I’m typing, trying to keep up with the swirl of her speech, her voice moving so quickly through the haze of years. Already she is telling me about when he came home that last time from rehab. It was a Thursday, and she found him dead in his bedroom on Sunday morning.

 “At 10 a.m., he was out of it,” she says. She looked in on him, his body tangled in the covers. “Of course, I feel guilty—I saw his chest moving, and I shut the door.” Barely an hour later, she went back in. “And that’s when I could see he was blue.” 

Jeffrey will not speak about his brother, she says, will barely stay in the house where Adam died. “But I never stop talking about him,” Aunt Susu tells me. And his father now wears his son’s name inked in Hebrew letters on his forearm, the opium-dark script of lamentation.

Tonight, I’ve returned to the website of the National Museum of Asian Art. I consider the history of heroin, the fields of poppies, their seedpods scored and oozing sap, the smoky dens, the wars between nations. In the long rectangle of the search engine, I type the word “opium.” The first result is an opium pipe bowl from the Qing dynasty, nineteenth to early twentieth century. It’s ceramic, its cream surface mottled with black specks and reddish streaks.

The bowl is listed as “currently not on view.” The irony of this object is a thick, choking fog. Maybe there have been others who, thinking of the Sackler family business, searched the Museum’s website for references to opium. Someone, I suspect, must have decided this thing should not be displayed. Or it could be that the collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is so full of exquisite items, there’s no need to exhibit a little ceramic piece such as this. Among the precious porcelains and other artifacts, its value must be negligible, barely worth the room it occupies.  

Hard to believe something so small could cause so much death. Of course, a pill is even more minute. A pill slips so easily down a throat. Ground to dust, it is light as breath. Dissolved in water and injected, a pill slides swiftly into the vein.

This bowl, at least, is attractive. I admit its appeal. It was carefully designed to fit on a metal ring which was then attached to a pipe made of bamboo or lacquered wood. Simple and ingenious, it has a small hole at the top to hold a bead of opium paste. A rough strip of cloth would have been used to form a tight seal between the bowl and the pipe, to ensure no vapor could escape.

I imagine someone must have handled this once, fumbled to fix it securely. The touch, I suspect, was not always delicate. Perhaps the bowl was dropped or cleaned too roughly. That a ceramic vessel should come through so much heat undamaged. That it should survive the agonies and collisions of the world. That it should outlive a body. I don’t know how it has managed not to break.