I got a call recently from an old friend. I hadn’t spoken to him in a few years, as you get older, sometimes you lose touch with people. In any event, the friend called me with some terrible news, he’s dying.
After the customary three hundred questions, I learned that he had contracted a rare disease while on a trip to Africa, unfortunately the disease is incurable and the doctors gave him zero chance of survival.
“I’m at peace with it.” He told me, “I’ve found G-D, or should I say, G-D found me and he’s my personal advisor through this process. I figure I have to listen to him, since pretty soon we’re going to be roomies.”
I met Josh years ago when I worked as a youth leader. He wasn’t overly involved, he only came to a few of the events, but outside of the organized movement we kept in touch. We weren’t particularly close but we spoke occasionally.
He came from a broken home that was devoid of any religious practice. His mom told me that religion was for suckers and that she and her precious boy were never going to be sucked in by the ‘snake oil sellers of wholesale faith.’ They lived like bohemians, open to everything including experimental sex and drugs.
Last year, Josh’s mom died of a drug overdose. He was in the house with her but was so far gone on alcohol and drugs that he didn’t even realize she was in trouble. “It was the best and the most horrific day of my life.” He told me. “I loved my mom, but between the incest, drug abuse and drinking, she really screwed me up.”
Josh said the sex started as a bar mitzvah gift, his mom’s way of saying welcome to manhood. Not long after, he started drinking. “I guess I just wanted to mask the shame and guilt, I mean, I was doing my mom, it just didn’t feel right.” Then came the drugs, introduced by one of the many men his mom brought home to be his new ‘daddy’.
“These men were leaches and they ate people like my mom for dinner. When they couldn’t get their way with her, if she was too stoned or something, my room was right down the hall.” Josh estimates that by the time he was fifteen, he had had sex with his mother hundreds of times and was molested by the men she brought home “more times than I care to admit.”
When he was sixteen, he decided to change his life.
“I really had no choice,” he said, “my mom told me she was pregnant and I was sure I was the father. I mean, if it was true, I’d be the father of my own sibling. It blew my mind. I had to get out, I was literally going crazy.”
Josh had nowhere to turn. He wasn’t involved in religion, in fact he hadn’t been near a synagogue since his bar mitzvah, he couldn’t tell his friends or their parents and his conflicted feelings towards his mom stopped him from going to the authorities.
“I thought about suicide, but then I realized that killing myself wouldn’t accomplish anything at all. All people would say is there goes that stupid white trash junkie kid. I wanted to make a difference, I wanted to be remembered for good things.” Josh decided to take action, he looked up his local synagogue and called the Rabbi.
“He was a nice guy, he met me a few times and I told him my story. He wasn’t judgmental or preachy, he just listened in silence and when I finished he walked around the desk and gave me a big hug. It was the first time someone ever hugged me and didn’t want me to do something back. I started crying.”
The Rabbi suggested that Josh meet a social worker, which he did, the same day. The social worker got him emergency placement in a group home which he described as “the best and worst thing that ever happened to me.”
A few days after being placed, Josh was arrested for selling drugs to other group home residents.
“It was a really self destructive move, I mean think about it,” he said, “I really came from a screwed up place and had no concept at all of what was right or wrong. Sex, drugs, drinking, it was all normal for me.”
On the recommendation of his social worker, Josh was placed into a rehab center, he stayed there for three months, when they released him he was clean.
“I decided that I had to see my mom. I had to tell her how I felt, I had to yell at her or so something, I duno, I needed closure.” Josh said.
Josh went to his mom’s house.
“When I got there she was stoned out of her head. I asked her about her pregnancy and she laughed and said she had lied about it.” Josh told his mother how he felt and spilled his guts to her. “She just laughed at me. That hurt the most. I thought that when I told her she’d maybe apologize, maybe care. She just laughed.”
Josh descended back into drug and alcohol use. “What was the point in staying clean? I mean my own mom didn’t give a crap about me.”
Josh masked his drug use and lived in his group home until he turned eighteen. On his eighteenth birthday Josh moved back into his mother’s house.
“I walked through the door and the lines of coke were already laid out for me.” Josh said. “That night we had a welcome home orgy with me, her and two of her druggy friends. We were so stoned that when she OD’d nobody noticed.”
In the morning the men left and Josh went to wake up his mom, but she was dead. He called the police.
“I couldn’t help but think that this was a sign, that somehow her death was a signal to me to start a new life, to start over again and maybe be normal.” Josh said, “I gave up drugs, I stopped drinking and I got involved in charity work.”
Josh started volunteering for a charity that sends care packages to needy families in Africa. “I wanted to help kids. I mean, I had a pretty crappy childhood, if I could help other kids have a better one, well I guess, I thought my life would worth something.”
When the charity said they needed volunteers to go to Africa to help vaccinate children, Josh was the first to volunteer, “it was an opportunity for me to really make a difference.”
Josh got a job washing dishes at a local restaurant to raise the funds he needed to go and two months after volunteering he was on a plane to Africa.
“It was exciting, when we landed they drove us to this tiny remote village in the middle of a forest. The people were so poor. The Red Cross had a tent set up for vaccinations. I was there for about an hour when one of the residents went nuts and grabbed a used needle from the hand of a volunteer and stabbed me. The doctors think that’s where my disease came from.” Explained Josh. “Imagine the irony, all the drugs, random sex and abuse and a little needle prick in Africa did me in.”
Josh was diagnosed with HIV which developed into AIDS.
“I took the cocktails, I tried everything, but the doctors told me because of my history of heavy drug use my body’s resistance was altered. While the treatments slowed things down, I’m in big trouble.” He said.
Josh told me that he didn’t want his life to go without meaning, he wanted a moral lesson to be taught by his experience, “I can’t imagine leaving this world without contributing anything to it. If one kid or one person gets inspired by my story and takes their lives in their own hands and becomes a better person, then my life was worth something.”
Two weeks ago, Josh died of complications related to his illness, he was 19 years old.