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Volume 41. No. 2.
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The Boy in the Photo
Edith Heideman '72 remembers her son Adrian as a young man who "lit up the room."

By Rachel Stewart Johnson '96

Photographs of a teenage Adrian Heideman show a boy, often holding a guitar. The boy with the floppy blond hair appears playful, handsome, intent.

Today, his mother’s pain is acute.

Edith “Edie” Heideman ’72 is passionate, but also distraught, raw and unapologetic. Her only son—her “big, beautiful, still-growing” 18-year-old son—died seven weeks after his arrival at college in 2000. The death of any young man is a tragedy, but the manner in which this young man died—alone in a fraternity house basement, felled by alcohol poisoning—has left his mother wading through grief that does not ebb.

Adrian Heideman’s upbringing was unlike most. He did not, his mother believes, hold the myth of his own immortality typical of many adolescents. Since diagnosed with cancer (acute lymphoblastic leukemia) at the age of 4, he was busy at the task of cheating death.

“He never complained,” Edie says. She describes him as a cheerful boy who approached his cancer treatment in a matter-of-fact way. He looked forward to playing video games at the hospital. After a while, he dismissed the discomfort of receiving anesthesia. The lengthy fight shaped him into a thoughtful person, focused on the present, recalls his mother.

Edie’s voice often rises when she speaks of her son, the second of four children. Not long before his death, Adrian made his first return trip home—a 200-mile trek from California State University, Chico to Palo Alto. “When I saw him, I was so happy; I jumped into his arms,” Edie recalls.

Adrian was born in Houston, where the family had moved from the San Francisco Bay Area temporarily to allow his father, Michael, to complete his Ph.D. at Rice University. Four years later, Edie began to notice a gaunt, almost translucent look to her son and dreaded the reason. “I began grieving when Adrian was diagnosed with leukemia,” she says.

“He had this unique childhood,” Edie explains. Before leaving the hospital as a newborn, Adrian was diagnosed with PKU, a serious genetic disorder that can result in brain damage. Two weeks later, his parents were told there had been an error and the baby was fine.
Gradually after being diagnosed with leukemia, Adrian’s health improved, and his hospitalizations and clinic visits became shorter and less frequent. As a young adolescent, Adrian did not excel academically. “Since he spent the better part of his life saving his life, he never took school too seriously,” Edie says. In high school, he and two classmates clashed with a teacher. Although she empathized with her son, calling the teacher “unfit to be around adolescents,” Edie encouraged Adrian to endure.

“I forced Adrian to stay through it, because I said, ‘Honey, this is what the real world is like. There’s going to be people out there who don’t like you and try to make your life difficult. You have to learn to rise above these challenges.’ But if I had known then that he only had two more years to live, I would’ve transferred him out of the class.”

Adrian found his niches as he grew. He enjoyed summer trips abroad and learned Japanese. He was creative, making music with two bands, composing hundreds of poems and performing with a children’s theatre company. After being overweight for years as a side effect of his cancer treatment, he became fitness-minded midway through high school and made the varsity wrestling squad.

Then, the denouement of the young survivor’s life: two sets of stairs below a raucous fraternity party, alone after being compelled to down a bottle of brandy. He was meant to sleep it off.
The reality pains Edie in a way unmatched. “When he died,” she says, “I of course wanted to die.” She searches for a way to convey such loss. “That part of my DNA is gone.”

In the several months before his death, Adrian’s life had the predictable quality of youth. He wrote an online journal that remains a testament to the archetypal college freshman experience: wondering about classes, keeping in touch with old friends.

“I hate chem lab. My one worst enemy is chem lab. It is the bane of my existence. Skateboarding on the other hand is super duper cool.”

About a month before his death, he began to refer to his decision to rush a fraternity: “The only one I would want to join though is Pi Kappa Phi, which I got invited to an invitational BBQ tonight at. I have to wear a dressy shirt and dressy pants and a tie. Oi. I don’t have dressy clothes up here.”

Two days later: “So I decided to go Greek. It’s so fun. I was afraid about going Greek at first because I didn’t want to be a part of anything that was just about drinking and partying and sports and stuff I don’t like, but the fraternity I’m pledging to is a lot nicer than that.”

Edie does not hide her disdain for the campus culture that enabled and encouraged the fraternity hazing experience as a youthful rite of passage. She and her husband filed lawsuits against the fraternity and the students involved. The fraternity lost its recognition and university privileges, and some fraternity members served modest jail time and paid monetary damages.

Edie has become a nationwide voice against hazing and a proponent of educating students about the prevention of alcohol poisoning. She has visited several college campuses, presenting a lecture titled “One Last Drink.” Included in her talk is a tape of the 911 call made the night her son died. She shines a steady spotlight on the ignorance of Adrian’s fraternity brothers, who were, she says, “doing CPR on a dead body.”

The religious faith that Edie held during her children’s early years has faded. The woman who prayed with her children every night now offers: “I used to believe in God.” She laments the undercurrents that can whisk an innocent life away. “Raising children is a challenge even in the best of circumstances,” she says. “It’s not a safe world we’ve brought them into.”

Bringing up Adrian was a story of lovesickness, from its earliest years. Edie remains ebullient in describing her son.

“He had a heart larger than a house,” she says. “He lit up a room.”

A Few Facts About Students and Alcohol

• Alcohol consumption by college students is linked to at least 1,400 student deaths and 500,000 unintentional injuries each year.

• Approximately one in three 18-to-24-year-olds admitted to emergency rooms for serious injuries is intoxicated.

• Alcohol or other drugs were a factor with 75 percent of the men and 55 percent of the women in reported acquaintance rapes on college campuses.

• During one’s life span, the highest prevalence of periodic heavy alcohol consumption is associated with the age of 19 to 24.

• In a recent national study, 31 percent of students met criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse and six percent for alcohol dependence.

• On average, college students may drink on fewer occasions than their non-collegiate peers,
but they drink heavily on a more frequent basis than non-students.

• Students at smaller colleges tend to drink more than students at larger schools.

• The number of college students who do not drink has increased to approximately 20 percent.

• Members of fraternities and sororities tend to drink more than students who do not participate in the Greek system.

Source: the Website of B.R.A.D (Be Responsible About Drinking)

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by Pomona College
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