Story By: Angus Dickerson
Video By: Bianca Padro Ocasio
John Ruggiero had heard disturbing news about his son, and he couldn’t help but follow up. It concerned his youngest son, John, then 24.
“I’m not a tough guy, but I got in Johnny’s face and said, ‘Is this true? Your girlfriend says you’re talking about hurting yourself. Is this true?’ and he gave me his Johnny smile, and he said, ‘no dad, you know me.’ And I thought I did,” John senior recalls.
“And we both just laughed it off from there, and I don’t even think it was a month later, and he was dead.”
Johnny had been in a relationship that had his family worried.
“Our oldest daughter really became like a second mother to him, they were very close,” John explained.
“I didn’t see this myself, but, you know, siblings can see things differently. He really didn’t like to be alone. He needed to have a girlfriend, to have somebody” Cathy said.
Johnny and his girlfriend were fighting when he stopped answering his phone. She eventually had the police check his apartment. The police had to break down the door.
John Ross Ruggiero was found dead on April 6th, 2011. He had taken his own life.
Now three years later, on a cloudy April afternoon, Cathy and John Ruggiero, stroll through the Boston Public Garden. Once high school sweethearts, they’re in the city celebrating their 40th anniversary.
Their oldest son Chris moved to Boston to attend Berkeley, He ended up staying for seven years. For a time, his younger brother John had lived with him. Their parents visited the city often. Their sons urged them to take the train, joking about their father’s poor driving. John and Cathy liked having a place to visit. They could see their sons and take a break from their home in New Haven where they’d raised four children.
“It’s been a place for us to hide, and especially after what happened, to come to Boston was a place to hide,” explained John.
One afternoon the November after the death of their son, an emotionally drained John and Cathy noticed a bench with a plaque memorializing a woman named Ella Ruggiero. It was sheer coincidence. They had no idea who Ella was. But seeing their own last name on a plaque gave Cathy and John an idea: Why not a memorial to their beloved son, here in the Public Garden?
“I don’t want to get all god-like, but I don’t think there are coincidences. We were exhausted, there was no place to sit, and that bench became open, and the last name was Ruggiero. I don’t think it was accidental I think God works in mysterious ways, and I think this was one of them,” John said.
John and Cathy made sure their son’s bench was close to Ella’s. It’s only about 20 feet further down the path, near the roses along Arlington Street.
Johnny had worked construction, often on projects on the Yale University Campus. He had always been a diligent worker. When he was 10, he played his only season of baseball. He was less than enthusiastic about the sport, and particularly so about playing catcher. But the team needed a catcher, so Johnny played every inning of every game. As the season went on, Johnny improved. The team won the championship.
“He never shirked responsibility, he looked out for other people,” his father said.
He took pride in taking care of things. His car was an old Honda he bought and fixed himself, keeping it clean and well maintained. John’s childhood bicycle is in an upstairs room in the Ruggiero’s apartment, still gleaming like new, thanks to Johnny’s care.
But he didn’t just take care of things, he also took care of people.
“He wasn’t just about himself. He took care of family members, he would always do the same for anyone else,” John said.
“There’s still a part of me that doesn’t believe that he’s not going to just walk in the door. I don’t doubt that he might be listening. I know he knows how much we love him and I think he’s sorry he’s gone for us. Not for him, but for us.”
Three years after his death, Cathy and John have come a long way.
“It was hard. Every day was a challenge, not that every day now is not a challenge, but it’s easier. We just take it one step at a time,” Cathy said.
“I was just a shadow. I didn’t think I would ever come back to what I am today and I know I didn’t want to. I would have been happy just to die,” John said.
“I no longer feel the need to hide. I don’t need to be anonymous anymore.”
On a recent visit, Cathy wedged a small laminated photo of her son into the frame of the bench. By her next visit, the photo had disappeared, so Cathy replaced it. The Ruggiero’s are hoping that it’ll still be there the next time they check, that nobody will mind seeing a small photo of their son tucked into his bench. They no longer feel the need to be anonymous.