January 27, 2022

Ornamented by memories

Remembrance tree decorated for those lost to drug addiction

Sarah Bullock/staff reporter

Karlene Shafer of Marathon and Dean O’Gorman look at the memorial tree erected at the Marketplace Mall entrance on Main Street in Cortland. Each angel ornament represents a person lost to a fatal opiod overdose.

Think of a Christmas ornament, perched on the branch of a spruce, or maybe a fir.

A bit of beauty to highlight a season of light in the darkest time of the year.

Maybe there’s a memory attached to it: that Christmas when your mother brought home an ornament for each of her children; that Christmas when you held your newborn up to the lights for the first time; that Christmas you couldn’t possibly forget, even if you wanted to.

The 20 purple angels on the white tree in the window of the Marketplace Mall are exactly that.

Twenty memories of light and beauty in a time of darkness: one for each person who died of a drug overdose.

The names attached to those ornaments date back to 2012, with Cassidy, Ryan, JT and Rachelle. The newest is Chace, who died earlier this year. To their parents, their siblings, their children, a part of them will be around forever.

“She was an excellent mother,” said Karlene Shafer of Marathon, sitting in a cafe Thursday night barely 20 feet from the tree. She was talking about her daughter, Nicole Sherman. “Her kids didn’t lack for anything.”

But Sherman had a problem. What started as a kidney issue for which was prescribed an opioid turned simply into a need for opioids, her mother said. When the prescriptions ran out, she turned to the streets.

When her son found her on the floor of their Marathon home in 2017, she was cold and lifeless and 38 years old. Her death certificate listed four different substances in her body.

“They get to the point where they’re not doing it to be high; they’re doing it to not be sick,” Shafer said.

If you need help

If you or a loved one is dealing with addiction, grief or need community resources, you can get more information at healingcortland.org or by calling Dean O’Gorman at 607-2836378.

The tree is not about the pain, said Dean O’Gorman, founder of 607/315 Healing Hearts, a grief support group for parents who have lost their children to overdose.

The tree is to help reduce the stigma of addiction, to teach people that addiction can be treated and, in treatment, lives can be saved.

And it’s to honor the children those parents have lost.

“My son’s not there,” said O’Gorman, whose son Spencer died in 2017. “It’s hard to be sitting there and say ‘he should be there.’ It’s tough for a lot of us that have lost loved ones.”

The city of Cortland had lost four people to overdose by July this year. Preliminary state figures show Cortland County lost eight people to opioids last year, nine in 2019, four in 2018 and 14 in 2017.

Overdoses started rising in 2014, states an April report by Cortland Area Communities That Care, a coalition of community, government and nonprofit groups.

“From 2009 to 2014, there were less than four opioid-related overdoses per year in Cortland County,” the report states.

None of those people asked to become addicted. It’s unlikely they wanted to die.

Their parents certainly have their Christmas wishes.

“As a parent, we don’t want our child forgotten,” O’Gorman said. When the tree is decorated, the child’s name is read out loud. To remember.

To those parents, each embroidered purple angel is a bit of beauty in a season of lights at the darkest time of the year.