Making the Opioid Crisis Personal – Leslie McBain and Fourteen Other “Mums” – and a Poem by Sheryl St. Germain

Fifteen Canadian Women Mourning the Loss of Their Loved Ones to Opioid Overdoses. In the right foreground, poet and activist Leslie McBain, co-founder of  Mums Stop the Harm (MSTH). Photo credit: Nicole Richard/

Prayer for a Son

May your soul now be with the creek,
may it swell and flood in Spring, brimming
with excitement and wildness
as you sometimes were in this other life,

                         ebbing and emptying in winter
                         to reveal what had been hidden
                         in those spring floods—
                         the wounds and bones of your heart.

May the small fish that live here
nibble at your ashes, finding them
sweet and filling,
and may the dusts of your body fall

                          like pollen on the spring wildflowers,
                          deepening the pinks, yellows,
                          and lavenders of their petals
                          until their colours are like wells
                          that lead to another way of knowing.

May the insects sense the presence
of your spirit as they make trails
through your leavings,
may summer rains join with you, and
together may you enter the thin crusts
of this soil to reach the roots of oak
and cedar, juniper and cactus.

                           May you overfill their veins with that joy
                           you sought but rarely found
                           until you burst into acorn or berry or fruit.

And when the wind blows, may it catch
and scatter the dust of you on wing of bird
or butterfly, on fur of squirrel or rabbit,
coyote, cougar, or wild horse,
may you fly with them to strange places
those you have left behind can neither know nor imagine.

and when you are root and wing, seed
and flower, when you are bone and breath,
then may we be blessed to hear you

                           in song of bird and cricket, may we see
                           you again in the mad blinking
                           of the fireflies, and in the silence after
                           the poem's last word.

Sheryl St. Germain, from The Small Door of Your Death, Autumn House Press, 2018

Today the Globe and Mail featured stories on the Canadian women taken in this picture. Each woman has lost a loved one to our current opioid scourge. These women and their crosses signify the personhood of each victim. A person not a statistic.

This picture, in Knox Mountain Park over looking Okanagan Lake near Kelowna, was the brain child of Helen Jennens who has lost two sons to the opioid scourge. She wanted a way to recognize International Overdose Awareness Day that takes place on August 31st.

And as it happens I know the woman closest to us in the picture on the right: courageous and indomitable Leslie McBain who lost her son Jordan to an overdose in 2014. Spurred by that tragedy she went on to co-found Mums Stop the Harm. I met Leslie more than ten years ago at a poetry writing retreat with the exceptional poet/teacher Patrick Lane.

Little did I know then when I first met Leslie that our lives would intersect through addiction: her personal tragedy and then her outreach through MSTH; my journey into poetry therapy working primarily with those in recovery from drug and alcohol addictions.

When I saw this picture a few weeks ago on Leslie’s website I wanted to honour Leslie and all the mums who have lost children to the opioid scourge or who are living with children in recovery or in the thrall of the scourge. That’s why I have featured the poem that introduces this blog post, this extraordinary testament to a mother’s love for a boy who died on overdose. This prayer for Gray (1984-2014), the son of American poet and activist Sheryl St. Germain. Gray dead, the same year as Leslie’s son, Jordan.

This Wikipedia description of St. Germain says it all: St. German’s father, brother, and son died of substance abuse, and St. Germain has written both essays and poems that address substance abuse. She co-founded Words Without Walls, Words, a creative partnership between the Chatham MFA Creative Writing Program, Allegheny County Jail (ACJ), and Sojourner House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility for mothers and their children. She also runs the Chatham University, Pittsburgh M.F.A. creative writing program.

I so honour St. Germain’s prayer to her son. What a tricky thing to pull off. To keep the prayer from falling into sloppy sentimentality. One way she does that is the poem’s structure. With her Cajun and Creole background St. German holds French, black and native American blood. And in the chant-like rhythm I hear in the poem I hear the rhythms of native American prayer/poems/chants.

Look at the structure, in particular: the anaphora repetition of May. May begins the poem. And it repeats after every grammatical sentence with slight variations: May your; May the; May the, May you and with the biggest variation and change up (nice!), And when the wind blows, may it.….

And look at the rolling musical cadences she creates using  just one sentence in the first two stanzas(eight lines) and the second two stanzas (nine lines). Then the change in the pattern. To a seven line sentence in one stanza and three line sentence in the next stanza. A slowing down. A catching of breath. Then she continues but delays the next may, another great structural device, but then opens up the breath again and gives us one hugely long sentence of  thirteen lines in three stanzas. And to keep the continuity and rhythms intact in that long sentence she buries two more mays one line after another. A kind of upping of the tempo. To a crescendo. Takes us over a cliff into the silence after the poem’s last word. An abyss, a sense of loss, created after the stunning aliveness and hopeful afterlife of all the natural imagery she associates her son with. This sense of opposites.  A hopeful new life but end of another. That loss.

And I don’t know if ths is a structural device but the use of all the natural imagery in the poem, this sense of a human oneness with the earth, a oneness we are risking at our peril, is another characteristic I see in a lot of native American poetry. I am thinking especially of the poems of the new American poet Laureate, Joy Harjo.

I have not lost a child to an overdose but I do have children who are in recovery from addictions. Healthy, thank God, for many years. And some of my clients from poetry therapy have died recently from overdoses. Brave and wonderful young people. Not villains. But victims who tried so hard to break the punishing grip of addiction. I watched them fight in their own good words. I wish those words had been enough to save them.

The scourge of addiction in our society. And why don’t we do more. Why don’t we take addiction out of the shadows of our culture and put in the spotlight where it belongs? Why don’t we do more. I know that B.C. just opened an addiction emrgency response center in Surry which is great. But is there more we can do?

My gratitude to the women of the Knox Mountain Park picture. And to Leslie McBain and the volunteers of MSTH. And to Sheryl St. Germain who has had the courage to share not only her son’s awful journey with addiction but her own. Thank you. Thank you.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *