Throwback Thursday: A Tale to Tell

Posted: March 17, 2016 in life, poker
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

0PapAs a tyke, there was no one I looked up to more than my Grandfather, George Virostek. A WWII vet, who had lived life in every sense only to come away smiling. It seemed no matter where we went people would engage him in casual conversation, and he had certainly perfected the flirty old man routine. He was a man about town, a true guy’s guy, but most of all a family man. Suffices to say when he spoke, I hung on every word. He was a fantastic narrator. My most memorable moments with him were stormy summer evenings spent on the porch; me wide-eyed, fully immersed, him a few beers deep and feeling nostalgic, painting a perfect picture of some past adventure he had embarked upon. Hours would pass. I found myself moving from the chair to the floor, to his lap, all while fighting heavy eyelids. Sleep would inevitably win out, but never due to a lack of being entertained.

Everyone has a tale to tell. Few people, however, are intriguing enough on their own to warrant an audience. The stories, though… the stories are what define a man; they deserve a voice. After more than a decade embracing a game I love as the vehicle to a better life, I’ve decided to take a step back and pay homage to the people and experiences that have shaped my career, moreover, my life. This is my story…

My parents split when I was five after what could only be described as a toxic and tumblr_nhvfs2vVpy1s2wio8o1_500tumultuous relationship. My father fit the bill of a tortured genius. His knowledge and intellect rivaled scholars of the highest level while his emotional intelligence was on par with a sociopath. He rarely expressed any emotion beyond anger, with a fuse shorter than Wile E. Coyote’s explosives. He was reckless and intimidating anytime he began to see red. Fortunately, he never laid a hand on my sister or me. Unfortunately, my mother was often the target of his rage-fueled tantrums. There were countless moments where I feared for her safety, a handful where I feared for her life. A theme that would become all too common throughout my childhood regarding my mother’s well being.

Through some small miracle, my mother had the strength to escape the clutches of an abusive marriage, a story too many victims don’t get to tell. However, she was ill prepared to forge out on her own raising two young children. Throughout her marriage she suffered numerous schizophrenic episodes, resulting in a handful of stints in the psych ward. Later in life, she would be told she was suffering from an undiagnosed bipolar disorder amongst a chemical imbalance in her brain, but at the time, she was widely regarded as lazy and self-destructive, antidepressants being the band-aid offered to her. By the time the divorce finalized she seemed more stable and ready for a new beginning. The reality was that she was an unemployed 28-year-old woman who was mentally weak, and it didn’t take long before she turned to drugs to escape.

A lot of the memories blur together but somewhere between 1st and 6th grade we had moved 4 times. My mother remarried a man who offered the world in the way of tolerance and respect, as well as a weakness for substance. The downward spiral advanced at a rapid rate. Joe, my stepdad, was a functioning alcoholic. He worked a labor intensive job and never let his demons get in the way of making a living. But he was weak. My mother’s substance abuse had graduated from pot and alcohol to pain pills and then finally, crack. Joe helplessly watched, numbing reality with a bottle.

We struggled mightily and it wasn’t long before her mental and physical health began to deteriorate. She had grown very obese, having nearly doubled her weight since I was a kid.  Unable to work, she relied solely on government aid to survive. Joe’s weekly checks were barely enough to cover rent and the bar tab, let alone my mom’s crack habit. The few hundred a month she would receive kept her dysfunctionally high and us functionally poor. Not poor in the sense that I was unsure where my next meal was coming from, but in a relative sense. We didn’t have a car, we rarely had a phone and our cupboards looked like the corner of a bomb shelter’s pantry while our fridge was sparsely stocked with pop, moldy jelly, and condiments. The two bedroom apartment reeked of stale cigarette smoke and was too filthy to ever consider having friends over. Fortunately, my maternal grandparents were saints. They ran interference when child services attempted to step in. And stopped by daily to ensure we ate and were bathed. My sister and I were still young and foolish enough to remain loyal to our mother, so Pap and Gram quietly provided relief, always just a phone call away.

 It didn’t take long before I moved out of the bedroom I shared with my sister into the sun porch. It was an addition, secluded from the rest of the apartment, providing the freedom to have people come and go at my discretion. I was twelve, living in the equivalency of a college dorm room. I thrived in my independence, having the ability to keep my space smoke free, clean and private. And somehow I held myself accountable. Every morning I would get myself up for school, attempt (generally unsuccessfully) to get my sister, Elicia, up as well, and walk to the cafeteria for breakfast. I learned very early to never pass on a free meal. I was routinely making adult decisions through the innocent eyes of a child. I saw the world in black and white, only right and wrong, no exceptions. I defaulted to my moral compass as a guide and to this day have yet to even so much as consider trying a drug, cigarette or a sip of alcohol; the curiosity alluded me.

By thirteen, I was a seasoned vet in dealing with my mother’s decline. I grew up fast, with intricate knowledge of day to day responsibilities all while ensuring my home life was a well-kept secret. I was incredibly embarrassed by our situation. Not particularly because we were poor, but more so by my mother, her terrible life choices and the neglected living conditions. I spent most nights praying no one would ever find out my mother did drugs, or that we had cockroaches in our bathroom. Kids can be cruel and I couldn’t bare the thought of being outcasted over circumstances beyond my control. At the time, I thought no one knew. At least no one beyond my best friend Jace. Looking back, however, I realize now that the parents had an idea of what was going on and thankfully they extended a helping hand rather than exposing the skeletons in my closet. I’ll never forget the day Sally Simon, my close friend John’s mom, showed up at our door with bags upon bags of groceries. She claimed she had been cleaning out her cupboards and wanted rid of all this extra stuff, but it was clear she had done some serious shopping. I was mortified. Beyond my immediate gratitude and fundamental need for the supplies she was providing, was my innate desire to desperately protect this secret home life I was subjected to. The angst I felt during the ensuing days for fear that John, or anyone else for that matter, would confront me over my situation was my version of Chicken Little, the sky seemed to be falling. Reflecting back, I can’t express enough how thankful I am for having been exposed to such gracious acts and thoughtful people. Sally and others greatly shaped my character, allowing me to fully grasp empathy and the impact of taking action.

I was the oldest fourteen-year-old anyone could dream up. By this point, I had seen my mother in the psych ward, in back alleys buying crack, and the final straw was behind bars. I still remember my pap coming over to the empty apartment at 2 a.m. on a school night to pick me up and take me to bail my mother out. Upon arriving I just remember begging the officer to do his best to keep it out of the local papers, or at the very least to use her remarried name. That night I packed my bags and completely turned my back on her. It had become clear she could no longer care for herself, let alone me or my sister. As our situation grew worse my Pap and Gram never hesitated to take on the responsibility of raising two teenagers with welcoming arms. Unfortunately, my sister was the type to learn through experiences, she chose to stay with my mother and we would embark down two very different paths.

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(To Be Continued…)
Part 2
**Check back every Thursday for a new post**

Comments
  1. Kirby says:

    Love you Berk. My mom still speaks regularly of your gram. She always says “She was one of the best. I loved her.”

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  2. Mary Lamanna says:

    ❤️❤️❤️

    Like

  3. Darlene Hess says:

    Matt….it breaks my heart to read this…you are a fine, strong young man. You made it to college and so much more…be proud of yourself and what you have accomplished. God bless your grandparents.

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  4. […] Next Entry: Throwback Thursday: First Love Start at the beginning… […]

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  5. […] sharp kiddo, why don’t you take a seat.” I quickly pulled up a chair desperate for one of his tales to ease my mind. “I ever tell you about the one that got […]

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  6. […] I was proud that I didn’t drink, but I knew being the odd man out– particularly in a moment of team unity– wasn’t going to earn me any friends. As I began to defend my abstinence, I was confronted by the usually dismissive banter and idle threats that are the backbone of peer pressure. I truly felt no inclination to succumb, rather, I felt fight or flight taking hold — I’m not a fighter. I spent a lot of my elementary days getting in fist fights, the majority of which I would lose in epic fashion. Part of the reason I began lifting weights and dabbling in kickboxing was simply so that I wouldn’t have to ever fight. In lieu of fists, I often would resort to my wit. I’ve always had a certain ability to “bro out” in spite of not being a full blown meat head — I could feel the room turning on me. I explained how important baseball was to me, and that my struggles weren’t a reflection of a lack of effort. I built a case around my wanting, to both, better myself and the team, deducing that I had no room for alcohol nor any other diminishers in my life. I could tell there pushback was coming, but hoped a distraction would suffice to quell this discussion. In the dining room was a poker table which I casually made my way toward. I asked who in the house played. Junior second baseman, Ben Contrucci, took the lead and sparked up a game. He grew up in a neighboring town and in that moment quickly became a hero to me. I was nervous as they played for as little as $50 a night, but this was too good of an opportunity to ease in with the upperclassmen. Besides, I had a little leftover from a local scholarship I had been awarded at graduation, intended to cover my cost of books– I realized after the first day of classes that all my books could be found in the library, so I returned any I had purchased for a full refund. […]

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