Lebanon — A kind-hearted person with big brown eyes and an infectious smile. A hard worker and loyal friend. A dear man who slipped away, even as they tried to hold onto him.
That’s how friends and family remember George Iskandar, who died of a drug overdose on Jan. 27. He was 46.
Iskandar was born in Madison, Wis., the second child of Egyptian immigrants Alex Iskandar and Marcelle Adib. His parents divorced soon after, and he lived with his mother until he was 11. He then moved to Lebanon to live with his father, his father’s wife, Bonnie, and her two sons.
The day he went to get George was “one of my happiest and best days,” Iskandar’s father recalled in a letter to him some 30 years later.
But if he had known what suffering awaited George in New Hampshire, “I would have suffered myself not to bring him,” Alex Iskandar, a Lebanon businessman and retired Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory researcher, said in an interview last week.
Soon after coming to Lebanon, Iskandar began working for his father, who owns Lebanon Property Management. His first tasks — cleaning out attics and basements — taught him something important about himself.
“I wanted to work and not fool around,” he wrote in a letter to his father. “I enjoyed it, even at the age of 12 or 13.”
At Lebanon High School, Iskandar played on the hockey team and served for a time as class president. He cherished his time with friends, including Chris Pollard, a fellow Lebanon hockey player and 1989 graduate.
“We were really close for many years,” said Pollard, who now lives in Grantham. “We were brotherly.”
They spent hours together, hanging out at home or walking from one of their houses to the other, over back roads and through the woods, Pollard said. And they laughed “a ton.”
But as graduation approached, the disease that would take Iskandar’s life had begun to reveal itself. While some people might be able to drink a few beers here and there, that wasn’t the case with George.
“Even back then, he would have to drink until it was completely gone,” Bonnie Iskandar said.
A three-sport athlete, Pollard felt he had to put some space between them.
“That type of stuff,” drinking and smoking pot, “I couldn’t have in my life,” he said. “It was risking too much.”
He told Iskandar he would always be his friend, but they just couldn’t spend the same time together they had in the past.
“He understood, and he was going to do what he was going to do,” but it was tough, said Pollard, who considered George his best friend. Given Iskandar’s “great heart,” he likely wasn’t alone.
“He had a ton of friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot them thought he was their best friend,” Pollard said. “It was just the way he was.”
After graduating from high school, Iskandar started a company using the skills he’d developed working for his father. He named the business Pyramid Painting and Roofing.
“He loved his heritage,” said Alex Iskandar, who took George, George’s sister Niveen and half-sister Amy to Egypt around 2000.
An excellent tradesman, he did a lot of roofs in the Upper Valley as well as drywall work and interior and exterior painting, said Amy Iskandar Margolis, who manages their father’s business. “He did great work.”
At one point he employed four or five people, and his company was instrumental in helping maintain his father’s properties. But when George was in his early 20s, a mutual acquaintance contacted Alex Iskandar to ask if he knew his son was on drugs.
“I really appreciated that,” said Alex Iskandar, who “tried to put George in rehab.” But instead of staying at the private New London facility for the full 14-day program, he left after 10 days and “said he was OK now.”
Over time, Iskandar’s drug use led to problems with finances and the law. He had a number of arrests in New Hampshire and Vermont, including charges of heroin trafficking and heroin sale or delivery in 2013 after police said they found 140 bags of the drug in his vehicle during a traffic stop on Interstate 91 near the Massachusetts border. (The case was dismissed after his death). He spent time in Grafton County Jail and New Hampshire state prison for drug-related offenses and violating probation.
“Each time he would dry out in prison and come out, you would be so hopeful, and for a short time, he really did try,” Bonnie Iskandar said. “But then he would fall back again.”
Iskandar’s parents wondered why he couldn’t stop. But Margolis said that’s not the way it works.
“It’s an obsession, and it’s a compulsion,” she said. “He was compelled to pick up.”
And, from what she could tell, it went way back.
“He was just that kind of kid that was geared towards looking for something, something outside of himself to fill whatever hole,” Margolis said of George. “He struggled with that sort of gaping chasm in himself, I think, for a long time.”
Over the years, Iskandar went to inpatient and outpatient treatment programs, and attended 12-step meetings off and on. He managed to string a few months of clean time here, a year there.
Twelve-step programs really worked for George, said Margolis, who attended a few meetings with him, for support. But then he would start backing out of the program, which spelled trouble.
“Every single time that he relapsed, that was the beginning of it,” she said.
When he was sober, he had “a normal life,” Margolis said. But it was as if he couldn’t handle the status quo and would “throw a wrench in the spokes” himself.
A longtime cocaine user, he was used to big bursts of brain activity, his brain “lighting up like fireworks,” she said. “So day-to-day life with a sober brain, it’s very even keel. It’s boring, I guess.”
Iskandar kept working when he could, and in 2009 he and a former girlfriend got engaged. The marriage was short-lived, but the couple had a son, Alex. Iskandar would eventually lose his visitation rights, but when he was clean, his priorities were family, work and recovery.
“When he was sober, he was completely plugged into parenting,” playing with Alex and taking him on walks, Margolis said. He also cooked — barbecue and homemade tortillas were two of his specialties.
Lois (Courtemanche) Kerr, a retired Lebanon teacher, remembers bumping into Iskandar at the Norwich pool several years ago.
“He seemed happy,” and his demeanor was the same as it had been when he was her student, “very respectful, very polite,” she said. “I always liked him. I loved his smile.”
She had been surprised to learn about his struggle with addiction, Kerr said. “His good memory will outlast anything else.”
Iskandar’s and Pollard’s paths also crossed now and again, and they always stopped to talk and catch up. A few years ago, in anticipation of a class reunion, they spent many nights together working on a parade float.
“It was really nice to work with him again,” Pollard said.
And once when they met up, Iskandar had told him he was trying to stay clean, and how proud he was of his son. But Pollard knew it would be a struggle.
“Addiction is the devil. It’s not something where you just say one day, ‘I’m not doing it anymore,’ ” said Pollard, who hopes people will remember Iskandar for who he was as a person. “He would give the shirt off his back to help anyone. … The addiction was definitely not who he was. It was just, unfortunately, what he got involved in.”
Iskandar’s family did everything they could think of to help. Alex Iskandar offered to pay for long-term rehab, which Iskandar refused. He rented apartments for him so he had somewhere to live, bailed out his business when things went south, and bought a house for him, placing it in trust so he couldn’t borrow money against it. But George Iskandar allowed people to live in the home, and once, when he was in prison, someone overdosed and died there.
When Iskandar was using, he’d disappear from the family. But when he bottomed out, they’d get a call. He might need to be bailed out of jail, or picked up from the hospital after an overdose.
“Basically, our family would come in and clean up whatever mess was left behind. Each time, it got worse.” Margolis said.
They struggled to find some kind of balance.
“When your child is sick, what are you willing to do to save them, to help them? Anything,” Margolis said. “It’s a very difficult line for (the addicted person’s) loved ones, to know when you’re helping, if you’re enabling.”
Alex Iskandar wonders about that sometimes. “I look back and say, ‘Did I miss anything? (Was there anything) I didn’t do?’ ”
In a sense, he had asked George the same question several years ago.
In 2013, Alex Iskandar was doing estate planning and wrote to his five children, asking them to reflect on their upbringing, and their own actions.
“What could we, as parents, have done differently to prepare you for adulthood?” he also asked. And, how he could help them achieve their goals for the future?
Iskandar’s response was 11 pages long.
He said he was grateful for the opportunities he’d been given growing up, including chance to work on his father’s buildings. “Being here in prison reinforces that appreciation, as I am surrounded by people who do not have any job skills, work experience or work ethic at all,” he wrote. “Their lives and childhoods were so completely opposite of mine.”
There were things he wished had been different. He would have liked to have had tighter supervision after moving to Lebanon, and more time with his family.
“I know you guys had all of us kids, plus the apartments and Dad’s job at CRREL, and that you did the best you could as far as spending time with us,” he wrote. But, “there are only so many hours in a day.”
He wished he hadn’t developed a drug habit, and at such a young age. Early on in high school he had been fairly well-grounded, but once his classmates got their driver’s licenses he “started to veer off into the drinking and drugging,” he wrote. By graduation, he was “pretty much just living one high to the next and partying nonstop.”
He regretted his behavior. He’d been selfish and destructive and hurt everyone around him at times, Iskandar said in the letter. “I can’t begin to imagine the pain I have caused (you and Bonnie) over the years.”
And he offered reassurance.
“There is nothing that you guys did or didn’t do that has caused me to turn out like I did,” he wrote. “I am fully and solely responsible for me and my actions.”
Iskandar wrote that he wanted to rebuild his relationship with his young son and start saving so he could buy rental properties. He also hoped to stay sober and help other addicts in recovery, perhaps creating a team of people willing to develop something to help drug addicts coming out of prison and rehabs re-enter society.
Alex Iskandar wrote back, thanking George for the honest, detailed letter, and offered to help him meet his goals. But addiction and prison had taken their toll.
“He wasn’t a criminal, he was sick. It’s a disease, and he needed help,” Alex Iskandar said. “He wasn’t violent. Mixing him with the criminals (was) not a good thing.”
Each time he came out, he’d become more and more institutionalized, his mentality was worse, Margolis said.
Last year, Iskandar was released from jail for the last time. He was living in a halfway house in Manchester, and after visiting him there, his parents were optimistic.
“He was so good. We thought, ‘It’s over, and he’s clean,’ ” Alex Iskandar said. But the day he left the halfway house, he overdosed and barely survived.
“This is going to kill you,” Margolis remembers telling him at the hospital. “But he had already, I think, accepted his fate. … He was sick and tired of fighting, and he didn’t have really anything to live for at that point.”
A mother herself, she needed to step back. She could do some things for him, but he couldn’t come live with her, or their parents, she told him.
As much as they loved him, Iskandar’s relationships with family members had become strained over the years.
“George started to feel like a stranger, not your child that you spent years and years with,” said Bonnie Iskandar, who’d come to dread answering the phone when he called. He’d start out friendly and chatty and then gradually come around to asking for something, often money.
“You have to be able to filter what is real, ... what is manipulation, what is the drugs,” Margolis would tell her parents.
Last Christmas, when the family gathered at Alex and Bonnie’s house, George was gaunt, his health had deteriorated. The mood was tense.
“He’s sitting there and you’re feeling so separate from this person that you knew for years, and he’s not the same person anymore, and it’s horrible,” Bonnie Iskandar said through tears. “You feel you’ve failed, that whatever you’ve done nothing’s worked ... and you don’t know what to do. You want to go over and hug them. You want to take them and shake them. And it’s a stranger, it’s a stranger sitting in that chair in our house. There was nothing left.”
Margolis thought it might be the last time they would see him alive. She was right.
A month later, Iskandar was found alone in his van, parked at a rest area in Hooksett, N.H. He had cocaine, buprenorphine and fentanyl in his system.
A memorial service in Lebanon drew more than 100 classmates, family members and friends. In lieu of flowers, his family suggested donating to Headrest in Lebanon, or another substance abuse treatment facility.
Alex Iskandar said he hopes something positive will come from sharing George’s story.
“If nothing else, it puts another spotlight on the issues,” Margolis said. And as a society, “we need as many tools in the toolbelt as we can get.”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.