Here, Jan Heward, 54, tells the story in her own words.
W￼oken by my phone at the crack of dawn, I already knew who was calling.
‘Morning, I love you, Mum!’ came my boy Mitchell’s voice down the line.
Just 17, he was working on a dairy farm. Living alone, he liked to start his day with a chat. And I loved to hear from him.
‘I’m off to milk the cows,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you a ring at breakfast time.’
My husband Ron, 62, and I had run a holiday park, so Mitchell, his twin, Gerald, and their older sister Laura, then 19, had grown up loving the outdoors. When they were nine, Ron took the boys on an epic 350-kilometre bike ride, and two years later they covered more than 500 kilometres with him. They’re bulletproof! I thought.
Mitchell was an affectionate boy, too, never shy to give his mum a squeeze. Now he dreamed of owning his own farm and was saving up.
One night, he was around for dinner when Gerald opened a beer and offered Mitchell one. Although the boys weren’t quite 18, we didn’t mind if they had the odd can at home occasionally. ‘No, thanks,’ Mitchell said. ‘Just some water. I’m out on my scooter later tonight.’ He wasn’t one to take stupid risks.
Then, one Saturday night in February 2016 – before Mitchell had the chance to do all the things he’d dreamed of – our loving family life was shattered. I was staying at the motel where I worked, as I was the only staff on that night.
Around 8.30pm, I had a call from Ron. ‘One of Mitchell’s mates has come round,’ he said. ‘Mitchell’s passed out from drinking.’
That day Mitchell, who was home from the dairy farm, had joined friends on a camping trip at a local lake. When Mitchell became unwell, an ambulance had been called for him and a girl at the camp. I was shocked. He doesn’t even like drinking that much. As he wasn’t used to it, I thought he might need his stomach pumped or to sleep it off. So Laura headed to the hospital, while Ron tried to find out more.
Then, there was a knock at the door. Seeing Ron, I knew something was very wrong. But I never could have imagined this. Mitchell had died after choking on his own vomit. The paramedics had done everything they could but his heart had stopped at the lake.
Our beautiful son, gone. The shock and grief were overwhelming. Not Mitchell, I thought, breaking down. ‘There must be more to it,’ I said to Ron, in disbelief.
Identifying my son at the morgue was horrific. No mother should have to do this, I thought. I hadn’t even had a chance to say goodbye. The last time I’d spoken to Mitchell had been a few days earlier, nothing significant. And Ron had just swapped a few words with him as he’d rushed off with his camping gear and a single stubby of beer. Laura and Gerald were devastated, too.
In time, we learned from police that strangers at the party had brought stronger alcohol. His stubby was given back to us, untouched. We found out Mitchell had been pressured to drink beer, vodka and Midori, a liqueur. Booze had been poured down a funnel into his mouth. It was supposed to be a ‘game’, but we were told Mitchell had even been pushed to drink when he was almost unconscious.‘Surely that’s illegal?’ Ron said, shocked.
Ron asked the police, but they explained they couldn’t prosecute anyone for pressuring Mitchell to drink. There was nothing they could do.
In September 2016, a 22-year-old pleaded guilty in court to supplying beer to Mitchell but was later discharged without conviction. That June, a 19-year-old was found not guilty of supplying alcohol to Mitchell. It wasn’t about the supply, though. It was about what had been done with it and those who’d pressured him.
We wanted to see that law brought in, and more education about how alcohol can kill.
This April, a coroner held an inquiry into Mitchell’s death and addressed the binge-drinking culture.
For months after Mitchell passed away, I’d wake up at dawn waiting for a phone call that never came. Part of us died that day, and life has changed forever.
We put photos of Mitchell and his trophies and rugby boots in a special corner of our house. And Laura and I have made a memory quilt celebrating his life. But we can never bring him back.
Now, two years on, we’re determined no other family should lose a child in such a senseless way. I’d urge all mothers to talk to their teens and make sure they realise how dangerous alcohol can be. If Mitchell’s story can save even one life, sharing it will have been worth it.
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