It took Kathy Calaway two years to write a truthful obituary for the young man she raised as her son.
Her tribute to 24-year-old Seth Pettengill, her wife’s son from a previous marriage, ran July 3 in The Spokesman-Review.
“You see, Seth could be alive today. He could be laughing, smiling, and playing with his Chihuahua but he is not. He is dead. Seth died alone and in a musty windowless basement bedroom from a heroin overdose.”
The five-paragraph obituary stands in stark contrast to many of the memorials written for the young people who have succumbed to the drug. Those obituaries speak of young adults who “died suddenly” and make no mention of painful years of addiction, brief glimmers of hope and the desperate measures so many parents pursue in search of help.
“Seven-hundred and thirty days have been needed in order to merge the cherub Seth, addict Seth and dead Seth into a short summary of his life and tragic end. The cause of his death could not be swept under the rug and ignored. There are too many dying, too many parents waiting for that phone call, too much anguish in the soul of the addict for us to gloss over it.”
“I needed his death to be open,” Calaway said in an interview this week. “We can no longer keep it a taboo in our society.”
Growing up, Seth was intense, his mother Nancy Mueller said. He’d focus on learning a new skateboarding move over and over until he had it down. He began waking up early in the morning as a kid, so his parents taught him how to make coffee, then pancakes and eggs.
He loved cooking for others. After bringing his parents breakfast in bed, he’d climb in and watch cartoons with them.
“He was snuggly. He was affectionate. He was always bouncy,” Calaway said.
“He had dreams, opportunities, love, support, intelligence, and a loving and caring heart. Seth was delightful and a joy to be with.”
Calaway and Mueller knew the pain of losing a child too well before Seth began using heroin. Seth’s older sister, Morgan Mueller, died in a car crash as the result of vehicular homicide in 2004, when she was 17.
“At least when Morgan died, we had Seth. And in a lot of ways, we made him our focus and kept going for him,” Calaway said.
Seth, just 13 at the time, began smoking marijuana to cope with the pain of losing his sister. Though he got caught at school, his mothers said people treated Seth with kid gloves because he was going through a loss.
“What he needed was things to be as normal as possible. He needed boundaries,” Calaway said.
At 17, Seth was caught smoking marijuana in a local skate park. His parents refused to hire a lawyer to get the charges dropped, saying he needed to face the consequences of his actions. He was ordered to complete regular drug testing, Mueller said. Since marijuana lingers in blood and urine for weeks, he switched to using cocaine, which wouldn’t show up on a drug test after a few days.
Before long, he was using heroin. That led to years of struggle, in which Seth’s moms would welcome him home when he was clean. Before long, he’d be using again. Mueller said they felt like they had to kick him out, because watching him use was like watching him play Russian roulette with a gun that only they seemed to understand was loaded.
“You can’t watch your kid do that over and over again,” Calaway said.
“Life became an endless cycle of binging, arrest, injury, or hospitalization, withdrawal and the pain and agony that comes with it, periods of being clean and sober when that loving young man returned to us for a brief time, only to be followed by relapse and our crushed hearts once again thrown into the maelstrom of his dependency.”
Calaway said that after Seth died, she had to go through a grieving process before she could write. Once she did, the words came easily.
“It wasn’t until I got to a place of empathy towards him and I really began to understand as well as I could the pain and torment he was in as an addict,” she said. “When I finally got to this place, all I wanted to do was hold him.”
Mueller said she’s still angry – at the drug dealers who supplied her son, at him, at the criminal justice system that was so ill-equipped to keep her only son safe.
“They just let him go, let him go, let him go,” she said.
“Seth’s beautiful childhood and tragic end needs to be told with truth. That is the only way to really honor him and the pain his death has left behind. Everyone needs to know what is happening to our children if we are to have any chance at saving another Seth.”
Dozens of parents have reached out to them or commented on the obituary, sharing their own stories of losing children to drug addiction. Calaway said she hopes being honest about Seth’s death will lead more people to open up about the loved ones they’ve lost to heroin.
“My kid died of a drug overdose. My kid was loved and cherished and my kid still died of a drug overdose, and it’s everybody’s problem,” she said.
She and Mueller are still figuring out how to live the rest of their lives after losing two children.
“There are no other children. There are no grandchildren. There are no great-grandchildren. We’re not going to have any of that. Our role in the world has changed,” Calaway said.
“Beautiful, sweet, and sensitive Seth was preceded in death by his sister Morgan Mueller and his grandparents. He is survived by his shattered and demolished parents.”
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