Mother's Day is more than flowers

Wednesday, May 7, 2014 - 23:00
A mother copes with helping her son
Joan Weinberger, owner of Joan’s Hair and Retail Salon in Eagle River, enjoys a happier moment with her son Wesley whose traumatic brain injury has left him cognitively impaired.

Author’s Note: This is not your typical “happy” Mother’s Day story. It is a portrayal of the drama and gut-wrenching experience one local mother has lived for nearly five years. While her son’s legal troubles are the cause of her struggle, this article is not not a defense of her son. Rather , it is about how she has navigated what a mother never expects.


For Eagle River hair dresser Joan Weinberger, Mother’s Day this year isn’t marked with the traditional trappings: A box of sampler candy, the chocolate covered strawberries, a bountiful bouquet of flowers and the afternoon yummy buffet. Hers is more aligned with life’s nitty gritty. It is a celebration of milestones and victories that at times only she can see as she battles to keep her 23-year-old son from further legal troubles and on the healing path from a traumatic brain injury. It is an acceptance of things she never dreamed when she first held him. It is taking steps at his side that she never thought she’d have to take.

“This year, Wes is home here with me for Mother’s Day,” Weinberger said. “It could have been so much different.”

Putting it gently, her son, Wesley Weinberger, has had some troubles. Putting it legally, he has been convicted of armed robbery in the second degree and in a separate incident he was the victim of a brutal attack for which the perpetuator received only a short probationary sentence while Wesley was left with the lifelong ordeal of a memory-sapping brain injury and impulse urges he can’t synoptically control.

Joan does not excuse Wesley’s action on an early August morning in 2013 when he entered the Eagle River Wal-Mart carrying a loaded firearm. He’d been to the movies. She had texted him the night before telling him she’d like him to come home. According to Joan’s account, he went to Wal-Mart that night thinking he needed more tint for his already-tinted auto windows. He didn’t have any more money on him, so he tried to shoplift. He was approached by store employees near the exit by the pizza parlor. One employee allegedly grabbed him from behind and caused Wesley’s post-traumatic stress syndrome to kick in, Joan said. He ran to the other exit by the pharmacy only to find the outer doors locked. He fired shots at the locked door in an unsuccessful attempt to open the door, according to Joan. He then ran out the first entrance he had approached and headed home on foot to the family’s Eaglewood residence.

Joan had been with him the day before at the Eagle River Job Center around 4 p.m., when he told her then that he thought he needed to go to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage. Something was wrong and he believed that it related to the traumatic brain injured he sustained in September 2009 during a parking lot confrontation with a man Wesley and a friend allegedly accused of videoing sexual relations with the former girlfriend of a friend.

“Wesley had no intentions of being in the fight that night,” Joan said. “He just went there to watch and be in support of his friend. But he was not looking to get into a fight that night.”

The aftermath of the injury sustained that night ended up being yet another cognitive blow to a young man already struggling with learning disabilities. Wesley was born with neurofibromatosis – a neurological condition causing tumors to form on the nerve endings. He was diagnosed at age two. In its least severe form, these tumors compress the nerve endings disrupting their normal function. Tumors on cranial nerves lead to hearing loss. Wesley had frequent seizures as a child. He’s had ear tubes his entire life. One ear has been completely reconstructed. The other one needs to be done as well, his mother said.

This disease can cause learning disabilities, as the nervous system cannot properly process information. Despite being a slow learner, Wesley was able to pass all of the Alaska high school exit exams and earned his diploma in spring 2009.

At the time, Joan thought the worst was behind her son.

Unfortunately, she was wrong.


More mishaps

On Aug. 23, 2009, according to Joan, Wesley was at the Eagle River Fred Meyer when a female high school acquaintance allegedly approached him asking him to cash a check that turned out to be stolen.

Wesley ended up serving a 30-day house arrest for his involvement with the check. But to his mother, that was nothing compared to the fact that he was labeled as a non-credible witness because of that incident when legal proceedings began regarding the parking lot fight. Joan believes a lack of support on the part of the municipal district attorney’s office only furthered Wesley’s belief that he was in danger.

“After the attack, we noticed a big change in Wesley’s personality,” Joan said. “He stayed at home becoming a recluse. He became fearful of entering public places and became paranoid about other people and their motives.”

She had no idea her son had used Craigslist to secure a firearm in the spring of 2013. She found out when he was arrested for the Wal-Mart incident.

Again, Joan said, she does not excuse her son’s actions. But she is in the fight of her life to save his. Since gaining guardianship of her now 23-year-old son in October 2013, Joan has taken Wesley to more than 100 appointments ranging from medical and psychiatric doctors, victim’s rights counselors and a support group for those experiencing traumatic brain injuries. On May 12, 2014 – just one day after Mother’s Day – Wesley and Joan begin a new chapter in both of their lives. Her status as his mother and his third-party custodian takes on yet another dimension as he begins to serve the seven months of house arrest he was sentenced to for his actions at Wal-Mart. Joan can’t shop at Wal-Mart anymore because Wesley has to be with her at all times and Wesley cannot enter Wal-Mart. Once his sentence is successfully served, he begins five years of probation.

And his mother begins yet another battle in her campaign to secure a future for her son. He has various career aspirations: perhaps a physical trainer or a locksmith. Perhaps they will run a family business together.

For now, the leading goal is to keep Wesley from violating his house arrest and to restore his ability to interact with the public. He works on a volunteer basis answering the phones and cleaning used tanning beds at his mother’s tanning salon located through a door-less opening for her beauty salon.

“The hardest thing is to get an assault victim out of living in a code red all the time,” Joan said. “That is where we are at with Wesley. But we have already made so many other victories already – small victories, but still victories – that I am sure that will come too.”

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