Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Shock To The System

I received shocking news at home last night: a friend sent a note telling me that my roommate from college, Luis DePina, passed away from brain stem cancer yesterday. Born on 10-Aug-1957, he was just 54 years old.

I remember the first time I met Lou like it was yesterday. My parents brought me up to Storrs to move me into Colt House, an all-male dorm that was home to 60 young men, before the start of classes in Sep 1975. They helped to lug my few possessions up the stairs to the fourth floor, got me sorted out, and then left me to my own devices. I was reading on my newly-made bed when the door opened - and all light coming in from the hallway was blocked by the 6'4", 220 lbm man who stood in the doorway. He stuck out his hand, said "Hi, I'm Lou DePina", and proceeded to move in.

It helps to understand that I grew up in Greenwich, CT - as white bread, as homogeneous a place as there was. I had never been past the steel-decked bridge near Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford, CT. I could have told you who the mayor of New York City was, but I didn't know who was the governor of Connecticut. I had gone to a small Catholic high school, with a graduating class of 125. There were two African-American students in my class during those four years. One of them left before graduation to transfer to Greenwich High School to play football. I didn't have a personal relationship with either of them.

So it was a big change to be exposed to somebody so different from myself. Lou was an engineering major too, but we couldn't have been more different. I was awkward, worried, excessively religious, and had trouble connecting with all these strange people who thought so differently from me. Lou was a gifted athlete - he had been recruited to play on the varsity baseball team, and could have played on the basketball team in Connecticut's pre-Big East days.

But most of all, he was a genius at making people like him.

He was immediately given the nickname "Rook", short for "Rookie", by the upperclassmen. He then proceeded to ride roughshod over everyone in every competitive venue - be it basketball, foosball, or frisbee golf in the hallway. He was elected president of the dorm. Everyone who lived there knew and liked him.

We would go out into the quad on nice days and throw a baseball back and forth. I wasn't a baseball player, but I was game. Lou was an outfielder with a terrific arm. You had to pay attention when you were throwing with Lou, because you could hear the ball whizzing through the air when it got close. If you didn't position the pocket of the glove correctly you'd get a stinger that you wouldn't forget quickly.

I don't know how Lou managed to play baseball and keep up with school in the spring. I remember him coming back to the dorm exhausted after practice in the afternoon. The irony was that he was throwing to warm-up one day when he took a ball in the eye. He was talking with a teammate, and his throwing partner didn't realize that Lou's head was turned when he let the ball go. That was the end of his baseball career at Connecticut.

I found out later that Lou wasn't pleased at first with his new roommate. He talked with others about switching up after the first semester, because I wasn't having much fun. But things started looking up during the spring after I learned how to drink alcohol. The drinking age in Connecticut was 18 at the time. I was of legal age in high school, but I wasn't a drinker. I maintained that stance after going to college. We used to get home-made pizza for dinner on Friday nights from time to time, which was accompanied by a keg of beer (try that in today's litigious atmosphere). A friend asked me if I wanted to play racquet ball at the fieldhouse one Friday afternoon. When we returned from the game the pizza was gone, the keg was tapped, and there was a card game getting started in the cafeteria. I sat down next to Lou and started to play. He kept refilling my cup so I couldn't count how many beers I had drunk. By the time the game was over I was under the influence for the first time. They piled me into a car and took me to a party at another dorm, where they proceeded to introduce me to every girl we met by saying "He's drunk for the first time in his life."

The spell was broken. Lou taught me how to relax, to stop worrying so much, to enjoy myself, and to be interested in other people. If I took some of those lessons too far for a time and had to correct course, that was my fault. The lessons were well-needed and much appreciated.

We parted on the best of terms after three years of living together because both of us accepted positions as resident assistants in the dorms. It meant living alone in a single room. Both of us were busy with school and other things. Lou switched out of the college of engineering, so we didn't have classes together. We didn't see as much of each other on campus after that. I graduated in December and started working; Lou was still pursuing his degree. We didn't see each other after that. There was no e-mail, cell phones, Internet, or Facebook to help keep the connection alive.

I ran into him again at a Hershey Track and Field meet in New Britain years later. My oldest daughter was competing. The skies opened after we arrived, so everyone had to take refuge under the bleachers. There's where I saw Lou. He was director of recreation in Norwich. He had brought a group from the Y to the meet, including a young man with a beautiful, fluid sprinting style. (We stood to the side in between downpours and admired his form, with Lou critiquing it for me.) He told me that he was married and had a couple of young children in diapers. He had suffered an Achilles injury that stopped him from playing basketball, so he'd taken up golf as a substitute. It allowed him to continue to demonstrate his athletic prowess while doing what he did best - charming the people he played with. I wasn't surprised to hear that Lou was a central figure in Norwich politics.

It was the last time I saw him.

I'm sad to think that someone who was so important to me for those three years could have slipped away. It's a common thing, I suppose. As I've progressed through each phase of my life - high school, college, and a myriad of jobs in two disparate fields - I've had the pleasure of meeting lots of people that I loved spending time with. Lots of them are pleasant memories for me now. There are only so many hours in the day, so much emotion and energy that one can expend in maintaining relationships. Spouse, children, and family have to be the first priority.

But it doesn't diminish the affection I have for those people in the least.

There are three lessons here. First, relationships take energy and effort to keep up. You have to spend time in face-to-face contact. Sorry, Facebook. A long-distance electronic relationship is better than nothing, but it's a poor substitute for the immediacy of being there. Second, choose carefully. If it's not possible to hang onto every single person that you ever thought highly of, then you have to pick and choose. Let those people know that they're worth the effort. Write that e-mail, pick up the phone, and arrange contact. It can be breakfast, it can be a beer at a bar, it can be a stroll in the park. Just be there - early, late, and often. Don't let years go by and be left to wonder what the hell happened.

Third, and perhaps most important, is to not wait forever. Our time here is finite, and you don't know when it will end. If I've been waiting until my children were grown and settled to start picking up the thread with my old friend Lou, then I'm afraid that I waited too long. The opportunity is passed, never to come again. I hope I don't repeat that mistake.

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