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December 05, 2006

My Defining Moment...The Unwanted Gift

Picture1 By most standards I was living the best life.  I had two beautiful children, a wife I loved very much, and a secure and rewarding career.  I was an academic dean at the largest public urban university in the Midwest, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, in a high profile position that suited me perfectly.  I had grown up a university brat, my father was a college professor.  So I liked the culture and I knew how to navigate it.  I loved my job.  It paid well.  It was safe.  It was well within my comfort zone.


  Then on a beautiful day in June, five years ago, my life changed forever.  My 16 year old son David, got up early that Saturday morning, mowed the yard, then asked if he could go swimming at a friends pool not far from our home.  After swimming a while, David and his friend went a drugstore and brought an aerosol can of computer duster.  They returned to the pool and began to do what’s called “huffing,” inhaling the propellant from the can while underwater to intensify the high.  On the fourth try, David went into cardiac arrest and drowned in spite of the immediate efforts of his friends at the pool, the EMT’s who responded, and the doctors and nurses in the E.R.

That day, my wife Marissa, and I became members of a club no parent ever wants to join.  We had suffered a violation of natural law – the one that says your kids are not supposed to die before you do.

Dmpool A man tends to mark his life in milestones.  High school graduation.  College.  And then marriage, which is eclipsed by the birth of your children.  Then many more, mostly joyful ones, follow.  But the death of my son has become my defining moment in such a way that I now divide my life between before he died and after he died.  And I can’t see anything from here on out eclipsing this.

I think all parents at some point, either consciously or unconsciously flirt with the thought of, What would I do if something happened to my child? Often it’s brought on by someone else’s story.  And I did think about that before David died, because we had been dealing with his substance abuse for some time.  We had taken him to Fairbanks Treatment Center , in Indianapolis for his drug and alcohol addiction.


The day David died, the coroner took possession of his body and did an autopsy.  It revealed he was the picture of health.  There were no signs of alcohol or drugs in his body; that’s one of the attributes of death from huffing.  So we could easily have written it off as an accident.  But we knew he had died of inhalant abuse.  His addiction killed him in spite of all that we-his parents, his friends, and Fairbanks-tried to do to prevent it.  We chose not to be silent about what had happened to him, and to make his death a lesson for others.  Since then, we’ve become deeply involved in substance abuse education, honoring David’s struggle with addiction by telling his story through presentations at schools, as well as through the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. 

Another change:  Two years ago at age 52, I began to feel an internal struggle between my job at the university and my advocacy work, which was quickly becoming my passion.  I found that when I made a presentation, people would come up to me and say, “This happened to my daughter or son.  Somebody has to put a personal face on the disease of addiction.  Thank you for doing it.”  But I feared the risk of leaving the safety of academia.  Men tend to think it’s their duty to provide for the family table, and that was still part of my psyche.  But in the end, I did it.  I left, after 26 years, and joined Fairbanks Treatment Center as a project director for the State of Indiana’s Strategic Prevention Framework, and now my passion is my life’s work.

Also, over the past five year, I have developed friendships with people who’ve suffered similar losses.  These are deep, abiding relationships that I’m sure I never had before.  So David’s death has led me down paths I never wanted to be on, but now that I’m here, I want to travel them more than anything - anything – else.  I am where I am supposed to be, and that is an incredible feeling.  It’s a gift of a life of satisfaction and purpose. 

Dave_prom_1 A gift directly from my son. 

From the December/January Edition of BEST LIFE Magazine

December 5, 2006 at 02:02 PM in The Odyssey | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack