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.
Because the coffin is always closed, nobody expected anyone to look inside. There were blood spatters on the body bag.
It's entirely possible that warning your kids won't scare them away from LSD. But maybe it will. I wish I could tell you how to warn them so it would work, but I can't.
This is the generation gap reduced to its most basic: It is parents' worst fear that something terrible will happen to their kids; it is kids' constant struggle to be free of the protection of their parents.
Joe's next job was in Shorewood, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb, where his family moved just before his junior year in high school. It was a summer job as a soda jerk. He confided to me that he worked alongside "a soda idiot" and that his boss was "a soda &#%@.'' Actually, I think he enjoyed it. He told me one day that he was "acquiring meaningful insights into the Sundae Industry." Like: If you say "yes" to "Do you want a lid on that?" you're going to get less whipped topping.
Traditional Jewish funerals leave no room for the stage of grief that psychologists call "denial." When you leave the cemetery, you can have no doubt that the person is dead. In fact, you might say that these funerals are brutal. I could avoid telling you about it, and spare us both some pain, but I think I owe it to Joe -- and to every parent -- to let this be as forceful as possible.
When the graveside prayers were over, workmen lowered Joe's coffin into the ground and then eased a concrete cover down into the hole until it covered the metal burial vault. The cover had Joe's name on it. They pulled the green fake-grass cloth off the pile of dirt next to the grave, and the rabbi and the cantor each threw a shovelful of earth onto the vault lid.
Then they handed the shovel to Joe's 15-year-old brother, David.
It occurs to me now that what I might have done is ask Joe what kind of drugs were around. Maybe my genuine alarm at the reemergence of LSD would have registered with him. I'm certainly going to be less self-assured about how I deal with this subject with David. He's a wonderful kid, too, and while I don't want to smother him, I don't want to assume anything, either.
I didn't take Joe for granted; I think I encouraged him and delighted in him and celebrated with him. But I certainly took his life for granted. Parents must not do that. We must be scared for them. They don't know when to be scared for themselves.
Although his humor had become somewhat acerbic recently, Joe remained a sweet, thoughtful kid. When, as I often did, I wound up apologizing to him because a weekend or a vacation hadn't worked out the way I'd hoped, he always patted my hand -- literally or figuratively -- and let me know he loved me anyway.
He took good care of others, too. He spent most of his grandfather's 90th birthday party making sure that his stepmother had somebody to talk to besides my ex-wife's family.
And on that last birthday visit with me in early October, he talked a little about his concerns and hopes for his brother. One of those concerns was drugs.
Then they handed the shovel to me.
Later I overheard my wife say that the expression on my face when I turned away, having shoveled dirt onto my son's coffin, was the most awful thing she'd ever seen.
Whenever I thought about Joe recently, it was about college and independence and adulthood, and his latest involvements: His attempt to produce an English paper that was more interesting than what the instructor had asked for, the raucous rock band he and his friends put together over the summer, his plans to rent a cabin with a bunch of kids at winter break.
Now, suddenly, I'm no longer looking at the moment, but instead at the whole life. And in some automatic averaging-out, in my mind I'm sometimes calling him "Joey," his little-boy name.
He told his mother a year ago that he wanted his senior year in high school to be the best year he'd ever had, and on the drive to Madison to start college this fall, he told her that, despite lots of typical teenage domestic tension, it had been. He said he'd accomplished everything he'd set out to do -- except to have a mad, passionate affair with a woman he didn't even know.
Poll: What would you choose as a way for you (or your husband) to deal with a midlife crisis?