When Colin Dekeersgieter thinks of his big brother, he sees him on the beach in Key Biscayne, Florida, where the boys spent much of their childhood, looking out over the ocean.
“Being at the foot of the ocean, I think summarizes everything that Brennan was,” he says. “Looking out over an expanse was where Brennan belonged. Staring into the eye of an intensity sort of was where Brennan was always at in life.”
For Brennan, as a kid in Florida, that expanse was the ocean. When he discovered snowboarding on a trip to South America, his intensity was the mountain; he spent winters at Lake Tahoe in California pushing the limit. After a bad injury on the slopes and an opioid painkiller prescription, Brennan spent the rest of his life battling with addiction.
On March 2, 2013, Brennan Joseph Dekeersgieter died of an overdose.
Now Colin, his little sister Caitlin, and their parents Margery and Robert are one of Vermont’s many families who spend their days confronting their loss, and figuring out how to move forward after drug addiction took one of their own.
It’s a loss that comes with its very own set of troubles for families. The stigma of heroin addiction, the constant doubt of the medical and mental health systems that seem to have failed them, and the self-doubt – the constant, nagging feeling that maybe if they’d done things differently, everything would have been different.
‘Everything That You Did Looks Wrong’
Margery Keasler spends a lot of time looking back. She’s certain at times that something just out of view in the past will make it all understandable.
“All I do is second-guess every move I made,” she says. “And I tried my very best to help him, and so did his siblings and so did his father, but everything doesn’t look right now.”
Margery, an acupuncturist, has a lot more free time than she used to. The notebooks she filled as she called doctors and rehab centers across the country sit idle. As she sits in her Burlington office, the smell of incense hangs in the air, but calm hasn’t come easy for her in a long time.
“I wish I could have just sat with Brennan and been still,” she says. “But I was always feeling frenetic because I always felt it was a life or death situation.”
In 2006, when Brennan came home from Sierra Nevada College in Nevada after his freshman year, he was addicted to opiates. Margery knew right away, and she pressed him to get help for months before he admitted a problem.
“I mean, she did, like, everything,” says Caitlin, the youngest in the family. “It was all she talked about. It was constantly on the phone with this doctor or that doctor. I don’t think that there’s a person who tried to do more.”
Ultimately, Brennan admitted a problem and went to rehab voluntarily.
But Margery still wonders if she did something wrong, even if it was being too persistent in her efforts to find help for her oldest son. Unlike with other diseases, Margery says, there didn’t seem to be any single medicine or surgery or treatment model to help addicts.
“You’re just trying to find a way to do what all the professionals tell you to do,” she says. “Then, once you lose them, all the professionals suck, you know, because it was wrong. It seems wrong because you lost them.”
To help with her her doubt and guilt, Margery relied for much of the first year after Brennan’s death on a national network of parents who also lost children to substance abuse. Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing (GRASP) has a telephone directory that became her lifeline.
“I would just go down the list and call different people,” she says. “Missouri, Montana, California, and it would be eight in the morning and I would just burst into tears and say, ‘I’ve lost my son and I have no idea how this is gonna go down, and, you know, do you have any suggestions how to make a cup of coffee right now?’”
The strangers on the line, knowing Margery only through their shared loss, helped.
“I would get this help on the other end and you would hear these people with some time behind them and this loss, and you would get the hope that you will be able to do it,” she says. “I did that for the first year.” Then Margery launched a Vermont chapter of GRASP.
“Relating to other parents who have gone through this is my refuge,” she says.
The grief that keeps her in bed in the morning, and the constant doubt and guilt aren’t gone, but they’re slowly receding.
“This is how crazy it can get: I was like, ‘Well, when he was in kindergarten, I think I should have met with teachers more.’ I was thinking that out loud to another person,” Margery says. “She said, ‘I’m a kindergarten teacher, and I’ve lost my son,” and she said, ‘I have another kindergarten teacher friend, and she’s lost two sons.’”
The Vermont GRASP group has only had a few meetings, but already has nine members, including Margery and Robert. The losses of the other parents don’t make Margery feel better, but the group is full of answers for a mother “swimming in all the questions of what I could have done differently.”
The conversations at meetings ease some of Margery’s doubts.
“Maybe if Brennan did this or did that,” he’d be okay, she’ll think. “But then you’re talking to a parent who, that child did do that, and it was the same outcome.”
Slowly, the group is allowing Margery to forgive herself and to look ahead, not behind.
“I am able to get up in the morning,” she says, “and instead of being incapacitated for two hours, it’s an hour and a half.”
‘His Pain Was The Addiction’
Colin, now 26 and living in New York City, speaks softly when he talks about his older brother Brennan.
If Brennan was the “crazy, adventurous one,” as Caitlin says, her other brother is the scholar. Colin doesn’t like to call himself a writer, but he has a master’s degree in modern literature and plans to start a Ph.D program soon.
And he writes a lot, mostly about Brennan.
As Colin writes, he says, he looks at the important events in Brennan’s life, “and how they made a man, and then took him away.”
It’s harder, Colin says, to figure out what took Brennan away.
“There was always something in Brennan that I didn’t really understand,” he says. “I guess there was a hurt that I couldn’t understand. I can’t wrap my head around the choice for him to use drugs, and I understand addiction and I understand it as a brain disease, but I also understand it as something people use to escape from life. And I never really saw what Brennan needed to escape.”
Margery and Robert split up when Brennan was still in the house, but they tried their best to make sure it didn’t hurt the kids. The five of them vacationed together and celebrated Christmas and Thanksgiving as a family.
“We’ve always been together,” says Robert Dekeersgieter, Brennan’s father. Colin calls Caitlin his best friend, and Caitlin says the same about Margery. This year, Colin came home on Mother’s Day to surprise Margery. For the past year or so, Robert and Margery, still not romantically involved but hoping to reduce expenses, have been living together.
Everyone seems to talk to everyone else almost daily. Robert brags about Caitlin’s grades, and Colin boasts about Robert’s amazing work. It’s hard to know, between Margery and Caitlin, who is more proud of the other.
But Brennan, Caitlin says, was one who really focused on the family. “He was the one who kept in touch with all of our distant relatives the most.”
She could tell him anything, she says, even the stuff that would’ve gotten her into trouble with her parents, and he would never judge her.
“Brennan was just very sweet,” she says through tears. “As an older brother, he would be 25, 26 and just wouldn’t care, like, holding my hand downtown or walking around with his arm around me, and was just really compassionate and had a lot of empathy for other people.”
Robert and Colin both look back at skiing trips out west with Brennan. He would drop everything, Robert says, to carve through some fresh powder – “pow pow” as he called it – often in his trademark Denver Nuggets jersey.
On one powder day in 2010, Brennan’s board caught on some rocks as he was jumping off a cliff. He fell hard down the cliff, sustaining serious trauma to his head and body.
His friends and family rushed to his bedside, Margery playing his favorite music in the hospital room – Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Neil Young – trying to help him out of his chemically-induced coma.
A video posted by a fellow snowboarder shows Brennan, with Margery and Robert at his side, responding to simple commands from medical staff. He could do that, but doctors told Margery that it was a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and there was a good chance he would never speak again.
Brennan recovered to the point where friends couldn’t notice a difference.
“Me, as a dad, and Margery, we saw little things,” Robert says. “You could look at his eyes sometimes, and it was different. He wasn’t there. Staring, gazing. But personality-wise, he was the same sweet kid.”
After he got out of the hospital, Brennan moved back east, where he found heroin.
“The thing that was afflicted was his executive skills,” Margery says, “which was where his disease escalated. He then started doing heroin and then it was a real battle. Brennan went to about five rehabs. He always wanted to win, always wanted to fight it.”
It crushed Brennan, his family says, to be faced with the stigma attached to addiction.
“One day when I tried to confront him while Caitlin was there, he was mad at me,” Robert says, not for the confrontation, “but because Caitlin might have heard what I was saying. He did not want her to hear that, to know that. I knew that was because he was ashamed of it.”
As their parents openly took on Brennan’s addiction, Colin and Caitlin just took pleasure in hanging out with their big brother.
“I never would get mad at him,” Caitlin says. “I always knew that you just need to show him love and support him, so because of that dynamic he never felt attacked by me.”
Colin saw the addiction, but says he didn’t think too much about it.
“I knew the stigma surrounding it and understood it, but also when it came down to it, he was just my brother,” he says. “When Brennan wanted to hang out, all I wanted to do was hang out with Brennan.”
The last time Colin saw Brennan was Thanksgiving 2012. In many ways, it was a normal family gathering. Jokes and banter filled the room. Margery and Robert had all three of their kids. They laughed a lot.
The dinner was at Brennan’s sober house in Portland, Maine. The family fed the whole house, and Margery gave them all acupuncture. Brennan was proud to show off his mom’s skills.
At the end of April, he moved. That Friday, his mom called him. He was rushed, at work, and had to go.
“And I just texted him,” she says. “‘Brennan I’m so proud of your work ethic and you’re going to be such a great provider for your family.’ And that was the last text I sent him.”
As Colin writes about it, he thinks a lot about what took Brennan away.
“What I chalked it down to was that there was some sort of pain that he was feeling, and then I couldn’t understand what that pain was because we led the same life. You read things about why people become drug addicts – they were abused or whatever, and there was just none of that. I think that’s just me being naïve. Now it’s like, he had a disease, and his pain was the disease. His pain was the addiction.”
At Oakledge Park in Burlington, Caitlin stands in front of a black bench near the water. She’s crying, but her head is up. A family strolling past on their way toward Lake Champlain doesn’t notice. A plaque on the bench is inscribed with Brennan's name.
Brennan’s dog Syd is running around, wagging for everyone – especially if they’ll throw a stick into the lake for him. Caitlin laughs as he plays with a toddler near the water.
“He definitely was very sad and depressed for a while,” Caitlin says of Syd. “I mean, I think that he really did know what was happening and it was really sad, because he was Brennan’s dog, and Brennan was his master.”
The whole family – Syd included, it seems – keeps going, in their own ways, for Brennan.
“You say, ‘Brennan wouldn’t want me to lay in bed all day,’ because you never want to get up,” Robert says. “There’s not one day where you get up and you say, ‘Okay, I’m going to get up now.’ You wake up, you think of Brennan, and you don’t want to get up.”
Even within this tight-knit family sharing the very same loss, grief is different. Margery is a doer – calling around the nation and starting the GRASP chapter. She talks about it a lot. Colin writes, honoring Brennan with his words and happy reminders sprinkled through his life – a dish of gummy bears reminds him of Brennan’s love for candy, and he listens to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, a throwback to their childhood on the beach.
Caitlin and Robert cope in an isolated silence. They’re preoccupied and don’t talk about it much. Caitlin has trouble saying Brennan’s name without crying. But she knows, ultimately, that she’ll be happy and be able to talk about her oldest brother, who gave great hugs and bragged about his sister everywhere they went together.
This family lost its energetic centerpiece. They’re haunted by his smile, his charm. (“He could talk to anyone, any station in life, whether they were a bum or a CEO of a company,” Colin says.) They remember his passion for snowboarding and for family. Addiction, to them, isn’t Brennan’s legacy.
Addicts have a chronic disease, “but it’s not all they are,” Margery says, citing her son’s numerous accomplishments. “Brennan was a snowboarder. He was an adventurer. He spoke fluent Spanish. He’d been through South America. He’d been to Europe,” she says. “After a traumatic brain injury, he went from [being] told he’ll never understand language again or speak to fully function at like 94 percent. The doctors, they were dumbfounded.”
Margery wants to help other addicts in recovery, perhaps with acupuncture, in Brennan’s name. Colin writes about his brother, who would have celebrated his 28th birthday last month. Caitlin made the switch from skiing to snowboarding in Brennan’s honor, and she wants to join the Peace Corps and eventually, at least for a little bit, live in California.
“I’ll never fully move on,” she says, “and neither will anyone in my family. But we will learn to live life fully and be happy, just in a new way.”
VPR wants to hear your stories of addiction, loss and recovery. Today, we’re launching Traces, a project for Vermonters to share how drug addiction affects their lives. Learn more and share your story here.