HEART OF IT ALL: The Bravest Among Us

A boy with a balloon walking. Credit: Brooklyn Burd

NEW LEXINGTON, OHIO—He’s walking at the front of a long line of marchers. Bright blue sky. Sun beating down. He’s holding a multi-colored, star-shaped balloon that reads, “For my daddy.”

Holding onto that balloon. His head up. Leading the crowd of marchers and mourners at an overdose awareness event. His father’s name, bookended with angel’s wings, on the back of his grey t-shirt tucked into his black shorts. His father, one of the estimated 107,622 Americans to die of an overdose in 2021.

Throughout August and into September, these events take place across Ohio, across America, in big cities and small towns, like New Lexington, Ohio, population 4,707, on the cusp of Appalachia.

New Lexington, bisected by Rush Creek and rolling hills.

New Lexington, home of the Panthers football team.

And home of eight-year-old Klay, a boy carrying a balloon, carrying the memory of his father, his little legs walking up the slight rise from Jim Rockwell Stadium to Mill Street and down South Main Street in the heat of a summer day.

His grandmother Kim (he calls her Maw Maw) told me he was close to his father, Kyle Mongold. 

“The love between them was amazing,” she said. “You could just tell the bond.”

He was “daddy” to Klay, never “dad.” The summer before his father died, Klay and his daddy went fishing, played Frisbee-golf at the park, played games, sat on the floor and played with cars,

“We, as a family, did a lot that summer,” Kim said. Her son wasn’t using, and he was beginning to control things that he could not before. He was fighting, she said; he didn’t want to be using. He wanted to get his driver’s license back so he could drive his son around. He was getting his life back. And the family, the got together. They went to Columbus Clippers baseball games. They planned a family trip to Lake Erie.

But he died a day before they were to leave.

Kim says that Klay is doing as well as he can. “He’s an 8-year-old boy, so it’s easy for him to turn things off when he’s got his buddies around to play. But he does have his moments when he thinks about his dad.”

Kim reminded him recently that the one-year anniversary of his dad’s death was coming up.

“That hurts,” Klay told her.

He’s a “tough bird,” his grandmother said.

That’s Klay, the boy carrying the balloon at the head of the pack, the love of his big family behind him, giving him strength, supporting each step.

The stigma surrounding the death of a loved one by overdose might keep many people away from these events, might keep many people from even talking about it. Or maybe they’re not ready to talk. Or they might not want to be associated with them. Or maybe it’s not safe for them to admit their connection. Or maybe, maybe, it is all of those things at once.

And yet, here is this little boy, marching at the front of a long line of people on a hot summer day in New Lexington, Ohio, walking a little over a mile on his own. Meanwhile, there are policy decisions being made in D.C. and in Columbus. There are smart people researching solutions. There are heroes reversing overdoses. And there is this boy, here and now, leading us and teaching us.

Poet Emily Dickinson writes that, “We grow accustomed to the Dark / When Light is put away.” She says that over time, we get used to the darkness, we begin to “fit our Vision to the Dark” and if we’re fortunate, we can keep walking forward. At least, she says, that’s what “The Bravest” among us can do — they keep walking in their own way and “learn to see.”

It is possible to move forward, Dickinson writes, but when we do so, it’s not always perfect. “Life steps almost straight,” she concludes.

That boy beneath the blue sky, balloon in his hand, stepping “almost straight,” the bravest among us.

Jack Shuler is the author of This is Ohio: The Overdose Crisis and the Front Lines of a New America and is a Denison University journalism. He can reached at shulerj@denison.edu

Naloxone is available through Harm Reduction OhioCentral Ohio Harm Reduction. Harm reduction support services are also available through Never Use Alone and Safepoint. If you or someone you know with substance use disorder in crisis call 1-800-662-4357. If you’re in Ohio and you’d like to participate in a community gathering to remember those who have died, go to this website.

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