Jason’s Story: Life Lessons from a Tragedy
Jason’s story is the saddest story I know.
I’m sharing Jason’s story only because I believe the life lessons involved in this story are worth talking about.
Before you read any further, it’s only fair to warn you that this is a long post that contains some very sad subject matter. But as with my last post, there are lessons here for those brave enough for forge ahead.
I met Jason in the 7th grade. I sat behind him in science class. I still remember the day he turned around and asked me if I’d seen any cool movies lately, at which point we launched into a discussion of the world’s coolest movie, a horror-comedy entitled House starring that curly haired guy from the Greatest American Hero who spent most of the movie running around with a shot-gun, shooting various demons.
“Wasn’t it cool when the flying skull popped out?!” Jason asked.
“Yeah!” I said. “And I liked the part where the main character opened his medicine cabinet and found a doorway to another dimension!”
“And then he used the…”
“Rope, and climbed way down into the darkness,” I said, finishing his thought.
We were excited about this stuff the way only 12 year old boys can be, and I guess we must have gotten loud talking about it because the teacher turned around from the chalk board long enough to say, “Gentlemen, please turn around and be quiet.”
I whispered, “Hey, do you want to come over tonight and play video games? I have a Commodore 64.”
And that was the beginning of a friendship that lasted 17 years.
When I think of all those afternoons in front of my Commodore, or running through the woods playing wizards, or walking a mile to the local arcade with a pocketful of quarters pilfered from my father’s jar, why does the light in these memories seem forever golden, like images preserved in amber?
I remember the night when Jason brought over his Commodore 64 and I hauled my new Amiga 500 into the living room and we hooked them both up to the same monitor and played 2 versions of the Bard’s Tale video game all night, until the sun was filtering through the blinds and my father was stirring in the kitchen, asking if we’d gotten any sleep.
I remember the night when Jason almost came clean about how bad his life was at home. He said, “My mom smokes a lot of pot. And she’s always yelling. And there seems to be a new guy in the house every week.”
We were sitting on the living room floor watching music videos on MTV, Jason leaning back against my sofa with tears in his eyes and saying, “My step dad used to hit me, John. One time he got mad and threw me across the room.”
“He threw you?” I asked, running my hand nervously through my hair.
“Yeah, I mean he was a tall guy. Strong. Always drinking. And he picked me up and launched me across the room into the Christmas tree.”
In my mind, I could envision the scenario then as clearly as I can now. I can see Jason, maybe 6 years old, in the arms of his raging step-father, a skinny man with facial hair and beer breath. I can see step-dad screaming, heaving Jason into the tree, the tree rocking, ornaments falling in a shower of red and gold, pine needles and hard branches puncturing Jason’s skin. I can see Jason hitting the ground and lying there amidst the broken ornaments and branches, dazed and terrified as his father loomed overhead like a dark cloud.
Yes, I could see all that. But I couldn’t do anything to change it.
“Did your mom call the cops?” I asked him.
“No,” Jason said, sniffling. “That sort of thing went on all the time. But my step-dad left a long time ago though, so he’s not around to do that stuff anymore.”
But mostly what I remember about Jason is that he was like a brother to me, and we were inseparable for 3 years, between 7th and 9th grade.
It was us against the world. If my dad yelled at me, Jason was there to crack a joke and make me laugh. If Jason had a bad day, I’d invite him over and we’d head down to the creek where we’d throw stones at the water and shout funny expressions into the dark tunnels that fed the canal, listening to our voices echo and echo, as if they’d go on forever.
Jason and I finally landed girlfriends in the 10th grade, and we naturally started spending more time with our girls and less with each other. Looking back now, it’s clear that our friendship died a slow death, over a period of years, wherein we consciously chose not to make time for each other until there was very little left of our friendship to hold onto.
So yeah, our relationship died a slow death, but the very end came all at once. And it is the very end that I want to tell you about today.
6 Months before the end. We were in our mid-twenties now, both of us parents with broken homes of our own, so similar to the homes we’d grown up in.
I was driving to the mall because I needed to buy my daughter a birthday present, and Jason was along for the ride. Neither of us said much for a long time. There was only the sound of the traffic and the wind and the motor and the swish of tires on rain-wet asphalt.
Finally, Jason said, “John, I never told you this. But my mother is schizophrenic.”
The word rang in my head: Schizophrenic.
He said, “Sometimes she was real crazy when I was growing up, John. And none of her boyfriends would stay around very long. And some of them were crazy too. And you know how she was with the drugs and walking around in her housecoat all the time. Basically, my whole life was like that. Mom was too busy being sick to ever be there for me. And sometimes I got blamed for stuff I didn’t do. And a lot of stuff went on that a healthy mother would have put a stop to.”
“What sort of stuff went on, Jason?” I asked him, looking away from the road for a moment, seeing his tired eyes, his dazed expression.
“Like that stuff with my step-dad always hitting me. And other stuff,” he said, and it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to talk about the other stuff.
And now Jason’s childhood plight became clear. He’d grown up with a schizophrenic mother and an abusive step-dad and a whole series of his mother’s boyfriends who’d stayed around just long enough to figure out how bad things were.
He’d never told me, his best friend, that his mother had been sick, maybe because he’d been ashamed, or maybe because he hadn’t known how.
He had suffered in silence. And there he suffers still.
I was 28 years old when I got a frantic phone call from Jason’s mother. “Jason’s in trouble, John. And you’re his best friend. And I didn’t know who to call.”
That phone call – and everything that came after – effectively ended my friendship with Jason.
I wish I could tell you that Jason had won the lottery and moved to Bermuda, some happy ending that would have taken him out of my life on pleasant terms. And part of me (an ashamed little corner of my mind) would be happy to tell you something more horrible (that he’d committed suicide or died while trying to save his sister from a burning building) because those horrible things would be easier to say than what I’m about to tell you, and ultimately would have left Jason’s reputation far more intact.
But the truth is that Jason dropped out of college and moved to Iowa to be with some woman he’d met on the Internet, a woman who left Jason at home with her two young children while she went off to work. And what Jason did there, in that house, effectively turned him into a monster.
I’m a little reluctant to tell you the whole story, but I’ve taken you this far, and I owe you the ending. So here it is.
When I first heard the news from Jason’s attorney, I thought there must have been some mistake. Jason had never been rough with his own kids, so how on earth could he possibly be guilty of killing someone’s 4-year-old child?
Jason? Murdered? A small child? That sounded too crazy to be true.
Still thinking that this whole thing must have been a terrible accident, I drove up to Iowa to act as a character witness on Jason’s behalf.
Sitting there on the witness stand, my heart pounding, my ears ringing, I looked at the sea of faces, all staring back at me as if I were some oddity, some crazed animal trainer who’d elected to live with grizzly bears when everyone knew those things were DANGEROUS.
Jason’s attorney, a round man in a cheap suit, asked me questions about what it had been like growing up with Jason. I said Jason was a good friend. A nice guy. I said I would never have thought he could be capable of hurting a child.
But a few minutes later, after I was down from the witness stand and sitting back in the pews with my wife, the prosecuting attorney shocked me straight. She turned on the television, which was bolted to the wall in a corner of the courtroom. And she flashed a picture of the poor little boy’s body, covered in bruises, blood around his ear. I didn’t know how this tragedy might have happened, but one thing was clear:
That had been no accident.
I felt a strange hollow feeling in my stomach. My best childhood friend had done this. My best childhood friend had violently attacked a small, helpless child. My best childhood friend was a murderer. A beast.
I really don’t have the heart to describe how the tragedy happened, so let’s just say that Jason got mad at this poor kid for no good reason and then decided to beat him black and blue with a paddle and push him into a wall so hard that he died from blunt force trauma to the head. Does that paint the picture clearly enough? I hope so because it’s about all I can stand.
He will be in prison for the rest of his life.
There is no silver-lining here. But there are lessons, always lessons. Life is full of them, and tragedies offer no exception.
1) Make sure the cycle ends with you: If you were abused as a child, you, like Jason, might feel an uncontrollable urge to do unto others what was done unto you. Since you will probably know you have these desires long before it’s too late, please do yourself (and your loved ones) a favor and get some anger management counseling. Go see a psychologist. Get yourself help.
2) Never strike a child in anger: Discipline is a necessary part of parenting. But there is no reason to ever strike a child in anger, since other forms of non-violent punishment are proven to be far more effective. The whole topic of spanking can turn nasty in a hurry, since everyone has an opinion. And no, I’m not trying to say that spanking a child is the same thing as beating him with a paddle so hard that he can’t walk. But I do want to make the point very clearly that spanking sends a very similar sort of message. It says that it’s okay for big people to hit small people, for strong people to hit weak people, that it’s okay to strike another person in anger. If you can’t figure out a way to discipline your children without hitting them, please visit the book store or library, where you’ll find a stack of information that will help you discipline far more effectively without violence.
3) If you have a friend with anger issues, encourage him or her to get help: Especially if those issues are the result of childhood violence. It might not have done any good, but I wish I had tried to talk my friend into seeing a psychologist. I wish I had talked to him about the cyclic nature of abuse.
Our family trees have deep roots that spread in all directions, and one can often trace the cycle of abuse up the trunk and through the twigs, back several generations. Be aware of the way you treat your children. Treat them with love and respect and there’s a very good chance they will grow up to treat their children (and the children of others) the same way.
But if you treat your children badly, that sort of bad parenting lives on and on.
I still remember the hollow sound of Jason’s voice in 1987 when he leaned back against my sofa with tears in his eyes and said, “My step-dad left a long time ago though, so he’s not around to do that stuff anymore.”
But was Jason’s step-dad ever really gone? Or does he live on, behind Jason’s eyes, lurking in the dark corners of his brain, spreading like a cancer? I’m certainly not trying to excuse what Jason did. Not at all. I think that much is clear.
Be good to your kids. That’s all I’m saying. If you’re going to start a cycle, make sure it’s a good one.
And as I close the chapter on this sad story, I am reminded of one of the many days that Jason and I spent down by the creek during the summer between the 7th and 8th grade. I remember the flash of sunlight on black water, the dense canopy of trees, the soft mud. I remember skipping stones. And I remember standing with Jason at the mouth of the great dark tunnel that fed the canal, shouting and laughing and listening to our voices echo and echo, as if they’d go on forever.
And in a way, I suppose they do.
March 7, 2008 Friday at 1:46 pm