When Angela Hoepfner found her teenage son in the kitchen on Dec. 2, two years ago, she thought she had walked into a crime scene. She called 911 and ran outside the house.
Her memory from that day is fuzzy in places, but she must have also called her mother and sisters. Family members started showing up at her home.
The police told her it wasn’t a homicide, and it wasn’t an accident.
Scott, her 16-year-old son, couldn’t be saved.
Angela sat in her car in shock for hours until the funeral home came to pick up Scott’s body.
“My world blew up in one day,” she said. “My everything was gone.”
Scott played varsity football as a high-school junior. He was a happy-go-lucky kid who sang in the shower and talked about joining the Army to work with military dogs after graduating. He adored his own dogs -- Micah, Mojo and Mastiff -- who followed him around the house and slept with him at night. He volunteered at the local dog shelter and with Sweet Celebrations, a nonprofit that hosts birthday parties for homeless children.
He earned Eagle Scout at 14, and loved to crack jokes.
“He made it hard to parent sometimes, because he was so funny,” Angela said. A single mother since he was born, her world revolved around her son. His artwork hung all over the walls of their house.
They had both watched the popular Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” a teen drama about a girl who takes her own life. They talked about it briefly afterward.
“That’s stupid,” he said. “I don’t know why anybody would do that.”
Less than six months later, he was gone.
Angela has racked her brain for a single clue, but nothing comes up.
What did she miss?
“I beat myself up every day of what I could have done differently,” she said.
But her son was talking about their Christmas plans for later that month. He was popular. He wasn’t bullied. In fact, he was the kind of kid who would stand up for someone else getting teased.
More than 1,000 people showed up for his funeral. They shared her shock.
“If Scott can’t make it in this world, I don’t know how I can,” one of his friends said to her. The words cut through her like a knife.
No other parents should have to endure this hell, she thought.
Why hadn’t Scott’s school warned parents that the youth suicide rate is at an all-time high? Why didn’t anyone tell her about the sharp rise in suicide among teenage boys?
She worries about his friends and other vulnerable kids. She tried to get the school to talk about Scott, but they refused, saying they didn’t want to glorify the way he died.
Angela talks about him whenever she can. She tells parents to talk with their kids, even the ones who seem OK, about suicide. After all, her son was the strong one, the one with so many plans and adventures ahead.
“I talked about suicide with my son once, and that was it, because I thought he was happy and everything was fine,” she said.
Angela made a pact with her sister to go somewhere beautiful and see something magical every Dec. 2. This year, they picked Fiji. Before she left, Angela asked close friend Tonya Ehlert to do something in Scott’s memory while she was gone. Ehlert came up with the idea of passing out cards with Scott’s photo that ask the recipients to do a random act of kindness. She wanted to attach a peanut butter cup -- Scott’s favorite -- to each card.
Angela took it a step further. She raised enough money to give away 150 Caniac Combos -- Scott’s favorite meal -- at fried-chicken chain Raising Cane’s. After the restaurant’s manager heard the plan, he donated an extra 50 meals.
A local print shop donated 300 cards, and the project was a Go. On Dec. 2, about 15 family friends showed up at the restaurant to hand out cards, peanut butter cups and free meals.
In Fiji, Angela read texts from Scott’s friends about the acts of kindness they were doing in his memory. She wonders if the people who got the cards will pass them forward, and how far his memory will ripple.
Secretly, she fears that her son could be forgotten.
Scott would leave a trail when he got home; Angela would trip over his shoes or backpack on the ground. She says it still feels like he’s away at camp and might walk in the door any moment.
Angela moved to a new house the day after Scott died. Whenever the school bus passed by their new house, the pups would run to the window and look for Scott. They did that every day for more than a year, she says.
It’s taken her nearly two years to find a purpose in her grief. She started a foundation in Scott’s name to promote small acts of kindness: buying someone a meal, holding a door open, reaching out to someone who is struggling.
She thinks about what Scott’s legacy will be.
“It’s time to channel my grief into spreading some love,” she said, “because Scott would want me to.”