One year ago this week, my young nephew, Stephen, died. As we journey through this week, our thoughts go back to this last year, when amidst back-to-school preparations and our town’s annual Schweizer Fest, our family was planning a funeral for a 26 year old young man. The following is a story I wrote about Stephen’s death with the goal of informing other young people about the dangers that lurk at parties.
In Memory of
Stephen Paul Fordyce
I can’t erase her voice from my mind. Sometimes her words come back to me at random times. As I am walking up the stairs with a load of laundry it comes to me, “Stephen died.” I remember how weak my sister’s voice sounded on the phone as she, still in shock, told me of my nephew’s death. She sounded like a lost child, a wounded soul.
That morning was August 8. It was the week before school was to begin, and I was in my third grade classroom preparing for opening day. At nine o’clock my cell phone rang. It was one of those calls I will never forget. At first I couldn’t comprehend what my sister, Bobbi, was saying. How could he possibly be gone? Stephen was 26 and had just begun to live life. He was healthy; actually he was more healthy than had had been in previous years after starting a workout routine and improving his eating habits.
I dropped what I was doing and stopped in the office to let them know what had happened, and that I wouldn’t be in for several days. As the words came, so did the tears. I couldn’t believe what was coming from my mouth. My nephew was dead. I have lost many family members, including my father when I was seven, but this? This was incomprehensible. What happened? On the drive to my sister’s house, I just kept wondering what to do. I don’t know what I am supposed to do. What do I do? Whom do I call?
Shortly after arriving at my sister’s house, I watched as her co-workers walked her in from the car. What could I possibly say to her? All of my life I have wanted to fix others’ problems. I could not fix this. As she began to explain what she knew, the story only became more difficult to swallow. First of all, it was Monday, and Stephen had died on Sunday. Stephen lived in a city about an hour from us, and the coroner’s office had failed to notify my sister that her son had died. How is that even possible? His friends knew of his death before his own mother. There are no words to describe the pain that caused.
When the coroner first informed Bobbi, the only explanation for Stephen’s death he gave was that there had been a party at his house the night before, and that one of Stephen’s friends said there might have been prescription drugs involved. As you may or may not know, grief comes with a wide array of emotions, including anger. While I was extremely sad about the loss of my nephew, as I pondered his own responsibility in his death, the anger occasionally seeped in. How could this intelligent young man make such a stupid – and ultimately deadly – decision?
While we awaited the final autopsy report, there we arrangements to be made, and phone calls to make. Every step we took was wrought with devastation. Watching a mother make funeral arrangements for her child is heartbreaking. Because that mother was also my sister, it was nearly unbearable, yet I needed to be there to help carry her through. As we spoke with the funeral directors, they tried to gently give us more troubling news. While Stephen was passed out at his party, his friends (please remember these weren’t teenagers; they were all in their twenties) thought it would be funny to write on his face with a permanent marker. The funeral directors knew we wanted an open casket, but were not certain they could remove the black marks. Fortunately, a couple of days later, they called to report that they were able to clean the marker off; my sister would be able to see her son’s beautiful face one last time.
Any time a young person dies, there is a large turn-out at the visitation in our small town. Stephen’s day was no different. It was comforting to our family to see how many friends Stephen had, and how many lives he had touched. At the same time I wanted to scream at his friends to remember their friend lying in that casket the next time they thought it would be cool to try drugs. Though they were clearly upset by the loss of their friend, did they really understand the implications of his choices? Would they remember that day the next time they were at a party?
We made it through the first week, but this was by no means the end of our grief. We had a house to clean out, financial arrangements to be made, and visits to a lawyer to make sure the legalities were handled correctly.
After a few weeks, we received the autopsy report. Stephen’s death was caused by mixing Xanax and Oxycontin. There was no alcohol in his system. According to the coroner, this is becoming a common practice at parties. Supposedly, mixing the two gives quite the euphoric feeling. Or it kills you. As I began to research the effects of mixing these two prescription drugs, I found that it slows one’s heart rate and blood pressure. If it slows them too much, death is inevitable. While a party-goer might be able to mix the two one time with no ill-effects, the next time could end in death.
According to his friends, Stephen was intoxicated at the party, but they noticed nothing out of the ordinary. He even woke up the next morning to see his girlfriend off to work. After she left, he returned to bed to ‘sleep it off’, and that was the end. His life was over. He had a great job as a heating and air conditioning technician; he owned his own home; and he had a wonderful girlfriend who cared about him very much. In an instant, none of that mattered.
My nephew was not a drug addict. The coroner stated that the results of the autopsy showed that he did not make of habit of taking these drugs. He was having a good time with his friends, and he made a mistake. That mistake cost him his life. That mistake left a mother without her son, an aunt and uncle without their nephew, his sisters without their brother, grandparents without their grandson, and cousins missing one of their own.
Life is about making decisions, and every single decision we make has a consequence. We all make poor choices at some point in our lives. When I was young I took unnecessary risks, partied when I shouldn’t have, and made my share of mistakes. By the grace of God, I was never arrested and I lived to tell about it. Teenagers and twenty-somethings: You are on the brink of living life as an adult. You can be whoever you choose to be. You have countless opportunities before you. Take advantage of all the great adventures this life has to offer. Enjoy life, but make smart choices.
Many young people seem to be under the misconception that since drugs such as Xanax and Oxycontin are prescription medications, they are safer than street drugs or alcohol. They are safe only if taken by the person for whom they are prescribed, not mixed with other medications, and taken as directed. Otherwise, you are literally risking your life. One night of partying is not worth the chances you take. The wrong mix of drugs and/or alcohol can cause irreversible damage, not just to you, but to your family. Our entire family has been affected by Stephen’s decision. His mother lives every day with the knowledge that her son’s death could have been avoided so easily. Let his death not be in vain. Learn from his mistake, and share that knowledge with your friends. Consider the consequences before making a decision. If it would help, buddy up with a friend, let him or her know your intentions before you attend a party, and ask her to make sure that under no circumstances do you go off path. You have to look out for one another, even when it’s difficult.
Please share this story with everyone. Share it through your own blog, email, or your Facebook page. If by sharing our story we save one young life, perhaps we can begin to make sense of our loss.