I still sometimes listen for Luka’s skateboard – the growl of the wheels rolling up and down the blacktop on my street as he practises. But I can’t hear it anymore.
And I still sometimes expect to hear his voice on evenings when the weather is good, summoning his father so that the family can start their supper at their patio table: “Papa! Essen!”
But I can’t hear him. I never will again.
A year ago today, Luka took a dose of poisoned opioids at his home next door to mine. He’d taken a nearly fatal dose two months before. This time they couldn’t revive him.
He was 13.
Luka was the son of my neighbours, Robert and Anne, who moved to my Port Moody neighbourhood not long after I did. They were new arrivals to Canada, from Germany via the United States. They were friendly ― tolerant of my pestering them all the time to teach me new German words ― and hopeful about their new life on the West Coast. They had a daughter first ― a sweet, shy girl ― and a couple of years later they had Luka.
I remember him as an imp ― smiling, bright and mischievous. For him, boundaries were meant to be crossed. To Luka, “Don’t go there” meant “Go there now.” He showed an early genius for troublemaking. He was Max and Moritz and the Katzenjammer Kids and the Kin-Der-Kids rolled into one.
Anne recalls that it was obvious from the start that the boy with the puckish grin would be a handful. “He was born like this,” she says. “I remember when he smiled for the first time as a tiny little baby — Robert and I said, ‘We are in trouble.’"
As exhausting as their son’s behaviour was, Robert and Anne couldn’t help but be amused by his defiant spirit and ironclad self-confidence. They nicknamed him “der Teufel” (the devil) and got him a T-shirt labelled as such. He wore it proudly.
When Luka started elementary school, Anne and Robert were called on to make not-infrequent visits to the principal's office.
She recalls how Luka organized clandestine boxing matches based on the underground society in the movie Fight Club. It took the school authorities a couple of weeks to find out about it. He promoted some kid mischief, starting snowball fights, playing pranks on other children. But his behaviour wasn't cruel. He might, say, stick his foot out to trip a classmate, but afterward he would win the victim over as a friend.
"It was never bad towards people — nobody could get hurt," Anne says. "But it was him testing out danger. A risk taker ― that was him. ‘Let’s do something that’s not allowed’ … but it was never meant to hurt anybody."
He lived to know more and try new things.
"In elementary school before summer break, he said to me, ‘I want an earring,'” Anne says. She tried to talk him out of it -- you are very young and people will judge you harshly. Luka had a rebuttal ready: "Mom, little babies get earrings. This is sexist.’
"He got his earring. I had no arguments to win this."
He grew up fast, literally. At 12 he was taller than pretty much every other kid in his grade – and before long most adults, too. He had always pulled childish pranks; now his transgressions grew more serious. He started taking drugs. It was a crossed boundary he would not live to uncross.
Luka was 12 when his parents found out he was using.
“The first time when I found marijuana in his room, we had a big fight," Anne says. "He said to me, ‘Mom, I want to go somewhere…. A place to help me.”
A counsellor warned against it — for one thing, finding a place that could treat a 12-year-old would have been needle-in-haystack stuff; for another, it might put Luka in contact with older kids with more serious drug problems — and access to more serious drugs.
"I always wonder if I should have pushed it. I don’t know.”
Before long, it seemed, Luka lost whatever fear he had of what drugs might do to him. He went through many hours of counselling but it didn't take. One day a counsellor warned the parents that Luka had confessed to using heroin and cocaine. Anne and Robert confronted the boy, who refused to go back.
After his death, Anne and Robert found notes in Luka’s bag. They were from a speech he had given in class on the topic of “comfort.” One of the scraps of paper with the boy’s handwriting sheds some light on his drug use:
“The reason heroin is so dangerous is because it feels good, too good. So good that you’ll never need anything else, you stop working and doing the things you like just to be in that tranquil state.”
In August 2021, Luka overdosed at home. His father got to him in time and revived him.
"They drove us to the hospital and they checked that his ribs weren’t broken and then they said, ‘You can go,’ Anne remembers. "And I said, ‘What’s now? What do we do?' .... And they said, ‘Well, there are resources…. Here’s the address of the addiction clinic.’ We went right away the next morning — he was still throwing up.”
The clinic doctor said Luka was ‘on the cusp of’ addiction but it was more ‘experimentation.’ A counsellor in Port Moody later met with the boy for five 90-minute sessions over five weeks and wrote a report that drew the same conclusion. Ten days before the boy’s death, a psychiatrist in Surrey told Anne and Robert, 'It's experimentation."
They didn’t agree with that conclusion. They still don’t.
Week after week, year after year, there is never a letup to the bad news. Headlines like “B.C.'s opioid crisis keeps getting worse,” “B.C. on near-record pace for toxic drug overdoses in 2022,” and “Overdose deaths increase in BC and in Vancouver SRO hotels,” are numbingly commonplace.
Sometimes the voices of those left behind rise above the litany of death toll updates. Glacier Media reporter Maria Rantanen, for instance, has written movingly of death of her son, Michael, to toxic drugs. My cousin, Rachel Staples, has been a de facto spokesperson for B.C. families traumatized by the opioid crisis, after the overdose death of her 16-year-old son, Elliot, in 2018.
Rachel has made a forceful case that parents in B.C. who have kids with drug problems have been sidelined from the treatment process, sometimes with fatal results.
Anne agrees, saying parents need more decision-making power the treatment of their children.
“Because kids can decide whether they want to go in treatment or not,” she says. “If they say no … you can’t bring them there.
“He was a minor. Where do you draw the line? How old does the kid have to be that you as a parent can say, ‘Yes, I want you to keep him in the hospital’?”
A year after losing their son, Anne and Robert are still seeking answers about what happened ― could they have done more to save him? Why are dangerous drugs so easy for children to get? What can be done to save other kids so that they will have the chance to reach adulthood?
At the same time they still struggle to come to grips with their loss.
“The police called us to say we can pick up his phone,” Anne says. “But we couldn’t. We haven’t done it yet. We just can’t. It’s so final.”
Mark Falkenberg is editor of the Tri-City News, Burnaby Now and New Westminster Record.