My grandson and formerband member, Gabriel Sprague, died at the age of 24 years old of a heroin overdose on Friday March 30th, 2018. Although his death was over two weeks ago,it has been difficult for me to come to terms with sharing this information with my friends and particularly the people that had come to know Gabe from our performance as a duo, and as fellow members in The Spragues Band.
My relationship with Gabe, however difficult at times, was one of the most substantial experiences of my life. We performed hundreds of gigs together, spent a lot of driving time before and after shows, and in the catharsis of describing our lives, beliefs, hopes and dreams to one another, we became more than grandfather and grandson.
Gabe and I were peers. We worked hard at our craft. I relied heavily on him, his talent, and innate abilities. He was extremely capable. He could master any situation, but had problems keeping a job. He suffered from anxiety and depression, the last of which I have struggled with my entire life. I sometimes felt that I understood him more than most people could because we were kindred spirits and we had come to know each other so well.
Since his early teens, he would travel with me to Port Clinton, Ohio, every year to work on our 31’ sailboat to make her ready for spring launch. And it seemed that we were charmed nearly every year because the weather on launch date was superb, and we would sail to Put-In-Bay to have lunch, visit friends, and explore the island. He was an excellent helmsman, and could point a boat by wheel or tiller, straight as an arrow. We often took the boat to Put-In-Bay, to perform at The Roundhouse or Mojito Bay, living an adventurous life of sailors and troubadours.
Teaching Gabe to drive was no easy task. I first taught him how to drive my stick shift Toyota pick-up, always reminding him to set the brake when he parked, which he did, and ultimately drove it this way until the clutch blew out. I also had him practice parallel parking with my Honda Civic in my driveway until the transmission was destroyed. He was not the only grandchild that incurred damages to my vehicles while learning to drive.
We fought (a lot). Mostly because of his unpredictable reliability of showing up on time or showing up at all. He eventually came to realize that he struggled from excess drinking, and went so far as to say that he needed help in controlling it or eradicating it from his life. But as time wore on, the effect of addiction spread into every facet of his life. Every relationship he as in struggled because as he drank, his mood would eventually tip from having a good time, to anger and aggression towards the people around him. It consequently caused him to be homeless some of the time. He would move from place to place carrying all of his belongings in two plastic grocery bags. Even though our relationship was often contentious, he never failed to tell me or anyone that he was close to that he loved them, and none failed to reciprocate the truth of our deep love of him.
He eventually tired of me and of the band. We stopped performing together in October of 2016, after three solid years of performing with me and two of his brothers. We performed regularly at The Roundhouse at Put-In-Bay, Ohio, and all over the state of Michigan including Mackinac Island, Ann Arbor, East Lansing, Grand Rapids, Metro Detroit. There’s a redundancy that goes along with performing as much as we did. You play the same songs every night, go through the same routine at every venue, and the glitter and glamour wears away as the road, the audiences, and the repertoire fades into a job. Despite all of this, The Spragues Band, was the best band I had ever been in. I would get chills performing with these three very talented young men that were my descendants. The sound we created was unlike any I had known. I’d often see people in the audiences just staring and taking in the entire experience of watching us and hearing us perform so well. I was privileged to have been in this band, and I wish it had never ended.
After the band, Gabe created a period of stability for himself, and rose from barista to general manager of Bigby’s at the MSU union building. As I said, he was very capable, and I had come to believe that maybe he had found his niche in life, and secretly hoped that he and I would also become musical comrades again one day, but eventually he became restless, and moved on from job to job, place to place.
I discovered that he was using heroin in October of 2017. He messaged me because he wanted to do laundry at my house. That was when I was told that he was using and I didn’t hesitate to tell Gabe that I didn’t want him in my house. I told him that I had known five heroin addicts in my life. Two died, one disappeared, and two are still alive and well today. The two that lived were band mates I’d had arrested many years ago for pawning all of my gear. They were forced to make restitution, submit to drug tests, and be on probation for a year. As soon as their probation ended they slipped back into using until they decided to flee to another city hundreds of miles away, so as to be disassociated with anyone that used or sold heroin. I believe that decision saved their lives.
I told Gabe that I loved him and that he could always talk to me, but if I were to give him food, money, a place to stay, I would be enabling him. It was entirely on him to quit using and no one else could help him. This was really tough love, but he later thanked me for it when he’d gone through a period of being clean.
We were fortunate that he was incredibly candid about his impairment. I sent him this message over Face book: “Something you need to keep in mind with all this. It's not the months, weeks, days, hours or minutes. The strength of resistance lies in the moment. And every moment you win, the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years build up. Stop and listen to yourself breathe. If you're listening to yourself breathe, your living in the moment. Don't give any moment up to temptation. Win the moment, always. Please get better.”
About 8 weeks ago, it appeared that he had finally turned for the best. He worked for his uncle for about a week and then worked with his dad (my son Josh) for several weeks .He was always showing up on time, and it was clear that he wasn’t using. I was so encouraged I asked Josh to have him call me. I had hoped to talk him into playing a few shows with me.
After working in Traverse City for two weeks, he returned on Good Friday to Lansing. His dad paid him, a fellow worker gave him a ride to the bank. At some point that evening he scored. He had been staying with his lifelong friend and his family. A place he would often go to, to start over. They always took him in. He talked about how great things were and how he was going to move to Traverse City, for the summer to work with his dad. His friend discovered him deceased later that night
The next day, Joshua called me as I was driving down Milnes Road, a back road to Hillsdale, MI. I was on my way to work on a house I rent out there. I said, “Hello son,”and he said, “Gabe’s dead.” I became completely suspended. If I was breathing, or if my heart was beating, if my truck was still moving, I was unaware. He had to tell me a couple more times before I finally got it. When I finally found my voice, the first thing I said was, “There is nothing that any of us could have done better.” I truly believed this at the time. However, later I find that I have my own personal doubts. I guess that’s inevitable..
I spent much of the following week making videos from past footage of the band or Gabe and I performing at Harper’s in East Lansing. It was comforting, as though he was right there with me. We played the videos at a small intimate memorial gathering. Josh gave a very eloquent speech expressing gratitude for support from so many people. There were a lot of tears. People that never knew Gabe were severely affected. Josh said he had never seen so many people automatically burst into tears when they heard the news. I envy them, because I still haven’t felt much. Maybe I’ll get there, but it just hasn’t happened yet. I’m mostly angry. I know this is normal.
My aunt is an addict. When she heard about Gabe, she called me and spoke to me in earnest about her constant struggle. She’s in her late 70’s now. She reminds me that Gabe died of a disease the way people die of cancer or heart disease. I know this is true. We have the Irish curse in our family, and it doesn’t only manifest in alcohol. Since Gabe’s death, it’s frightening how many stories people have told us about their friends or relatives that suffered the same demise.
One thing I learned long ago, is that every addict has what is known as a hidden promise. A promise that once they get control of their lives, it will be okay for them to now and then have that one drink, cigarette, or hit of cocaine or heroin. But it’s not true. It seduces them back into using again. Then the cycle continues. Gabe had only been using heroin for eight months.
For those of you that knew Gabe, and for anyone that has become affected by this news, we have all come to know how difficult it is to express remorse. Most people can't get beyond saying, "I have no words," or "I don't know what to say." And that's alright. We're right there with you. It's all very overwhelming and we just get stuck.
What’s important to know about Gabe’s story is that in his brief 24 years, he lived well. He was loved by many. He had a lot of great experiences and close ties to family and friends. He was immensely talented. He’ll live on in all of our hearts.
Gabe had a fondness for animals. If you desire to make a donation of some kind you're welcome to donate in Gabriel Sprague's name to any local Humane Society.