Tuesday Desrochers is getting back to work now, putting a cheerful face on any number of shop windows with her paintings of flowers, faces, animals, polka dots. From her home in Dartmouth she heads out in her Honda CRV carrying oil paints, brushes, a folding work table, and also burdens no one can see, although she would have you know.
She would have you know that when she was at the Buttonwood Park Zoo last week painting whimsical elephants and otters on windows near the entrance, cafe and the gift shop, talking with children who gathered around gushing questions and enthusiasm, that she had just over a week before let go of her own first child, and that he was not the first she has lost.
The 53-year-old woman now has two sons who have died of drug overdoses, one at 24 years on March 5, 2017, one at 33 on March 14, 2023. She senses this sets her apart, that she might be seen as some sort of authority on loss or perhaps on addiction, but that’s not her idea. She is no “expert,” she says, but would have you hear fundamental things. Her sons lived. They were loved.
“He’s more than the way he died,” she said, referring to Maxwell M. Bethoney, the eldest of her four children, two sons and two daughters, a big man with a red beard and long red hair. “And he was a very protective big brother. He was a wonderful, gentle father. Such a fun guy. Such a good friend. He didn’t even know how much he was loved.”
She was sitting in the back room of her house she shares with her husband, Doug Desrochers, a teacher at Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical High School, telling about Maxwell and about his younger brother, Caleb, whose six-string acoustic guitar, signed by friends, hangs on a wall. To one side there’s a stack of display boards the family prepared with photographs of Maxwell for his funeral at their church, New Life South Coast in New Bedford.
In the photographs the clean-shaven youth grows up, gains weight and longer hair, but keeps smiling, or laughing out loud. He went variously as Max, Maxie and, to his mother, Maxie Boy. A man with a childlike spirit is captured in an image from last Thanksgiving, when he joined kids in the family playing in fallen leaves. A big man in a red and black plaid shirt sits on the ground in a heap of leaves, smiling, showing no sign of trouble.
His mother has moments lately when it seems she cannot breathe. Then the moment passes. A few nights ago she was driving back from the End Zone on Coggeshall Street in New Bedford, a place she has visited time and again, but this time she lost her way home. For a moment she just had no idea where she was. Then she found her way. Sometimes when she’s driving a grief wave rises and she has to pull over.
She is hoping parents who have lost children this way — in the United States more than 100,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2021, more than two thirds from fentanyl alone — will hear her.
“I want them to know it’s not their fault,” she says. “So many years I was running around behind” her sons, trying to clean up whatever mess they’d made. “There’s still no guarantee they’re going to make it out of their addiction.”
For Maxwell and his brother, substance abuse was in the family. Their biological father battled drug addiction, Desrochers says. She says her own father was an alcoholic, and five of her six siblings have struggled with substance abuse. She herself was arrested for drunken driving in November 2021, spent a few hours at the Ash Street Jail and Regional Lockup in New Bedford, and says she has not had a drink since January 2022.
Maxwell and his brother were both teenagers when they started using. Desrochers says that Maxwell, who had a difficult relationship with his father, seems to have seen drugs as a way to be closer to him. As far as Desrochers knows, he started with marijuana and cocaine. Once when he was about 17 he told his mother that he and his father were doing cocaine together. And so the marriage ended, she says.
It was also about the time Maxwell’s legal trouble began.
District Court records show that he was charged with assaulting a police officer in 2007. In 2012 he was twice charged with passing bad checks, then with stealing a car. He was in and out of custody at the Ash Street Jail and the Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth, in both pre-trial detention and serving sentences, seven times between August of 2007 and June 2015.
His last stretch there in 2015 was four months in pre-trial detention after he was arrested on Feb. 4, 2015, in Fall River for robbing a bank of $5,000. Fall River Police realized he was the same man who the month before had held up a convenience store for more than $200 cash, and charged him with that crime as well. According to a police report, he signed away his right to a talk to a lawyer first and admitted to both crimes.
“He was desperate,” his mother says. “He had no money and he needed to use.”
He served three-and-a-half years at MCI-Cedar Junction, formerly known as Walpole, a maximum security state prison. He was in prison when his little brother died, and always blamed himself for his brother’s drug habit, and his death. Desrochers says she thinks Caleb’s curiosity about drugs was prompted by his father and big brother.
Since he was released from prison shortly before Christmas 2017, Maxwell had stayed out of legal trouble, but not away from drugs.
From early 2018 to just weeks ago, he rode the swells. He had met the woman who would become his fiancée, Laura Greer; he held a job at Robert’s Roofing and Construction in Plympton; and he seemed at times to be getting on track. Then he would relapse, go back to a treatment program, get back in stride, then fall again. He and Greer, who has a 10-year-old daughter, had a son, Holden, who is now 4.
“He was always trying, though,” Greer says. “That’s why I stuck it out with him.”
It’s the little boy’s voice you hear saying “Da-Da…Da-Da” off camera in a video taken on Jan. 29 at New Life South Coast. Maxwell stood onstage before the congregation for a baptism ceremony, a ritual to signify commitment to Christ, beginning anew. Maxwell told the crowd that it was just about the anniversary of the day he was arrested in Fall River, but now he was “washing all that off today.”
Two church members supported Maxwell’s weight as he was dunked into a round baptismal pool. The crowd applauded. Someone called. out “We love you, Max.”
That was in the middle of a stretch of sobriety lasting eight weeks that began in January, after stints at treatment programs in Falmouth and Brockton. No drugs, no cigarettes, not even coffee. It seemed this time he was really making a clean break.
There’s no way to know how confident he was about a turnabout, but after he died his fiancée found a handwritten note in his wallet that was apparently written when he was considering leaving the treatment program in Brockton, Greer says. At the top he cited a passage from Proverbs, which in the English Standard Version goes: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”
Maxwell wrote that he can relate to the sentiment. He wrote that he is both ready and not ready for a step, for going back to work, that he wants to live for his children and for his fiancée, but knows “it could easily lead to my death … God always has his hand on me and I never listen. Hopefully this time I do.”
On March 13 he visited with a friend in Fall River. That night he saw Greer at her home in Buzzards Bay. He seemed to her in a strangely exuberant mood. Desrochers says she got a call from Greer asking if he was all right, then she spoke with Maxwell. He was fine, he said, just in a good mood. In retrospect, his mother suspects that he had picked up drugs from his friend in Fall River, and was exhilarated by the prospect of ending a long dry spell that night.
She was planning to take him for a drug test the next day. OK, she said, “see you tomorrow.”
The call came shortly before 7 a.m. the next day. Greer had found Maxwell in the living room unconscious and was administering cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. Desrochers’ phone showed she had missed five previous calls.
She got into the Honda and was on her way. For most of the 25-minute drive she prayed. She prayed by herself and with friends on the phone. Soon before she arrived Greer called. Maxwell had been taken to Tobey Hospital in Wareham; perhaps she should go there directly. Desrochers chose to stop to check on Greer.
Two police officers were there. One delivered the news, both kept saying they were sorry.
“I just started screaming because there’s no way I could have lost two,” Desrochers says.
It is not clear what drug caused the death, as the family is still waiting for the toxicology report. Desrochers says paramedics told her they found a needle in Maxwell’s arm. By the time he was taken to the hospital he was already gone.
After Caleb was found dead in a bed in a friend’s home in Falmouth, toxicology tests were positive for cocaine, fentanyl, marijuana and alcohol, Desrochers says.
When Caleb died she started a support group for grieving mothers, and she continues to meet with those women. She’s not planning other advocacy work, but she’s happy to talk with anyone who will listen about her own experience with the devastation of addiction. She’s trying not to run from the anguish by making herself frantically busy, as she feels she did after Caleb died. So much of the challenge now lies in facing the quiet space Maxwell left behind.
Email staff reporter Arthur Hirsch at email@example.com.