BARNSTABLE – In April 2001, when Remmy Waegelein was 12, he narrowly escaped a Wareham house fire and then listened helplessly to the agonizing death screams of his father amidst the crackling and popping of burning timber.
His brother Chris, who is four years older, barely escaped as well.
“When you go through the fires of hell you get tempered, or you get brittle and fall apart,” said Chris. “If my brother can go through this and still manage to turn himself around, literally anybody can.”
In May 2016 sitting in the lobby of the Tilden Arts Center at Cape Cod Community College, Remmy now 26, said, “I may not understand the depth of this, but if this story helps one person get through one more day that’d be something, wouldn’t it?”
“I may not understand the depth of this, but if this story helps one person get through one more day that’d be something, wouldn’t it?” – Remmy Waegelein
That Remmy, who now lives in Mashpee, is in college at all is nothing short of remarkable. His sister, Jesse Waegelein, who is 15 months younger than Remmy, said, “With him having mental breakdowns and stuff, and me having to talk to people for him, I didn’t think he was going to go anywhere. Seeing him now is amazing.”
Here he is on a Saturday on the campus of 4Cs talking about the five organizations he belongs to, the campaign for student senate president that he recently ran, the honors classes he is taking, the journalistic or perhaps political ambitions he has for the future, and especially his gratitude to 4Cs.
“How can I even describe how uplifting it is to not hate the idea of waking up in the morning,” he said. “Being here is a reason to be alive and go forward.”
He began college in September 2015. His first semester at the school, Remmy said, he took classes, did work study and then left the campus after classes without any additional involvement. Then he decided he wanted more.
“I wanted to do anything I could to be part of the college after living a lifetime of depression,” he said.
Remmy is at the college every Saturday. He takes a bus every morning, six days a week to get to the campus, where he is either taking classes, doing work study, or volunteering for one of several organizations.
“How can I even describe how uplifting it is to not hate the idea of waking up in the morning, Being here is a reason to be alive and go forward.” – Remmy Waegelein
“The only way to make my life better is to put myself into it,” he said. “I know I am not going to bring meaningful change into my life just by taking classes that I could just as easily take online.”
“Last year, I had a 4.0 GPA but it wasn’t enough for me,” said Remmy. “I wasn’t impacting anybody else.”
“Friends tell me I’ve had a positive impact on their life,” he said. “They tell me, do more of what you’re doing.”
“He’s a vessel for student spirit,” said Cameron Hall, a student at 4Cs, who has worked with Remmy at the Janus Club, the student theater group.
Yet two years earlier, when college was something he would have never dreamt of, he was a broken vessel of tears.
The stream of tears seemed to come out of nowhere when they began running relentlessly down Remmy’s face in October 2013 while he was working at a TJ Maxx in Wareham.
“Why am I crying?” he recalled thinking. “Why can’t I stop crying?” he thought.
And yet, he knew all to well this familiar overwhelming sadness that overtook him.
“I think it was just everything caught up with me,” said Remmy.
And so when all of the events of his life, including the fire that killed his father, finally manifested themselves into tears that would not stop, he checked himself into a New Bedford crisis center where he entered group therapy.
“It was weird seeing other people’s problems,” he said of his first group session.
“I was depressed as a child,” said Remmy.
Using language strikingly similar yet juxtapositioned from what he said about 4Cs, Remmy said of his childhood, “It’s hard to describe what it’s like being 10 years old and wishing you wouldn’t wake up.”
He felt this way before the fire that killed his father.
He felt depressed even before the first fire that sent his family away from the neighborhood home where he was growing up. Yes, there were two fires within less than two years before he was 12.
But even before all of that, Remmy was deeply depressed.
“He was always angry and depressed,” said Chris.
“I grew up thinking everything was terrible,” said Remmy. “I’m pretty sure now that it was a chemical imbalance thing.”
“A couple events were happy, I guess,” he said. “Birthday parties, things like that. But those are things I remember that happened. They are not things I can actually remember happening. There’s a difference.”
“I knew I was depressed,” he said. “I didn’t know why. And I didn’t know how to fight it.”
As a child, Remmy said, “My father was my best friend. He was my hero.”
“He had that hippie/biker aesthetic that I remember as a kid as so cool,” said Remmy. “He was my role model.” His father was also a musician and songwriter, and had several string instruments, and many song compositions, including one Remmy remembers called, “Elvis Presley Is Dead And I’m Not Feeling Too Good Myself.”
“I knew I was depressed. I didn’t know why. And I didn’t know how to fight it.” – Remmy Waegelein
Remmy, who is a communication major at 4Cs and considering a career in journalism, said his father “taught me to question things. He set me on a neverending quest for the truth… He taught me how to ask why. He taught me when to ask why. He taught me that the pursuit of knowledge is a beautiful thing.”
Before Remmy, whose real name is Robert Jeramiah Waegelein, was even born, his father had his own trail of tough luck. Due a medical condition, Remmy said of his father, “his eyelids were surgically removed when he was an infant.” He had eye patches, and had to squint in order to blink, he said. His father’s vision was not good, he said.
His father was also in a bad car accident when he was 22, and later while working at the Pilgrim Nuclear Plant, he broke his back. The work accident happened when Remmy was an infant. After the car accident, said Remmy, “he was operated on by the same doctor that operated on Larry Bird’s back.” That surgery worked, but then came the work injury.
“My father was barely able to walk,” said Chris. “But what he was able to do, his was a very inspiring story.”
Remmy’s parents were split up.
The first fire occurred when Remmy was 11 and living in a rented house with his father in Onset. “It was 2 in the morning. My father was making a fire in the fire place using one of those quick-starting Duraflame logs. The wrapper from the log caught air and landed on the couch and my father, with his bad eyesight, didn’t see it in time.” said Remmy.
“I woke up in my father’s arms as he was throwing me to a firefighter,” he said.
Chris, whose full name is Edward Joseph Christopher Waegelein, said, “As far as Remmy and I were concerned, we handled the first fire really well. There were not a lot of tears. Shit happened and we dealt with it.”
All of Remmy’s father’s instruments, and all of his song compositions were lost in the fire.
After the fire, Remmy recalled, “there was a huge response from the community” for the displaced family. Supplies were given, money was raised.
They stayed with his mother and her boyfriend for a short while, and then Remmy, his brother and his father stayed in a series of motels. First for a week in one, then a month in another, and about eight months in a third, said Remmy.
“It was kind of weird, but luckily I didn’t get any judgment for it,” said Remmy. “Everybody knew our situation.”
But for Remmy, motel living was different. He saw things, heard things. “I saw a guy holding a gun at a motel. Other motels were full of bad people. One was run by someone who was racist. I had no idea these kinds of people existed,” he said. “It definitely informed my world view.”
“I had no idea these kinds of people existed.” – Remmy Waegelein
Eventually though, his father, disability and all, managed to get a mortgage for a house in Wareham near the Marion border. “It was a split level ranch on a decent plot of land,” said Remmy.
The house was his father’s dream, said Remmy. But for Remmy, “It was very lonely.” It wasn’t the same part of Wareham he had grown up in. “It was a big empty house, just myself, my father and my brother,” said Remmy.
“My father wasn’t playing music anymore,” said Remmy. “The house was quiet.”
And though Remmy’s location had changed and his living circumstances improved, his depression remained a constant. “I wouldn’t say I was less depressed,” he said. “I had social anxiety problems. Not a lot of friends. I was emotionally deadened.”
In April 2001, Remmy woke up in bed on the second floor of the raised ranch at about 1 AM, and looked out his open doorway. Half asleep, he sort of noticed a red glow on the wall of the hallway.
He heard a voice inside his head… “Jeremy, you have to get up.”
Jeremy? No one called him by his middle name. What was that? He woke a little more. The red glow “was unnatural,” he said. “I suddenly thought, what the fuck is going on?”
Chris slept in the basement. Remmy and their father both had bedrooms on the second floor.
Their father was a smoker. Chris said he now speculates the fire started from their father “throwing a cigarette away and missing the ashtray.”
That night, Chris woke to hear his father screaming. But his father was in constant pain. “You get used to ignoring certain types of screams,” said Chris. “I know that sounds horrible, but you get used to certain groans living with someone in constant pain.”
But this was not that. “I heard him screaming for help. I could smell the smoke,” said Chris.
“I was slamming on the door of the neighbor’s house. I was yelling, ‘Help! Please! Fire!’ ” – Remmy Waegelein
Remmy also realized what was happening. Wearing only a t-shirt and underwear, he got out of bed, wrapped a blanket around his head to breath and tried to make it down the hallway to his father’s bedroom. “I dropped to the ground. I crawled into the hallway,” he said.
“But the smoke got worse,” he said. “I thought, What am I doing? I’m going to kill myself.”
Meanwhile, Chris said, “I ran to the top of the stairs. The top floor was filled with smoke.” Remmy came down the hall. Unable to get to their father, they both ran outside. “I told him to go to the neighbor’s,” said Chris.
“I was slamming on the door of the neighbor’s house,” said Remmy. “I was yelling, ‘Help! Please! Fire!’ ”
“We could hear him screaming the entire time,” said Remmy. “And there’s a good amount of cracking and popping of the fire. We could definitely hear him screaming.
When the neighbors finally awoke, they let Remmy in and called the fire department. It was too late.
Chris went from the neighbor’s house back to the family house. “I could still hear him screaming,” he said. “But eventually, I stopped hearing the sound.”
Remmy went into the neighbor’s bathroom wearing only a t-shirt and underwear. “I looked in the mirror and my entire face was covered in soot.” He just stared into the mirror at the soot-covered traumatized face looking back “until someone knocked on the door.”
“The next thing I knew I woke up in a hospital bed,” he said. “I found out later that I had almost a fatal level of smoke inhalation.”
In the hospital, Remmy’s sister Jesse told Remmy that their father was most likely dead. “I didn’t want to believe it,” said Remmy.
But it was true. Chris said reaching acceptance meant understanding that “Our father was a broken man anyway. At least at this point, he had stopped suffering.”
“After the second house fire, my memory is foggy,” said Remmy.
“We went through a whole lot of trauma in our childhood,” said Chris.
After that second fire, there was an incident between the two brothers that began, said Remmy, “I was pushing his buttons trying to get a reaction. I knew I was pushing his buttons. It probably had something to do with the house fire.”
“I remember grabbing him,” said Chris. “I had my hands around his neck and I was holding him up in the air.”
Suddenly Chris realized what he was doing. He let go. He voluntarily checked himself into Pembroke Hospital for his anger issues.
“He left Pembroke Hospital with a signed contract between us to improve our relationship,” said Remmy. “It has improved dramatically.”
While that relationship improved, Remmy said his relationship with his sister didn’t improve until after she started dating and he was threatened by one of her boyfriends to treat her better “or he was going to kick my ass.”
He started treating his sister better after that. As for the rest of the world, he didn’t much care.
He deliberately did bad at school so he could be placed in an alternative Wareham co-op school program that students called, “The Annex.” He worked at a gas station. He began posting on an online bulletin board that he said was known for bullying. He referred to the online bulletin board as “the asshole of the internet because nothing but shit comes out of us.”
He no longer posts at this site, he said. But when he did, he said, “I developed an antagonistic persona online. It was really just a group of online bullies. I’d be afraid to admit to some of the things I posted online,” said Remmy.
And yet, he said, “It was incredibly cathartic. It definitely helped.”
By the time Remmy was 18, he had lived in 15 different places. He went through the motions in high school until he made it to his senior year, when he dropped out “because I pick the best time to do everything,” he said with sarcasm.
After the fire, he inherited $100,000 in life insurance. He told people about it. Soon, he was taking a friend to move to Florida. Just before they left, the friend invited his family along on Remmy’s dime. This included the friend’s handicapped mother, said Remmy.
After seven months in Florida, a lot of lost money, and broken friendships, Remmy started buying “copious amounts of alcohol through Sam’s Club.”
He put $6,000 down payment on a truck, and the dealership went out of business the next day. It was only through the the life-saving love of a Maine Coon cat given to him by Jesse that he survived.
“It was something for me to pour an unlimited amount of love and affection into,” he said of the cat that he named Xanth, after an imaginary world in a book series by the author Piers Anthony.
Jesse and her boyfriend eventually came to get Remmy in Florida, who was miserable and, by then, out of money. He said he has since realized that if you tell people when you have money, “It puts a bullseye on your head.”
He tried Taunton, which he didn’t like, and then Falmouth, which he didn’t like. He was robbed by some “scumbags” wearing masks and carrying baseball bats. “I bullrushed one guy and kept him in the room until the cops showed up,” he said of the robbery attempt.
Wrong place at the wrong time situations seemed to find him. He was injured on a job by a ladder which hit him in the face, he said. “I was concussed,” he said. Remmy said he couldn’t come to work so he was fired.
He eventually moved back to Wareham, and got a job at TJ Maxx. He working there for a few months when the well of emotions and memories opened up and the tears wouldn’t stop.
When Remmy broke down at TJ Maxx, he first went to the hospital “begging for help.”
After one day in the hospital, he spent a week in the crisis center in New Bedford where he started gaining a perspective through group therapy as well as medication.
When he first went in, he said, he wrote a journal of sorts with a time signature next to a cascade of negative thoughts… I hate this, I wish I was dead, etc.
In time, the pills began to work. He was no longer emotionally dead. But the first pills he tried were not right for him, said Remmy. “I became overly emotional. I’d be watching an episode of South Park, and I’d start to cry.”
So he tried some other pills. And they worked.
“Once he started doing the medication to help with his depression and get his mental state right, things took off for him,” said Chris.
By the middle of 2014, Remmy said, “I was feeling mentally stable, and emotionally healthy. I could control my emotions again, which was a great change.
He decided, years after dropping out of high school, to get his GED. In May, 2015. he received his GED. But he did more than pass. “I scored a college level in math and almost a perfect score in English comprehension.”
When he started looking into 4Cs, he recalled, “I was told I could take honors courses.”
But he said it was when he really dove into college life that his life turned around.
“He’s a good example of what can happen when students get involved in their local community,” said Vana Trudeau, Tilden Arts Center & College Events Coordinator. Remmy works in workstudy as an art gallery attendant at the Tilden Arts Center.
“One of the benefits of students who get involved is that they make friendships and become involved in the pulse of the campus.
As a writer for the Main Sheet newspaper, a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society, the Honors Club, a member of the Janus Club, and a member of student senate who lost the most recent race for president by only 13 votes, Remmy is certainly involved in the pulse of the campus. It is a strong pulse.
After graduation from 4Cs, he is considering continuing is education at UMASS Amherst.
“Honestly, I am so proud of him,” said Jesse. “I am amazingly proud of him… I’m actually very jealous of him doing this.”
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