A recent photo of Alex Kaufman photographed by his friend Tom Cook in Del Mar, Calif., on Dec. 4. Kaufman died from an apparent heroin overdose on Dec. 8.
Rachel Kaufman, 61, sits on her son's bed at her home in Mt. Lebanon. Since her son Alex's death of an apparent heroin overdose this December, Ms. Kaufman has taken to sleeping in his bed. She says she can feel his spirit with her.
John and Rachel Kaufman recall the life and death of their only son, Alex, in the living room of their Mt. Lebanon home.
Photo courtesy of Tom Cook
Alex Kaufman watches the sunset at South Carlsbad State Beach in Carlsbad, Calif., on Dec. 4. Kaufman died of an apparent heroin overdose Dec. 8.
By Rich Lord / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For John and Rachel Kaufman, Dec. 15 was empty of distractions, leaving too much time to remember. The day before, their son’s body came home from California. The day after was the viewing, at the William Slater II Funeral Home, in Scott.
On that cold Thursday, Mr. Kaufman recalled the days before Alex discovered pills and heroin, when his obsession was his guitar.
“When he was a senior in high school, they were having a Christmas talent show,” Mr. Kaufman said. His son committed to play Classical Gas, by Mason Williams, “a very hard song.”
Alex practiced obsessively — but broke his left wrist weeks before the show. Casted up to the fingers, he couldn’t play. So he took a saw and cut off part of the cast.
“He just nailed this song perfectly and got a big ovation in front of 1,000 people,” said Mr. Kaufman. “His wrist healed.”
Alex Kaufman, 31, of Mt. Lebanon, died on Dec. 8, of an apparent heroin overdose. He had been reading his Narcotics Anonymous materials into the wee hours, his roommate told the family, but was cold and blue-lipped in the morning.
“He fought to the bitter end to beat this disease,” said Mrs. Kaufman. “We’ll never know what happened in a few hours [early that morning] to my boy.”
Alex picked up a guitar in sixth grade and practiced as much as eight hours a day, his parents said. “His love was jazz,” said his father.
He started college, but quit in order to teach guitar at Pittsburgh-area music stores. He also played in local jazz combos that got regular gigs at bars and country clubs, and dabbled in soul and country rock outfits.
He was doing what he loved, but didn’t love himself. “In reading some of his journals, he seemed to think he was a failure,” said Mr. Kaufman.
The hot drug during his twenties eased anxiety and came in bottles, through physicians.
“OxyContin certainly had a big part in this,” said Mr. Kaufman. “Nobody starts shooting heroin. They start with OxyContin.” When that’s unavailable, some try heroin.
“My son and some of his friends, who did not become addicts, started snorting it or smoking it,” Mr. Kaufman said. “But my son moved to the next level and started injecting it. That’s when it all went to hell.”
Alex kept trying to beat it, entering inpatient rehab six times. “There were times he laid on this couch detoxing himself because he had to wait a week for a [rehab] bed,” said Mrs. Kaufman.
He entered a vicious cycle. “When they’re using, nothing bothers them,” said Mrs. Kaufman. “And when they’re not, they feel all of this guilt and shame” over their addiction-driven lies, betrayals, thefts and jail stints.
Caught stealing and holding drugs, Alex turned to his parents to cover $2,000 straight bond. He sold his best guitars to buy heroin. He financed one six-week binge — conducted in a South Hills motel — by selling a car he had paid off, and opening 10 credit cards, his parents said.
His parents joined Nar Anon, for relatives and friends of addicts, in parallel with Alex’s involvement in NA. But he kept slipping.
“Pittsburgh had become toxic to Alex,” said Mr. Kaufman. “He just knew too many people who used, too many dealers. And he just told us, ‘If I don’t get out of here, I’m going to die.’”
This autumn, he moved into the San Diego apartment of a friend. He began teaching a handful of guitar students, and picked up some Internet-related work.
Tom Cook, a friend from high school, visited him in California early this month. “He was clean. He was sober when we were out there,” said Mr. Cook, who lives in Asheville, N.C., and works as a wilderness guide for recovering addicts. But Alex wasn’t going to NA meetings.
Two days after Mr. Cook left, Alex died.
“When we got the phone call,” said Mr. Kaufman, “[Rachel] just fell to the floor and I just knew what it was. She was in denial, saying, ‘No, he’s not dead, just bring him to the hospital.’”
Around 100 of Alex’s friends attended the viewing.
“He just was such an inspiration to people, had an infectious smile, was just a sweet soul, kind-hearted, very un-materialistic,” said Mr. Kaufman. “We all love our kids, but I really liked my son.”