Losing Joshua

On January 30, He Nearly Killed Himself. On April 16, He Did. A 17-Year-Old's Suicide and the Questions Left Behind

In late February, a guidance counselor at Josh's school heard from a student that Josh had been cutting his forearms. The counselor brought Josh into her office, inspected his inner arms, and saw cuts from his wrists to his elbows. She called Debra, who took Josh to the one hospital in Syracuse with a psychiatric emergency room. He stayed overnight.

Two weeks later, the son of Debra's boyfriend noticed a paper next to the computer in the living room. The page was blank, except for the bottom, where it had a Web address and a date—March 9. Visiting the site, he discovered instructions on how to make a hangman's noose. He showed the site to Debra. She called her older son, who drove up from Connecticut and conducted a suicide watch, monitoring Josh around the clock for the next several days.

By mid April, Debra thought Josh was a little better. She had found a psychiatrist-psychologist team willing to treat him, and he had agreed to go. He went to one appointment, then returned a week later. That same day, Monday, April 15, was the start of spring break. After the appointment, he and Debra went to see the movie Phone Booth together. About 12 hours later, around 2 a.m., Josh hanged himself. He did not leave a note, but afterward, when his older brother searched his bedroom at his father's house, he found a receipt for the rope. It was from Home Depot, dated March 9—the same day Josh had been surfing the Web.

Josh Graham’s bedroom in Phoenix (pop. 2,251), a rural village northwest of Syracuse.
photo: Jay Muhlin
Josh Graham’s bedroom in Phoenix (pop. 2,251), a rural village northwest of Syracuse.

Debra leads a visitor through the living room and up the stairs to Josh's bedroom. Britney Spears poses in a photo pinned to the door. A Metallica flag is above the bed. A ribbon from a school science fair hangs on one wall, and an autobiography by Mankind, the pro wrestler, sits atop the desk. The room is neat and clean. No Hershey's syrup bottles or Coke cans or Taco Bell wrappers.

For three months after Josh's death, Debra could not bring herself to walk into this room. More recently she has started coming here whenever she wants to feel close to him. She lies down on his water bed and listens to a CD he made of his favorite songs, by bands like Radiohead and Limp Bizkit.

Sometimes she sits on the edge of his bed and studies the drawings tacked to one wall. "This one shows a broken person," she says, pointing to a simple drawing of a figure with all the body parts disconnected. Other drawings reveal an obsession with death—a tombstone, a crucifix, a noose. "I was so upset when I saw this work," she says. "He had drawn cartoon characters all his life, but when he turned 14, his drawings took on a darker tone. They clearly depicted my son was in pain."

She pulls out a portfolio and opens it on the bed. Josh had focused on art classes in high school. After his death, his friends had cleaned out his locker and brought the contents over to the house. "I had never seen any of the drawings in here," she says, pulling out a sketch of a young man seated on the end of a coffin. "He did this in his junior year, but I never knew of its existence until after he died." A minute or two later, she closes the portfolio and puts it away.

After Josh's death, Debra discovered a stash of videotapes in a drawer in his bedroom. One was a brief home movie dated March 27, 2002, a year before his death. Downstairs in the living room, she slides the tape into the VCR. Josh appears on the screen. He is thin, with piercing blue eyes and messy blond hair. He wears a hat made of tinfoil with two horns.

He is alone in his bedroom. "A room with a view," he jokes, since all he can see from the window is the driveway. The camera jerks toward the floor, then focuses on a porn magazine, zooming in on a photo of a naked woman. Next is a shot of his blue lava lamp, then the bed. "This is the master bedroom, where nothing at all really happens," he says.

Debra lights a Marlboro Light and settles back into the sofa, facing the television. She has seen this video maybe 20 times in recent months. Studying Josh's pen and pencil drawings usually depresses her, but watching this video always lifts her spirits.

Josh removes his tinfoil hat and puts on a Shriner's hat. He sits down in a chair, faces the camera, picks up a ukulele, strums a couple times, and sticks a cigarette between his lips. Soon he is coughing. He tries to blow a smoke ring. Debra laughs. The sight of her son pretending he's a smoker amuses her, especially since he spent years berating her for her pack-a-day habit.

He lifts a condom to his mouth and blows into it, creating a balloon. "OK," he says. "That's enough of that." His next prop is a pair of leopard-print girls' underwear. He places it on his head, then grins at the camera. Soon he's back to the cigarettes. He jams six or seven in his mouth at once. He picks up a lighter and tries to ignite them all, without much luck. "He didn't get a single one lit," Debra says, with a smile.

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