I can’t get his face out of my mind.
He had deep eyes the color of leather that perfectly matched the hue of the unkempt hair framing his face. He looked younger than he was.
His eyes lit like fire when he laughed, but he was mostly serene throughout the day. He seemed at peace as he walked the halls of his high school.
That serenity is what haunts me in the days after his death.
Joe was a good-natured handful. The perfect student? No, not at all. One who knew neither mischief nor detention hall? Nope.
Joe was Steady Eddie. He took the middle path throughout most of life and was a get-along kid. He ended up on the dean’s list in college and was a solid musician. Joe was also beautifully faulted.
Describing a boy as beautifully faulted seems like a double-fisted oxymoron. But that term describes both the promise that each boy possesses and the dents he gets along the way to achieving that promise.
Danger appears when those dents become so deep they camouflage that promise, that future success that hangs out there like a well-meaning siren clinging to a rock in the sea, begging the boy to head her way.
When the dents cause enough damage so that progress is no longer visible, the faults can overwhelm the beauty.
Joe’s calculus teacher in high school showed me a picture on her phone.
“Look at this,” she said. “I was about to take a photo of something and I noticed one that I didn’t recognize. When I clicked on it, I saw this …”
The boy with the deep brown eyes was smiling, and his classmates were waving and laughing in the background.
“And this,” she said.
The boys were all pointing at the camera with Joe in the foreground egging them on.
“I left my class for two minutes one day, and he grabbed my phone and took these photos. Totally inappropriate. And really funny.”
Joe didn’t know malice at all but was well-versed in the habits of mischievous boys. He didn’t hurt anyone, didn’t hate anyone, didn’t hold grudges with anyone.
While his teachers remember him as a good kid, they also remember that as he walked along the path of his young life, he sometimes gave in to impulse.
He was counseled. His parents took every step they knew to pull him away from the shadowed spots.
They worked tirelessly to unmute the benign siren that was singing his song, but the momentary release from pain was more tempting sometimes.
Ultimately, the shadows pulled him in and swallowed him whole; he no longer heard that sweet song that his future sang for him. At the age of 20, Joe died of an accidental drug overdose.
Some easily discard those who perish at the hands of narcotics. It might be the easily avoided reality of such a death or our own sense of self-preservation that nudges us to believe that such an end happens to others, not our own.
But those who would diminish another human being in that way most certainly did not know Joe.
He was so close to success. He had a family who loved him and would move the heavens to help him. He had great friends who cautioned him when he strayed. But a handful of wrong turns later, he tried opioids.
A lot has been said about the opioid crisis and the people who fall under the spell of such drugs.
But what about those who try to manage that dance, those who are not regular users but dangle themselves over that cliff on occasion?
Joe was not a stereotypical overdose death. Joe was a compliant young man, a fully functioning student who excelled in difficult studies, and a beautiful and loving son.
He did not argue with his parents or steal from friends or shake with obsession over drugs.
And maybe that’s the difficult part of understanding Joe’s death. We want to picture him as a strung-out street punk when the reality is much more frightening: He looked like us.
Joe was a good kid who treated his wounds in a way that would ultimately cost his life.
If we believe in a loving God, then Joe is in his hands, the lure of a drug-induced escape removed, a better path unveiled in the mist, the siren’s song changed to the hymn of angels.
There is no question that misusing opioids is a clear and present danger, an evil that takes more than 60,000 American lives annually and causes 10 times the damage in relationships and families.
But those in that realm, even at his or her lowest point, have value.
To euthanize a person’s goodness or to define him solely by the cause of death is shortsighted and wrong.
To do so is to turn the music down and suffer a stadium full of people to an early demise.
It’s true that a drug abuser who does not want help wears on the soul. But the fact that so many of them were once brown-eyed sons and daughters, so many were once seeking the promise of the future, so many were once somebody’s child compels us to put compassion ahead of the desire to discard.
Today, Little Rock Police Department officers carry Narcan, the drug that can reverse an overdose and save a person’s life.
We now have the Joshua Ashley-Pauley Act that allows a person to call for emergency help with immunity.
But the real change needs to come not in laws, but in life. The view we have of those who abuse drugs must be tempered with equal doses of accountability and compassion.
There are consequences for bad behavior, and self-inflicted wounds are the most difficult for which to cultivate sympathy.
Drug users face expulsions, job losses, lost families and jail time. All are warranted to some degree.
But opportunity for redemption must remain. For who among us is without need of a second chance? Who among us is without a few dents? Who among us is not beautifully faulted?
Steve Straessle is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. His column appears every other Saturday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A version of this article first appeared on the newspaper’s website and is used with permission.