Tripping, falling

Don Berggren remembers the way his son Wes lived... and died

Wes Berggren and his older brother Andy didn't grow up with many rules and restrictions placed on them. Wes and Andy didn't really need that kind of discipline, and their parents didn't believe in it anyway. Don and Joan Berggren let their sons run around naked for the first few years of their lives, because Wes and Andy didn't feel like wearing clothes, and their parents didn't feel like making them. They let Wes and Andy do what they wanted to do, as long as they were always close enough to ask for help if they needed it. Don and Joan sent their sons to Montessori school until they were in sixth grade. It was an academic environment that reflected the way they had raised Wes and Andy to figure things out on their own. They didn't pressure their boys, supporting whatever decisions they made.

Don and Joan's method of parenting seemed to work. Wes and Andy were both the kind of kids that made other parents envious of Don and Joan's fortune. Andy was the valedictorian of his class and a football star in Malakoff, the East Texas town where the family ended up after Don's career as a musician wound down. Wes was a valedictorian at Malakoff High School too, but his only appearances on the football field came when he led the marching band during its half-time routines as a drum major.

They both won college scholarships, though that's where the similarities end. Andy stayed in school and went on to become a doctor, while Wes dropped out and devoted his time to playing guitar in Tripping Daisy. And at every step of the way, Don and Joan were there, never telling their sons what to do, just helping them do it. Yet looking back, there is one thing Don Berggren wishes he had told Wes to do. Or not do, actually.

Wes and Don Berggren during happier times
Wes and Don Berggren during happier times

"I don't remember whether I ever said, 'Wes, you can't do drugs,'" Don Berggren says. He stares at the carpet in his apartment just off Munger Avenue. "If I didn't, God help me."

Wes Berggren died of a drug overdose last month. The toxicology report, released last week by the Dallas County Medical Examiner's office, found traces of cocaine, propoxyphene, and benzodiazepine in his body. Wes' wife, Melissa, called his father at 5:15 p.m. on October 27, telling him that Wes wasn't responding to her. Though Don says he didn't quite know what to make of that statement, he ran out of the house anyway, leaving the door wide open. He raced down to Wes and Melissa's apartment, which was about a block away from his own, and began trying to administer CPR. But he knew almost as soon as he arrived that it was already too late.

"I knew pretty much that it was futile because of the temperature of Wesley's skin," he remembers, slowly letting the words come. "Then the medics came and went in there. They came back out a few minutes later and said, 'He's gone.' So then I had to call his mother. It's not something you can rehearse for. It's not something that you can say, 'How're you doing? How was your day? By the way...' And then I had to call his brother, and that was even worse. They were so close, not just best friends. He's having a hard time of it."

Don is having a better time of it, but less than a month later, he's still trying to figure out how it could have happened, how his youngest son could have been taken from him much too soon. Sitting in a recliner, facing a wall covered with pictures of his two sons, he's careful with his words, not wanting to sound as though he's blaming anyone for Wes' death. It was an accident, he says, an error in judgment that can't be taken back. The only thing that will bring Wes back from death, if only for a little while, is remembering his life.

So that's what he's doing on this unseasonably warm afternoon, telling stories about his sons the way only a father can, with pride and love and maybe a little exaggeration. Yet each one seems to end the same way, with a moment that didn't seem out of the ordinary at the time, but now holds a sort of cruel irony. Like how Don, after seeing Wes act in a production of Waiting for Lefty in college, went up to him backstage after the show was over and said to him, "That's great, Wes. I'll never have to worry about you again."

But, for the most part, Don's stories have less to do with the way Wes died than the way he lived. Perhaps the one that sums up his life best is more than two decades old.

Wes was only 7 years old at the time, but he was already a handful. It was just another lazy summer afternoon, the kind of day made for fishing and drinking and little else. Don and his buddy Royce McAfee were doing a little of both that day, sitting around the stock pond on McAfee's stretch of land in East Texas, talking about the Beatles, catfish, whatever comes up when two old friends get together. The conversation wasn't that important then, and it matters even less now. They were just doing their best to waste the day on a spot of land they'd been visiting for years, ever since McAfee set up a gig in Dallas for Berggren's band, Sweetgrass.

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