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A father’s dreaded final duty

When heroin took his son, a funeral home director gently prepared him for burial

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / August 26, 2009

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BROCKTON - Ever since his son Lance got hooked on heroin, George Fiske feared this day would come: Lance would die young from an overdose, and Fiske would prepare his son’s poisoned body for burial, like all the other addicts wept over at his Brockton funeral home.

Fiske lived with those fears for years, from the time Lance first started using when he was about 15, through all the stealing and rage, court dates, and failed rehab stints.

In the past year, however, Lance seemed to leave his old life behind, and Fiske let his nightmare slip away. Lance had a job and a girlfriend, and he had been clean for nine months. His son had made it through, Fiske thought in his happier moments.

But Sunday night, Lance’s addiction and Fiske’s deepest fears clawed their way back. Fiske found the 22-year-old in his room, dead of a heroin overdose.

Hours later, on Monday, Fiske went downstairs from his apartment to his funeral home to embalm his son’s body, waving off offers from other morticians to spare him the heart-rending task. It was his duty, he said, and a final tribute.

“It’s the worst thing I could ever imagine, seeing my son on the table,’’ he said, nearly overcome with emotion. “But I had to do it. It’s the last thing I can ever do for him.’’

Through tears, he treated his son’s remains for more than an hour, tenderly preparing him for his final resting place. He remembered his son in good times, walking along the beach on vacation or cheering on the Patriots at home games. He asked himself what could have made his son use again after working so hard to quit, and wondered if there was any way he could have seen it coming.

Fiske has tended to thousands of bodies in his 36 years of working in funeral homes, and has seen the ravages of drugs time and again. Now that grief is his own, and Fiske said he feels compelled to share it, in the hopes his son’s overdose will prevent others.

“I want to tell this story so that hopefully it can help somebody else,’’ he said. “I want people to know it can happen to anyone. Good families, bad. Rich, poor. It just takes everybody. And it only takes once. Maybe this will wake people up somehow.’’

On Sunday night, Fiske had taken a break from watching the Red Sox game and went to his son’s bedroom. He discovered his 22-year-old son slumped on his knees against a chair, a needle on the floor nearby.

Lance could not be revived, and was pronounced dead from a heroin overdose.

“He looked like he was praying, but I knew he was gone,’’ Fiske said yesterday from Funerarias Multi Culturel, where today mourners will pay their respects for Lance Patrick Fiske. “I thought he had it licked, I really did. But he always had his demons. I guess they got the best of him.’’

Fiske spoke from his office at the funeral home, surrounded by a rough draft of an autopsy and dozens of pictures chronicling Lance’s years, from a bright-eyed toddler to a handsome, athletic teenager who caught young women’s eyes.

But sometime in high school, Lance fell in with the wrong crowd and began using OxyContin, Fiske said. Heroin followed, as did numerous run-ins with the law. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Lance became more unstable, and after high school Fiske ordered him to leave the house.

In 2007, with Lance facing jail time for a break-in, Fiske pleaded with a judge to give his son another chance. Fiske was about to head to Cape Verde to open a new funeral home, and said he would take Lance with him for a fresh start.

At first, that’s how it seemed. Lance helped get the new business off the ground, and the two spent nearly every evening together. But before long Lance fell back into his old ways, and Fiske rushed him back home to Brockton.

“It’s almost like they find each other,’’ he said.

But at some point upon returning, Lance started to turn his life around. He met his girlfriend, Joslin, who gave him direction. He began working as a landscaper and painter, and was thinking about enrolling in barber school.

“I thought he had turned the corner,’’ Fiske said. “I think he thought he had, too. He was very proud he was beating it.’’

On Saturday night, Lance and Joslin went dancing for hours in Boston, and on Sunday night they joined Fiske for family supper.

“It was a good day,’’ Fiske said wistfully.