A Quincy suicide leaves grief and questions — (The Boston Globe)

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The Boston Globe

By Stan Grossfeld,  Globe Staff

November 22, 2015

Malgorzata Gerakis (right) mourned the suicide of her son, Matt, with Cheri Maning of the North Quincy basketball program.

QUINCY — On Oct. 16, in the darkness on the edge of Wollaston Station, 18-year-old Matt Gerakis hid near the tracks. He could see the southbound commuter train lights approaching at 60 miles per hour. Minutes earlier, he had texted his girlfriend, Victoria Mele:

“ill love you forever vick. Don’t ever think it was your fault. Its 100% my fault’’

Matt, a star student-athlete who loved basketball, kissing his grandmother before and after every game, and romantic gestures — such as the elaborate treasure hunt he staged for Victoria — had graduated in June from North Quincy High School.

Matt Gerakis in his family’s favorite portrait of him and the one used at his wake.

In his bedroom in his mother’s apartment just south of Wollaston Station, he had often gazed out at the trains heading to and from Boston. At times, friends said, he seemed entranced by them.

Now when the commuter train rumbles past, his mother, Malgorzata “Gosia” Gerakis, starts weeping. She calls it “the dragon.”

Matt had dreams. As a Chancellor’s Scholar at the University of Massachusetts Boston, he had begun studying biochemistry and at times imagined himself developing drugs to cure diseases, like his mother’s breast cancer. He was healing from recent hip surgery and longing to return to the basketball court, where Victoria could cheer him on.

But he also had demons of depression that had seeped into his soul. No one may ever know precisely why Matt did what he did that night. And even as his family and friends celebrate his life, they struggle to understand what led a young man with such promise to stand on those tracks. They hope to spare others from a similar fate.

A success on, off court

‘I’m so sorry Mathew that you were so sad. I’m so sorry you felt so helpless. I’m so sorry I couldn’t do anything more to make you feel better.’

As a high school junior, Matt had posted the highest SAT score in his class, with a perfect math score. He didn’t just have jock friends or intellectual friends. Everybody seemed drawn to him.

“He set the tone not only on the court but also in the classroom, where he actually made it cool to be studious,” said Kevin Barrett, who was his basketball coach at North Quincy.

The Red Raiders’ success on the court during Matt’s playing days was the greatest in North Quincy history. There were two trips to the South Sectional final, two Patriot League championships, and the talented guard/forward had earned two league all-star selections.

But off the court he was having problems.

“Everything started when he found out I started having breast cancer,” said his mother, who was diagnosed in February 2014. “He was upset; he didn’t say much. He kept everything inside. ”

Still, as long as he was playing basketball, Matt seemed happy. When North Quincy came from behind to beat Newton North and advance to the Division 1 South Sectional final soon after the diagnosis, Matt was ecstatic. He taped a photograph of the celebration next to his bedroom window.

But it was during the final, on March 8, 2014, when North Quincy lost to Catholic Memorial, that his mother noticed trouble brewing. Matt had played through painful injuries, but he thought he’d hurt the team.

“He couldn’t run, and he blamed himself,” she said. “He said they lost because of him. After the season, he couldn’t get up from bed.”

Doctors eventually told Matt that hip problems, including torn labrums and genetic problems, would require multiple surgeries and a long recovery. One doctor, according to his mother, told him he might never play again.

Matt decided to postpone surgery so he could play basketball in his senior year. His uncle, Maciek Ozdoba, remembers him saying, “You don’t understand. If I disappoint those guys, I don’t want to live anymore. I just have to play and play for them.”

Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

A memorial was set up at North Quincy High School for Matt Gerakis, a basketball star at the school who took his own life in October at age 18.

Depression and love

As a student, Matt was brilliant. His history teacher recalled that he would be reading “Don Quixote” in Spanish under the desk, while doing his chemistry homework and answering history questions at the same time.

But by mid-November of his senior year, Matt stopped doing homework and started talking to friends about killing himself. One day he was rushed from school to the hospital in an ambulance and hospitalized. He spent time around Christmas in Pembroke Hospital, a private psychiatric facility.

According to his mother, Matt was diagnosed with severe depression.

Coach Barrett visited his cocaptain in the hospital.

“He couldn’t put his finger on what would cause it or what would put him in that mind-set,’’ Barrett said. “I think that’s the most frustrating part for anybody trying to help him, but also for him as well.’’

Clinical depression is a disease that often has no obvious cause. He was given medicines but complained that they made him lethargic, even though he exhibited no signs of that on the basketball court. He still had his old energy and team spirit, taking time to mentor the younger players in how to do a crossover dribble or take a step-in 3-point shot.

“Every time I wanted to give up, he’d tell me, ‘Don’t give up. You’re better than you think,’ ” said Dhaaky Drake, who is now a senior. “He kept pushing me. He actually made me a better student in class, too. Everything he said to me inspired me. It sucks that he had to leave.”

Matt led the Red Raiders in scoring. In his cheering section were his mother, his brother Michael, and his beloved Babcia, which means grandma in Polish. His parents are divorced, but his father was in his life; he liked to drive Matt to pickup games.

After the season, in April, Matt started dating a classmate, Victoria, and life got better. They had had a crush on each other since eighth grade.

Matt Gerakis and Victoria Mele in a Facebook posting. “Mathew Ill love you forever” wrote Victoria.

“You weren’t just my boyfriend, you were my best friend,” she wrote to him in a Facebook tribute.

Victoria brought out the romantic in Matt. Once he left notes all over Quincy for her until she found him at Pageant Field, “sitting on a bench waiting for me with a single red rose and a Polish chocolate bar,” she wrote in a Facebook remembrance.

But he also spoke about his inner turmoil. “He had told me when we first started dating that when he used to have depression, he wanted to end his life by jumping in front of a train,” she wrote.

Matt had hip surgery on June 11, 2015, and spent six weeks on crutches.

“He was so sad that he had to be on crutches for the first half of summer because he didn’t want to ‘ruin’ my summer, but the whole experience only made me love him more,” Victoria wrote.

Eventually, he started shooting around at the Quincy YMCA, with Victoria rebounding for him. But regulars at the Y noticed that he was becoming withdrawn. He would sit for a while on the floor with Victoria, then go upstairs to the fitness area.

He was scheduled to have his second hip surgery in late October.

A school is shaken

At North Quincy High School, Matt’s death generated shock, bewilderment, and then closeness. The school brought in a panel of experts to talk to students. A memorial wall where students could pen tributes was set up.

“The kids are really confused,” said Kristen McCarthy, Matt’s history teacher. “To them, he seemed to really have it together academically and athletically, and they didn’t know he was sick.

“It really rattled them. It’s hard to explain to them he wasn’t just sad one day, that this was very, very, very deep — a real battle he was fighting.”

Amid the grief, there were tributes to his life.

Barrett said Matt was like a second coach on the court. He has decided that no one will ever wear Matt’s No. 21 as long as he is North Quincy basketball coach.

Michael Joyce, North Quincy’s athletic director, recalled that when he had three extra Celtics tickets, Matt lobbied to take kids from the school’s special education learning center.

“They couldn’t believe it,” said Joyce. “He was sitting with the kids who look up to him like he’s a god.

“He stayed very grounded, very humble, and outrageously appreciative. He was one of the few kids that would say thanks for playing our warm-up songs, thank you for setting up the chairs. He recognized all the effort.”

“He was a kind and gifted kid,” said Michael Connor, North Quincy’s assistant principal. “But he must have sat there every night thinking about jumping in front of a train. I can’t even fathom what the poor kid went through.”

Matt Alexander, a former teammate, said, “I guess the lesson is, a smile on the face doesn’t necessarily mean a smile in the heart.’’

Mark Scanlan, Matt’s philosophy teacher, doesn’t want his student’s death to be in vain.

“When it comes to cancer, we all rally around the person, and we should,” said Scanlan, “but when it comes to mental health, there’s so much stigma attached to it, as if a person was making choices. People are embarrassed to say, ‘I need help.’ ”

Nearly 5,000 young people, ages 15 to 24, kill themselves every year in the United States, according to Mental Health America. That rate has nearly tripled since 1960.

North Quincy High School Yearbook Staff

North Quincy High School’s Matt Gerakis dribbled between two Plymouth South defenders.

Oct. 16

Matt’s goals, handwritten on a sheet of paper in his room, did not match the portrait of a young man hiding in the shadows, waiting for the train:

“Win a Nobel Prize. Begin playing and mastering piano. Learn to cook. Admission into graduate school. Manage time better to accomplish. Travel. Go to many concerts. Successfully recover from hip surgery.”

But with Victoria at Framingham State and Matt facing surgery again this fall, things quickly went downhill.

On Oct. 16, a Friday, he said he was going to the Quincy YMCA to play basketball and then out to Framingham to see Victoria. He talked to his mother, who was in Poland for a memorial for her father. He told her he wanted to quit school.

“I told him if he did not want to go to school, it’s OK,” she said.

According to his uncle, he came home from school, napped, and came and left three separate times. His grandma made him peanut butter sandwiches, his favorite. He ate four of them and left again. At one point, his uncle hugged him when he started crying about his upcoming hip surgery. Matt said that maybe he should get back on the meds. He worried about side effects. He worried that he might disappoint people.

The last thing he did before leaving his apartment for the last time was kiss his grandmother, just as he did at the games. He asked her to make a steak for him when he came back, and he was out the door.

Victoria Mele knew he was in pain that day.

“He told me how empty he felt and how he was going to drop out of school and how he doesn’t care about anything anymore,’’ she wrote on Facebook. “I tried talking to him out of it, but there was no talking sense into him.”

She asked him to come visit. “Around 8 [p.m.] I started messaging him asking where he was and when he would get here and why he hadn’t left yet,” she wrote on Facebook.

“I continued to panic regardless, because in my gut I knew something was wrong. A few minutes later, I got a message from his brother that there was an accident at the Wollaston train station. When I heard this, my heart dropped. I knew what had to have happened.”

The call came in at 8:31 p.m. that the Old Colony commuter train had struck a man 150 yards south of the Wollaston platform, near the Beale Street Bridge.

Some suicide attempts fail because trains have slowed down as they pull in and out of stations. But Matt knew that the commuter rail, the closest to his bedroom window, never stopped at the Red Line’s Wollaston Station.

“It is my belief that Mr. Gerakis did not suffer,” said Richard Sullivan, a lieutenant detective for the MBTA.

Lingering pain

Gosia Gerakis wants to move. The sound of the Red Line doesn’t bother her, but she hates the commuter train.

“It’s a monster that ate my son,” she said.

Now she hopes her grief will not be repeated.

“I want to help other kids and other families,” she said, as another train passed. “The truth, and it’s not easy to say, is for kids to tell the truth and get help. I wish someone could explain to me more about this medical depression, instead of ‘OK, let’s put him on the meds and then he should be fine.’

“It’s not that Mathew was mental; he was so passionate, he just wanted to be perfect. He hid the pain.”

Friends have set up the Mathew Gerakis Memorial Fund, through Eastern Bank in Quincy, with a goal of defraying funeral costs and setting up a scholarship in his name.

Victoria Mele is still suffering. It is hard to accept that the boy she loved is gone. She checks her phone every morning hoping to see a text from him.

“I’m so sorry Mathew that you were so sad,” she wrote. “I’m so sorry you felt so helpless. I’m so sorry I couldn’t do anything more to make you feel better. Half of me left with you on October 16. My life will truly never be the same.”