Driving East on Sound Avenue to Orient Point at 6:30 in the morning is a very peaceful ride. It provides a wonderful opportunity for quiet reflection and introspection.
It was a Saturday morning in late September that I was taking this reflective ride out East. I had to catch the 8:00am sea jet from Orient Point to New London. This particular Saturday it was windy, foggy and misty out. I did not see a car until I hit Greenport village.
As I passed Greenport village, the cars collected single file to meet the ferry. When I arrived at 7:30, I was shocked at the enormity of the crowd. It seemed like half of Suffolk County had arrived for the same boat I was hoping to catch.
Once I parked my car I sought the ticket office, since I had never taken the sea jet ferry before. The line for tickets was already out to the parking lot. I was on line to buy a round trip ticket so I could preside at a wedding in Connecticut in a small town just north of New London. Most of the other people were buying tickets so they could catch the free bus service to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.
I was amazed at how many people I knew on the line, from Church, from the neighborhood and from my students in class. Needless to say, many approached me and asked for an extra prayer and assured me they would share their winnings with God if they won. Others tried to hide because I suspect they didn't want me to know they were taking a day off to experiment with the game of chance.
Once I found a seat, a couple I have known for years sat next to me. They are a wonderful husband and wife who have parented two wonderful children. Their oldest son was a successful businessman who died suddenly two years ago during the holidays. Their daughter is a dynamic schoolteacher who is marrying a wonderful police officer next year.
These wonderful parents are still mourning and grieving the unexpected death of their son. TJ was a bright, talented, good looking thirty-two year old who died suddenly right after New Year's. Part of this family's pain is that their son struggled with addiction. He was a functional addict most of his young adult life. At the time of his death, he was in recovery. Unfortunately, his years of abuse had taken a toll on his young life.
TJ was probably one of the most compassionate human beings to pass our way. In his brief journey, he did so much to reach out to others that even today it continues to overwhelm his mother. She continues to hear heartwarming stories of how TJ made a difference in the live's of so many other young people who were struggling.
Every day was a challenge for TJ. He battled his demons continuously. However, if you knew him, you probably would not have known that because of how he lived. He never let his struggles distract him from helping another in need.
It is not natural for a parent to bury a child. It is every parent's nightmare, especially when you feel that maybe if you did things differently things would have turned out differently.
TJ's parents are exceptional. They are loving, generous and compassionate human beings. Like any parents, they worried about their son during his developing years, especially when he made poor choices. But their bond was close. They never missed a heartbeat. Addiction is a very lethal and infectious disease.
In the midst of their tears, they struggle each day to make sense out of their loss. They do not want their son's life to have been in vain. TJ's parents are in the midst of setting up a scholarship fund for young people who wrestle with addition and want to move beyond and make something of their lives. As parents, they are optimistic that this foundation will gradually touch dozens of young people who want to transform their lives.
In memory of their son, they are determined to help those who are open to support not get consumed with addiction and make something productive out of their lives.
One of the issues this family struggles with daily is the "what if" obsession. "What if" we knew that TJ was getting high in high school and drinking on the weekends? "What if" we did something about it? TJ was very clever. During high school he always maintained above average grades and played sports. Whatever drugs and alcohol he did, he did at times when his behavior would not be noticed and his school and sports life would not be impaired. Yes, he learned how to get over on his parents. Many high school and college age students master that "art form."
"What iffing" yourself to death is not going to change the nightmare TJ's parents live with every day. They were present and attentive parents who were involved with their children. TJ was determined to do what he wanted to do, and he did. Unfortunately, he broke his cycle of addiction after it had substantially damaged his body.
His story should challenge all of us who are raising teenagers and college age students to be more attentive to the social behaviors of our children. Don't dismiss occasional drug and alcohol misuse and/or abuse as a mere phase. That dismissal or reductionist attitude could be feeding a disease waiting to be born.
Teenage substance abuse, at least in our larger community, is on the rise and holding its' own. It is masked in many subtle ways. Twenty years ago, only a small percentage of high school students even experimented with drugs and alcohol. Today, there is probably not a group of high school and college coeds who have not experimented with some kind of illegal substance. More troubling is that a growing number of teenagers believe it is their right to smoke pot and drink as long as they act "responsibly." On one level, they define "responsibly" as meaning do well in school and maintain a respectful relationship with parents and adults.
Therein lies the danger and on-going tension. That kind of thinking is masking a potential time bomb that could have lethal effects on all of us.