By CRAIG MURPHY
Of the Keizertimes
Eric Peterson certainly had preconceived notions in his mind and figured they would be proven right.
A few days after 22-year-old Brandon Crist of Keizer – the nephew of Peterson’s longtime significant other – died of a heroin overdose in late September, Peterson heard some of Crist’s friends would be gathering at a park in Salem to remember him.
“My intention was to go there and hang in the background, scope people out, embed myself, prove my preconceived notions,” Peterson said. “What actually happened was one of the most moving experiences of my life.”
As Peterson approached the park, he found a group of Crist’s friends. He also saw police lights, since neighbors had complained about noise and a sheriff’s deputy was waiting for more people to enter the scene.
Peterson approached the deputy, explained what was going on and asked for the police lights to be turned off.
“I asked the deputy if I could diffuse the gathering, make sure nobody was drinking and driving and get them out of there without him getting involved,” Peterson said. “He approved and turned off his lights as a group of kids started shuffling out of the woods. The deputy backed up his patrol car to the other side of the parking lot while I approached the kids.”
With law enforcement backing off, Peterson approached the group.
“I tried to corral them and let them know that the cop wasn’t there for them, but that I was there for them,” Peterson said. “I wanted to see Brandon’s friends celebrating his life, I wanted to see what they looked like, I wanted to see if they had tears in their eyes or just an excuse to party. Some of them scattered but most stayed, asking me how the family was doing, what the police are doing, are they allowed at the funeral, etc. We talked for a couple minutes and at one point they all mobbed me with hugs, one right after another like after a football game pile on. It was very surreal.
“I made sure they were cool to drive, told them to keep talking about Brandon on social media because it means a lot to the family and that’s how they will find out about his memorial,” he added. “Another larger group came out of the woods shortly thereafter and the whole scenario was repeated with the mass hug and all.”
In a matter of moments, Peterson found his stereotypes shattered.
“My preconceived notion is that these are a bunch of kids that look like they are never going to make it if they don’t play the game, the same advice I gave Brandon many times,” Peterson said. “I think that after meeting them and seeing their hearts instead of their messed up hair and piercings and tattoos that I am the one who is never going to make it unless I play the game. I’ve become more tolerant to people and life in general in just the short time since his death and I attribute it to that night.
“These weren’t the friends Brandon was doing heroin with,” he added. “I assumed every single person in his life was a junkie and every minute of his day was spent chasing that fix. I’ve come to learn that his friends loved him more than anything. He helped out people constantly with the most menial things like changing tires for people in need and picking stuff up at the store for friends and countless stories of him being a shoulder to cry on when life was kicking them down. I’ve learned that he was a talented artist, a beautiful writer and practiced a Polynesian form of fire art and dance that blows my mind away. I never got to know that side of him, never even knew it existed.”
Unfortunately, Peterson did know the drug side existed. It was an all too familiar story for Peterson. His immediate family members have been decimated by drug addictions, though Crist was the first to die of a drug overdose.
“I probably only knew addict Brandon after the age of 13,” Peterson said. “I tried to foster sort of a mentor/protege relationship with him: I would give him life lessons, he would seem receptive and we had mutual interests in music and culture. I would tell him my feelings on drugs and alcohol when he would ask, which are pretty liberal but still have no place in adolescence. And he seemed to respect that.”
Before Crist started doing drugs, Peterson said he warned him about the perils.
“I explained that the smart move is to just stay away from it until you are an adult because there is no advantage to it,” Peterson said. “You don’t pour heavy duty weed killer or fertilizer on a baby plant and expect good things to happen. I explained to him many times that the key to being a kid is playing the game. You can dress how you want and act how you want if you can trump it with your productivity. I told him no parent ever yelled at a straight-A student for having an earring.”
Once Crist started getting into trouble, he turned to Peterson for advice.
“I laid out a foundation for how the next five years of his life should go if he wanted to get through the next 60 years,” Peterson said. “It was pretty simple: get away from Salem/Keizer and get your head and body right. He didn’t or couldn’t listen.”
But Peterson doesn’t put all the blame on Crist.
“I set such a high bar for an addict to be in my life,” Peterson said. “I was way too tough on too weak of a kid because I thought that my path to his sobriety was the correct one. When he disappointed me, he knew it and our relationship was fractured. I wish I would have been more realistic and less principled.”
On the other hand, Peterson doesn’t know how much difference it would have made.
“If I did do things differently, not giving him the silent treatment when he was using, trying to keep letting him know I wasn’t judging him, being the pseudo-cool uncle – the response would have been the same,” Peterson said. “He would have lied and been dodgy and told me what I wanted to hear, just like he did with everybody else. I thought he knew he had an ally in me and in hindsight either I didn’t make it obvious enough or he didn’t believe me.”