By Dr. Peter Gregory Angelo
Director of Adapted Aquatics
It must be every university professor’s nightmare to find out that one of his or her students has died unexpectedly. The nightmare is certainly worsened when the death of that student is sudden and violent, as it is in a fatal car accident. I was awakened early Sunday morning, Sept. 30 by the constant ringing of my phone. It was very early, and the ringing phone was somewhat ominous. The first thing I noted was a text message that sent me reeling. Carolina Berszakiewicz, a student and teaching assistant of mine, had been killed in a car accident on Saturday. There was a second text from my assistant, Dr. Stan Kozin, asking me to call him immediately upon receiving his text message. At first, I just started blinking my eyes, hoping to wake up from what to me seemed a terrifyingly absurd nightmare. Then, reality began to set in, and I called my assistant Christina Ozelis, who had sent me the first text message. My worst fears were confirmed, and I felt that indescribable excruciating pain that one feels in the pit of the stomach when news such as this begins to settle into the human mind. Over the years, I have had about five students of mine die untimely deaths, but this one I would soon find would be the one that would hit me the hardest.
Carolina was one of my intellectually brightest students in the Adapted Aquatics and Emergency Response program. I had seen her on the previous Tuesday, when she spent about six hours with me as a reaching assistant for my section of HSQ 270: Emergency Response. We had our usual pre-class meeting, which included about 14 teaching assistants, followed by a three-hour class, and ending with a post-class meeting to discuss the teaching strategy for the next Tuesday’s class. We all parted company at about 10:30 p.m., and as is the custom among my teaching assistants, the young men would walk the women back to their dorms because of the lateness of the hour. That would be the very last time I would see Carolina.
She had chosen women’s studies as her major, attached to a pre-med curriculum. She also enrolled in the 23-credit adapted aquatics academic minor, and over a period of three and a half years, she had been enrolled in ten of the courses that I personally teach and was also one of about 20 hand-picked students that served as my teaching assistants in various aspects of my program. It is extremely rare, at any university, for a student such as Carolina to have the same professor in so many courses throughout her undergraduate studies. Adapted aquatics, however, is quite unique as an academic department on this campus insofar as I generally teach every course within the adapted aquatics and emergency response curriculum, with the current exception of HSQ 121 and 223. The number of students enrolled in our HSQ courses in any given academic year is about 1,000, and that is why I rely so heavily upon the select group of superb teaching assistants that I have. As a result of the tremendous amount of interaction I have with the teaching assistants, I get to know them extremely well. We all meet together for at least an hour prior to any class they assist with, and again for an hour afterward. If any of them happen to have conflicts with other university classes they are enrolled in, I generally arrange one-on-one meetings to cover the material with them. Since some of our clinical classes take place in the afternoon hours or after 6 p.m., we often all eat our lunch or dinner together in my office conference room as we plan out every aspect of the class we are either about to teach or have just completed teaching. The teaching assistants and many of the students refer to my office as their home away from home. And Carolina was no exception. The breaking of bread together brought this group very close together, and now, having met Carolina’s family, I realize how much those intimate times with her fellow students meant to her.
One thing I especially loved about Carolina was her incredibly beautiful handwriting and printing. The running joke among my teaching assistants for the past three and a half years revolved around the fact that only Carolina was allowed to enter student names in my roll book, or on testing sheets for the evaluation of ‘practical skills’ in any of my classes. (Yes, I still use a roll book because electronic record keeping can be very problematic in a damp pool area, for example.) Normally, I personally entered all the names in my roll book because of my Catholic school training in penmanship. But when Carolina first became a teaching assistant, I saw that she had the closest handwriting to mine. It was at Carolina’s wake that her mother told me that she was the great influence on her daughter’s beautiful handwriting.
For anyone reading this who is not completely familiar with the adapted aquatics minor, or any of the classes my department teaches, it is important that you realize that our program includes very aggressive physical skills, a great deal of hydrodynamics of aquatic skills, very complex advanced emergency response skills, aqua-therapy skills for utilizing water in the rehabilitation of severely physically and/or multiply disabled infants, children and adults, and finally, methodologies of teaching aquatic skills to both ‘normal’ people, and those people with severe disabilities. On top of all of that, our students must be exceptionally athletic due to the physical demands of my program. But the most unique aspect of our program is that each time a student moves from one course to the next, he or she has the opportunity to get to know yet another 35 or so students they may had not yet met, and at the same time be re-united with teaching assistants they had in other courses.
Oddly enough, although there are about 1,000 students in the entire program, all of the students eventually get to know each other very well during the four years of undergraduate study. Everyone in adapted aquatics courses knew Carolina Berszakiewicz because she was a teaching assistant in nearly all of my classes. And that is why literally hundreds of students were either at Carolina’s wake, funeral, burial, or all three. On top of that, Carolina had made so many friends in all of her other courses at Stony Brook, not to mention the friends she made in the dorms over a period of seven semesters.
The large showing of Adapted Aquatics students at the wake and funeral has a lot to do with the structure of the program itself. When a Stony Brook student first enrolls in our program, we begin with working on his or her swimming and related aquatic ability in HSQ 121. Next, we train the student to be certified as a lifeguard in a two-semester sequence of courses HSQ 221,222, concurrent with HSQ 270: Emergency Response, Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation and Personal Safety. From there, the student learns how to teach aquatic skills in HSQ 223: Water Safety Instructor. Once all of that is completed, a student is ready to begin training in the five-course adapted aquatics clinical training HSQ 325, 326, 329 (x3), where the student begins working in the water with patients with disabilities. Our veteran students and teaching assistants, such as Carolina, assist me in presenting the material to the new-comers in the clinical courses. Concurrent with the clinical courses, a student will also take HSQ 271 and 272 in order to train others in CPR and Advanced First-Aid. I had certified Carolina as an Instructor in both of those areas early on in her Stony Brook education.
Needless to say, the teaching assistants have their hands full. Not only is the whole adapted aquatics experience so demanding, but the majority of our students are enrolled in some of the most difficult majors on this campus: biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, biomedical engineering, molecular biology, nursing, HSC, applied math, etc. Additionally, most of our students are taking pre-health Care tracks in order to eventually go into fields such as medicine, dentistry, PT, OT, PA, RT, etc. In Carolina’s case, she was studying for an eventual career in medicine, following in the footsteps of her father’s sister and her husband, who are both physicians at a major trauma hospital in Poland, and their children, Carolina’s first cousins, who are also physicians.
In our lifeguard training program, Carolina proved herself to be one of the strongest members of her class. She was able to drag, carry and rescue guys who were as big as 6’ 5” and 260-270 pounds of pure muscle. She could swim a mile (72 times the length of the pool) doing the crawl stroke in less than 40 minutes. She could pick up an ‘unconscious’ victim of about 250 lbs. at the deep end of the pool and carry him to the shallow end of the pool, where she could extricate him from the water on a backboard if she suspected a neck or spinal injury. After the funeral, I had the privilege of being invited to join her family members at a luncheon. I was the only one in the room who did not speak Polish. I was told that Carolina’s mother and father had come to the United States from Poland before Carolina was born. She was to be their only child. Her uncle, the physician from Poland, spoke very good English, and during lunch, he filled me in on things that even I had not yet heard about Carolina. She went to Poland often during the summers, visiting with her aunt, uncle and cousins, and volunteering her time at the hospital. This past summer, as usual, she assisted in medical procedures at the hospital. Following the funeral, her uncle sent me some photos of Carolina at work at the hospital, and one of them showed her in her blue scrubs, cradling an obviously newborn child in her arms. The smile on Carolina’s face told it all! In adapted aquatics, I was keenly aware of her sense of maturity, and her ability to seriously focus her attention on essential and intricate tasks. I knew in my heart that she would indeed make a fine physician someday. Her uncle confirmed my impressions when he told me of her extraordinarily professional performance at his hospital. That made considerable sense to me because in all of her classes in the adapted aquatics program, she received the grade of A, not just from me, but from the other professors as well.
Her uncle also mentioned that from the time she was a child and into her college years, whenever Carolina visited Poland, she would swim with her uncle at a local pool where they would race each other. He said that he would generally beat her in those races—except when she began taking courses in the adapted aquatics minor. He confided to me that suddenly she became an amazingly fast and efficient swimmer! He questioned her regarding this rather unexpected improvement, and she credited my program at Stony Brook for transforming her from a mediocre swimmer to a truly good swimmer. Her uncle was less modest than she when he said to me that she looked like an Olympic swimmer! He was amazed at how well she was now swimming, and he said that this past summer he couldn’t beat her in a race no matter how hard he tried! When I told him the size of the men we had her drag through the water in the lifeguard program, he had an impish grin on his face as he realized the full import of the effort she had put into her swimming and lifesaving skills.
I told him too, of other qualities I noticed in Carolina. She helped me organize the confidential medical records of our patients with professionalism and total discretion. She handled money for me, in the form of donations and contributions, with unquestionable trust and honesty. And quite ironically, she handled the money we collected from selling juice, fruit, bottled water and energy bars at our little adapted aquatics concession stand, designed to build up our ‘sunshine fund.’ It was that fund that helped to pay for the beautiful flowers adapted aquatics would send to her wake. I also told her uncle how wonderfully compassionate I found Carolina to be, as evidenced in her work in adapted aquatics, particularly with children with very severe physical disabilities. She went about her assignments with what appeared to be a great joy, coupled with energetic enthusiasm. She was like the beautiful fairy-tale princess to the children, whom I suspect thought that she could wave her magic wand and cure them in an instant. And when I observed her working with disabled children in the water, she was indeed transforming their lives. The late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said that when God gives us life, the very last gift that He bestows is beauty, because it is the gift that is least used for God’s greater honor and glory! Carolina was the exception! She was exquisitely beautiful on both the inside and the outside, and when she put her heart and soul into working with our patients with disabilities, she appeared angelic in her beauty. When she entered a room, the smile on that exquisite face made me feel closer to heaven. Knowing that, what makes my heart ache most is that, in this lifetime at least, I will not have the privilege of seeing that beautiful face in person again.
Carolina had a way of transforming things around her. At her wake, the room was filled with at least 60 floral arrangements, nearly all of which were white, as was the arrangement we sent from adapted aquatics. I have been to many wakes in my lifetime and the flowers sometimes seem never to be color-coordinated, but the sight of so many white flowers at Carolina’s wake seemed odd, but yet singularly appropriate. The whiteness reflected the purity of her soul! When I spoke to the funeral director, he told me that in about 20 years of arranging funerals, he had never seen so many flowers! In deference to all those people who sent those beautiful arrangements, the funeral parlor acquired a “flower car” to precede the hearse during the funeral, so that every single flower found its way to the church and cemetery.
In the funeral parlor, I watched the Stony Brook students approach Carolina’s all-white casket, covered in a magnificent white blanket of fragrant lilies and roses, and I saw the depth of their grief and sorrow. There was a kneeler in front of the casket, and behind the casket was a large bronze crucifix. I watched students of every nationality and faith, kneel before that crucifix, offering their prayers for the repose of her soul. But one sight was the most poignant. A fellow teaching assistant of Carolina’s, who is of the Muslim faith, and who had grown to be good friends with Carolina, approached the casket with a group of Stony Brook students. Three of them knelt on the kneeler, but for the rest of them, there wasn’t enough room. So, this handsome Muslim boy simply dropped to his knees, with his head serenely bowed with the face of Christ crucified just above him. I was immediately aware of the sublime nature and power of love. If this young man had made that gesture in the country of his origin, he would have been beheaded on the
spot. Yet, here he was, at the wake of his friend, grief-stricken and hurting. I saw him the following day, in the beautiful Polish-American Roman Catholic church that was filled to capacity, attending and participating in her funeral mass. He educated me immensely those two days. I thanked God for the freedom we experience in this country, and I realized the true route to overcoming the problems the world faces today lies within the human heart.
I have been teaching here at Stony Brook for 48 years…nearly half a century! If someone were to offer me a job at Harvard, Princeton, Notre Dame, Columbia, or any other school, I would refuse. It has been the greatest privilege of my life to have spent the past forty-eight years of my life here at Stony Brook. The students here are, hands-down, the best. I was so proud of the way they handled themselves at this wake and funeral. They came by the hundreds, each dressed appropriately and elegantly in black. Their eyes were red and swollen with tears as they offered their sincerest and heartfelt sympathy to Carolina’s mother, father, grandmother and family. I overheard some of their words, and I was humbled by their sincerity and gestures. And, as Dean of Students Jerrold Stein and Assistant Dean Ellen Driscoll reminded me at the wake, for many of these heartbroken young Stony Brook students, this was the first wake or funeral they had ever attended. And this wake was rather extraordinary. The parents arrived at the funeral parlor at noon on Friday and asked that the public not arrive until 4 p.m., allowing themselves some time to mourn their only child in solitude. When people began arriving, it was obvious that the element of shock revolving around this untimely death left everyone speechless. I have been to many wakes and funerals in my lifetime, but the utter silence at both this wake and funeral was surrealistic. One could literally hear a pin drop in the funeral parlor except for the barely audible but unrelenting sound of sobbing, and the Stony Brook students were incredibly respectful of the silence. There was no break for dinner during this wake, as is customary with most wakes. The crowds kept coming between 4 p.m. and nearly 10 p.m. Many of the Stony Brook students remained for the entire time, and would return the following day for the funeral. Quite extraordinarily, it was like a summer’s day on that Friday, and it was also an unusually warm night. I believe the temperature outside was still 80 degrees by 10 p.m. But what was most admirable about our Stony Brook students is the fact that if they walked outside of the packed funeral parlor, just for a breath of air, they remained totally silent. If they did speak, it was in total whispers. Neither did they at any time remove their black ties or jackets. They remained completely and totally dignified. No one drifted away to so much as have a bite to eat. Their grief was too great for that.
On the day of the funeral, they arrived by the hundreds and somberly entered the church as a lone bell tolled to signal the final journey of their fellow student and friend. The pipe organ intoned the beginning of the liturgy, and they sorrowfully followed Carolina’s casket, filling the pews as the scent if incense rose to the vaulted ceiling. They were transfixed during the funeral mass, and although the entire mass was in Polish, they somehow understood everything being said. With heads bowed in grief, they listened to a final Polish hymn as six handsome young men carried Carolina’s white casket on their shoulders for her final earthly journey. At the cemetery, my most vivid observation was that of a handsome young Polish-American Stony Brook graduate, also from adapted aquatics, who had been dating and was in love with Carolina. He was the last of so many who placed a final white rose on her casket before it was lowered into the earth. But what he had done that morning was to purchase an arrangement of white lily-of-the-valley, usually found in bridal bouquets, as the very last gift he would give to the beautiful girl he loved and hoped someday would be his bride.
Of Carolina’s family, I can only say that they are wonderful, beautiful, faith-filled people. At no time did they appear angry at the person who caused the senseless accident that took her life. They appeared to me to truly live their Catholic faith. It was sublimely evident that they loved Carolina, and she loved them. One of Carolina’s Stony Brook roommates who was at the wake told me that each and every day, Carolina would speak to both of her parents in their native language, Polish. Her uncle told me that he wondered if Carolina’s parents would be willing to continue living in the U.S. after Carolina’s death. But, he said, that when he saw the tremendous outpouring of support, not only from the Polish-American community they lived in, but from all the other people he saw and met at the funeral, he was sure that if they remained here they would have the emotional and spiritual support they needed to go on.
No parent should ever have to bury a child! The grief I saw last weekend will linger with me for the rest of my life. When Carolina’s mother embraced me as I went up to her at the wake, she said softly into my ear, “Why….why my beautiful Carolina? Why?” My heart broke for her and her family. No one has answers as to why such terrible things happen. And we must resist the temptation to blame God for all the terrible things in the world. We humans were given the gift of free will, and we can set things in motion that are the result of our own actions, whether those actions are good or bad. Furthermore, we do not see the full purpose within God’s design. At the wake, in response to her question, “Why?”, I took her hand and placed into her palm a gift: a gold rosary. I pointed to the center medal on the rosary where there was an image of Michelangelo’s Vatican Pieta. It depicts a mother holding in her arms the body of her dead child—the Virgin Mary holding the body of Christ crucified.
If there is an answer to the question of why terrible things happen, it is in that image. That Mother did not deserve to see her child die, and neither did Carolina’s. But the great beauty of the Christian faith is its belief that God became flesh, lived among us, and in a sublime gesture of unfathomable love, died nailed to a cross to give us life. Therefore, we can never say that God doesn’t understand or empathize with the human condition.
Rest in peace, Sweet Carolina. May the angels lead you into Paradise! We were all privileged to know you!