I think that it is fair to say the entire college process has always eluded me in terms of both pragmatics and experience. While it feels as though many kids that I currently coach are prepped for their collegiate experiences from the moment that they reach middle school (hyperbole, but not by much), it never really came up as much of a conversation piece in any facet of my life when I was in high school and my view of the collegiate process was simplistic bordering on naive. I enjoyed sports - particularly talking about sports - and many individuals in broadcast media attended St. John's University, which also happened to be my favorite college basketball team. Therefore, I was going to go to SJU. Details? What details?
|Roopers in her bed|
Unfortunately, my college counselor was of no help in breaking down the realities of what was actually required when it came to finding a school, as her primary pitch for UConn fell on deaf ears (public schools in Connecticut were incentivized to keep students in state) and literally all that she did in the remainder of our meeting was dig an outdated brochure for St. John's out of a bin. It was not until later that I learned of the relative urgency of completing the SAT, which I effectively took blind and posted a score that was good enough to merit acceptance into all of the schools to which I applied. I did not wind up even applying to SJU due to learning about its relative lack of on-campus housing, nor did I go to the likes of North Carolina or George Washington despite being accepted. Instead, I opted to stay close to home at Western Connecticut State University, with the plan being to reevaluate options in the future with the benefit of insight from experience.
While I know many people who have had very positive experiences at WCSU, my freshman year would not be included in that number. I have previously mentioned how several of my professors were utterly uncaring in the wake of the severe concussion that I suffered, with the lone individual to demonstrate any semblance of empathy being my Calculus professor - a very kind man who was often the victim of abuse by students who mocked the manner in which his native language of Chinese affected the way that he said certain words. Most of the students in my courses were utterly disengaged and in-class discussions were behind rare, which was a major culture shock after having come from a high school with a strong academic bent. I dropped out after just one semester filled with uncharacteristically mediocre grades, partly the result of being penalized for work that I physically could not complete while bed-ridden and partly due to not wanting to exert effort in an environment that would not reciprocate. While I mostly worked and coached for the next few years, I still wanted to go back to school and made plans to transfer to Marist College at the advice of multiple friends who were currently in attendance there. It was a disaster.
Marist's policy of not permitting people to request roommates, coupled with my relatively late transfer date, resulted in me being placed in a townhouse just off-campus, one that was ostensibly only to house seven people and yet always seemed to be filled with at least twice as many. While the other guys were pleasant enough (the one not-so-pleasant individual said that I was an idiot for thinking that Kelly Clarkson would win American Idol - his misogyny was in no way subtle), this was effectively a frat house for them and that type of environment was in no way conducive to my health in any form or fashion. As literally the only person in the house with faulty cable and internet connections, I had to endure the discomfort of the beer-bottle-riddled common room to see highlights of the Oakland Athletics setting the American League record of 20 consecutive wins and the lowlights from the United States Men's Basketball Team's lackluster performance in the World Championship. I spent most of my time either trying in vain to sleep, reading multiple full books well before they were assigned for courses, and sitting in the school's computer lab desperately wanting to be anywhere else. The day before I had to commit to staying or leaving for the purpose of tuition payment, I set up a meeting with my adviser and anxiously paced the halls for nearly an hour before the meeting. Once inside her room, I pretty much let loose with everything that had transpired and emotionally broke down, to the point that she termed the experience to have been traumatizing for me. She was right.
Trauma is one of those terms that can get thrown back at someone in a hurry, usually in bad faith and in a manner laden with logical fallacies. Litigating, ranking, and comparing various forms of trauma does little good other than making the person offering the evaluation demonstrate their true intent of being a belittling jerk. Yes, people who watched others die in front of them quite likely had far more serious traumatic episodes than did I. Well, guess that means that any internal and external pain that I feel is totally invalid - thanks, friend! While I am now surrounded by people who understand the fallacious nature of that line of thinking, this was not the case at the time and I actively hid from view my experiences due to the outright uncaring feedback that I received from others.
|2003 Topps - Oakland A's|
I was able to return to WestConn for the fall semester in 2002 and had much better professors, although the level of disinterest from the majority of the other students was still a major turn-off. Although I was previously told that jobs at my previous employers would be available if I was ever to want to return, changes in ownership scuttled my attempt to go back to working at the deli, while the reason that I was given for not being able to get hours at the batting cage in town still baffles me to this day. I interviewed at and tried out working for several other places, only to have major anxiety spikes during those experiences prior to becoming physically ill whenever I returned home. In many ways, I felt like a failure. After all, millions of people go off to school and/or go to work every day, yet I could not manage much outside of my meager comfort zone.
At some point in late September of 2002, my mom called home to ask me to prepare food, water, and a bed for a kitten that she was bringing home from work. Given that my mom was the assistant manager at a school bus company, that was hardly the place from which one might expect to adopt a cat. The tale was just as bizarre as one might think, as apparently some individual had accessed the bus yard overnight and placed a box of kittens inside the back of one of the buses. Unfortunately, mere moments after my mom was called upon to help collect the cats, the driver quizzically opened the back door of the back, which led the frightened kittens to see an opportunity to escape. Even more unfortunately, one of the group that broke free was struck and killed by an unsuspecting driver, while the rest escaped into a wooded area. My mom was able to catch one of the kittens, though, and Paroopers (Roopers) has lived here ever since.
Roopers was by far the smallest cat that I had ever seen, one whose ears seemed to be four times the size of the rest of her body. She eventually grew into them and they are now only twice as large as her body. ;) Nearly all black in color save for a white spot on her chest and the occasional white whisker(s), Roopers got her name for the manner in which her purring would be interspersed by sounds similar to coos. Given how exceptionally small Roopers was and the fact that we did not know how our adult cats would react to having a kitten join the fray (as it turned out, they were all fine to the point of near apathy), my daytime job would often be to consistently keep tabs on Roopers to make sure that she did not get into trouble. She proved quite adept at escaping from the box in which all of her sleeping materials were kept, but soon demonstrated signs of extreme distress when unexpected noises or presences emerged. Even though she slept in my mom's bed for years, there was an extremely long time in which I was the only person who could approach Roopers without her running for cover. When comfortable, she was playful and loved to track down toy mice, often bringing them back as part of a rare feline version of fetch. However, the anxiety and trauma that she had suffered was profound. I do not remember the last time in which she voluntarily went downstairs at our apartment in Bethel and her interactions with any person or cat save for me and my mom were effectively nonexistent. I was there for her, though, and she was there for me - until one day she wasn't.
Given how often Roopers was in hiding, it took a considerable amount of time for us to notice that she had not been out to eat or drink anything from her bowls. A thorough search of the many places in which Roopers could have hidden came up empty, leaving us with the only other possible solution - that she had somehow fallen out of my sisters' bedroom window. While that sounds implausible, one of our other cats, Midgee, has twice fallen out of windows, there was neither a fan nor a screen in my sisters' window that day, and our younger cats were not always kind to Roopers. It was not until several days later in which I spotted Roopers cautiously emerging from the neighbor's garage that those suspicions were confirmed, which then led to the conundrum of how to catch a cat who is afraid of nearly everything. We began to set out food and water, Roopers ate and drank only to sprint away the moment that noise was made. The head-on approach nearly worked, as my mom caught Roopers on one occasion, only to have her hand be bitten hard - the lone time that I ever recall Roopers biting anyone, even in a playful fashion.
It felt again as though my purpose was to help Roopers, this time in overcoming her fully legitimate fears to return home. I spent a great amount of time in our back porch area talking to Roopers in the calm manner in which we always interacted, to the point that she would not run if I came outside while she was eating. I could not get quite close enough to nab her, which probably would not have been a wise idea anyway, but she eventually began to feel comfortable coming on our porch after initially keeping her distance. A properly-situated laundry basket placed against our screen door served as the perfect place for a food bowl, where Roopers ate as I yet again kept her calm and around which my mom crept to help tip the basket inside the door. Roopers was back after we had worried that she might be gone for good, although I am not sure if she again left the bedroom before we moved to Danbury.
The apartment in Danbury is much smaller than the one in Bethel, which unfortunately made hiding from people and cats alike that much harder for Roopers. While I loved Püß, one of the two cats who we got as kittens in 2004, his mission in life was seemingly to chase Roopers back into hiding whenever she poked her head out of a room (and might have been the reason behind her fall from the window), which only served to worsen her anxiety. As brutal as Püß's unexpected passing in 2017 was, the closest thing to a positive to come from it was that it allowed Roopers to actually socialize. For the first time since her initial days in Bethel, Roopers was fine with going into any room without much in the way of worry and was finally comfortable being petted by someone other than me. She seemed happier and was actually able to do things fairly freely, which was heartening to see. While the joke the Roopers was "just a baby" largely alluded to her size, Roopers remained extremely spry and alert up through July, which was quite remarkable given that she was right around 17 years of age.
|Roopers looking at the camera|
Unfortunately, what followed was a script that has become all too common in recent years. I will spare you the details, but Roopers' condition deteriorated in rapid fashion much as it had with Larry, Püß, and Midgee before her, to the point that she was barely able to function. Perhaps defying the odds, we had a group of five cats together from the summer of 2007 through the end of 2016. In the span of around 20 months, four have passed away. Three of them were of the age that it was hardly unexpected in a vacuum, but the idea that 17 years of age is "old" is still tough pill to swallow given that a human of the same age cannot so much as purchase a lottery ticket. The decision was made to put Roopers to sleep this morning, one that was equal parts devastating and relief given the knowledge that she would no longer be in considerable pain. Between last night and today, I comforted her as much as I could before having to say a final goodbye. It may feel silly to say about a cat, but Roopers gave me a purpose when things were really bad and I want to think that I was able to be the kind of friend that she needed in what was a life filled with traumas. She was definitely that for me.