The addicted city

By RIC KAHN  |  April 3, 2008

When he had a baby on the way, his mother once again told him, “I think you better start getting your act together.” He came out of the hospital clean, worked construction. Seemed to be doing all right. Then someone told the foreman Jay was a druggie. He fired him. Jay grew depressed. “He was very quiet, supersensitive,” his mother says. “He never thought that much about himself, and he didn’t like himself for being on drugs.”

He got close to heroin again, then tried to quit it. Around February of 1985, he and his wife and mother drove out to Worcester State Hospital. The hospital wanted him to stay 28 days. After about two weeks, he felt he was all right and wanted to go home. A week later, Cynthia Cavanaugh saw her son standing in front of a drugstore. He’d been arrested the night before for public possession of alcohol. When he got out of court he was worried they were going to toss him back in the stir over some old fines. His mother wasn’t happy but when she heard the word “alcohol,” she felt a strange sense of relief. “I though it was better than drugs,” she says.

The next night, a Friday, Cynthia Cavanaugh stopped at a friend’s house before heading over to her son’s place to baby-sit. There was a tap on her car window. It was Jay. “You’re supposed to be babysitting,” he told her, “why are you here?”

Why was he there? His mother knew. He’d been hanging around the nearby house of a known sleazeball, a guy who believed he was helping heroin addicts quit their habit by feeding them — for a fee — his prescription pills. She could tell he was on Percs, all scratching and itching. “I was disgusted,” she says, “knowing that he was bothering with that person and doing drugs.”

Two days later — on March 24 — she received the fatal phone call. She rushed over to Jay’s house. She started to cry when she saw her son lying on the upstairs couch, covered head to waist by his afghan. The medical examiner said he’d been drinking and had choked on his vomit. His mother believes he was depressed about the prospect of going back to jail, wanted to kick his heroin habit, and was using pills and drink as a substitute for the H-drug.

Eleven days after his 25th birthday, her first-born child was dead.

According to the obituary that ran in the Gloucester Daily Times, Jay Cavanaugh was survived by, among others, a wife, a son, and three sisters. The obit said he had “died suddenly” Sunday morning at his residence. He seemed destined to remain among the “died suddenlies” — like the other victims whose deaths were never publicly linked to a drug problem. For a year and a half, Cynthia Cavanaugh crawled into a cave of depression. Like the city she was born and raised in, she kept her thoughts deep inside. Last November, she decided she needed help, sought out a therapist, and decided she wanted to help other mothers and children. She donated $100 to NUVA to start the Jay Anthony Cavanaugh Memorial Fund to aid those with drug problems. And two years to the day that Jay had died, she granted a one-hour interview to the Gloucester Daily Times that became part of its four-part series.

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    This article originally appeared in the April 1, 1988 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

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