“He is forever 34.”
That’s what Jacob Heimerman’s mother, Gina Owen, said moments after she hung an ornament for him on a Christmas tree outside the Blount County Justice Center on Saturday.
There were tears in her eyes afterward as she hugged Mikel Laiche, who she called her son’s soulmate.
“Jacob lit up everyone’s life,” Owen said in an interview. “He had a smile when we walked into the room. He brought peace and calm. But no one knew that he was going through so much pain. And no one realized how the addiction took over his life.”
Owen, Laiche — who had driven up from Florida with her 5-year-old son, Paxton — Owen’s husband, Jim, Jacob’s brother, Noah, and other family members gathered along with nearly 50 others Saturday morning to remember loved ones lost to addiction.
It was a gathering made of equal parts sorrow and hope.
The Christmas tree outside the Justice Center was laced with purple and white ribbons and studded with silver stars and lights and accompanied by a sign.
“This memorial tree is dedicated to the precious lives lost to addiction,” it read. “God bless the family and friends of these departed loved ones.”
Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, friends stood under a grey sky Saturday. This Christmas they are remembering the toll that addictive drugs has taken on Blount County with ornaments on a tree marked with the names of those they’ve lost.
Why? They wanted to share a simple message: No one has to be alone in the struggle against addiction.
“I look at this tree and for every light I see a thousand tears that have been shed,” Blount County Sheriff James Berrong told the crowd.
He stood beside Tim Webb, local recovery advocate and author who created the event.
“It’s getting to be common,” Berrong lamented. “I get a text message on a tragic thing: an overdose, an attempted overdose. And they’re coming through time after time.”
In an almost symbolic antithesis to those texts, families came up to the tree after Berrong spoke, one by one, hanging one and sometimes two ornaments on the tree and dedicating each one.
“This is for my stepson, Johnny Davis Jr.”
“This is for our son, Todd Lovingood.”
Name after name joined the tree: Tara, Chris, Tommy, Tyler, Ross, Brooke.
“This is for our son, Jacob,” Jim Owen said during the ceremony as his wife hung a snowflake-shaped ornament on the tree.
“Jacob was a scholar athlete,” Gina Owen remembered in an interview after the ceremony, recalling how he attended William Blount High School, graduated from St. Benedict High School in Memphis and went on to earn his business degree at the University of Memphis.
Jacob passed away just over a year ago on Nov. 1, 2018.
“If there are families that are going through this, the worst thing that you can do is turn your back on the individual,” Owen said, speaking of those who struggle with the same problems her family dealt with. “When they ask for help, help them.”
That was Webb’s primary concern in putting the event together.
He has been the subject of multiple media stories and has written his story in a book, “See It From My Side,” which recounts the grief and recovery of a father who lost both his daughter, Brooke, and his ex-wife, Teresa to overdoses.
Brooke passed away May 23, 2018, and Teresa on almost exactly Thanksgiving a year ago. Brooke’s daughter, Baylee, hung up ornaments for both of them.
“Each parent has the same pain and suffering,” Webb told the crowd. “At times like this we must be willing to come together and help each other as true family members would do. We need to stand strong, hand-in-hand, and say enough is enough.”
Afterward in an interview, he reflected on the event he organized with fellow recovery activist Jan McCoy. “It was very emotional, but it’s what we all needed.”
“It’s healing to be with people that understand the pain of loss, the void that we have,” she said, looking at the Christmas tree now full of names. “Holidays are friends and family, and there’s somebody missing and that never changes. … Every Christmas season, there’s a sadness.”
McCoy said she and Webb went together to see Berrong in October and ask him if he would allow the tree and the sign.
He was more than willing. “For every overdose we deal with, there’s a friend, a family behind the scenes,” Berrong remarked in an interview after the ceremony.
Smaller and smaller
Webb warned in an interview that the epidemic that took his ex-wife and daughter is still taking loved ones away from their families.
“If your family has not been touched by addiction yet, rest assured: before long it will be because addiction … doesn’t discriminate,” he warned.
The data backs Webb up, unfortunately.
Reports from the Tennessee Department of Health show that overdose deaths in the state increased from 1,776 in 2017 to 1,818 in 2018.
In Blount alone, another TDH report from August shows, there were 45 overdose deaths. By comparison, neighboring Knox county — where some of Saturday’s attendees hailed from — saw 263 overdose deaths in 2018.
On a large scale, the state is trying to literally face the issue by creating public awareness campaigns aimed at curbing the epidemic: THD’s “Tennessee Faces of the Opioid Crisis” launched this summer with the goal of providing “resources and information on how everyone can be part of the solution to this problem,” according to a July press release on the program.
On a small scale, people like Webb are going beyond recovery centers, call lines, programs and research to address the families on the front line of the battle against overdose deaths.
“My healing (has) started,” Webb said, “But in order to do that, I had to surround myself with people … going through the same thing that I went through.”
He emphasized that anyone dealing with the struggles of addiction is not alone. He said he is willing to talk to those people anytime and will continue to do outreach events like the tree decoration.
Berrong bolstered the values of Webb’s mission.
“For all the families that have been shattered by this, we’ve got to get our arms around it. It’s going to take all the community to do this,” the sheriff said during the ceremony.
The tree of names will be taken down the Friday after Christmas, but Berrong confirmed to Webb during the ceremony that this can become a tradition at the Justice Center, and it is set to go up next year.
Webb said he was happy with Saturday’s turnout, but had a different hope for the 2020 gathering.
“I hope that each year it gets smaller and smaller,” he said.