A father's plea: Be scared for your kids

  • Article by: AL SICHERMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 7, 1999 - 10:00 PM

Editor's note: This column first appeared in the Star Tribune Nov. 8, 1989.    

Dear, dear friends: This isn't going to be easy.

Nor is it going to be funny.

My older son, Joe, of whom I was very, very proud, and whose growing-up I've been privileged to chronicle occasionally in the newspaper, died last month in a fall from the window of his seventh-floor dorm room in Madison, Wis. He had taken LSD. He was 18 years old.

To say he had his whole life ahead of him is unforgivably trite -- and unbearably sad.

I saw him a week before he died. It was my birthday, and he spent the weekend with his stepmother and me. He was upbeat, funny and full of his new activities, including fencing. He did a whole bunch of very impressive lunges and parries for us.

The next time I was with him, he was in a coffin.

He must not have known how treacherous LSD can be. I never warned him, because, like most adults, I had no idea it was popular again. I thought it had stopped killing kids 20 years ago. Besides, Joe was bright and responsible; he wouldn't "do" drugs. It didn't occur to me that he might dabble in them.

His mother had warned him about LSD, though; she knew it was back because Joe had told her about a friend who had taken it. Obviously he didn't listen to her advice. At 18, kids think they're invulnerable. They're wrong.

Joey was a very sweet, very funny kid. And even before he had anything particularly funny to say, he had great timing. When he was about 6, I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He paused, just long enough, and said, "A stand-up physicist."

I went to the mortuary in Milwaukee several hours before the funeral to have a chance to be with him. I spent most of the time crying and saying dumb things like "I would have caught you" and "I would have traded with you." I wish I could say that I sang him a lullaby, but I didn't think of it until several days later. I went ahead and did it then, but it was too late. It would have been too late in any case.

Joe was not a reckless kid. Last summer he turned down my wife's suggestion that the family go on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon; although he loved amusement-park rides, he thought that sounded too risky. So we went sailing and miniature golfing instead. But he took LSD. Apparently he figured that wasn't as dangerous.

When he was about 7 or 8, Joey attended a camp for asthma sufferers. When asked "What do you do at asthma camp?" he responded, cheerfully, "Wheeze!"

The coffin is always closed in traditional Jewish funerals, and as I sat with him that morning before the funeral, I minded that. I felt so far from him. I finally decided that I had the right to open it briefly, even if it was against some rule. In fact, I rationalized, Joe probably would like my breaking the rule. So I raised the lid.

He was in a body bag.

I'm not surprised that kids don't listen to their parents about drugs. Adults' standards of risk are different from theirs, and they know it; and they discount what we tell them. But we must tell them anyway.

Joe's aunt, a teacher, says that when you warn kids about something dangerous -- something that kills people -- they always say "Name one." OK, I will. Joe Sicherman. You may name him, too. Please.

Joe's first job was in Manchester, N.H., where his mother had moved with him and his younger brother nine years ago. He was a carry-out boy in a supermarket. One day he came to the rescue of a clerk faced with a customer who spoke only French and who wanted to use Canadian money. Armed with his two years of high-school French, Joe stepped forward and explained, "Madame, non!" She seemed not to understand. That, he said, was when he rose to the very pinnacle of linguistic and supermarket expertise: "Madame," he said, with a Gallic shrug of his shoulders, "augghhhhh!" The woman nodded and left.

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