Joe Was Loved
Joe was a 14-year-old American boy. Joe was popular, beloved by so many. His family was mixed, a little troubled, difficult for young Joe. But whose isn’t these days? Joe had a stable home with his grandparents and was close with aunts and uncles and cousins.
Joe was loved: very loved.
Joe had a secret, though; or he thought that he did. Joe was gay. He was evasive about it, but his family knew. But Joe was loved: very loved, so his family waited for him to be comfortable enough in his own skin to talk about it openly with them. Y’know, like decent people.
Unbeknownst to his family, something happened to Joe on the way to his coming out party. He had it taken away from him: hi-jacked. Something huge and internally-burdensome and scary- a potential personal triumph to be won and valued was stolen from him by someone craving cheap laughs and the twisted high that comes from elevating yourself at the expense of those around you.
Early on a Monday morning: Joe was found by his family locked in his bedroom, unresponsive.
His cousin had only left hours before. They had been joking and laughing and things seemed normal. However, in between her departure around 6:00 PM and about 2:00 AM the following morning, things evidently unraveled precipitously for Joe. He found that he was more willing to face the terrifying unknown of what lay on the other side of a fist-full of pain pills than what might await him at school the next time he showed his face there.
A search of Joe’s computer revealed most of the details of what Joe had quietly been enduring right under the noses of those who loved him.
Alone Against Bullying
While Joe was carrying on a secret long-distance relationship with a boy he had known from grade school who had moved away, another boy from school started to understand how Joe was different. He was outing Joe to their friends and classmates. He could see on social media that they were now avoiding him. One teenaged boy instigating a chorus of mockery made a dent in Joe’s psyche that may have been the final straw.
Meanwhile, Joe found out a hard truth that we all have to find out for ourselves at some point. He learned that long-distance relationships almost never work.
Those of us that have been 14 years old know how quickly our emotions can get the better of us and how rational thought sometimes ceases to be a part of the equation. Joe’s equation became very, very simple-and tragically so.
After taking enough of his grandmother’s leftover pain medication to severely damage his brain function, Joe lay in a coma for two weeks. His family was by his side almost constantly-talking to him, telling him jokes, trying desperately to get some sort of response from him. They wanted him to know how loved he truly was. But Joe either wouldn’t or couldn’t fight his way out of that state and he slipped away.
His family was crushed and ripples of that sadness were felt outside that circle, concentrically by people who never even met him.
What Can This Mean?
Why am I writing about Joe?
I never knew Joe. Never met him. I did, however, watch his aunt and his cousin weepily trudge through those weeks when he was comatose, observing with horror while Joe’s secrets came to light and the story of how Joe came to his ultimate and untimely decision and it was hard to watch without becoming sad and angry myself.
It made me think: “if Joe was a part of my family–of my life–what could I do to make a difference? What could I do to make Joe see that this is the kind of pain that is temporary–that will feel insignificant years down the road when compared to all of the great and wonderful experiences that life can bring us?”
I wish that I had answers for situations like Joe’s. There was nothing that I could have done. Even his family was powerless to prevent his death. As the story has unfolded over the past few weeks, it has weighed heavily on my mind and I have wondered, “How can I use this tragedy to remind me to be a better person? How can I help to keep things like this from happening?”
Make a Positive Difference
First of all, I can love unconditionally the people who are close to me–my children, my nieces, my siblings, friends, acquaintances, etc. despite their perceived short-comings; despite their personal difficulties; despite their struggles. I can extend my hand to them without judgement when they need it.
Second of all, I can treat people both known to me and not with kindness. I don’t mean just holding a door or letting the lady with only one item go ahead of me in line at the grocery store (though we should certainly be doing those things, too). What I mean is this: every person whom you encounter is either struggling with something or is in between periods of struggle. Treat them as such. They don’t have to be your best friend or even known to you for you to extend a smile, a handshake, perhaps the occasional hug, or a look in your eye that says, “I know. I understand. Things will get better.” As we–the Easton community–have learned the hard way and a few times over: you can truly never know when a person it teetering upon their personal tipping point. On any given day, it could be you who contributes to which side of that line they fall on for that day. Choose to make a positive difference 100% of the time.
An Anti-Bullying Culture
Third, and perhaps most importantly in this case, is how I regard bullying. You have heard me say many times that there is a strong anti-bullying culture in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and I don’t believe that this is restricted to the children’s programs. I encourage my daughters always to stand up to bullies whenever they have the chance. We are conferring upon our children what amounts to a schoolyard super-power in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. As a kid, I learned from Spider Man that “with great power comes great responsibility.”
What if Joe had had a super-tough BJJ chick as one of his friends? Would it have helped? I wish he had, and I wish that it did. All that I can do is look forward, though, and in looking forward I can help my kids to understand that though it might not be their business: it is their responsibility to do the right thing and to step in when they are needed. We, too, as adults have a responsibility to use our strength, our confidence, and perhaps our training to keep people safe and unmolested as they make their sometimes-harrowing path through what can be a crushing and occasionally demoralizing life for some.
Look, we all have a “Joe story” or know someone who does. In the grand scheme, Joe is just a story to you. But Joe is a very real tragedy to a handful of people and it has become my job, when I see those people, to look at them with kind eyes that say, “I know. I’m here. It will get better” and administer hugs as needed.
It’s your job, too.
How to Help Joe’s Family
In order to defray the cost of unexpected final services, Joe’s family has been selling commemorative bracelets (not unlike the “Livestrong” jelly bracelets). For a short time, the bracelets will be available at the front desk at ETC Denver. Additionally, if you would like to contribute to Joe’s memorial fund, his family has set up a go-fund-me account, which can be linked here: https://www.gofundme.com/remembering-joseph-wetzler