On a windswept hill high in the Newton cemetery is the fresh grave of Nicholas Alexander Roche. A small white cross with a red bow marks the plot, where no grass has grown since he was buried in October. The soil is overturned and rocky, and still damp from melting snow.
The snow is gone now, uncovering the last of autumn's dead and brittle leaves. Warmer weather and longer days are coming, but they won't lessen the pain of Teresa Roche, Nicholas's mother. For her, the dismal gray of winter will extend into spring for another season of grief and disbelief.
"I still can't believe this has happened," she said. "I wake up every morning thinking he's going to be here."
Nicholas Roche was 23 when he died. The headstones of the people around him have birthdates in 1920s, '30s, and '40s, people who compiled decades of life before succumbing from disease or age.
Nicholas Roche succumbed to the disease of his age: drugs.
He died from an overdose of the prescription pills Klonopin and Oxycodone, suffocating as the drugs shut down his system. When his mother found him in his bed, he had blood coming out of his mouth and his body was cold. That scene is now embedded in her memory like letters carved on a granite headstone. It is stuck there, along with the memories of him as a little boy, the happy times through life, and the young man he turned out to be.
"He was a good, sweet kid," Teresa Roche said. "I want people to know that. He was kind and generous. He never got in any trouble. He had a million friends and they were all good, hard-working kids. We never expected this."
The drug overdose statistics for 2016 aren't compiled yet, but there were 1,587 drug overdose death in New Jersey in 2015, up 21 percent from 2014. Those 1,587 lost lives were 2 1/2 times the number of the people killed in motor vehicle accidents. Digest that for a second: 1,587 drug overdoses, 607 road fatalities. Suddenly, the word "epidemic" doesn't seem inappropriate.
Nicholas Roche - a young man who played varsity football and basketball at Newton High, worked in restaurants through school, was self-trained as a chef and was always employed - is now part of those statistics.
"I want people to know there was more to him than this," his mother said. "How many more kids like this have to die before we do something?"
It's a question being asked at state and federal levels. Gov. Chris Christie has made drug addiction his No. 1 priority. In February, he signed legislation to limit narcotic painkillers prescriptions to five days instead of the 30 doctors had routinely prescribed. It will hopefully prevent people from becoming opiate addicts and will keep the unused pills from flowing into the streets. A patient still in pain can get a refill but only in five-day increments.
There are other recent measures: the widespread use of Narcan (a drug overdose antidote) by police and EMTs; immunity from prosecution by drug users who call 911 when they or a friend overdoses, and the use of strict-liability laws to charge drug dealers in overdose deaths.
On the night her son died Teresa Roche, went into his phone and saw his text messages about getting drugs.
"He wasn't an addict," she said. "He worked six, seven days a week. He was off that day and I think he was just experimenting."
Those text messages included the phone number of the person who knew the drug dealer and the street name of the dealer. She has turned them over to Sussex County prosecutor Francis A. Koch.
"He said strict-liability cases are hard to prove," she said. "But I hope he does something. Somebody has to do something. I don't want anyone else to go what I'm going through."
Nicholas is the second child Teresa Roche has lost. A baby, Jennifer died in 1984, and Nicholas's death, while creating a new wound of unfathomable depth, opened up the old one, too.
Gone with Teresa Roche's children are a future son- and daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Gone are the plans Nicholas had to take his mother and twin brother to the Carolinas someday and open a family restaurant. Now Teresa Roche's youngest child, by minutes, lies in a grave blocks from their home and she can never leave him.
"I come here almost every day," said the single mother, laying a cluster of red carnations at the head of the grave by the small cross. The ground needs to thaw before a headstone can be placed.
Next to the cross is a water toy. When it is shaken, blue bubbles float around and settle to be shaken again. That was the favorite toy of Nicholas's twin brother, Joseph.
Joseph is autistic and Nicholas was his best buddy.
"Nicholas always told him he would always be his wing," Teresa said, showing pictures of them together as little boys and through various ages.
Now the simplest things that Joseph enjoyed, such as fishing at the pond on Pine Street with his brother, are gone, too.
On the day Nicholas died, he was supposed to take Joseph to the mall. Joseph was excited. Teresa left for work and when she returned home, Joseph was sitting on the couch.
"I asked, 'How was the mall?' " Teresa Roche said. "He said, 'Nick never got up.' I said, 'What do you mean he never got up?' I went to his room and his dog (Shay) was crying outside his door. Then I went in ..."
If that image of an autistic young man, sitting all day on a couch waiting for his brother to take him to the mall doesn't break your heart, nothing will.
And now Teresa is worried about Joseph. Who will be his best buddy? Who will be his caretaker when she is gone? How will he handle the loss?
"He's lost," she said.
These worries compound Teresa Roche's grief. Sometimes it's too much. No, not sometimes. All the time.
"I feel like I go through life, doing what I'm supposed to do, but I'm not really here," she said. "I don't know where I am, but I'm not really here."
Nicholas Roche now may be a sad statistic, but he was a life, too. A beloved son, a brother -- and a cautionary tale.
"I wanted to tell his story so that some kid, somewhere, might think twice," his mother said. "And think of all the pain they'll leave behind."
Mark Di Ionno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow The Star-Ledger on Twitter @StarLedger and find us on Facebook.
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