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.

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.

She refrained from asking the obvious question.

Then they handed the shovel to his mother.

Even though it is only three weeks since his death, I find that the reality of Joey is beginning to turn sepia. He will be forever 18. And his life will forever stop in 1989. That saddens me so much. It's not just that he won't have a career, maybe get married, have kids, all those things we hope might happen for a promising young person. He won't go out for pizza anymore either, or come into a warm house on a cold night, or imitate Martin Short imitating Katharine Hepburn, or scuff through piles of leaves.

And I won't ever see him again.

Joe had been very involved in high-school journalism. He won a statewide award for feature writing in New Hampshire, and he was news editor of the school paper in Shorewood. He contributed a great deal of that paper's humor edition in May, including a large advertisement that read, in part:

"Attention! All available slightly twisted females: Marry Me! I am a nice guy, a National Merit semifinalist, devastatingly handsome, relatively inexpensive, housebroken, handy with tools, easily entertained, a gentleman in the truest sense of the word, and I think I am extremely funny. In fact, I think I am the funniest guy on earth! . . . Please call immediately. Operators are standing by. (I am in great demand.) . . . Kids -- Please get permission from your parents before calling."

Then they handed the shovel to his stepmother.

In his sermon at David's bar mitzvah last year, the rabbi used a phrase I'd never heard before. It caused me to weep at the time; I wasn't sure why. It's come back to me again and again recently. It isn't consoling, nor even helpful. But it is pretty, and in an odd way it puts events into a much larger perspective:

"All things pass into mystery."

At one point during that last visit, we went to a craft fair where Joe noticed someone selling hammered dulcimers. He had never played one, but he'd played the guitar for quite a few years, which must have helped. He picked up the hammers and began to fool around, and soon he drew a small crowd with something that sounded like sitar music. He asked about the price; they were expensive. I keep finding myself thinking that it would be neat to get him one. I should have done it then.

Then they handed the shovel to his only living grandmother; it took her two tries to get enough dirt on the shovel. Neither of his grandfathers could bring himself to do it. But many of Joe's friends, weeping, took a turn.

I hope someday to be able to write about Joe again; I probably won't be writing a humor column for a while. In the meantime, I want folks to know how I think he would have turned out. He would have been a mensch -- a decent, sincere man, the kind you're proud to know. He already was. Damn drugs.

A year or so ago, the four of us played charades, a vacation tradition. Joe drew "The Sun Also Rises," which he did in one clue. He stretched an imaginary horizon line between his hands then slowly brought his head above it at one end and traversed an arc, grinning from ear to ear. It took us about five seconds to get it. Body bag or no, that's how I want to remember him.

The last thing I wrote about him appeared in the newspaper the morning he died. He told me that he and a friend decided one Saturday afternoon to hitchhike to a rock concert near Milwaukee. He realized, he said, that now that he was away from home, he didn't have to ask anybody if he could go or tell anybody that he was going. He just decided to do it, and he did it. I wrote about what a heady experience that was, to be independent at last.

There's a fair measure of irony in that column. We're told that the rock concert is where he got the LSD, and where he took his first trip.

That trip, I understand, went OK. This one killed him.

Although Joe apparently was with friends most of the evening, the police said he was alone when he went out the window. We'll probably never know exactly what happened in those last minutes, but judging by our own reading of him and by what lots of others have told us, we're sure he wasn't despondent. Many of his friends, including one who spoke at his funeral, said that he was very happy and enjoying his life in Madison.

The likeliest explanation we've heard is that he had the hallucination that makes a person think he can fly. In any case, a little after 1 o'clock Sunday morning, Oct. 15, somebody studying across the courtyard saw a curtain open and then a body fall. Joe didn't cry out.

I have since, many times.

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