This last Monday column before Christmas is different. I hesitated about writing what you are about to read, but I thought that what I received from family and friends in recent weeks and months is what the Christmas spirit is about. So I am sharing with you a story that on the one hand wasn’t easy to write, yet on the other is one I had to write.
In early fall, I was diagnosed with depression. I don’t write this out of any desire for attention nor am I looking for any pity. This is meant to be upbeat. It’s a story of hope and help, and is written so that others who find themselves in a similar spot will know there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel and that people are good. All you have to do is ask.
Maybe if someone recognizes themselves here, or sees a loved one here, then does something to get help, consider this my Christmas gift to them.
Depression sneaks up. Silently it crawls into your life, taking away the things that bring you joy, affecting your mind so that the wonderful things that make up living are taken from you, one by one, day by day, week by week.
A great primary care physician, Dan Novak, and an equally wonderful psychiatrist, Don Heibel, were crucial in providing me the help I needed. But this is really a story of family and friends coming to my rescue and doing little things that were really big things.
Back in the late winter, it fell to me to tell my mom she was going to die. She was 92 and on her birthday Jan. 9, like always, I brought her a cake and like always, we sat at her dining room table and ate the cake and she opened her present. On that day, she was fine and, as always, intellectually as sharp as a 21-year old.
A month and a half later, I had to sit in her living room and tell her that she had three to six months to live.
She opted out of chemotherapy, saying she wanted to have as many good days as she could. Then I decided I would do the funeral arrangements as my two brothers did other important and meaningful things for her.
While she was still alive and living in her home, I went to the same funeral home as the one we used for our son after his death in on April 3, 1990. I found myself in the same room picking out a casket as I did 23 years ago. I was talking with the same funeral director — Sebastian Lastrina is a very good and kind man — and deciding what services we wanted.
I contacted a priest, former Xavier chaplain Fr. Greg Galvin. He was tremendous and my mom came to love him. In an irony of ironies, his dad died the same day my mom did.
As I spoke with the director about what we wanted, I was reliving all that happened when my 14-year old son died. But it had to be done, I reasoned. I’m a survivor, I told myself. Just do it. I did, like so many of you have had to do for your loved ones.
What I didn’t know was what it was doing to me. Never gave it a thought. I had to do this for my mom. I’ll be fine.
Things progressed and the day came that she had to leave her home and go to hospice. She knew this was the last stop. When my brothers drove her to the hospital, I left. This I could not handle. I couldn’t watch her leave her home for the last time. But before she left the house, she called to me and handed me her mother’s wedding band.
She wanted me to have it. Her mother died when my mom was nine years old. My mom waited 83 years to give me that ring. I tried to maintain composure. I failed.
This was June, Legion baseball season. I would go to Palmer Field, announce the games, write the stories. But it was no fun. It was work. It had never been work before. But I figured this would pass. It was a sign of depression, but I didn’t know. It comes silently.
When she died, I was holding her, just like I was holding my 14-year old son when he died. The tape in my mind of that day 23 years ago kept playing itself over and over and over.
The wake came. The entire Legion team came in uniform shirts. I still cannot speak of it and remain composed. We buried her. We then went through her belongings.
Many have gone through this, I know. But to hold the Christmas ornaments you knew growing up, to find gifts she professed to love but had never used was re-living Christmases past.
Meanwhile I kept doing games. The high school tourney in June and Northeast Regional Legion tourney in August came and went. I love doing tourneys. They were blurs. The day the regional ended, I left town.
I went to the Legion World Series in North Carolina. After three days, I had enough. I went to Florida. My favorite Disney Resort is Pop Century. In August, it’s cheap. I figured I would feel better there. After all, that’s where dreams come true.
I had an awful time. I never have a bad time in Florida. I went to the pool. Usually I strike up conversations with just about anyone. Didn’t talk to a soul. Had dinner at restaurants in Downtown Disney. I love that place. I couldn’t remember what I ate or where I went.
I stopped in Atlanta on the way home. I got sick. Instead of going to the Atlanta Zoo as I had planned, I spent the day in bed at the hotel, but forced myself to go to the Braves’ game. I remember the Braves played Cleveland. I remember the Braves won. I have no idea what the score was. Worse, I didn’t care.
I canceled my planned stopover in Washington and came home. Sick. My doc said when you’re depressed, your immune system goes straight to hell. “Walk by someone with a bug, you’ll get it,” he said. I got it.
When I got home, someone I thought was a friend turned on me for reasons I still don’t know. It’s unimportant now; the guy’s irrelevant. But then it was a punch to the gut.
I had tickets to three Yankee games in September. I didn’t go. I have never eaten Yankee tickets. I didn’t care.
The football season started and I did the early season Xavier and MHS games. There may be nothing I enjoy as much as announcing X and M football games. I have been announcing Xavier games for 47 years; MHS games for 40. Now it was work. I got no kick.
My annual physical came up. Dr. Novak said that physically I was fine, but that mentally I was a wreck. He put me on meds. Said something about neuro-transmitters. Sent me to a shrink. Depression. Mental illness. Me? Yet I had been that way for months. Bit by bit, it had moved into my life like a fog at night, blinding me to the sights and sounds and people that made my life so much fun.
There is still a stigma attached to that, I know. I’m taking a risk writing about this. But I write so that others who may be in this leaky boat will realize it and start bailing.
My doctors saw it for what it was and acted to help. They got me to see things I didn’t see. I was determined to take charge again. They gave me that determination. Then wonderful things happened.
I told a few friends; maybe four or five. One was a friend I have in Iowa, a former teaching intern at MHS 16 years ago who is now a college professor and chair of his science department. I went to his wedding in Iowa in 1997 and we talked about, oh, once every 10-12 months.
I told him. Suddenly I got text messages. The contents are private, but they were much-needed therapy. Another friend, a retired teacher, a former coach, checked in every time he saw me. Important.
Another friend in town took me out for wings and a beer or two. Not once, three times. We went to the Yale vs. Harvard game. Sent me texts that will also remain private, but were more appreciated than he’ll ever know.
Kathy and Gordon. Friends for whom love isn’t a strong enough word, were and are wonderful to me, all the while dealing with the death of a family member.
I began to enjoy the games. Tony Jaskot, the Xavier AD: “Anything I can do for you, just ask.” Mike DiMauro of the New London Day and Matt Conyers of the Hartford Courant wrote/talked with me.
But in the end, it was the kids I covered that made all the difference. They had no idea what was going on. Jeff Woodcock, the really bright kid who is the center on
the MHS football team, always made it a point to say hello and shake my hand. In September, it didn’t mean much. In October, November and December, it meant everything.
Yaamal Jackson of MHS is a kid whose smile lights up a room. I spelled his name wrong in the first game story of the year. Saw him one afternoon and apologized. “No problem,” he said. He said hello to me every time I saw him after that and I called him No. 31, his uniform number, instead of his name. I think he liked that.
Dario Highsmith not only said hello, but was eloquent and articulate in interviews and I got to like the kid a lot. Joe Carbone of Xavier was such a happy kid after his heroics led to Xavier’s marvelous 15-12 win over Shelton. Joe didn’t know it, but those five minutes he spent with me in an interview after the game left me smiling, something I hadn’t done much of in months.
My son. He texted and/or called every day. Said things I will not share, but things only a son says to his dad. Sal Morello found out late in the season and wrote a thoughtful, caring text message. He said to me how important I was to the MHS football program, just as Jaskot said the same thing about the Xavier program. I’m not sure I believe that, for surely they can play games without me. But from where I was, it was nice to hear.
Mike Pitruzzello, the MHS AD and always a friend, was there for me, again saying things that are private, but so powerful.
I no longer take the meds. The psychiatrist said I don’t need to see him any more.
The end of the fall sports season was good. Announcing the games was fun again. Watching MHS in the playoffs was terrific. I am looking forward to the winter sports season whereas two months ago, I was looking forward to nothing.
It’s nice to be back among the living. I have friends who admonished me for not calling them. “I’m only a phone call away,” said one. I should have reached out, but I figured everyone has problems.
But there are times that reaching out is imperative. That might the case for you. Don’t be afraid. People are good. They will help. Ask.
To my son and my daughter-in-law and my two grandkids, to friends Bryan and Jay and Matt and Mike and Tony and Sal and Hank and Kathy and Gordon and a second Mike: Thank you.
But especially to players on the teams I covered. To the H-K soccer player who thanked me for covering his game, to the Westbrook Legion team which together said the same thing after a game, to Jeff, Yaamal, Dario, Joe, and so many others: Thank you.
Thank you for saving my life.
HERE AND THERE
The following MHS athletes were named to the All-League teams … football: Dario Highsmith, Jeff Woodcock, David Bednarz, Anthony Bednarz, Sam Rivera, RaJahn Johnson, Isaiah Thompkins, Jacob Homar, Julian Carraway … boys soccer: Logan Pingree, Joe Pizzuto, Lucas Saunders.
Also, boys cross-country: Evan Dunn, Ben Schaff … girls cross-country: Ashley Comeau, Courtney Pusz … girls soccer: Mikaela Coady, Marissa Aldieri, Kellie Gambell, Desiree Hinton … girls swimming: Adrianna Ciebielski … volleyball: Tamyia King … Coady was named to the All-state team.
MHS girls soccer coach Nick Libera was named CCC South soccer Coach of the Year … his team was 31-6-1 in his two years as coach … 61 MHS kids were named to the CCC All-Academic team … have to have an 87.5 average to make it … list included 18 girls soccer players plus 14 football players … that is what it’s all about, folks … girls soccer player Samantha Angle had a 96.1 average … Yikes!
Next week, the MHS fall award winners. Xavier holds its awards program in January and as always, we’ll bring them to you. Mercy holds its awards dinner at year’s end.
I think poll voters should be held accountable. My final Top 10 football ballot: 1. New Canaan (L) 2. Ansonia (S) 3. Southington(LL) 4. St. Joseph (M) 5. Darien (L) 6. Middletown (L) 7. Fairfield Prep.(LL) 8 West Haven (LL) 9, Glastonbury (LL) 10. North Haven (L).
I pay little attention to the coaches’ poll. Too many vote their own leagues. Middletown was 7th in the writers’ poll, one spot behind my vote and the team ahead was Fairfield Prep. I thought MHS was better than Prep. Other than that, I was pretty close. No gripe with the poll at all.
Best leagues? 1. FCIAC, by a lot with New Canaan (L champ), St., Joe (M champ), Darien (L runner-up). 2. CCC, with Southington (LL champ), Middletown (L semifinalist), Bloomfield (S semifinalist) 3. SCC, with Fairfield Prep (LL runner-up), West Haven (LL semifinalist), North Haven (L semifinalist.)
Three CCC teams, three FCIAC teams and two SCC teams were in the Top 10.
FCIAC had two state champs (L and M), the CCC had one (LL) and the Naugatuck Valley had one, Ansonia (S). Bulletin: the much too long football season is finally over. Have to shorten this schedule folks, just have to.
Everyone is excited about new UConn coach Bob Diaco and his promise of exciting, winning football … I have one small piece of advice that I hope helps: get some good players. A lot of them. Hard to make chicken salad out of, well, you know.
Xavier is hosting a heckuva Art Kohs tourney on the 27th and 28th … Ledyard, Glastonbury and East Hartford join the Falcons … Jalen Ollie, UConn basketball coach Kevin Ollie’s kid, is the Glastonbury star … watch out for East Hartford all year … get to an MHS swim meet … Matt Dagenais, Michal Ciebielski and Jack Doherty are great swimmers .. and the divers, led by Monica Marcello, Dan Kinney and Adam Gauthier are the best group of divers in the state on any team in any class … at every meet, at least one of them does something spectacular off the board.
Congrats to our president for not going to the Olympic ceremonies in Russia … made the point emphatically that the USA is opposed to Russia’s vicious new anti-gay laws .. that Obama sent three openly gay athletes to lead our delegation is wonderful … long past time for this bigotry to end everywhere.