Roberta and Justin Torres. A remarkable story of family and hope.
This story is featured in the Litchfield County Sports Magazine. Pick up a hard copy at Jimmy's Store, Santoro's Cleaners or Alfredo's in Torrington today.
It was one of those moments that I was lucky enough to experience it, and I’ll never forget it.
The moment I refer to occurred while I was interviewing two remarkable people, Justin Torres and his mom Roberta at a coffee shop in Torrington on a cold and rainy (what, you thought I was going to say sunny?) day in early April.
Justin Torres is a 2018 graduate of Torrington High School who is quickly making his way towards his dream of acting on Broadway. Yes, I said Broadway, New York City like.
He’s that good.
His mom, Roberta, was diagnosed with Stage Four Lung Cancer in May of 2018, the same time her son was performing in his break-out performance in a production of the musical, In The Heights at Torrington High School, the first time I ran across Justin.
That’s the same In The Heights musical written and starred in by the legendary Lin-Manual Miranda, he of Hamilton fame.
So, as you can gather, it’s been an up and down year for the family as they celebrate one’s success while dealing with the remarkably tough diagnosis of another.
One of the many things I got out of the 90-minutes of so that we spent together drinking some good coffee, laughing and even shedding an occasional tear was that these two folks are fighters and that fight is keeping them both going.
That brings me to the moment.
Late in the interview, I asked Roberta what she wanted for her son and with pure love in her eyes and soul, she turned to her son and told him.
“I want you to just keep moving,” Roberta said. “And reaching for the stars. And do, do, it, don’t give up.”
Jimmy V would be proud with the sentiment.
The son who you could tell get’s so much of his strength from the woman sitting to his left, had his own words of encouragement for his real-life hero.
“I just want you to stay strong,” Justin said. “And know that there are so many people thinking about you. Every day, people reach out to me to see how you are doing. I just want you to know that you are not alone.”
How did this journey begin?
Let’s go back to when Justin first realized what he wanted to do after experience quite a bit of what he couldn’t do.
“In my freshman year I went to Wolcott Tech,” Torres said. “I tried out for every sport possible. I tried out for football, I tried out for volleyball and couldn’t make it. I was struggling in the trades I had signed up to do and I asked myself what I was doing?”
He was not getting accepted into anything and it was clearly frustrating him, but mom had some key words of advice.
“I told him not to give up,” Roberta said. “I told him that something would fall right into place.”
So, after some discussion, the younger Torres transferred across the street to Torrington High School in his sophomore year where he was talking to a friend about THS.
“I had asked my friend Gia Hoa Lam what he did after school,” Torres said, “He told me he was the stage manager and that I should audition for a show and I was like, ah no.”
Sometimes in life though, one might need a little push and that push was supplied by Hoa Lam.
“We were walking by the Little Theatre at one point and he announced to everyone that I was auditioning for a show,” Torres said. “Everyone was so excited. I was still really scared.”
The brilliance of what is available to students who go out for theatre is that they may have no clue that this will be what ends up being their thing, sometimes they find out because someone else believes they can. As it was in the case of Justin.
Sometimes kids are naturals and take to the stage like fish to water but it was a little different for the then sophomore Torres who was not sold on the fact that he could pull it off.
“That first show,” Torres said. “Was called a “Mid-Summers Night Jersey”, a parity of the Shakespeare “Mid-Summer Night Journey”. I auditioned and got one of the lead parts which scared me to death. I was hoping for a bit part, but I did my best.”
At that point, something clicked for Torres and it turned out to be a surprise to everyone who knew him best.
“I was shocked that this was what he wanted to do,” Roberta Torres said, “Once I saw him though, I thought he was amazing.”
From there, Justin appeared in the musical Grease, as Danny (John Trovolta in the movies), memorized an astounding 618 lines in Romeo and Juliet in a language he’s still trying to figure out and kept on performing.
The first show I saw this remarkable young man in was the Little Theatre performance of the above -mentioned hit, In the Heights.
I had decided to take in the show after hearing some good things about it and as an opportunity to report on the great work that the theatre department at Torrington High School does, year in and year out.
That night, I got there about an hour early to do what I do when I cover a game which is to get a lay of the land, watch the performers warm up and feel the atmosphere.
I stood down near the side of the stage and was quickly mesmerized by what I saw, not just from Torres but from all the students who were giving it their all on stage, for the third straight night in front of a packed house.
Justin played the main character, Usnavi De La Vega, the owner of a small bodega in Washington Heights.
He looked so much older and performed so much older while all the time, reminding you of the originator of the show, Miranda.
It was stunning.
Another 2018 graduate, Alexia Fox, played his grandmother, Abuela Claudia to perfection and the interaction with the rest of the talented ensemble was breath taking.
I was hooked.
At LCS, we strive to follow our student/athletes long after they have left the comfy confines of THS, so it was a natural next step to start following this talented and going places young man.
Roberta Torres had gotten the news about her condition right around that time and even the wording in her condition was frightening.
Stage 4 Lung. Secondary.
Adenocarcinoma of the Brain.
Secondary Carcinoma of the Liver.
Shivering as a write those words.
So, the main condition is Lung Cancer, but it was accompanied with a distressful side diagnosis, six tumors in her brain that needed to be worked on first.
How it started seemed innocent enough.
“I was getting up one day,” Roberta Torres said, “Getting ready for work, I’m a CNA and while I was trying to put my shoes on from the side of the bed, I almost fell. I had been feeling off, like something wasn’t right for a number of days. So, I said I should probably get checked.”
At first the doctors thought it might have been something as basic as Vertigo but after testing it turned out not to be that, so they looked elsewhere.
She was sent home but the symptoms remained. Dizziness, trouble walking down steps. Even driving became impossible.
A few weeks later, Torres went for an open MRI in Southington and when the scan was done, they informed her that she needed to wait, her doctor needed to be called.
Never news we want to hear.
Things got serious in a hurry after that.
“They came out and said that they had to take me by ambulance to New Britain Hospital,” Torres said. “I’m thinking “Oh no.”
Once at the hospital, the news was given straight and harshly.
“They said I had cancer,” Torres said. “I was in shock. I thought I was hearing things. I didn’t know how bad it was until they did more MRI’s and a Cat Scan.”
The MRI on her head had shown the six brain tumors that could not be surgically removed.
What followed was a full-on assault of her tumors by way of ten rounds of radiation straight to the head over a ten-day period.
The doctors had to start with the head issues before they could move on to what caused them in the first place, the Stage 4 Lung Cancer.
The goal was to shrink the tumors and it worked. They were shrinking.
Next was chemotherapy for the lungs, something that is ongoing every three weeks.
In the meantime, Justin was trying out for a part in the Landmark Community Theatre production of Tommy at the Thomaston Opera House.
He would get a part, playing Tommy’s mean Uncle Ernie, a 30-40-year-old not such a nice guy character.
One thing folks have seen from Justin Torres is that he can play parts much older than he is and pull them off.
While taking part in Tommy, his production mates heard about his mom’s condition and wanted to do something to help.
The came up with the idea of a show that featured Cabaret style performances by numerous cast members.
Over 200 people showed up to help support this family they barely knew but understood they needed a helping hand.
My wife Deb and I attended and I worked the show from behind the curtain for a while as the singers performed for a grateful audience, especially Roberta Torres who was on hand along with family and friends from all over.
In a moment that still bring tears to my eyes, Justin Torres took to the stage to perform “Promise Me This”, a song from the play, The Theory of Relativity.
The song was about a child and their mother and the journey and bond they shared and so much of it applied to what the Torres family is working through right now.
It’s not a good news ending in the play but the words were and still do apply to the two individuals in this battle that both are determined to see end with a positive result.
Two versus stuck out. I still don’t know how this young man sang them to his mom.
“And She’d say “Promise this Mira, enjoy your time on earth, always appreciate the wonder of your birth. Promise me this Mira, don’t waste a single day, before you know it dear, it all can fade away.”
After the mother in the play passes away, the child commits to follow her advice.
“I promise you this Mama, I will make it through. Cause now I understand the miracle was you.
I promise you this Mama, I won’t waste a single day, and my miracle will never fade away.”
There was not a dry eye in the house and I have no idea how either the son or the mother got through the entire song but understand this. There is no give up in these two blessed human beings who are determined to keep going.
So, today, Justin Torres is continuing to build his resume with paid gigs like the one that just wrapped in May at the Seven Angels Theatre production of Tommy, a first for the THS graduate.
Mom is steadily improving, gaining back the ability to drive while battling the lung portion of her challenge.
These are two fighters who have no intention of giving up on one another.
I wouldn’t bet against either of them and I thank both of them for sharing their remarkable story.