Friday, June 17, 2022

Guest TigerBlog - Zack DiGregorio And Father's Day

The annual Million Dollar Bike Ride was held this past weekend, beginning and ending at the soon-to-no-longer-be home of Charlie Thompson, the longtime Princeton head athletic trainer who is retiring and moving along with his wife Sandy to Newport.

The bike ride is a fundraising event for the A-T Children's Project, which fights against the disease Ataxia-Telangectasia. If you've been around here at all, you know the story of Derek DiGregorio, an almost 25 year old who has been battling this disease for more than half of his life.

The fight against the disease has brought together a large community of Princetonians around the DiGregorio family. The bike ride is part of that fight. 

This past Saturday morning was a party, with food, fun and a 17-mile ride. Through it all, there was a picture that peered out at the revelry. It was a picture of Steve DiGregorio, Derek's father and a former Princeton assistant football coach. Digger, as he was known to everyone, passed away last fall after his own battle, against pancreatic cancer.

Zack DiGregorio is the oldest of the three sons of Digger and Nadia. He and his brother Aaron were among the riders Saturday. 

TigerBlog misses Digger terribly. There are so many times during any given week where something will come up to make him think of his dear friend and then the sadness of knowing he's no longer around, taken at the age of 60. The ride Saturday was a stark reminder, with Digger's photo visible and his presence felt.

For Zack and the family, take that emotion and extrapolate it out to a whole different level, and that's what they deal with every day. With Fathers' Day this Sunday, Zack wanted to share his own thoughts. When he asked TB if it was okay and that he might want to edit it a bit, TB told him not to change a word: 

Father’s Day usually conjures images of cringy gifts, feigned smiles as torn gift wrap reveals another tie, or barbeques in the backyard. For me, this Father’s Day, I can’t stop thinking about a simple, little Hebrew refrain. 

In October of 2019, I was in a doctor’s office where everything was a different shade of gray, including my father, Steve DiGregorio’s, eyes, staring out the window as he underwent what would become a regular regimen of chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. I had driven him to his treatment that day and later on we were joined by our friend Jerry Price who brought along a lunchbox and his seemingly endless rolodex of stories; this day it was about John McPhee meeting Dwight Eisenhower and his son’s refusal to pay his speeding tickets.  

As I was leaving to pull the car around for my dad, one of the nurses stopped me and asked me if I was Steve’s son. This was purely perfunctory: pictures of him from his early twenties were nearly identical to mine, save his 80’s mullet. I said yes and she smiled, saying “There have been so many people who come through and sit with your dad through his treatments, sometimes we just don’t have enough chairs.”

Around the same time, my dad, an Italian Catholic whose last name could be mistaken for that of the heir to a frozen pizza fortune, adopted a new mantra from Jewish traditions: “Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik,” or, in English, “Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen one another.” 

It was nothing groundbreaking -- especially in our family. Twelve years ago, when my middle brother, Derek, was diagnosed with a rare, degenerative, incurable disease called Ataxia-Telangiectasia that robbed him, over time, of his ability to walk and care for himself. Immediately, like a montage from The Avengers, our friends and family rallied around us, being strong and strengthening us as we dealt with mounting doctors appointments, medical bills, and physically caring for him.

But this Father’s Day, the first one without my dad, “Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik” has taken on a new meaning, a greater strength, almost as if he left it for us.

This parade of friends and family who had rallied around us before picked back up in the summer of 2021, when my dad went into the hospital for what would be the last time and when he came home on hospice care. Scores of them, from Tel Aviv to Thailand to Montana to right down the street, came to say goodbye, but more than that, tell my dad what he meant to them. So many of them were former players from Steve’s days coaching Princeton University’s football teams to three Ivy League Championships in the 80’s and 90’s. My mom and I became adept at shuffling limited visitor passes at the hospital between his former players to skirt visitor limits, often giddy to relive some antics of their college days. Throngs of friends that we’ve made through our connection to the school, or his friends from his time coaching football or teaching social studies at Nutley High School, my dad’s beloved hometown, sat with us, brought us food, or offered comfort in their own, special ways. 

Among them were friends I’d known my whole life; heroes from the football stories of my childhood, people from Nutley that embraced our family with open arms when my dad. For my whole life, my relationship to these people, people I loved and revered had been woven through my dad. Standing in front of hundreds of people at his funeral, preparing to give his eulogy, I was consumed by the fear of not just losing my dad, but that losing him might sever my connection to some of the most special people in my life -- the people who had given us strength before. 

Looking down the prospect of losing my dad, I was losing someone I talked to every day, ranting about my day or some Seinfeldian moment that happened at the grocery store. I was losing someone who had the unique ability to set high expectations and instill in you the belief that you could meet those expectations. I was losing someone who was the foundation of so many of the places I found community in my life.

This Father’s Day, my first one without him, has taken on a new meaning, not just to reflect on my relationship with my dad but also on building back those relationships in the wake of his passing. That process has been trying, having to work past the “Are you ok’s” and the “How’re you doing’s,” into how we can fit into each other’s lives.

Whether it's finding new places to send my endless stream of news articles, figuring out who I can call on a spring night when I get home from my run but am not ready to go inside, or who I can ask for advice as I think through big decisions, I’ve been taken aback by how many of these people, whether they know it or not, have done small things to rebuild those parts of my life. 

In no small part because of the people they are, they have strengthened the bonds I have with them. From taking a few minutes to answer an evening phone call, to bringing my mother chocolates on Mother’s Day, to just sharing a story when it pops into their mind, it has made me feel more connected to them. And, in doing so, it has made me feel more connected to the legacy my dad left behind as a coach, an educator, a teammate, a mentor, and a friend.  

So, while this Father’s Day is immensely sad, it is not lonely. Those relationships -- and the building back up of those relationships -- have deepened my appreciation for the people and the net of support we have been so lucky to encounter. Almost as if my dad was making a promise, through their strength, I, and my mom and my brothers, have been strengthened.

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