It was two weeks before Christmas many years ago; TJ was driving home from the mall in the new SUV his parents had given him for his seventeenth birthday. It was about 4:30pm on a Saturday. TJ was driving east on Route 347 when he lost control of his vehicle, crossed the double yellow line and hit another car head-on. That collision took three lives - a young mother and two small children.
Upon further investigation, it became clear that TJ was stoned. The officers assigned to the case questioned him thoroughly. He admitted being high while driving and losing control of his vehicle. As the officers questioned him further, he admitted to smoking pot daily since the age of twelve.
The next day the officers assigned to the case met with the grieving father and husband. They shared with him the information they had obtained from the boy responsible for taking his wife's life. The officers were shocked at his response. They expected him to press them to throw the book at the young man and charge him with three counts of vehicular manslaughter.
Instead of seeking vengeance, the grieving father and husband sought healing and rehabilitation for the young man who had victimized his family. He indicated that had his wife lived, she would not want him to be incarcerated, but rather would want him rehabilitated. He went on to say that his wife lived her life grounded in compassion and forgiveness.
Therefore, he felt in honor of her memory, he had to respond to this tragedy in a way that would reflect her life and value system. He was adamant that he did not want to press charges against this young man. His only desire was that the boy get help with his addiction. If TJ got help, the man felt his wife and children's deaths were not in vain.
Very few of us, if faced with the same tragedy could respond as this father did. Most of us would probably want vengeance and would insist on punishment. As most of us who have struggled with the issue of addiction know, punishment does not address the core of the problem or empower a person to change and grow.
Clearly, TJ needs to be held accountable. However, should it be about punishment or rehabilitation? Confining someone to a jail cell is not going to address the behavior that caused the person to act recklessly.
A prison cell effectively removes someone from the mainstream. There is no guarantee that while the person is incarcerated he/she is going to look at the behaviors and attitudes that caused him/her to act irresponsibly. Our life experience teaches us that confinement without education and rehabilitation only intensifies one's anger, resentment and rage. Too often, when a person leaves that kind of environment, he or she is very prone to re-offend.
TJ did not just fall out of bed and become a pothead. He admitted that he started smoking pot while in middle school. It was not just an occasional joint on the weekends with his friends, but a daily experience until the day of the accident. Where were his parents through all of this? Did they not see any signs of this kind of behavior? Were they truly blind or did they choose not to see it? Or, did they dismiss the behavior as a rite of teenage passage?
Unfortunately, too many parents are turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to some very serious social behaviors. TJ was an ordinary teenager. He came from an intact family with four brothers and sisters. He was the oldest. He got along well at school and at home. His parents were involved in his life and the lives of his siblings. How did this social behavior slip by them?
There are no simple answers to that rather pointed question. By his own admission, TJ acknowledged that he was clever and a good sneak. He always came home on time and did what his parents asked of him. He always had plenty of Visine in his pocket, so his parents never saw bloodshot eyes, which might have raised some suspicions.
When his Mom cleaned his room, she never found rolling paper, roach clips or any other pot paraphernalia. TJ made sure that he stashed his stuff elsewhere. His parents knew all of his friends and they were decent kids. His school grades did not suffer. Even though he got high every day, TJ was able to maintain a "B" average in all of his subjects.
Throughout middle school, TJ was a cooperative and compliant student in every area. In high school, he was still pretty compliant, but started to cut some corners. He would occasionally cut class. His parents suspected he was drinking on the weekend, but he never came home drunk, so they never confronted him on that issue. Not only was he drinking, but he was also smoking weed. He drank to hide that he was smoking weed from his parents.
As parents, we need to be more attentive to our children's social behavior. We need to look for signs regarding the choices our children are making. We should not take a laissez-faire approach to social drinking and marijuana use. All drug use, legal and illegal, runs the risk of impairing decision-making and clearly our driving skills.
In our state, it is illegal to consume, purchase or be in possession of alcohol if you are under twenty-one. It's the holiday season; many of our young people are going to party. Many who are underage will feel it is their entitlement to drink socially, especially if they drink responsibly, which is technically an oxymoron. No one, at any age, is entitled to break the law.
At times, it is difficult being a parent. We have an obligation to hold our children accountable, even if they don't like it and we feel the law is foolish. It is not our right to pick and choose the laws we wish to obey.
It is reckless thinking on our part to take the position that because many teenagers drink, it is safer to let them drink as long as we don't let them drive. No parent has the right to condone or give another parents' child the right to drink underage.
It's dangerous to take the position that recreational drinking and smoking weed is a rite of passage to adulthood. For some it might be a phase, but for many it is not.
Today more than ever before, our teenage children need our guidance, support and input. They need our direction and our discipline more than our friendship. It is difficult navigating the landscape of our culture. We lack clarity. We need to be attentive to the signs and signals that our children embody. Every day, they are faced with countless choices that could change the color and texture of their lives forever.
Thanks to the advocacy of a grieving father, TJ was never charged with a crime, nor did he go to jail. He did seek treatment for his addiction. Today he lives every day with the fact that because of his recklessness on a Saturday before Christmas, he destroyed a family forever, by killing a mother and two small children. He also carries in his divided heart, the compassion and forgiveness of a father and husband that gave him redemption and his life back.
A day doesn't pass where he is not consciously aware of how fortunate he is. Since that tragic Saturday many years ago, TJ has spent his subsequent years looking for ways to give back. A Christmas doesn't pass where he does not take pause and give thanks.
As we enjoy this holiday season, let us be more attentive to the things and the people who are most important in our lives.