Downriver mom drives son to heroin dealers — to keep him alive

Chapter 1: Spring 2018

What day is it — Monday, Thursday, Sunday? Behind the wheel of her minivan, Kathi can't remember and if she's being honest with herself, it really doesn't matter. Every day is pretty much the same. She goes to work. She comes home. She tends to her husband who is ill and self-medicating with vodka. And she drives her adult son to those houses. Those damned houses.

The first couple of times, Asa says he needs to meet friends who owe him money, but it doesn't take long for Kathi to figure out the real purpose of these drives. Asa leaves her in the van, disappears into one of the houses Downriver or beside the Lodge Freeway in Detroit or wherever for a few minutes, gets back in the van and, upon returning to their home, locks himself in the bathroom. He's in there for hours sometimes. And that’s when Kathi knows: She’s taking Asa to buy heroin and he’s coming home and shooting up.

Kathi isn't happy about the arrangement and the longer she drives him — it's been three years, less the time he's spent in jail and rehab — the more aggravated she becomes until she's downright angry at the imposition of it all.  Asa no longer tries to disguise what he's doing. Sometimes he doesn't wait until he gets home to get high. He slides into the minivan, sticks a needle in his arm and drifts into an impenetrable stupor. He is a zombie in a mom mobile.

"Would you snap out of it, we’re going down the street in the neighborhood," Kathi says, embarrassed by what others living on their dead-end road in Allen Park will think. Of course, they already know — EMS and the police are at her house often enough for neighbors to realize something's up. Anyone who wants to see can get a glimpse of paramedics wheeling Asa out on a gurney after he overdoses. Plus, the arguing — Kathi knows the neighbors hear her arguing with Asa, the houses are that close together. Surely, they hear the day she punches a hole in the bathroom door; she has a temper, though who wouldn't in a situation like this? It's a crap way to live.

This broken door in Kathi Kuykendall's Allen Park home is a sign of Asa Kuykendall's struggle with drugs and Kathi's struggle with Asa.
This broken door in Kathi Kuykendall's Allen Park home is a sign of Asa Kuykendall's struggle with drugs and Kathi's struggle with Asa.

But as much as she stews, 53-year-old Kathi can't figure a way out. If she refuses to drive, Asa — whose own car is locked inside a police impound lot, his license long gone — will ride his bike to the dealers and, without a chaperone, might not come right home. He might detour into one of the abandoned buildings spread along his route, overdose and die there, his body left to molder and rot until another addict desperate to escape into the seductive warmth of drugs stumbles upon it. No way will somebody in that kind of shape call for help.

Kathi is pulling out of a Checkers drive-thru now. She looks at 24-year-old Asa in the passenger seat. His eyes are closed. His head is back. His face is blank. His mouth is open. He is nodding out, drifting in and out of consciousness, with a wad of fries in his mouth.

"Sit up right," Kathi snaps.

Asa grunts and mumbles something largely unintelligible.

"You can't even sit up and eat your food ... a wasted $6," Kathi says.

Asa will probably apologize later — he usually does. He can be charming and manipulative that way. And then, when he gets the itch, the whole routine starts over, a drug-fueled "Groundhog Day."

Asa: "Hey, Mom, I need a ride."

Kathi: "Where?"

Asa: "You know where."

Chapter 2: Fall 2021

There are two approaches to dealing with drug addicts, Kathi Kuykendall learns later.

There is the old school tough love, abstinence-only approach: Family and friends sever ties with the addict or force him or her into rehab and require they stay clean in order to be embraced by loving arms.

And there is the newer approach that focuses on reducing the harms associated with drug use: Loved ones and public health agencies acknowledge that an addict can't be forced to stop drugs and do everything possible to keep him or her alive. That means supplying them with naloxone (brand name: Narcan), which reverses overdoses from heroin and other opioids, providing clean needles to prevent hepatitis and HIV, and encouraging them not to get high alone so someone is available to call EMS in case of overdose. It also means supplying test strips so users can tell whether their drugs are mixed with fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that is cut into heroin and pressed into counterfeit pain pills and is responsible for most overdose deaths. It means doing all of that until an addict reaches a point where they want to quit drugs — and then helping them find medication such as methadone or buprenorphine to help combat withdrawal and cravings, but not casting them aside if they don't hit that mark. One approach is based on punishment, the other on empathy and science.

People who counsel addicts and those who study addiction believe harm reduction is the way to go. Addiction is a disease and you can't bully an addict into remission any more than you can bully a cancer patient into remission. They point to studies such as one of intravenous drug users in Seattle that shows new users of syringe services programs — needle exchanges — were five times more likely to enter drug treatment and three times more likely to stop doing drugs than those who didn't use such services. They point to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reports syringe exchange programs cut the incidence of HIV and hepatitis C infection by about 50%. And to a study in Massachusetts that shows giving medication-assisted treatment such as methadone to drug users who survived one overdose cut subsequent overdose deaths between 38% and 59%.

So compelling is the evidence and so dire the problem — a record-breaking 100,000 people across the country died from drug overdoses during the 12 months ending in April 2021 —  that harm reduction is gaining traction as a strategy for quelling the nation's opioid crisis.President Joe Biden has vowed to vastly increase access to harm reduction programs, once derided as a way to enable addicts. His administration is requesting Congress approve $11.2 billion in the 2022 budget for overdose prevention programs, including needles and fentanyl test strips. Meanwhile, in Michigan, where a record 2,900 people died from drug overdoses during that same 12-month period, the state health department recently spent $900,000 in grant money to promote programs that provide syringes and Narcan. The message of the state's harm reduction campaign: Addicts can change — at their own pace.

But not many people are talking about harm reduction when Kathi starts driving Asa in 2015; she has no idea there's a name for what she is doing. All she knows is that the ashes of Eric, her older son, are in the living room, sitting in an urn on a corner shelf cluttered with angel figurines, ceramic nuns and a mother's lost dreams. She can't loseAsa, too.

Kathi's journey, reported from interviews, court records, police reports, social media feeds and family video, is one of desperation and denial, hope and love — the love a mother holds for her child.

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It's about doing whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to keep that child alive and praying that in the end, he will be able to leave drugs behind and walk into the light.

Chapter 3: April 2004

Bang, bang, bang!

Kathi, asleep in her second floor bedroom, is jolted awake by the sound of someone pounding on the side door of the house. What the heck? She looks at the alarm clock next to her bed. It's after midnight. She runs to the hall, her husband, Steve, a few steps behind her. They open a window and look at the person below. It's a cop.

"You the parents of Eric Kuykendall," he shouts.

"Yeah," Steve says. "What's wrong"

"There's been an accident," the cop says.

Chapter 4: April 1983

The pregnancy is a surprise. Yet Kathi, barely 18 years old, back home with her mother in Allen Park  after doing time in juvenile detention for running away, is delighted at the thought of being someone's mother. Of having someone to love who will love her in return. Eric arrives on April 9,1983. Two years later, Kathi marries his father, her sometimes boyfriend, even though she realizes he's not ready to be a husband or a father. He gets high before the ceremony. Their union lasts 18 unhappy months. Kathi learns he is cheating on her — Eric says he sees Daddy kissing another lady — and files for divorce.

Kathi is working in a factory when she meets the plant electrician, Steve Kuykendall. She likes him; he likes her. They marry June 3, 1992, and he adopts Eric when the boy's biological father relinquishes parental rights. The following year, they have Asa Eldon Arnold Kuykendall and Eric, 10, is delighted to be a big brother.

Eric Kuykendall as a youngster. The portrait hangs on the wall in Kathi Kuykendall's Allen Park home.
Eric Kuykendall as a youngster. The portrait hangs on the wall in Kathi Kuykendall's Allen Park home.

Eric Kuykendall grows into a handsome young man who pays a great deal of attention to his appearance; Kathi thinks he could be a model. He keeps his nails manicured. He styles his hair with enough mousse or pomade that it looks casually tousled. He wears earrings in his eyebrow and his ears and, Kathi thinks, maybe a nipple, she's not completely sure. He takes care with his clothes and shoes — especially his Nikes, which he washes with a soapy rag after every wearing. He takes pride in all his belongings, all the things that make him feel young and worthy, especially the green Pontiac Grand Prix he buys with graduation money from Kathi and Steve and earnings from his job as a strip club valet.

Eric also likes to party — weed and alcohol are his thing. Kathi gets it; she, too, liked to party when she was younger. She and Steve throw Eric a keg party for his high school graduation — Dearborn Edsel Ford class of 2001. Kathi, who dropped out after 10th grade and thinks often about going back for something more than the GED she earned, is so happy, so relieved Eric makes it through that she is willing to give him whatever he wants to mark the occasion. She takes the kids' car keys so they won't drive after drinking.

Over the next several months, Eric changes. He drinks more. And while he's still smoking weed, Kathi learns he's also dabbling in cocaine. He refuses to do the chores she and Steve assign him. He refuses to clean up after his dog. He refuses to mow the lawn or take out the trash.

Kathi figures Eric is mixed up with the wrong crowd, that friends who don't have his best interests in mind are influencing his attitude and actions. This is always Kathi's first thought when her boys are in trouble; her sons are never the instigators. She hopes Eric dumps these friends. She hopes he outgrows this behavior; he has a son now, born in July 2002, and he needs to set an example. But as is often the case, hopes don't count for much and the situation only worsens. Kathi and Eric argue frequently."I hate you," Eric yells at Kathi. She tries to protect Asa from the chaos and anger. He is in elementary school and idolizes his big brother. Kathi sends him to his room when the yelling starts. Asa does as he's told, taking refuge in a television program or video game, the grownups fighting outside his door.

Finally fed up, Kathi and Steve tell Eric he needs to get out. It is the summer of 2003.

"We did the tough love," Kathi says to anyone who asks why Eric is living with her mother, though sometimes she wonders if it'stough enough. Eric has no chores at her mother's house, no responsibilities, just the unchecked freedom to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. She tells her mother Eric needs supervision. It's my house, her mother says when Kathi broaches the subject. Well, he's my son, Kathi replies.

Eric calls Kathi to check in, sometimes. He stops by her house when he can get a ride; he's wrecked his Grand Prix in an accident Kathi thinks probably involved alcohol or drugs or both. One day, he shows up reeking of alcohol and slurring his words, and  tells her he has experimented with heroin. Kathi doesn't believe him; she thinks he's trying to upset her, to, as she says, push her buttons. He tells her again and Kathi shoves him. He shoves her. He leaves the house but Kathi follows him to the car and punches him in the face. He calls her a bitch and a slut. A neighbor calls the police and Kathi and Eric both end up in jail. Neither wants the other prosecuted on charges of domestic violence. Kathi gets to go home. Eric is cited with being a minor in possession of alcohol and has to come up with bail money before he can leave. Kathi refuses to give it to him. She is furious. Eric is a mess.

Chapter 5: April 2004

Kathi thinks Eric has been in another car accident, but as soon as she sees him in the emergency room at Oakwood Hospital in Dearborn, she knows that is not the case. Eric looks awful — unconscious, a tube in his mouth, intravenous lines in his arm — but he's not banged up the way one would expect after a crash.

"He's on drugs," Kathi tells the doctors.

"Give him the shot," she pleads.

"Bring him back!"

The doctors tell her it's too late. Narcan won't reverse the damage done by Eric's overdose, which Kathi learns involved heroin and cocaine. He was without oxygen for too long. He is brain dead. The only reason he's breathing is because a machine is doing it for him.

Kathi turns to her mother, who is already at the hospital, and demands to know what happened. She finds out that her brothers, who also live with her mother, found Eric in the basement but left him alone because they thought he was sleeping off a drunk. And that they tried to wake him several hours later without success and that's when they finally called for help. Kathi yells some more. Hospital workers separate the women, who will barely speak for years afterward.

In Eric's hospital room, Kathi looks for a miracle. She holds Eric's hand and strokes his arm, praying he realizes she's beside him, that he will feel her touch and return from the abyss that has claimed him. She stares at the digital readout on the monitors that keep track of his blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen level, looking for a sign that she is getting through to him. Friends try to boost Kathi's spirits. They share vague, albeit inspiring, stories about people who suffer medical catastrophe only to recover and return to nearly normal lives. If it happened to them, it can happen to Eric. "Wake up," Kathi begs her son. "Wake up." But he doesn't. He is not coming back to her and deep down, she knows it.

On April 27, after three weeks in the hospital, Kathi and Steve take 21-year-old Eric off life support. It's Steve's idea and Kathi agrees. Eric doesn't want to be tied up to a machine, unable to do anything. Eric doesn't want his son to see him like this.

"Everything will be all right," Kathi tells Eric. "You're free. You're not in pain no more."

She is sitting on the end of Eric's bed when she hears the jagged gasp that is his final breath. She kisses his forehead, she kisses his cheek. Like a nervous mom escorting her child to the bus stop on the first day of school, Kathi follows the attendants who wheel Eric's body to the elevator, which will deliver it to the hospital morgue.

Kathi Kuykendall keeps some of Eric Kuykendall's ashes in a pendant.
Kathi Kuykendall keeps some of Eric Kuykendall's ashes in a pendant.

His death certificate lists cocaine and opiate abuse as the cause of death.

He leaves behind a 19-month-old son, a brother, a father — and a mother who will never be able to fill the emptiness deep in her soul that comes from losing a child.

"All your dreams of seeing them grow up and having their dreams come true, it's hard to let that go," Kathi says. "I loved him. I still love him."

She removes some of the ashes from Eric's urn and places them in a necklace, a square locket that looks like a little treasure chest. She will wear it every day.

Chapter 6: Summer 2004

Kathi tries not to let Asa see her crying over Eric. He is 11, too young, Kathi thinks, to be upset, too young to know the particulars of how or why his brother died. In a couple years, he'll understand and then, she'll tell him the whole story so he doesn't make the same mistakes. Kathi knows Asa misses Eric. Asa chased after him, even if, as he grew older, Eric wasn't always so keen on having his kid brother tagging along. They played Nintendo and PlayStation together. They roughhoused, wrestling each other for no reason except that's what brothers do. Asa says he hopes Eric was proud of him. When he's older, Asa will get a cross bearing Eric's name tattooed over his heart.

In some ways, the brothers are alike — their addictions, certainly, and their elementary school ADHD diagnoses, but also their affinity for piercings and body art, their love for dogs, their appetite for practical jokes, their wide smiles, their beautiful blue eyes. Though they sometimes look sad, Asa's eyes are more brilliant than Eric's. They are the bluest of blues, an incredible contrast against his pale complexion and strawberry blond hair, both inherited from Kathi. There is a resemblance between the boys, but Eric looked less like Kathi, his hair brown, his olive complexion passed on by his biological father.

Kathi Kuykendall and son, Eric Kuykendall, are smitten with baby Asa Kuykendall in this 1993 photo.
Kathi Kuykendall and son, Eric Kuykendall, are smitten with baby Asa Kuykendall in this 1993 photo.

Sometimes, Kathi wonders whether her marriage to that man set up Eric for a life of turmoil. It was a marriage full of argument and anger, rage and recrimination. It was toxic. It was awful for Kathi. And it was awful for Eric, who asked Kathi why his father didn't love him, why his father signed him away. Was Eric's party life an attempt to forget bad memories or to make up for something he lost? Kathi doesn't know. And right now, she can't afford to get mired in the past. She needs to do what every mother does after a loss; She needs to take care of those left behind.

Eric's death makes Kathi anxious about Asa. The thought of something happening to him terrifies her; letting him out of her sight makes her uncomfortable. She leaves her job as a forklift driver so she can stay home in case he needs her. She wants to know what's going on at school. She keeps track of his friends. Despite what some people tell her — that it's an extravagance for an elementary school kid — Kathi gets Asa a cellphone so she can always reach him. He's good about checking in. It makes Kathi feel better that he always answers her calls.

Chapter 7: August 2009

Despite her efforts, Kathi is losing her grip on 16-year-old Asa. There've been troubles along the way — trespassing, fights, being in a gang of kids smoking pot behind a local school. But these days, Asa smells like pot a lot. Kathi grounds him for it but he leaves the house anyway. He has an 18-year-old girlfriend now.  Kathi doesn't like her and thinks she's a bad influence. She is already done with school and Asa skips classes so they can be together. "He's thinking with his little head instead of his big head," Kathi says, disgusted. One afternoon in August, after he ignores another grounding, Kathi reports Asa to the police as a runaway. An officer reaches him by phone. Asa says he isn't running away. He says he left the house because he feared his argument with Kathi was getting out of control and that he'll be home in a few hours. The cop tells Kathi about the call. He also tells Kathi her family needs counseling.

Somewhere, somehow Asa starts using pills — Norco, Oxy, whatever he can find. He drops out of school. He moves out of the house to stay with his girlfriend and then with other friends and, after that, Kathi doesn't know. Someone tells her Asa is homeless but all she can do is wait him out; Kathi knows her son won't do anything he doesn't want to do. At Christmastime, she and Steve meet him at a Taco Bell to give him gifts, mostly clothing because he didn't take much when he left. When the relationship with the girlfriend ends, Kathi welcomes Asa back. He has been away from home for the better part of a year.

It's difficult to stay angry at Asa; he's a charmer. He's outgoing. He's a talker. Kathi always says he can convince you the blue sky is green. He is polite — at one point he will thank the judge who sends him to jail. He likes to make people smile; he walks up to older women in the grocery store and tells them they are beautiful. He is the king of pranks in a family that enjoys clowning around. He replaces sugar with salt, leaving Kathi to figure out why her coffee tastes so awful. He wraps a rubber band around the handle of the kitchen sink's spray hose so when someone turns on the faucet, water streams everywhere. He throws pitchers of cold water over the curtain and onto whomever is taking a shower. Asa cracks himself up, which makes Kathi crack up. "You don't know what kind of day that person's had," Asa tells Kathi. "If I can make that person laugh and feel good for a second, then I did my job." And Kathi loves him for that.

Chapter 8: Fall 2014

Kathi's heart sinks. Steve is crying.  Asa, 21 now, is on heroin. Kathi doesn't understand what he's thinking. Heroin killed Eric. Asa tells her not to worry because he's snorting heroin and that's a lot safer than injecting it. "I'm careful," he says. "I'm careful."  But Kathi finds small pieces of aluminum foil around the house — in the basement, the garage, the bathroom trash — and she knows that people who shoot heroin cook it on foil until it's liquid, though it takes an overdose before Asa finally admits he's sticking himself with a needle. When Kathi asks why, Asa answers the same way drug users everywhere do: It's all about the high — it's faster, better, more intense with a needle. Kathi's mind races. She did tough love and lost Eric, she doesn't want to lose her baby, too. She tells Asa that if he's going to get high, he needs to do so at home where she can rescue him if he overdoses again.

The overdoses are grotesque and horrifying. Kathi watches Asa with suspicion, always on alert. Is he going to the bathroom or is he sitting on the toilet, passed out from heroin — that's where he gets high most often, in the bathroom, the locked door affording him some privacy, at least until Kathi punches a hole through it in anger. Is he sleeping in front of the television or is he dying in front of the television — Kathi listens for the sound of gurgling coming from his throat, a sure sign he is in trouble. Late one night in January 2015, Asa's new girlfriend, Summer Olsen, calls upstairs to Kathi's room in a panic. She says Asa's collapsed in his basement bedroom and she thought he was kidding around but now his lips are turning blue. "Is he taking anything?" Summer asks. Kathi rushes down the stairs and Steve, who uses a cane now, arthritis leaving him slow and unsteady, follows best he can. He lowers himself onto the floor next to Asa and slaps his son's face, hoping to shock him into consciousness, alternating the slaps  — which he delivers with such force Asa's head whips to the side every time — with CPR. EMS arrives and the paramedics give Asa a shot of Narcan. He starts breathing and vomits on the shoes of one of the EMS guys before they get him into the ambulance.Kathi and Summer spend the rest of the night at the hospital. Summer says she is surprised to learn Asa uses drugs because he always seems so happy and energetic, as if he has jumping beans in his pockets.

Kathi Kuykendall keeps cellphone video of Asa Kuykendall nodding out after shooting heroin.
Kathi Kuykendall keeps cellphone video of Asa Kuykendall nodding out after shooting heroin.

It's true, Asa is sneaky when it comes to his habit. Like all addicts, he is a flat-out liar —  lying about what he's doing and where he's going, insisting he's clean when he isn't. Like all addicts, he thinks he's fooling everybody and sometimes, he is. But Kathi can tell when he's using, anyone who has ever seen him clean can tell — and not just because his eyelids get heavy from the weight of heroin. It's his blue eyes that are the giveaway. They fade when he's high. And the more he uses, the more transparent they become.

By the end of the long night in the hospital, Asa is awake. His face is bruised where his father smacked him and his eyes are blackened.  But he is coherent enough to make sense when he speaks. He says he wants to quit drugs. He says he wants help. He says he wants to go to rehab. It is a big step.

Asa returns to Kathi's house after a couple weeks of inpatient drug treatment. Summer moves back into the basement with him and they settle in together. There's news: Summer is pregnant. Asa is going to be a father. Kathi is going to be a grandmother again and she's elated. She and Steve plan to buy a crib for the baby and they'll need a car seat for the van so Kathi can drive the baby to the park and the pediatrician and anywhere else the baby needs to go. She gets to work planning a shower to welcome her newest grandbaby and to celebrate Asa's impending fatherhood. She fashions diapers into the shape of a cake for the occasion and lines up tables under an awning in the backyard. Asa holds up the gifts — baby clothes and a onesie that looks like a tuxedo, a yellow and blue crocheted blanket, a box of Pampers — so guests can see. Summer doesn't attend. She and Asa are broken up. That's the way their relationship goes — sometimes it's on, sometimes it's off, sometimes it's in a weird in-between place, its status most influenced by Asa's relationship with drugs. Summer stays away when Asa is deep into drugs. She worries about his safety, but even more, now she worries about the safety of their baby — what if Asa leaves drugs around the house and the baby eats them, what if Asa overdoses while the baby is in his care? Kathi wants Asa off drugs, too. But she's not sure Summer's strategy, cutting Asa out of her pregnancy and their baby boy's August 2015 birth, is the best way to motivate him to get clean. He's desperate to see the baby and so are Kathi and Steve. And then, three weeks after he's born, Summer changes her mindKathi is smitten when she finally holds the newborn. All chubby and innocent, Kamryn Olsen as Asa's features — his strawberry blond hair, his fair skin, his slightly shy, slightly mischievous smile, his incredible blue eyes. Kathi thinks Asa will be a good dad; he seems so proud, showing off his son, taking pictures with her and Steve. She wonders whether being a father might change Asa enough that he'll quit drugs.

Kathi Kuykendall and Summer Olsen, the mother of Asa Kuykendall's son, discuss Asa's addiction and his role as a father.
Kathi Kuykendall and Summer Olsen, the mother of Asa Kuykendall's son, discuss Asa's addiction and his role as a father.

It's the middle of October and Kathi is on the phone with the district court in Lincoln Park. Asa is in trouble again. Last month, police stopped him for blasting through a red light on a suspended license and found syringes and heroin in his car. A few weeks after that, he crashed the car on the ramp from I-75 South to Southfield Road, left the scene of the accident and hid out at Kathi's house until police found and arrested him. He's supposed to be in court for a hearing on all of this but, Kathi tells the voice at the other end of the phone, Asa's not going to make it. He's in rehab again. When he gets out, he'll declare himself clean and sober and ready to reclaim his life and get full custody of his son only to fall again to his craving for heroin. That's the cycle when it comes to Asa: arrest, rehab, redemption, relapse, repeat.


And over

And over, again.

It makes Kathi dizzy.

Chapter 9: May 2017

It's spring and the evening air feels soft and hopeful. Kathi is outside a banquet hall in Wyandotte, stopping for one more photo. She is wearing a strapless black evening gown with white trim and a red rose corsage on her wrist. She looks proud, all made up, her hair swept back. Steve, dressed in a dark suit and tie with a white shirt and rose boutonniere stands behind her on her left. Asa, in a light pink dress shirt, a coordinating plaid tie and dark pants, stands slightly behind Kathi on her right. In this pose, she is their leading lady, the star of the show. And the adult high school prom the three of them are attending is one of the year's highlights. Kathi and Asa have been taking classes for the last three years. In a few weeks, they will receive their diplomas. They will walk across the stage in caps and gowns and Kathi will finally get something she's wanted for a very long time: high school degrees for both her and Asa. In this moment, in this photo, where Asa is not high — he will be later in the evening — and everyone is smiling, Kathi looks almost giddy with happiness.

Kathi Kuykendall and Asa Kuykendall are newly-minted high school graduates in this 2017 photo.
Kathi Kuykendall and Asa Kuykendall are newly-minted high school graduates in this 2017 photo.

Chapter 10: April 2018

Kathi is doing more than driving Asa to the dope man, now. Since he failed a drug test and lost his job at a scrap metal plant, Kathi's paying for his drugs, too. She can't afford this. She is not a wealthy woman, her husband is on disability, and there are plenty of other things, including her driver's license renewal and the insurance on her van, that need attention. But if she refuses to give Asa what he wants, he'll rampage through the house — Kathi calls it fiending — and take whatever he can find to one of the nearby pawn shops and use the proceeds to pay for drugs. Getting everything out of pawn  — the television, the gaming consoles, stereo system, necklaces and rings — costs more than handing Asa the money in the first place. Besides, if he pawns stuff, he'll do it when Kathi's not at home, and not around to escort him to the dealer and get him home safely. So she does what makes financial sense for her household while keeping Asa alive.

It's Kathi's lonely secret, her role in all of this. Steve is ill. His health, long complicated by a liver transplant and arthritis, is declining. He's in heart failure now and kidney failure, too, so Kathi tries not to bother him with the details of what she's doing. Her closest friend since childhood figures it out and is not supportive. You need to stop before you get shot or killed, she says. The dealers, who sometimes come out of the drug houses and approach Kathi's van on the street now, think the whole situation is nuts. They tell Asa it's not right for him to bring his mom.Asa assures them it's OK and that Kathi is cool. But, really, Kathi isn't cool at all. She's trapped, held hostage by the long and powerful reach of drugs. She wishes more people understood that. Drugs control the addict, but they also control anyone who loves an addict.  And even though she is angry with Asa much of the time, she loves him very much.

Kathi Kuykendall looks through family photos at her home in Allen Park.
Kathi Kuykendall looks through family photos at her home in Allen Park.

One day at the end of April, Kathi, with Asa in the passenger seat, pulls her van in front of a bando — Kathi's slang for abandoned building — on the edge of Lincoln Park and southwest Detroit, an area popular for drug dealing. An SUV pulls alongside her and a person in the passenger seat hands something to Kathi through the window. Kathi is heading home when the police pull her over. The officer tells her she's driving on a suspended license, which Kathi knows. And that she doesn't have any insurance on her van — something else Kathi knows. The officer arrests her and helps her back to his cruiser where another cop tells Kathi that he saw her participate in what he's pretty sure was a drug deal. Kathi doesn't hesitate. She comes clean, immediately. "I take my son to Detroit to buy drugs so he won't overdose," she says. She also says that Asa bought crack and that he has a pipe in the van. The police find the pipe and arrest Asa, too. While taking inventory of the van's contents before sending it to impound, they find what appears to be a packet of heroin sticking out of Kathi's wallet. Asa tells the authorities the heroin belongs to him. As much as Kathi loves Asa, he loves her, too.

In a weird way, the whole episode, getting arrested, confessing to the cops, is a relief. Kathi is sharing her secret with someone else. And for a few minutes, she feels less alone.

Chapter 11: October 2018

Kathi is exhausted and barely off the clock from her shift as a health care aide when Asa calls her cell. He tells her to hurry home with some money or else he's going to take the TV off the wall and pawn it. His brain, his body, his everything is telling him he needs to get high, otherwise, he'll get dope sick from withdrawal. Hurry up. Hurry up. He keeps pushing and pushing. Kathi isn't sure how much more of this she can endure — the drugs, the fighting, the hassle, sitting front row for Asa's terrifying dance with the devil that is heroin, or actually fentanyl. What if it takes Asa before Kathi can save him? She feels pressure, so much pressure, that she's unraveling. She's not sleeping, her hair is thinning, she's gaining weight. Some days, lots of days, she thinks about driving past her house and not stopping until she finds some peace. But she can't do that. She can't run away. Because if she does,who will take care of her family?

Steve needs her more than ever. Kathi takes him to dialysis and to doctor appointments. Otherwise, he's home, drinking vodka to dull his pain — pain he tells Kathi the medication his doctor prescribes doesn't touch. Kathi knows he shouldn't be drinking in his condition — or in any condition, considering he had a liver transplant in 1995. She blames doctors and the government for clamping down on prescriptions for the highly addictive pain medications that give some patients relief but also started the nation's opioid epidemic. Steve has no choice but to self medicate. Which leaves Kathi with no choice but to get him liquor when he wants it — at least until 2 a.m. when the stores stop selling for the night.

The Kuykendalls  u002du002d Asa Kuykendall, his son, Kamryn Olsen, Kathi Kuykendall and Steve Kuykendall u002du002d celebrate the holiday season.
The Kuykendalls u002du002d Asa Kuykendall, his son, Kamryn Olsen, Kathi Kuykendall and Steve Kuykendall u002du002d celebrate the holiday season.

But the dope man never closes, he might move to another house or a corner or the parking lot of a nearby dollar store, but he never shuts down and that's why Asa is a disaster. He's supposed to be caring for Steve when Kathi's at work. "I need you, I need you. I need help with dad," she begs. But Asa isn't reliable. He's always high.

Kathi has started recording video of him on her cell so he can see how he looks and acts when he's high. She hopes he will see it and become so disgusted with himself that he'll quit drugs or at least stop using so frequently, but nothing changes.

She's going to court with him now, too — at least she goes when he decides to show up. Often, Asa skips hearings, which is why there are always warrants out for his arrest. She sits on the bench behind Asa shaking her head  'no' when he lies to the judge about using drugs or going to treatment or anything else.

Kathi knows none of this makes sense — her tipping off the judge, busting on Asa when she's the one who's helping him get drugs. But with everything so out of control, she's beyond caring what makes sense to anyone else. She cannot continue like this. She needs a break from the worry and heartache that come from having a drug addict as a son, from the unrelenting fear that some night the cops are going to show up at her house and tell her Asa's dead, too.

The only time she gets any respite at all is when Asa is in jail.

"I'm not doing it no more," Kathi says to Asa, who is still on the phone, threatening to pawn the TV if she doesn't come home with money. "I'm done. You're killing your dad and I. If you take anything out of that house, when I get home, I'm calling the cops."

Within seconds of hanging up with Asa, she's on the phone with Judge Greg Clifton from Lincoln Park District Court. He hears most of Asa's cases. He has sent Asa to jail and to rehab, put him on an electronic tether and signed warrants for his arrest when he fails to show up for court dates. She tells him what Asa is doing. She asks him to arrest Asa on one of his outstanding warrants because she's on the verge of a breakdown.

The police arrive at Kathi's house, escort Asa out of his bedroom and take him to jail. Clifton sentences him to six months in jail in Battle Creek where, unlike Wayne County, the odds of him getting released early due to overcrowding are minimal.

For the first time in a long time, Kathi sleeps.

Chapter 12: November 2018

Kathi has a houseful of people and Steve, in a hospital bed in the living room, is in the center of activity. He is dying. Family members say their goodbyes while "Joy to the World" by Three Dog Night and "Tears in Heaven" by Eric Clapton play in the background. Asa calls from jail. Kathi isn't sure he's ever been fully aware of the severity of his father's illness. Maybe acknowledging it was too scary or too sad. Maybe Asa was too high to understand. Maybe it's a combination of both — fear and drugs. What better way to forget about fear than to get high. Steve dies at home in the living room on Nov. 12. He is 64. Clifton allows Asa to leave Battle Creek for a few hours to attend the funeral. Kathi escorts him to the casket. They sit next to each other for the service. Asa is all Kathi has now.

Chapter 13: March 2019

Asa, 25 now, is home and Kathi is certain he's going to be OK this time. He seems different since jail. He's clean and healthy and clear-eyed. He looks great. He has a new girlfriend, who is staying with him at Kathi's house. He's seeing Kamryn. He has a real plan for his future: He wants to join the Army. Kathi thinks it will be good for him to go somewhere else, to establish himself away from the bad crowd that leads him to make bad decisions. She's already talking about a farewell party even though there's still plenty of time for that. Asa isn't sure when he will actually report for duty. Until then, he plans to work construction with Summer's dad. He has an interview for that job at 9:30 a.m on March 28. Yes, Asa is finally on the right road.

Kathi is thinking about Asa's interview when she leaves for work a little after 6:30 a.m. that morning, a Thursday. She calls him about 8 a.m. to make sure he's awake. But Asa doesn't answer the phone. She tries again later, still no answer. Then, around 10 a.m., Asa's new girlfriend calls Kathi. She's frantic.

"Asa's in the bathroom. I can't get the door open," she says, urgently.

"What do you mean?" Kathi asks.

"I can only get the door halfway," the girlfriend says, explaining that she thinks Asa has fallen and that his body is blocking the door. "I see blood on the floor!"

"You bust down that door right now. Bust it down, " Kathi says. "Do whatever you can to get to him right now! I'm on my way!"

The police are at the house when Kathi arrives. She wants to go inside, to comfort him, to lie beside him on the cool bathroom floor, to bring him back from wherever he is, but an officer keeps her on the porch. He tells her EMS is working on Asa and it appears he overdosed. "Let me in," Kathi begs. "It's nothing I haven't seen before." She's revived Asa so many times she's lost count.

Except this time, there's nothing she can do.

Asa is dead.

Chapter 14: March 2020

Kathi can't believe it has been a year since Asa died. Sometimes at night, when she's drifting off to sleep, she thinks she hears Asa rustling around downstairs. She half expects him to come up to her bedroom and tell her that he's home safe because lots of times, after going out at night, that is what he did. But he never appears and that's when she realizes she's floating between reality and a dream.

She goes to the river walk in downtown Wyandotte with Summer and Kamryn to mark the year anniversary of Asa's death. They have helium-filled balloons. On one of the balloons, Summer writes a message asking Asa to guide their son. She asks him to make their son a great man, just like he was.

To mark the one-year anniversary of his death, Kathi Kuykendall and grandson Kamryn Olsen walk to the edge of the Detroit River in Wyandotte to release balloons in honor of Asa Kuykendall.
To mark the one-year anniversary of his death, Kathi Kuykendall and grandson Kamryn Olsen walk to the edge of the Detroit River in Wyandotte to release balloons in honor of Asa Kuykendall.

"How far do you think they'll go," Kathi asks Kamryn.  "Do you think they'll go to heaven?"

"Uh-huh," 4-year-old Kamryn says.

Kathi goes to work afterward. She works a lot, two jobs. That way she's hardly ever home alone. She hates being alone.

Chapter 15: August 2021

It's a sunny summer evening and Kathi, who is 56 now, is standing before a group of people gathered on a church lawn for the monthly meeting of Downriver Families Against Narcotics. She's talking about Asa. She's telling the others how tricky addicts can be and how they lie and how that's part of the disease and how loved ones need to be aware of that. She tells them Asa used to hide drugs in the hollow handlebars of his bicycle. She wants to help the other families. She wants them to know they are not alone.

She doesn't have all the answers, in fact, she doesn't have many answers. She's still trying to make sense of what happened to Asa.

This is what Kathi thinks: First of all, Asa wasn't really a drug addict because he wasn't begging on a street corner or stealing from people, except from Kathi and Steve. He was functional, she says, except for not having a steady job or a car at the end.

He had second thoughts about getting high that last time. As proof, Kathi always mentions that the syringe police found near his body was half full and that if Asa had really wanted to get high, he would have shot everything he had. She believes Asa was sitting on the toilet when he put the needle in his arm and that he stood up to to get help but tripped because his boxers were pooled around his ankles, hit his head on the sink before landing on the floor where he stayed in a pool of blood and foamy spit-up until his new girlfriend found him.

This is what Kathi knows: Fentanyl and cocaine killed Asa. That's what shows up on the medical examiner's report. Being clean for an amount of time reduced his tolerance. That is why people just out of rehab or jail who relapse are especially likely to overdose. They shoot the same amount they did before they got clean and they die because their bodies are overwhelmed.

Kathi also knows people will hear her story at a Families Against Narcotics meeting or read about it in the newspaper and judge her. She knows they may decide she is a horrible mother who enabled her son's addiction. That nothing she did mattered because in the end, Asa died anyway and she's left wearing his ashes in a teardrop shaped necklace and staring at a splat of blood on the door of the bathroom clothes chute. It's the size of a pencil top eraser, the blood. It looks like a heart. Kathi plans to leave it there until it wears away because it's part of Asa. She hated his drug habit but she loved him unconditionally because mothers aren't supposed to give up on their kids.

Kathi Kuykendall at home, alone, in Allen Park.
Kathi Kuykendall at home, alone, in Allen Park.

In the end, this is Kathi's truth: Even though she lost him, Asa lived longer with her help than he would have on his own. She did the best she could at the time, which is all any mother can do.

In a few days, she will celebrate the sixth birthday of his son, Kamryn, the boy whose baby pictures look so much like Asa's it's difficult to tell them apart. She will give him a red and blue Spiderman bike, a two-wheeler with training wheels. And when he's older, when she thinks he can really understand, she will tell him what happened to his father so he doesn't make the same mistakes.

Contact Georgea Kovanis:

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan mom tries saving addict son — by helping him buy heroin