John Holt on Scooper Sunday event.
364 days a year a giant wooden ice cream cone rests against the back wall of my garage. 1 day a year I load the ice cream cone into my Honda Pilot and we drive together to a baseball game. As much as I love hard ice cream (I’m a New Englander after all) I never would have imagined owning 7 feet of plywood artfully crafted into an ice cream cone by my woodworker father-in-law. Nor would I have imagined I’d become adept at reading between the lines of newspaper obituaries or become so sensitive to what “troubled” Red Sox fans were saying when they called talk radio. Nor would I have thought I would count the minutes until Thanksgiving was over each year.
Family, food, football. You hear it a lot when people profess their preference for Thanksgiving being the best holiday of them all. Until 1999 it would have been hard for me to argue otherwise. Then I lost my brother. On the day after Thanksgiving 1999 my brother Lindsey took his own life. Americans call the day after Thanksgiving Black Friday. Fitting for me and my family but for reasons that have nothing to do with savings gained at midnight sales. This is a story of loss.
Lindsey was the handsome son, the strong son, the sensitive son. He was beginning a career as a nurse. He was the son of two college graduates. He was a college graduate himself. He was also struggling with mental illness. He was 25 years old.
When you’ve lost a loved one to suicide you join a sad club of people called suicide survivors. You experience a unique type of grief. A grief haunted by unanswered questions and lost potential. How great an uncle would Lindsey have been to my girls? How great a husband and father to his own family? It’s the type of grief that makes me say that if Lindsey showed up at my doorstop tomorrow I’d give him the biggest, longest hug you can envision then step back a few paces and promptly knock his lights out. I’d be elated, I’d be angry.
Just short of ten years after Lindsey’s death, ten years of dealing with complex emotions, I began to channel my feelings into energy that helped launch something called Scooper Sunday. Thanks to the largesse of then team owner Bill Dowling the New Britain Rock Cats (now the Hartford Yard Goats) would be the host for an afternoon of baseball and all-you-can-eat ice cream. Proceeds would benefit suicide prevention. In my mind the event would be Connecticut’s miniature version of the long running Scooper Bowl run annually at City Hall Plaza in Boston to benefit the Jimmy Fund.
On the last Sunday of last month me and the ice cream cone headed down Route 91 to the sparkling new Dunkin Donuts Park. What awaited was a day of fellowship, friends and Phish Food. Phish Food was actually one of 32 flavors of ice cream and Italian Ice being scooped by nine generous vendors who had donated both their product and their employees’ time. People buy tickets to Scooper Sunday and proceeds benefit the VITAL work being done by the Hartford-based Jordan Porco Foundation. JPF targets the college and high school populations with suicide prevention and mental awareness through their Fresh Check Day, Nine Out of Ten and 4 What’s Next programs (www.rememberingjordan.org) These JPF programs have made a difference for today’s college students and I believe they could have made a difference for my brother and many others had they existed earlier.
There’s a undeniable sensitivity to language that I now live with. A Red Sox fan calling sports radio claiming that the team’s recent losing streak has him ready to “jump off the Tobin Bridge” hits home in a way it never would have before November 1999. I can read the wording of an obituary and with near certainty know when it was a suicide, usually tipped off by words to the effect of “he died unexpectedly” or “he died at home”. There are those in the suicide survivor and suicide prevention communities who take issue with the phrase “committed suicide” – concerned that it sends an outdated message when (before 1961) suicide was tantamount to committing a crime. It’s complicated.
There are no easy answers. What difference can Scooper Sunday make? How can baseball and ice cream move the needle in a positive direction? How can there be substantial hope when suicide rates continue to rise? The challenge here is similar to proving a negative. We know the numbers of people who have taken their lives but how do we get a handle on those that may stop short of doing that because of what they gained in being exposed to a suicide prevention program like the ones being run by The Jordan Porco Foundation? There are no easy answers.
I always appreciate that Scooper Sunday gives a platform to suicide prevention in a low key way. Come for baseball, come for ice cream, an oh yeah, if so inclined, leave with some information that could help you or a friend. Information to start the conversation knowing that it’s OK to not be OK.
I don’t have a medical degree. I’m not trained in counseling. I certainly don’t have a license to prescribe medicine. What I am equipped to do, what we are all equipped to do, is listen. That’s no small thing. We live in a “thoughts and prayers” world. It takes about 5 seconds to type that on Facebook or shoot that to a friend in a text. It takes a lot more effort to listen, a lot more effort to be there when a friend, colleague or neighbor is in crisis. Like the good, dedicated people at The Jordan Porco Foundation I pride myself on listening, listening on the one day I’m traveling with my 7-foot ice cream cone AND the 364 others when I’m not.
(John Holt has been a longtime journalist in Connecticut including at WFSB-TV where he was a full time sports anchor/reporter from 2003 through 2016)