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Susan Musgrave finds the words are coming back

Words had failed the acclaimed poet, writer, essayist and editor in the wake of her daughter’s death by a drug overdose.

Susan Musgrave started a poem the other night — the first since her daughter Sophie died of a drug overdose on Sept. 8, 2021.

Words had failed the acclaimed poet, writer, essayist and editor in the wake of her profound loss. Sophie was the kind of spirit she wrote to, said Musgrave, and losing her made ­everything feel pointless.

She cried for a year and slept a lot. The tears came easily and she didn’t try to stop them. She kept to herself at her home on Haida Gwaii.

Then things began to shift.

First, it was a trip to Ireland in November with longtime friend Bob Fraumeni.

“Ireland helped me a lot. It just reminded me that there’s a world out there. It was really good. It was lovely. So it kind of shifted things in me a bit,” said Musgrave, sitting at the kitchen table in her brother’s home on Ten Mile Point.

Then in March, it was announced she would be the 30th recipient of the George Woodcock Award for Outstanding Literary Achievement.

“You have to be over 70 to receive it. It used to be called the Lifetime Gas Award because it was sponsored by B.C. Gas and I thought: ‘I never want to win that one,’ ” Musgrave said, laughing. “I was so glad they changed the name.”

Musgrave was also shortlisted for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize for her most recent book of poetry, Exculpatory Lilies, written after the death of her third husband, Stephen Reid, in 2018. A section of the book — The Goodness of the World — is about the time Sophie was living on the street in 2014.

“Being shortlisted really helps, because those poems, people are getting to know Sophie through them. A lot of people have written to me saying: ‘I feel like I know your daughter now that I’ve read these poems.’ ”

In April, Musgrave gave a public reading of three of the poems about Sophie at the Masset Public Library. It was difficult, she said, but she got through it, pinching her ear to stop herself from crying.

“It worked out well that I wasn’t in public for a year and a half because I wasn’t ready to be. And I’m getting ready to be now. I kind of have to be.”

She knows the loss of her child will never leave her, but things are starting to feel better. And words are coming back into her head.

“I started a poem the other night,” she smiled. “I was really happy. Even though I didn’t finish it, it doesn’t matter.”

“He’s never coming back, is he?”

It was a different Susan Musgrave standing in her brother’s kitchen last October, tears falling down her face. The celebrated poet had taken on another identity — grieving mother.

Musgrave grew up in Victoria but had always lived on the wild side. “At, 14, she rose up out of high school and ran away from home to gain life experience,” says her website biography. She got as far as the railway tracks in Ladysmith where she wrote poetry about cigarettes drowning in cold cups of coffee.

After spending months committed to a local psychiatric hospital, Musgrave escaped with a fellow patient, a 38-year-old University of Victoria English professor, heading off to Berkeley, California

In 1975, she married a criminal lawyer, but fell in love with one of his clients, accused drug smuggler Oscar Paul Nelson.

When Nelson was acquitted, she left with him for Mexico. Their daughter, Charlotte, was born in 1982. The marriage ended after Nelson was imprisoned in California for drug smuggling.

Musgrave was writer in residence at the University of Waterloo when she received a manuscript from bank robber Stephen Reid, who was serving a 20-year sentence at Millhaven Penitentiary.

She loved the protagonist and married the author on Oct. 12, 1986, while he was still in prison, said Musgrave. Reid was granted full parole on June 1, 1987 and Sophie Alexander Musgrave Reid was born on Jan. 4, 1989.

In the years that followed, Reid battled his addiction to heroin and cocaine, said Musgrave.

Sophie was 10 when, in her father’s words, he lit his life on fire.

“The dragon that has haunted my entire life reared its fearsome head again. Within months I was living with a monster heroin and cocaine habit,” he wrote in a Father’s Day essay from prison in 2000.

“I harbour no romantic notions of what took place, only the sad admission that I robbed a bank, shot at a motorcycle cop, barely missing a woman bystander. Of all the people harmed that day Sophie remains my most enduring reminder of an innocent victim.”

Sophie was fine before her father’s heroin-fuelled bank robbery, shootout and car chase through Beacon Hill Park on June 9, 1999, said Musgrave, but after he was arrested and sentenced to 18 years in prison, she began to struggle.

Musgrave recalls Sophie asking: “He’s never coming back, is he?”

“And I said: ‘Yes, sweetie he will be.’ ”

“But,” she recalls her daughter saying, “I’ll have graduated from high school by then.”

Sophie was young when she began to drink, smoke pot and use cocaine. She ended up in the pediatric ICU several times. As a young adult, she tried to get clean and was in and out of rehab half a dozen times for crack cocaine.

“It was pretty much 20 years of struggling with her and being a nervous wreck all the time,” said Musgrave. “I was thinking on this trip I’m not as hyper-vigilant as I was for many years, which you are when you live with addiction because you’re waiting for the bad news.”

Musgrave never gave up on Sophie. They talked on the phone every day. They travelled to Ireland every year.

“We were very, very close. And I also accepted her addiction. I didn’t try to change her. I’d say I was worried. And I’d pay for her rehab every time. Whenever she asked for it, I would just find the money.”

Sophie was the sweetest person, said her mother — like her father, who would give you his last $50 if you needed it. She gave everything away, said Musgrave.

“I read these descriptions of kids who died and they’re always amazing, the life of the party. They love animals. They’re kind. They’re generous. They have a huge sense of humour. I don’t know if that’s just what you remember when your child dies, but I don’t think so, because she was,” said Musgrave.

“Sophie made me laugh. She was very funny. Maybe you want a kid who’s mean, who doesn’t take out the garbage, who’s horrible.”

At times, Sophie was doing well. She ran a thriving marijuana dispensary in the Okanagan. She bought a truck and had a wolf dog named Boss. She was obsessive about AA and spent days doing the work.

In October 2018, when the government legalized and regulated the sale of marijuana, Sophie closed the store and it all went downhill from there, said Musgrave.

In the summer of 2021, Sophie went off suboxone, prescribed to reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms, because she didn’t want to be on it anymore.

“I’d been paying for it because I wanted her to stay on it so she wouldn’t start using opiates again. She went cold turkey, so of course, she got really sick. It’s like coming off heroin. You can’t do that. And she picked up the first thing she could, which was fentanyl. And then she just went crazy for a couple of weeks and I don’t know what happened.”

Musgrave believes Sophie was always careful with her drugs — she just did too much.

In the last two weeks of her life, she was living in a rental car with her beloved wolf dog, shooting fentanyl. The drug was laced with benzodiazepines, which made Sophie forget to breathe. It also prevented the naloxone from working and attempts to resuscitate her failed. Sophie died on Sept. 8, 2021. She was 32.

“She said it felt wonderful, so maybe she died peacefully or happily,” said Musgrave.

Then the tears start to fall.

“I just think if I could take the needle out of her arm one last time…”

If love doesn’t fix it, what will?

Since Sophie’s death, Musgrave has connected with other women whose children have died of a drug overdose.

Jessica Michalovsky, the Victoria mother advocating for safe supply by running marathons around the Health Ministry, travelled to Haida Gwaii and stayed at Musgrave’s Copper Beech House bed and breakfast in Masset.

“She walked from Skidegate. It took her three days, then she walked back.”

Musgrave believes most people don’t understand addiction, including herself, even though she lived with it for 35 years.

“Right now, I’m still feeling 100 per cent helpless that nothing I could do could bring my child back or all the ones who have died and I don’t know how to prevent it. It’s a huge problem,” she said.

“I don’t have the faith or the hope that anything can fix this. I mean, Sophie had more love, as far as I know, as much love or more from me, that if love doesn’t fix it, what will?

“I always thought it would. It doesn’t. I learned that with Stephen, the addiction is stronger than any love. All I could do is always be there when she got out of rehab. I was always there. At least I have that.”

Stephen Reid, who spent 15 years in prison, died in June 2018 from a heart ailment.

Shortly before Sophie died, she told Musgrave that if she ever died, she knew her father would be waiting for her in a ballroom.

He wrote about that ballroom in the Father’s Day essay, recalling how he and Sophie waltzed in a Cuban ballroom during a wild lightning storm when she was nine.

Musgrave is comforted by that memory.

Today, she is busy with her daughter Charlotte and her 13-year-old twin granddaughters, Beatrice and Lucca. She’s written a cookbook with Lisa Ahier about the Tofino restaurant Sobo.

Musgrave still spends most of her time on Haida Gwaii. She can talk about Sophie now without crying a lot, although she still does sometimes.

Other things are getting better, too.

“My brain is beginning to entertain ideas, images, phrases, lines. I’m not pushing it, but we’ll see.”

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