Editor's note: In the days following the sudden death of Stephen Ables, a 2008 graduate of Stephenville High School, his father Michael Ables began chronicling his pain in a journal entitled, "A week without Stephen." The following is a story about Stephen's life - and death - and how both have affected his family. Much of this story was made possible through numerous interviews with Stephen's father, the Erath County Sheriff's Office and portions of Michael's journal.
He was not a kid who partied.
In fact, 19-year-old Stephen Ables would have preferred to stay at home "gaming" with his father Michael, than party with friends, making his sudden death to those who knew and loved him even more shocking.
The night of Aug. 1 began as a typical one. Stephen was at home working on a new rotation for his warlock in World of Warcraft with his father and eating ice cream from Dairy Queen. Computers and computer games were something Stephen and Michael both shared a passion for.
"He wasn't just a kid who played games," Michael said. "He was someone who was interested in designing them and creating hardware to make them run faster."
Stephen was living at home with his father. Michael is divorced from Stephen's mother Lyea, who is in the US Army stationed in Hawaii.
Stephen was planning to make a trip to Hawaii soon to see his mother, then planned to head to tech school to learn more about the computers he loved so much.
But by the morning of Aug. 2, everything would change. Stephen would be dead, Michael and his family would be gripped with an unimaginable pain and a million questions would be left unanswered.
In the beginning
Stephen was born on July 10, 1990.
"My son was the most beautiful child ever born (of course), with only a smattering of blonde hair that seemed to have a faint red tint, a full, round face and chubby little legs, he was so very perfect," Michael wrote in one of his entries.
Stephen was a happy child who smiled a lot and kept everyone around him laughing. When he was 3, he got what he assumed was a new toy - his little sister Tiffany. With fiery red hair and an attitude to match, Stephen only had his new baby doll for a few months. She rebelled against his attentive nature, but he still wanted to be there for her. He wanted to carry her, hold her, teach her how to play with his toys, have conversations with her that would stretch far beyond her capacity to listen and to protect her.
By the age of 10, Stephen had become a "gamer" with a polite attitude and that same easy smile he was born with.
"As a 10-year-old, there were games on old computer systems that I could not get to work, but Stephen could do just fine with them. That is also the age when he began beating me at console games," Michael wrote. "My brother-in-law tells a story of a problem he was having with a game on a Commodore 64. He asked me how he could fix it and I responded 'I don't know, ask Stephen.' He looked at me, the network engineer, then at my 10-year-old son, shrugged his shoulders and asked Stephen. Stephen fixed it for him. A few years later, Stephen would choose the gamer name "Lexbas," a jumble of our last name Ables with an X thrown in as an homage to a Final Fantasy troupe," Michael recalled.
That fateful night
As the evening progressed on Aug. 1, Stephen told his father he was going to hang out with friends. Michael also began receiving text messages from old friends in Fort Hood inviting him to come for a visit. After hours of gaming and talking, the two parted ways.
As Michael left, Stephen was standing in the kitchen in front of the stove drinking a bottle of water.
"I love you, be safe" was the last thing Michael said to his son.
Then Stephen flashed his father that famous smile and Michael walked out the door. It was the last time he would ever see his son alive.
A parent's worst nightmare
As Michael made his way back to Stephenville the following morning, he spotted police lights in his rearview mirror.
"I quickly pulled over, but the sheriff's car sped around me so fast that I knew someone was in trouble. I wondered what the rush could be at just after 6 a.m. in our little town," Michael wrote.
When Michael arrived home, he noticed that Stephen's car was not there. About 20 minutes later, he began calling Stephen and became irritated when he didn't answer. About 8:15 a.m., Michael decided to lie down and rest. Fifteen minutes later, the doorbell rang twice.
When he answered, two men were standing outside.
"They asked if I was Michael Ables. I said 'yes' and they asked me to come outside," he wrote. "When I walked out, they asked if I had a son Stephen Ables. I began hoping and praying that he had not been hurt in a car wreck. He drove a tiny car and I was concerned that it would not hold up well in an accident. I told them Stephen is my son. One of them said 'I'm sorry, but we have some really bad news Mr. Ables. Stephen passed away this morning.' I remember wishing and praying that he had been hurt in a car wreck," Michael wrote.
The next few minutes are hard for Michael to recall. He remembers the look on the officers' faces when his knees buckled. The officers tried to explain to Michael that Stephen had died of possible alcohol poisoning at a party he had attended the night before. It was all too much.
"There were flashes of realization, a clarity that told me I was never going to see my son again, but the roar was there, constantly assaulting me and as I stumbled around my porch and to the hood of my car, I knew that the roar was not only my crying, it was the sound of my life being torn apart," Michael wrote.
Michael began making calls to his family. First he called his ex-wife Lyea and his daughter in Hawaii. The family was frantic.
"My 15-year-old daughter screamed and then cried uncontrollably for almost six hours before she was exhausted enough that she stopped," he said. "At one point, hours after I had called her, Lyea accidentally called me back but I did not hear the phone. The voicemail is still on my phone of my daughter crying. She was on the floor of the emergency room where her mother works. The phone was pressed between them as her mother tried to console her."
Family, friends and coworkers surrounded Michael at his home. He cried and prayed for hours, trying to make sense of what happened. He doesn't remember Lyea and Tiffany arriving in Stephenville.
A week without Stephen
"I did not sleep that night, just brief moments of exhaustion overcame me and I would nod off only to wake up shaking and crying and praying," Michael wrote. "I began getting these flashes of urgency, brief passing moments of a feeling that I had to save Stephen, followed by the realization that it was too late. Over and over it happened, each time followed by an indescribable wave of agony."
Later, the family began making funeral arrangements - picking out a casket and choosing the clothes that Stephen would be buried in. Michael decided to write his son's obituary.
"It had occurred to me that no matter what, Stephen's death was alcohol related in some way. I had to do something, so I called the STAR Council on Substance Abuse and told them that I wanted Stephen's story in the prevention program," Michael said. "Stephen was not a drug user, not a drinker. He was a good kid that made one bad decision. We had to save the next kid that was going to do the same."
"Stephen died two days ago. Time, in my mind, was swirling. It seemed that the hours in the day were not in the right order and I could not keep up with what was going on," Michael wrote. "Nothing made any sense. I prayed for strength and for peace. I decided that my son's funeral had to be on Thursday because it was significant to us as fans of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur Dent could never get the hang of Thursdays, and I had to fit all this confusion into something, so I fit it into a book that Stephen and I both loved."
That afternoon, the family went to the funeral home to see Stephen.
"It was my love for my family, anchored by my daughter that kept me sane when I saw him. I had to endure this for her and for them. There he was, in the coffin we had selected wearing the clothes we had picked out," he wrote. "I wanted to see him clearly, but the tears blurred my vision. I wanted to touch him but I could not move. I wanted to tell him I loved him, but I was choked almost to the point of losing consciousness. The absolute horror of the past two days seemed to diminish into the realm of discomfort at the site of my son in that coffin."
To Michael, Stephen didn't look comfortable. He lowered the pillow and messed up his hair a little. The family began placing a few of Stephen's favorite things inside the coffin - his drumsticks he used to play Rock Band, buttons with little sayings on them and a few playing cards.
Michael woke up after finally sleeping for a few hours.
Today was the day the family wanted answers as to what happened to Stephen. They met with Erath County sheriff's investigators.
"I learned that my son's case was being considered criminal. Criminally negligent homicide seemed such an unworthy description of what had transpired, but I was glad to know that things were moving along," he said.
He visited Stephen a couple of times before the official visitation, then at 7 p.m. it began.
The large crowd of people made Michael uncomfortable. Stephen liked things quiet. After the viewing, the family went to Pastafina, Stephen's favorite restaurant.
The funeral was at 2 p.m.
Michael spoke at Stephen's funeral, recalling happy moments and sharing funny stories. When it was over, he gave Stephen one last hug and a kiss on his forehead.
"I made sure his hair was right. I told him how much I love him. I heard the last song on the CD playing. They closed the coffin," he wrote.
"The second waking terror came this morning," he wrote. "It lasted longer this time, several seconds. My living room is filled with flowers and plants. I am thankful for the mess. We are beginning the daunting task of filling out thank-you cards - a ridiculous tradition that I would not wish on anyone in my situation, but I will do it any way. I will remember to tell the next family that I send flowers to that I wish to not be on the thank-you list. I don't need or want recognition from someone dealing with such a personal loss. I just want to support them to the best of my ability."
Michael said he is no longer crying so freely, but he thinks about his son constantly.
"I know that Stephen is at peace," he wrote. "What I don't know is how to move forward. I'm working on it. Stephen died six days ago."
Michael and Lyea decided it would be good to get away for a few hours so they drove to Bangs to attend their 20-year high school reunion.
"When we walked in, there was a picture of Stephen along with his obituary I had written and a note asking people to donate to the STAR Council on Substance Abuse," Michael said. "It meant a lot to me to see that. It also reminded me that we had more important things to do. We talked a bit, took some pictures and left."
Michael ended his journal with this final entry.
"It was four days ago when I finished writing this down. This morning, my third waking terror happened. It lasted several minutes and I eventually made it from my room to the far end of the house where my ex-wife was sleeping in my daughter's room. I had taken my pillow and I laid down beside her. I was shaking and sobbing, she asked what was wrong, I could not tell her. There were voices and visions and so much pain, misery, anguish. I wish there were words but there are none. She hugged me and told me everything was going to be all right. She was wrong. It will eventually get better, but it will never be all right."
Stephen was found dead in a bathtub inside a home located in Erath County. According to Chief Investigator Jason Upshaw, there was only a small group of people at the party. After Stephen had apparently gotten sick after drinking too much, party-goers moved him to the bathtub, where he remained until he was discovered unresponsive the following morning.
Investigators are waiting on toxicology reports and have not ruled out the possibility of filing charges on those who provided alcohol to a minor.
"If the report states that this young man died of alcohol poisoning, then we'll make the decision whether we will pursue criminal charges," said Sheriff Tommy Bryant.
Meanwhile, Michael said he hopes to see those responsible for supplying his underage son with alcohol charged.
"There's nothing we can do for Stephen at this point," Michael said. "But people need to know that they can't supply and ignore. Stephen was not a kid spiraling out of control. He was a teenager who got himself into a situation he was not prepared for."
Update: Michael will continue chronicling his journey, "A Month Without Stephen," at http://www.lexbas.com/. He also hopes parents of other fallen children will send him their stories to his e-mail address, which is posted on the Web site.