Remembering Joseph Wiederrick, Revised

“Give to everyone who asks . . . ”  Luke 6:30

I’m writing this in the early morning hours of February 20, safe and warm in the little cottage I call home, just outside the city limits of Moscow, Idaho.  There’s just a skiff of snow on the ground — the kind so light it brings to mind images of frosted breakfast cereal.

A month ago, in the early morning hours of January 20, a young man — to look at him, really, a boy — was drunk, confused, lost and literally freezing to death as he wandered around Moscow, making his way for miles throughout town wearing a light jacket and Vans tennis shoes.  There was ankle-deep snow all around him, deeper the further out of the city limits he went, and the temperature that night was in the teens.

Joseph Wiederrick, 18, was a University of Idaho freshman, a fresh-faced, handsome kid who died early January 20 near a stream northeast of Moscow.  He died of hypothermia, finally, apparently after slipping into the stream and further soaking himself.  Police found his body that afternoon, frozen to death under the bridge where he sought shelter as hypothermia, with its teasing sleepiness, false sense of warmth, and gleeful confusion overtook him. 

The bridge wasn’t the first place he sought shelter.  It’s where he went after those he sought shelter from turned him away.

It’s taken me a month to write about Joseph. I wept for days when it first happened.  I remembered my eldest son walking home a few years ago once after enjoying New Year’s Eve a bit too much, his car safely parked a couple of miles away from our house but his clothes and shoes caked with snow as he knocked on our door at 3 a.m.  I remembered the grief my youngest son feels over the culture of intoxication he’s certain simply overtook Joseph, who was a friend of some friends of his, and which will, inevitably, take another young life before the end of spring semester.  I grieved for his parents, tears even now trailing down my face, as they drove up from Hailey, several hours away, to help look for their son, who left a UI frat party, drunk, and got so terribly and finally lost. 

And I wailed with anger and disbelief that an 18-year-old who, my son says, stood about 5′ 7″ and who was so slightly built that he looked years younger, was turned away by at least two people whose homes he visited as he wandered, aimlessly and desperately, around my town.  News accounts say he left the party around 1 and meandered, dazed and disoriented, through town.  He first broke into a basement of a house just down the street from the apartments we own, thinking it was his dorm room.  The woman who found him there told him to go away, although she did say, later, after he was found dead, that she had offered to call the police if he needed any help.

Joseph said he didn’t, and he apologized.  She didn’t call the police.

Then he made his way, hypothermia accelerating as drunkenness receded, to the house of a young woman, pregnant and alone.  She was afraid, she said in news reports, and told him to go to the house across the street, where they would help.  It was nearly 3 a.m. on a frigid, snowy winter night.

She didn’t call the police, either.

Joseph wandered around, close to the hoped-for house across the street, but his tracks in the snow indicate that he continued further north, where he came to the stream that runs just east of North Mountain View Drive, outside of the city limits.  Exhausted, hazy from alcohol and hypothermia, he slipped and fell into the trickling brook, where hypothermia triumphed.  Curled up, wet and freezing, Joseph went to sleep under the bridge sometime after about 4 a.m.  Police found his body some 12 hours later.

I am not without honest sympathy for the two people whose houses Joseph went to for help; I can’t imagine the horror they now feel.  One woman said he didn’t look like he needed help, although, with a post-morten blood-alcohol level about twice the legal limit, he had to be considerably inebriated some 12 to 14 hours earlier, and more than a little disoriented from creeping hypothermia.  I know they’ll live with their guilt for the rest of their lives, something I wouldn’t wish on anyone and not particularly on people who are undoubtedly decent, conscientious people.  I would have let him in.  They didn’t.  But that doesn’t make me terribly noble and it certainly doesn’t make them evil.

Nonetheless, their neglect, whether borne of fear or indifference or optimism, had terrible consequences.  An 18-year-old boy, a year younger than my youngest son, had gotten wasted at a frat party on our university’s campus, walked through our safe and friendly little town, gotten turned away by our own neighbors, and died under a bridge near the park where we celebrate birthdays and watch our kids play.

There was the predictable mourning and immediate condemnation directed toward the two people we know of who turned him away when he was in obvious distress, not thinking to call the police — a horrible example of “not getting involved” that far, far exceeds the gross inhospitality of simply not inviting into our homes, or onto our front steps, a slight, drunk, freezing young man, obviously confused and in distress.  Predictably, after the first week, everything died down around Moscow, just as two parents and their family in Hailey, Idaho, mourned the loss of their precious son and shook from their heels the dust of a town that, in their eyes and mine, turned their boy away when his life depended on their response.

I struggled at first to try to write about what happened to Joseph Wiederrick, because I was angry, angrier than I’ve been in a very long time.  The knowledge that the two people who refused to help him — who refused, even, to just call the police and say that a kid was wandering around town, apparently lost and breaking into basements and knocking on doors — were feeling anguish did nothing, at first, to ease my anger toward them.  A month later, I’m still angry, because I see that this has shattered them, too.  And I sincerely wish for them a restorative peace that passes all understanding.

Because what passes my understanding, what I simply cannot seem to believe and will never accept, is that a young man in trouble literally and figuratively had the doors of help and compassion shut in his face.  In the deepest Red state in the union, where pompous assertions that “family values” and “Biblical standards” guide our legislature and our beliefs, two people turned away the most likely example of Jesus’ “the least of these” they’ll ever encounter.  And in the bright Blue dot that Moscow is in Red-state Idaho, where much deep thought is given to how locally sourced the organic lamb at the Co-Op is and how endangered girls in Pakistan are, this same community let fear and indifference dictate their refusal to help one of our own.  Joseph was one of our own, in the same way that every milk-carton kid and every bullied teen is one of our own, whether we act on it or not.

A month ago, the lost and scared kid came right to us, and we turned him away and left him wandering until he died, curled up under the only shelter — a concrete bridge — opened to him.

Joseph Wiederrick’s parents identified their son’s frozen-dead body on the same day that our family celebrated my son’s 24th birthday.  On future January 20ths, I’ll be missing a son who lives six hours away, working hard to make a career for himself for the life that stretches ahead of him.  Another family, though, will spend every January 20 living in grief that, if I can bear to try to imagine, must feel like a dagger imbedded in what’s left of their hearts.  Because their son will not become the architect he wanted to become.  He won’t get married and have kids for them to spoil; he won’t come home on holidays and celebrate his birthdays with them or with his friends.  He’s dead.

He’s dead.  He’s not dead because he went to a party and got smashed; there is no death penalty for drunkenness.  He’s dead because of an alcohol-sodden Greek system and an impotent and cowed university and, most of all, because at least two people he came into contact with decided, with no malice whatsoever, that their own convenience, their own property, and, perhaps, their own safety, were all of greater importance than the needs of a drunk kid.  They held on tightly to their rights and to their security, thinking, I suppose, and suppose generously, that they were holding on to their very lives.  They had a tight grip on what was theirs.

And a boy slipped through their fingers as he wandered along to his death.

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