It was a warm sunny, Sunday, September 23, 2012, to be exact, when time stood still and the world, as we knew it, came crashing down all around us. Everything, after hearing those words uttered, forced us into a tail-spin of disbelief. How could this be happening to our family? What did we do wrong? What did we miss? Who knew about this, and didn’t tell us? All of these questions, along with many others circled in our minds. We were clouded and in a state of shock.
My husband and I moved to Howard County, from Pennsylvania, in 1987. After eleven years of marriage, we had our first son, Angelo John, (A.J.) in 1991 and two years later, Joey was born. Those early years of raising two little boys, went by so fast. My husband and I have always been very involved, and active volunteers in our community and in our church. We have served on various homeowner’s committees, school committees, taught Catholic education classes, as well as starting The Elkridge Hurricanes Football and Cheer Programs, with of course, help from the county. My husband coached our boys for many years, in baseball, basketball and football, and I was their biggest cheerleader and fan. I worked as a nurse for a local pediatrician’s office for almost 18 years, but left that career to pursue a job with the Howard County Public School System, when our older son, A.J., was going into 9th grade, so, to be on the same schedule.
Our boys were very close brothers; they hung out together, were good athletes, attended church, received all of their sacraments as “good Catholics” do, and were members of the national organization, Best Buddies. Both boys had a lot of friends, were good students, received good grades and participated in school activities, homecoming and prom. My husband and I volunteered and facilitated programs at Howard High School, designing and selling spirit wear for the football team, developing the Friday Night Pasta dinners for the football team and organizing the Homecoming pancake breakfast. Are you getting the picture yet…?
After A.J. went off to college in 2010, Joey started feeling lonely and sad. He still continued to do well in school; he had a girlfriend and was one of the star running backs on the football team. He liked to skateboard in his spare time and he played a mean electric guitar. There were three times, while in high school, that we had Joey drug tested because we suspected marijuana use, but each comprehensive drug test came back negative for all drugs. Because of this, and some frequent anger outbursts, we were advised by our pediatrician to seek counseling. We went to Congruent Counseling for almost 2 years. We were confident that we knew his friends and life seemed good. Now of course, there were the usual teenage angst and not everything was seen through rose colored glasses, but for the most part, as parents, we thought we knew what we were doing.
Joey was eighteen years old when he graduated from Howard High on May 23, 2012. He started acting out, becoming more and more defiant and angry as days went by. He became disrespectful and belligerent. One day, in late June, during a heated argument, my husband told him that if he couldn’t follow the rules of our home, then he would have to leave…..and so he did. Due to his erratic behavior, we suspected possible drug use at that time, but had no definitive proof. Days went by and we didn’t know where he was or who he was staying with. We hired a private investigator and contacted our police friends to see if they could help us locate him. My husband and I spent that entire summer riding around Howard and Prince Georges Counties looking for him, from leads that we were given. We were close on several occasions, but he was always one step ahead of us, and would tell us, in no uncertain terms, to leave him the hell alone, that he was fine and needed to find himself. Everyday, we kept in close contact with him through text messages, pleading with him to come home. That summer, we saw him a total of three times. He came home to shower, get something to eat and to take a nap, only to get up and leave again. Because he was eighteen years old, there was nothing that we could do, he was considered an adult. September 1, 2012, was the last time that we saw our son alive. He came home briefly to eat and shower. We begged him to stay. When he left, I looked at my husband and said, “That is not my son.” In such a short period of time, he had transformed himself into a gaunt, long-haired, pale, sick-looking young man. We could not believe our eyes.
Flashback to that warm sunny afternoon, September 23, 2012. We were cleaning out our garage when two Howard County Police officers came to deliver the devastating news, news of our son…that he was found dead in a house in Phelps Luck of an apparent drug overdose. We were not permitted to go to the scene to see his body. They informed us that he would be transported from that house to the Maryland Medical Examiner’s office to have an autopsy performed. The death certificate states that he died from the combined affects of alcohol, cocaine and heroin. Needless to say, we were blown out of the water.
It has been over four years since the death of our son. This grief journey has changed our lives, as our hearts are forever broken. We question everything that we thought we once knew. Everything looks different now….nothing is the same. Grief is exhausting, relentless and rears it’s head at any given time. Though we have been through this life altering experience, we will not be defined by our son’s death, nor will we allow sadness to take away our fond memories of him.
How do we pick up the broken pieces…? When we help others, we also help ourselves. My husband and I have been speaking to young people and parents at various forums around the county, at schools and churches. We are dedicated to bringing awareness to the problems surrounding this disease and trying to irradiate the stigma and shame that goes along with it. If this can happen to us, it can happen to anyone…and it is happening right under our noses. Howard County has to wake up and stop the madness. Lives are being lost and forever changed. We must come together as a community to fight this epidemic that has taken over the lives of our youth. We must find real ways to mentor young people and to find answers to why they turn to these drugs in the first place. Sure, it is not going to be easy, but we are motivated to make a difference, and for the sake of those gone too soon…we must pick up the broken pieces and move forward.