‘Addiction claimed his life’: Scott Oake opens up about son’s battle with drugs
The plastic boxes on the dining room table are overflowing with memories: paintings on paper plates for Father’s Day — signed “Love Bruce” — boxing medals and report cards from much happier times.
In a quiet spot near the family room in a Winnipeg home sits the container that holds Bruce Oake’s ashes and a picture of him with his big, toothy grin.
He’s been dead six years now, lost to drug addiction.
“Every week, I put fresh flowers here for him,” said his mother, Anne Oake. It’s her way of coping with the loss of her oldest.
“He was very rambunctious. He had been diagnosed when he was little with ADHD and a mild form of Tourette’s, so he liked to act out in school, but very good-natured, like his dad — pulled a lot of pranks, went to the office a lot, but he had a big heart.”
His dad is Scott Oake, the veteran CBC Sports announcer from Hockey Night in Canada and the Olympics.
“One of my favourite stories is about how [Bruce] had this uncanny ability to nail things. He was three and a half or four and we were right out in front of the house playing street hockey,” Scott said.
“Like any father, I was telling him, ‘This is how you hold the stick; this is how you stick handle.’ He pretty soon had had it with me, looked at me and said, ‘Well Dad, if you know so much about it, you should be doing it, not just talking about it.'”
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Scott laughed as he told the story about his sons’ younger years growing up in Winnipeg.
Darcy, Scott’s youngest child, always dreamed of being a magician.
Bruce, the oldest, was a natural athlete who played varsity basketball and competed as a boxer in the Canada Games.
But in Bruce’s late teens, something started to change.
“We were naive parents,” Anne said. “I did know he was smoking weed but didn’t think it had progressed any further than that.”
“We didn’t know it at the time, but I guess over time it evolved into crystal meth and ecstasy at weekend parties or whatever,” Scott added.
“And given his ADHD diagnosis, as Anne said, he was up for anything. It wasn’t a giant leap from that to opiates.”
By the time Bruce was 22, unknown to his parents, things were spiralling out of control. They were on vacation in Nova Scotia when he called.
“I’m in trouble,” his parents recall Bruce saying. “I am not a junkie but I have a problem.”
Bruce had been assaulted over a drug debt, so he turned to his parents.
By the time his parents got home they had not seen Bruce in a couple of weeks. When they saw him, he was in bad shape, they said.
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Bruce’s addiction had progressed to heroin. What followed was three and a half years and hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to get him treatment — a cycle of limited success and relapse.
“He went to rehab four times, and he was in and out of detox about eight times,” Anne said. “You have to go to detox before you can get into rehab, but he would think, ‘OK, I will go to detox and clean myself up, and then I can do it myself.’ But he never could.”
“But whenever we forced the issue with him and said, ‘You need to go to rehab,’ he would go every time,” Scott added, struggling to hold back tears. “It told us that … we thought he wanted a better life and we still believe that, but more than anything he wanted to make his parents happy.”
‘He had hope’
By 2011, Bruce was living in Calgary. He had a good job, an apartment and a girlfriend, and he seemed to be having success with treatment at a local facility.
“This was his fourth attempt at rehab and when he went the second time we thought, ‘This is when he gets it right,’ because he had some success previously,” Scott said.
“He had hope. We always had great hope when he was in rehab. We were like a lot of parents; you always want to know that your kids are safe. You are only as happy as your unhappiest child … The most comforting nights of our lives were when we knew he was safe and he was in rehab.”
But once again, tragically, Bruce slipped. Anne remembered hearing about her son’s last moments.
“He was shooting up heroin in his girlfriend’s apartment and she called 911 because he was kind of, I guess, not very lucid,” Anne said.
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“They tried to convince him to go to the hospital with them. He wouldn’t go and so they left and he wanted to do it one more time. She said, ‘You can’t do it here, you have to get out.’ And so he left her apartment and walked up to a bar at the end of the street, walked right into the bathroom, shot up the rest of it in the bathroom, hit the floor and died.”
Six years later, it’s still as raw as it ever was.
“It never goes away, you know, even bringing out all the stuff to show you,” Scott said.
“You have holes in your hearts that will never heal. That just describes Anne and I and Darcy perfectly. We miss him every day, but you go on.”
For Bruce’s family, going on means getting involved to help other people.
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From the time they wrote Bruce’s obituary, they decided they would not hide Bruce’s addiction. They would make it an opportunity to start a conversation in his memory.
“There is a crying need for a long-term care facility where we live in Winnipeg and around Winnipeg, that addicts have access to and no one is turned away because they can’t afford to pay,” Scott said.
“That’s the key. We are right now, in a lot of ways, leaving a generation of addicts out there to die.”
Instead of becoming lost in their grief, the family is starting a foundation in Bruce’s name and raising money for a treatment facility.
The pain “comes in waves” for Bruce’s younger brother, Darcy.
“Different emotions hit you at different times.”
Darcy said he has been hurting for six years, too, because the brothers were very close.
“It’s like living with a brick in your pocket, but the weight never goes away,” he said.
“You just get used to it being there. And every so often you put your hand in your pocket and you go, ‘Oh yeah, there’s the brick.'”
Darcy got lost in his work and has now, thanks to appearances on programs like Britain’s Got Talent, become a world-famous illusionist. But he also wanted to do something to remember his brother.
Tuesday night, he began the first of four shows held in his brother’s honour at Winnipeg’s Burton Cummings Theatre, with all money going toward the Bruce Oake Foundation.
With all of the family’s efforts, the dream of helping other people struggling like Bruce did is getting closer. Plans for a 50-bed facility available to any addict, free of charge, are in the final stages. They hope a final fundraising push will make it a reality.
“He was about more than his addiction,” Scott said. “When we tell Bruce’s story in public, we tell what he was like as a kid. But addiction claimed his life and we thought if something good could come out of something so tragic it would be a beautiful thing.”
On the piano in the family home sits the last picture they have of Bruce. It’s the way they want to remember him — at the family cottage with a big grin on his face.