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Commencement Address: Alex Nicholson ’09

“Crack.” I fell to the ground. I thought the opposing player had perhaps torn my ACL, and I figured this soccer game against Taft would be the last of my career. I had been playing pretty well in my senior season, but I suppose it was just my time.

Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with the worst physical pain I have ever endured. I noticed that my foot was not properly aligned with my leg. So there I was, lying on my back, trying desperately to hold my leg in place while my teammates surrounded me.

The trainers and coaches finally separated the players and began to assess the situation. “Hi, what’s your name?” The Taft trainer asked.

“Alex,” I said in one breath between gasps of pain.

“Ok honey, well I think your leg is broken,” she said.

“I know. Do you see the foot? The foot isn’t where the foot is supposed to be,” I replied. My teammate Joe Haddad squatted down by my head. I grasped his ankles with my hands to distract myself from the pain. It wasn’t working, so I started to bite his ankles. Inflicting a little pain on someone else made me feel better about my current plight. It was at about this time when I wondered if shock would ever set in.

My coach, Mr. Flaska, arrived. “Alex, how are you feeling?” He asked.

“Just cut it off Mr. Flaska, cut off my leg,” I said. Mr. Flaska held my leg as the trainers called the ambulance and attempted to take down my information. Another one of my teammates, John Rose, approached with his parents. His father, Dr. Rose, was an orthopedist. I was relieved to know that there was a professional on site. Seeing as my hands were clasping Joe’s ankles and Mr. Flaska had my leg, John decided to go for my chest – the only unattended part of my body.

“Hey buddy, how’s it going?” He said as he made eye contact with me. He began to awkwardly pat me on the chest. That didn’t really help the pain, but his options were slim: tend to my severely broken leg or have to look at the excruciating expression on my face. Patting the chest was the best option.

Amidst the blurbs of encouragement from parents and my frequent cries of pain, I heard the Taft trainer ask, “Ok, Alex, so how much pain are you in right now?”

I had never been in this much pain before, so I decided to try and relate to the trainer. “Well, I’m not a woman, but if I had to compare this to anything I would say childbirth.”

“Umm… ok,” she said.”

“She must not have children,” I thought.

“Ok, what’s your full name?” She asked.

I gave them my address.

“No, Alex, your name,” said Mr. Flaska.

I gave them a string of nine numbers.

Mr. Flaska and the trainer were dumbfounded. “Jan, I think he’s delirious from the pain. Do you know the numbers he’s saying?” The trainer asked.

I answered the question for her, “It’s my social security. I’m not supposed to give that out, but I trust you. And my full name is Alexander Holt Nicholson, born….” I was relieved to have given them all my pedigree information. Now I could just concentrate on trying to force my body into shock. It wasn’t working so I resumed biting Joe’s ankles.

Half an hour later, the ambulance arrived. The paramedics drove right onto the field. Earlier, I thought I had experienced the worst pain in my life. The pain of actually breaking my leg soon became the runner-up to the pain of the paramedics adjusting my mangled leg and putting me on a stretcher. The Taft Headmaster walked alongside the stretcher as they were taking me to the ambulance. “Alex, the boy who you collided with wants to wish you well,” he said.

This boy was the last person I wanted to see, “No it’s ok. If I don’t see him just tell him that I’ll forgive him in the after-life.” It was too late. The boy began to run over. As he came closer it became apparent that he was much larger than I was. He was a mammoth of a boy. The right person had emerged from the collision unscathed. The boy shook my hand and wished me well.

Once the ambulance was on its way, the paramedics gave me pain medication. Thank God. I immediately went into a daze, and the pain subsided.

My memory is fuzzy concerning the next two hours. I remember Joe’s parents, The Haddad’s, and the Rose’s standing on either side of my bed as I was being wheeled into surgery. I remember Mr. Flaska standing right by my side. I remember their words of support as the nurse wheeled my bed into the operating room.

“Alex, what type of music would you like to listen to before you go under for your surgery?” The nurse asked.

“Maybe some classical music,” I said. I have no idea why I said that. I hate classical music. It had to of been the morphine talking, because when they turned on the pop song, “Leavin,’” by Jesse McCartney, I made them leave it.

When I woke up, everyone was there who had watched me go into the OR. Mr. Flaska was still by my side. The only difference was that I had a metal rod in my leg holding my tibia together.

I was bed ridden in the Waterbury Hospital for one week. Bernard, my step-father, flew back from his trip to Argentina and then spent the next week back and forth between home and the hospital. My cousin Connie stayed with me for the entire week. Bernard also arranged for my brothers to come see me. Bernard happens to be French, so there are often miscommunications between him and other people. For instance, Mrs. Haddad tried to tell Bernard over the phone that I had possibly broken both bones in my leg. Several minutes later, my brother Sean received a call.

“Hey Bernard, what’s up?”

“Sean, the family is in crisis lock down mode. Alex has broken both legs and cannot walk. You need to drive to the Waterbury Hospital immediately.”

Sean called me shortly after. He was relieved to find that only one of my legs was broken and that I would be able to walk again.

Throughout the rest of the week, I was overwhelmed with visitors and emails from members of the Deerfield community. My friends and their parents stopped by often – bringing me gifts and food to keep my spirits high. Teachers from Deerfield drove all the way to Waterbury to see me. Taft was more than generous. Their Headmaster, Athletic Director, and Dean of Students came to see me on a regular basis. Every night, a different teacher from Taft cooked me a full course meal.

Two visitors stick in my mind the most. The first is Mr. Flaska. He offered to drive back to Deerfield to pick up crutches from the health center and any other personal effects I needed.

“Alex, do you need me to get anything from your room?” He said before he left.

“No, it’s ok Mr. Flaska. I’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure, maybe some shaving materials? You know, anything,” said Mr. Flaska, hinting at the fact that my beard was growing in.

“Mr. Flaska I’m just going to let myself go. There’s no use in trying to control it at this point.”

Mr. Flaska returned a day later, crutches in hand. He spent most of his time in the room talking with me. The subject of conversation flowed from my leg, to Deerfield, and eventually to the imminence of his first child being born. His visit was not out of the ordinary until it came time to sleep.

“Sir, there’s a room where guests can sleep,” said the nurse.

“No, I’ll be just fine. Don’t worry. I would rather sleep right here on the floor,” said Mr. Flaska.

“Sir, I assure you, the cots are more comfortable than the floor,” the nurse insisted.

“Yes, Mr. Flaska, you don’t have to stay in here with me,” I said.

“It’s no trouble. I’ll just use my sweatshirt as a pillow,” he replied. And so he slept right there on the tile floor of my hospital room. I couldn’t help but think that he was in for the most uncomfortable sleep of his life. I dozed off wondering when he would give up and take the cot the nurse had offered; but when I awoke, he was right where I left him – on the floor with a sweatshirt under his head and a jacket pulled over him to keep himself warm. I dozed off again, but the next time I awoke he wasn’t there. Connie was sitting by my bedside.

“Connie, where did Mr. Flaska go?”

“He slept here? I don’t know. I haven’t seen him,” she said.

Just as she finished her sentence, a nurse entered, “Excuse me, do you know the man doing yoga at the end of the hall?”

“Yes. He’s affiliated with this room. Is he in the way or something?” I asked

The nurse looked at Connie and I and said, “No, no. The entire nursing staff is just really, really impressed.”

The second visitor that stuck in my mind was not a single person, but rather a group of people. A group of my friends on the football team drove to the hospital to visit me. Drew Philie, Jake Ingrassia, Robb Scott, Jim Forrey, and Pete Berg all packed into my room. At this point the pain of moving was bearable; so, with assistance, I was able to get out of bed and sit in a reclined chair with my leg propped up. This made it easier to entertain. After telling the story of how I broke my leg and giving the prognosis, my buddies handed me a football with signatures all over it.

“We beat Taft in our game this week, and the whole team signed the ball for you,” Robb said. They went on to tell me about the pre-game speech given by their coach, Mr. Silipo. The speech was meant to inspire the team to rally around the incident of me breaking my leg. I never had Mr. Silipo as a teacher or a coach, and I didn’t know all of the kids on the football team. I didn’t think I was responsible for the victory, but I was taken by the sincerity of the gesture. I was taken by people caring for me who I hardly knew. I’ve never felt more a part of Deerfield than when they gave me that football.

After my stint in the hospital, I returned to the Deerfield Health Center. Dr. Hagamen and the wonderful nursing staff cared for me for 4 long weeks. I also did physical therapy in the trainer’s room. I worked with trainers Robert Graves and Kate Bergeron, to regain strength in my leg.

During my 4 week stay in the Health Center, I had copious amounts of visitors. Almost every teacher I’ve ever had stopped by, and students I didn’t even know came to see me. My friends came to do their homework with me, or simply just to tell me about what was happening outside the Health Center walls. Eventually, I began to go to classes. Many of my teachers relocated their classes to more convenient locations so that I could attend.

There was one morning during my stay in the Health Center that I will always remember. I woke up before the sun rose. I was usually up early – the throbbing of my leg made it difficult to sleep. I still couldn’t get out of bed on my own so I laid there, waiting for Deerfield to awake as well. As I scratched the hair on my unshaven face, the door crept open. In walked Mr. Flaska with a basin of water, a towel over his shoulder, and a razor.

“Alex, I was thinking you might like a shave. I can help you in any way possible. Just let me know.”

It was time to shave. He got me when I was most vulnerable. I was immobile and there were no nurses to save me. Mr. Flaska offered to shave me himself. I found this too patronizing, so I did it myself while he held the basin for me to clean the razor in. After I was done, he gave me the towel to wash my face. I felt like a new man. However, I couldn’t wait to get out of the Health Center and reclaim my senior year – a senior year that I feared I was losing.

This spring, I pursued a Directed Study under the tutelage of Dr. Bicknell. The theme of the study was “loss.” Loss of time, loss of youth, loss of place, loss of people, loss of love. Loss – the truly universal aspect of human life. Something we all endure day by day. Throughout the course of study, Dr. Bicknell introduced me to the poem Blackwood Water by Mary Oliver. The end of the poem was so simple and meaningful that it remained in my thoughts. It reads as follows:

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal,

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it,

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

As a senior class, one of the harder parts of life stands before us. We have toiled in the classroom. We have sweat on the green grass of the athletic fields. We have made everlasting friendships. We have loved Deerfield. We have held it tight to our chests during our tenure, but now it is time to let it go. But letting go of Deerfield is a loss not easily suffered.

In the midst of our sadness for leaving Deerfield, it is important to realize that with profound loss comes wisdom and even more profound independence. At the end of my time at Deerfield, I feel as though I have gained more power over my own life. At Deerfield, I’ve learned a sense of responsibility and I’ve learned to live without the constant guidance of my parents. However, this power comes hand in hand with uncertainty and the relinquishment of former security. The security that Joe Haddad will let me bite his ankles when my leg is broken. The security that Mr. Flaska will shave my face for me if I’m not willing to do it myself. The security that the Deerfield community will support me in a time of hardship. Once I move on to college, my teachers will not be as accommodating. People I don’t know will most likely not give me their care.

It is always hardest to let go of that security and to move forward with your life. Just as it was hard to walk for the first time without your mother holding you – preventing you from falling. Just as it was hard to watch your parents drive away on your first day at Deerfield – knowing that you had to make your way in a new place without them. And, just as it is hard to leave Deerfield after we have grown to love it and depend on it. But, these moments of loss, though daunting, are necessary. You were nervous when your mother released you to walk on your own, but you would not have gotten anywhere unless you could stand on your own two feet. You repined for your parents when they dropped you off at Deerfield, but learning to live on your own and take care of yourself is a necessary part of life. You hate that you have to leave Deerfield, but you have to take the next step toward total independence and a life of your own.

Leaving Deerfield feels as though I’m packing for a trip – a trip from which I will never return. I try to stuff everything that I can into my suitcase: my friends, my teachers, my tangible accomplishments; but, eventually, I realize that like any trip I can’t take everything with me. Some things need to be left behind. They need to be left behind, but they should never be forgotten.

I will never forget the Haddad’s and the Rose’s comforting me as I entered surgery. I will never forget that the football team beat Taft in my honor. I will never forget that Mr. Flaska was willing to sleep on the floor of my hospital just to stay by my side. I will never forget the warm embrace of this community that caught me when I fell and helped me stand on my own two feet. These intangible memories come with me in my suitcase, but the physical stays behind.

Seniors, be mindful as you pack your suitcase. Remember that there is no room for the Deerfield community and the security it provided. There mustn’t be any room for it. You have to let it go. Our time here has ended, but the memories you pack in your suitcase will make you forever part of this place.

And so I say, to the class of 2009, let the heart hold memory bright, and may your hearts have the strength to let go.

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