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MOTIVATIONAL MUSINGS: Remembering Henry, nine years gone

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I never heard him play guitar.

By all accounts, Henry Granju was gifted on the six-string. I only met him once, but through a local message board known as Knox Blab, I read about his growing up. Before he died nine years ago today, through his mother’s words and photos, I got to know a bright, insightful, wisecracking kid who seemed older than his young years. His mom proudly related his droll observations about high school and adulthood; his natural ability to play that even impressed his guitar teacher; and through photos, his gentle spirit that blazed through kind eyes, the type that make other teen boys smolder with jealousy because girls inevitably fall in love at first sight.

Those eyes. I won’t soon forget those eyes, staring back at me outside the Ruby Tuesday on Alcoa Highway on a January night, a few months before Henry’s hard end and tragic, heartbreaking death.

A mutual friend in recovery suggested that his mother call me; we talked and texted, and she told me how Henry’s teen years had taken a dark turn. Drug rehab in North Carolina and boarding school in Montana had gotten him back on track, but upon turning 18, Henry had decided that he didn’t have a problem. Back in East Tennessee, he was self-assured and adamant that he wasn’t an addict. That pot and alcohol were rites of passage of all young people, and that he was no different.

He wasn’t belligerent; he didn’t sneer or curse or rebel with slammed doors and profanity. He simply, respectfully stated his intentions, apologetic for causing his family such frantic worry but assuring everyone he’d be OK. The one night I met him face-to-face, our conversation was brief. His mother did a lot of talking, Henry said little and I mostly listened and watched.

I saw myself, and it troubled me.

When I finally got clean in 2002 and arrived at a halfway house in Downtown North Knoxville, a very wise man told me this — you can never be too dumb to get sober, but you sure as hell can be too smart to get it. Henry’s intelligence and self-assuredness combined with that false sense of invulnerability and daredevil recklessness that every teen who’s ever lived possesses, and there wasn’t anything I or his mother or anyone else could say at the time that would have deterred him.

His path led to a hard end in April 2010, in a grocery store parking lot in rural Knox County. He was beaten. A few hours later, after ingesting drugs to dull the physical pain and wounded pride, he passed out. The head trauma and drugs combined, and the Henry so many people knew and loved was gone.

His body held on for weeks. His mind struggled to return to the light. Ultimately, all he endured was too much, and he died May 31, 2010. He was 18 years old.

He left behind four siblings and parents and stepparents and grandparents and extended family members whose grief still weighs on them like the oppressive East Tennessee summer heat. This week, I drove past that Ruby Tuesday on Alcoa Highway where my one and only encounter with Henry took place. It seemed like a lifetime ago, but I can still see him standing there, listening as I explained that his choices were his to make ... that ultimately, only Henry could decide whether Henry had a drug problem ... and that those same choices might one day lead him to a point where turning back was no longer an option.

It troubles me still. My own hubris makes me second-guess our conversation, and the whispers in the back of my mind suggest that if I’d found the right words, maybe he would have listened.

The simple fact is that Henry wasn’t ready. Was he an addict? All signs point to yes, because an 18-year-old who casually experiments, who recreationally uses pot and alcohol, doesn’t wind up with traumatic brain injuries from a parking-lot beating in the middle of the night.

In the years since his death, addiction has seemed to grow crueler and more despotic. These days, the world is full of Henrys — young, amazing people with endless potential who don’t realize the consequences of their decisions; who meet tragic ends; who leave behind a legacy of beauty marred by an end that’s dark and ugly; who leave so many people, loved ones and strangers alike, asking themselves why.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We offer them a way out and a way forward. Young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight … we have a better way. And that’s why we do this job — to save all the Henrys that we can, so that their mothers and fathers don’t walk around for the rest of their lives with an empty hole where a child should be.

Rest in peace, Henry. You were always loved. I wish that would have been enough. Here’s a song for him, and for the rest of you on this Friday.