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Kevin Cullen

When one mother lost her son, ‘the boys’ were there for her

Joey Lopez died five years ago, but his friends are with his mother, Susan, for the long haul.
Joey Lopez died five years ago, but his friends are with his mother, Susan, for the long haul.(handout)

Joey Lopez had everything figured out.

He was an honor roll student at Medford High School, so when he graduated his mother assumed he was going to college.

“I thought he was going to Merrimack,” Susan Lopez said. “Then he went to an auto school behind my back.”

Joey learned how to be an auto mechanic because he wanted to open a repair shop. After technical school, he enrolled at Suffolk University, to earn a business degree. He wanted to know how a business ran, from top to bottom. But that was only the half of it.

He arranged to go to barber school, too, because he had an idea: When people dropped their car off for service, they’d have time to kill, so they’d stop in next door for a haircut. They’d also be inclined to have a cup of coffee and something to eat, so he told his mother that’s where she came in: She would run a food counter for his businesses.

Joey Lopez, budding entrepreneur, also had a job at Verizon and was a few months away from graduating from Suffolk when he went to sleep on a Thursday night in 2014 and didn’t wake up.

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When Susan Lopez went to check on Joey, his dog, KC, a boxer bulldog mix, sat on his bed, growling protectively. That’s when she knew.

Joey Lopez had died of SUDEP, or sudden death from epilepsy, a condition that kills about 1 in 1,000 people with epilepsy. He was 22, an athlete, his epilepsy treated successfully throughout his life, so his death was especially shocking.

On the day Joey was supposed to graduate from Suffolk, Susan Lopez sat alone in the commencement audience, holding his diploma, playing the what-ifs in her head.

She was grateful she still had her daughter, Allison, but dreaded Mother’s Day as it approached a few months after Joey’s death. She purposely worked that first Mother’s Day, at Limoncello, in the North End, where she’s been a waitress for 16 years.

She kept getting calls at work. Joey’s friends. They left flowers and cards at her house. They came by the restaurant, to hug her.

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Susan Lopez thought it was a thoughtful gesture, but assumed it was a one-off. Then, on Joey’s birthday in August, all of his friends, the kids he played soccer with, the kids he went to school with, the kids he grew up with, showed up at her house and they had a party to remember Joey.

Joey’s closest friends — Danny Gunn, Max Jamgochian, Jeremy Colazzo, Richie Lebert — were in for the long haul. They kept dropping flowers off at her house, signing the cards, “The boys.”

When it snowed, the boys went to Oak Grove Cemetery and shoveled off Joey’s grave. Then they went to Susan Lopez’s house and shoveled her out. They still do.

Every year, they have a party on Joey’s birthday. On the anniversary of his death, they gather at St. Francis of Assisi Church for a Mass followed by lunch at Tiki Island.

Every other month, they show up at Joey’s mother’s house and she cooks dinner for them.

With Joey gone, she experiences a vicarious maternal pride whenever one of the boys gets a new job, or house, or partner.

Joey introduced Richie Lebert to Mackenzie Flynn when they were all teenagers. When Richie and Mackenzie got married in February, Susan Lopez was at home recovering from surgery and said she couldn’t make it. The boys scoffed, loaded her into a wheelchair, and rolled her down the aisle.

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Mother’s Day is still hard. Susan Lopez worked a 12-hour shift on Sunday. When she finished work, she checked her phone: There were 25 messages. The flowers and cards were waiting at home. Her boys never forget.

“I lost a son,” she says, “and gained 40 of them.”


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.