Families of overdose victims have own Light Up Night plans
By RICH LORD, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Nov. 16, 2017
PITTSBURGH (AP) — There's no chance that a makeshift purple lantern glowing on some Downtown corner will chase the dark questions from Catherine Robinson's mind.
She's been asking them ever since her son, Mark Jones, 26, called her hours before his fatal fentanyl overdose. He told her that he'd put his son to bed and was about to watch a movie, and then became uncharacteristically repetitive.
"He said, 'I love you, Mommy. I really love you,'" she said this week, recounting the events of April 22. "Was he telling me something? Was he trying to ask for help? What was it?"
The nagging doubts will remain, but maybe 100 purple lanterns, or 150, or 200, each marked with the name of an overdose victim and distributed guerrilla-style on Light Up Night, could help to change some attitudes about addiction, the Dormont mother hopes.
"All of these people who passed away, I don't want any of them forgotten, because they weren't bad people, they just made bad choices," she said. "It just seems like every day there's another one."
On Friday afternoon, members of the advocacy group Pittsburgh Won't Forget U plan to gather Downtown with homemade purple lanterns and distribute them just as the Golden Triangle prepares to glow in its annual bid to excite holiday shoppers.
The plan isn't sanctioned by the city or Visit Pittsburgh or any Downtown landowner. It emerged after talks between the city and the group's founder, Jeanna Fisher of Whitehall, flamed out.
Discussions between the city and Pittsburgh Won't Forget U haven't, to this point, come to fruition, said Laura Drogowski, the mayor's critical communities manager. "The city and the mayor's office support her organization's efforts to honor the memory of loved ones who died from drug overdoses," she added, but communications have broken down.
Fisher's quest started with the April overdose death of her daughter, Marley Fisher, 28, in a locked bathroom stall in Point State Park. In August, the mother's fledgling organization placed a memorial on the steps of the City-Council Building for people who overdosed and died in the region.
Their original concept for Light Up Night and the holiday season was to make two "trees" out of plastic boxes filled with water dyed purple -- the color that has come to represent overdose awareness -- that would stand in the planters in Grant Street's median. The trees would presumably freeze, just as the families' children are now frozen forever at the ages at which they died.
Drogowski said city officials worried that people might try to congregate around the trees, or add to the memorials, creating a safety hazard on busy Grant Street.
Fisher said that city officials said "they had a better idea, and that's when they introduced changing all the lighting. They said they'd make it all purple that night."
Fisher's group, though, settled on a new plan. They bought purple bags and long-lasting battery-powered lights. They've written the names of lost loved ones on the bags. They'll gather at a few set times Friday and fan out to distribute the lanterns, hoping that revelers and public employees will leave the little memorials unmolested.
They have no one's permission. "We're just going to do it," said Fisher. In a few weeks, when the batteries start to die, they'll collect the lamps.
Drogowski said the city hadn't been consulted about the lanterns, adding that the administration had "every intention of supporting Jeanna and her organization," and calling them "amazing individuals, very strong people."
Fisher said that distributing the lanterns will satisfy the yearning of parents to find meaning in the loss of a child. "Everybody says the same thing: 'I want to do something. What can I do?'" Society, she said, still demonstrates "almost like a discrimination against parents who have lost a child to addiction," as less-affected people continually suggest that those who overdosed brought it upon themselves.
"All of these people say that it's a choice," said Robinson. "Yeah, at first it is, but then it becomes a disease -- an addiction that he has to do."
Her son once explained it to her: "He just said, 'The demons take over you, Mom,'" she recounted. "'As soon as you get money in your hand, the demons are there.'"
Jones was addicted for eight years, then clean (albeit in jail) for two years, said Robinson. Released in early spring, he was back up to his normal weight, she said, and reacquainting himself with his three children. But the disease was lurking. And one night, in a bathroom along Brownsville Road in Brentwood, it took him.
"It waited," she said, "until he was doing good."
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com