Thriving despite a major loss

Nicole DeCicco and her mother, who passed away when she was 16, pose for a photograph. Photo courtesy of Nicole DeCicco.

In the dressing room beneath Casella Theater at Castleton University, Nicole DeCicco is getting her corset laced up for the opening night of “The Liar.” DeCicco, a Castleton senior, plays Clarice, one of the leading roles in the show.

Much like DeCicco, her character, Clarice, is a fair young lady in love, pretty and intelligent yet fiery and witty; the only difference between the two is Clarice has long flowing hair extensions, and wears poofy dresses, corsets, and “space-buns” for hair.

“Five minutes to places!” a stage run-crew member shouted. Breathing heavily (from the newly tightened corset), she hoisted up her dress and headed upstairs to the stage.

“This is it,” she said, “Showtime.”

After the final bow, DeCicco came running downstairs into the green room.

“I got stung!” she yelled.

Castleton’s Casella Theater was infested with wasps at the time. During one of the scenes, a large wasp flew into DeCicco’s hair and then onto her dress, which unfortunately is sleeveless. DeCicco, engaged in the scene and unaware of the wasp, smashes her arms onto her dress, getting stung by wasp – on stage.

“I had to keep acting despite everything, and I did.”

Fortunately, she isn’t allergic to wasp stings, but it certainly left a big, red swollen lump on her arm.

DeCicco will be graduating from Castleton this spring with a bachelor’s of arts degree in Theatre Arts, concentrating in acting and directing. When she’s not on stage or rehearsing, she’s studying at home in her upstairs apartment just down the road from Casella Theater. In addition to her theatre course, DeCicco also dabbles in dance, music, and natural science courses. Among the mix are musical theatre dance, scuba diving, and classical piano I & II.

On top of her studies, DeCicco is also co-president of Castleton’s chapter of Alpha Psi Omega, the national theatre honors society. Throughout the school year, APO puts on various social events, including the notorious Haunted Fine Arts Center. This year, due to too much fog effect, the Haunted FAC was temporarily shut down because the fire alarms went off and the local fire department was called.

“Ya know, if that’s the only thing that goes horribly wrong, we aren’t doing half bad,” she chuckled.

DeCicco portrays the lead role of 'Clarice' in the fall production of "The Liar" at Casella. Photo by Martin VanBuren III.


A rocky road

DeCicco always tries to have a positive outlook and look on the bright side, but it hasn’t been easy.

Before her current apartment, which is filled with hanging wall art, incense, and childhood photos, she was virtually homeless. All throughout college she would couch surf between friends on breaks from classes. She even picked up a theatre technician job at Castleton during the summers just so she could receive employee housing throughout the summer. Despite everything, she kept her head high and tried her best in everything she did.

“I haven’t always had a positive outlook though,” DeCicco said.

She’s referring to a life-changing moment in her life; her mother passed away from cancer when DeCicco was 16 years old. She not only lost her mother, her father also left her because of addiction issues and the family lost the house. “I gave up a lot of things at once, and learned to live without a lot of things at once,” she said. “It was shocking.”

She didn’t want to say “hard” because she feels people have been through worse, but she does admit it was a culture shock.

The most shocking was the fact she also lost her independence; without a family or a home to turn to, she had no choice but to rely on everyone, for everything.

“That was hard for me,” she said.

There was a family back in her hometown of Bennington, Vermont, the Pisciottas, that took her in soon after.

“Without them, I would have had no place to go,” she said.

Even though they made it easy for her to be welcomed into the family, she felt weird to be thrust into somebody else’s family, especially after just losing her own.

“They wanted SO MUCH for me to morph into their family; I just wasn’t having it,” DeCicco said.

For the first few months of staying with the Pisciottas, she wouldn’t talk to anyone and would just isolate herself in the room they designated for her. She even broke up with her boyfriend at the time; she didn’t want to be around people.

“I was scared no matter how much I loved something or how much something meant to me that I was always going to lose it,” she said.

Eventually DeCicco starting coming out of her room and began hanging with the family, especially Shelby Pisciotta. Shelby is the same age and the two have been friends since they were young. The duo would often spend their time baking cookies and cupcakes.

“The times where we would make ourselves pancakes were just the best,” Pisciotta said.

Ever since DeCicco’s mother first got ill, the Pisciotta family was always there for her. Her mother passed away on July 4, 2012.

“Nicole called me just minutes after it happened in tears. We went to the fireworks that night and she was so strong for going,” Pisciotta said.

Soon after DeCicco moved in, they both had live-in best friends. “I am very grateful,” DeCicco said.

Despite the support system of the Pisciottas, DeCicco was still fairly young and mentally not equipped to handle the situation.

“I had to seek help, I had to go to therapy, I had to figure out who I was on my own, without a home and without a family to define me,” she said.

The whole experience ended up being a soul-searching journey for DeCicco and she learned to work on herself, specifically mentally; she had to change the way she looked at the world.

“It was easy to fall into depression, and it was easy to feel bad for myself. And I did, still kinda do,” she said.

DeCicco confidently poses for a headshot taken last fall. Photo by Martin VanBuren III. 

She had to start focusing on herself and count the blessings she did have, including her friends and family. However, she said family was the less supportive of the two. “I feel like a lot of people in my family didn’t really know how to talk to me after what happened, she said.

To DeCicco, her mother was the glue of the family; she always kept the family together and communicating with each other. After she passed, the family drifted away and went their separate ways.

“In a way I lost my family too. All I had was my friends to take care of me, and myself,” she said. She became her own best friend for awhile, which she insists isn’t a bad thing.

“I found solace in going to therapy, doing art, and writing and talking about my feelings,” DeCicco said. She finds joy in channeling her feelings and focusing them into some form of art.

“That’s what appeals to me about theatre,” she said.

She can take the feelings she’s felt in her life and turn it into something that will affect someone else; it won’t just be about her. Theatre itself has been therapy for DeCicco, allowing her to turn her sorrow into beauty.


The painful news

DeCicco still thinks about this life-changing moment everyday and remembers it well. It was the day of her sweet-16th birthday party when she heard the news. After the party she noticed that her mom looked unhappy.

“She would not tell me what was going on, she refused,” she said.

Finally she pried her mother to admit to her that she had discovered that she had stage-4 lung cancer.

Immediately DeCicco went into denial.

“A lot of people can get a surgery or a treatment and they’ll live,” she said. “I was so young, I didn’t know the people you love can be lost in an instant.”

Two months later, they learned from a doctor that the cancer is inoperable, meaning she was going to die.

“He didn’t tell my mom that. He told us. I had to be the one to tell mom,” she said. “That was harder than anything, telling my mom she was going to die and that we couldn’t help her.”

DeCicco was told her mother would have six months to live. For those months, her mother was still functioning, so it was easy for her to stay out of the house. She would go to rehearsals or to a friend’s house, anywhere to distract her from the reality at home.

“It’s my biggest regret, but it was easier being distant,” she said.

Something took a turn and her mother started needing more help and medicine, and treatments. Because her mother was a veteran, and thankfully received health care, DeCicco had to drive her mother all the way to Albany, New York for treatments.

But things kept getting worse and the chemo treatments were getting nastier.

“I realized that this is happening,” she said.

From then on, she started being at home constantly to help out her mother, while she still could. With stage-4 cancer, things progress very quickly. Her mother needed morphine for pain and a walker to walk.

“It was hard to see my mom struggling. She used to be this happy, outgoing, out-and-about person. She was always happy and moving,” she said.

Both DeCicco and her mother kept “brave faces” on during the final moments, for each other. At this point, her father had a drug addiction and left, and refused to help at all. DeCicco would take care of her mom alone.

“My mom depended on me for her life,” she said. “That’s a lot of responsibility for a 16-year-old.”

Still, she didn’t think twice and helped her mother with her every need.

But it was hard and demanding work. Some days DeCicco would skip school to stay at home to help her mother.

“I didn’t see any of my friends, it was not a priority,” she said.

Her grades were falling as her mother got worse. It got to the point where her mother could die any day, so she felt that she had to spend every second with her; school came second.

The day before her mother died, DeCicco’s family got together and went to Kevin’s, a sports pub and restaurant in North Bennington, for dinner. “We had one last hoora. We got our mom in her wheelchair and she had her little oxygen tank. She was geared up,” DeCicco said. She recalls the best conversations and most laughing ever at this final dinner.

“You can’t help her feel better, you can only make her laugh,” she said.

The morning after the night that DeCicco says she will be forever grateful for was one she will never forget. Her mother was having trouble breathing and couldn’t stop moving her legs. There was a lot of vomiting and she seemed uncomfortable.

“It was a mess,” she said.

Her mother stopped being able breathe. DeCicco says it was hard to watch, but can only imagine it was harder for her mother to experience.

“That’s the way I watched her go, and it’s the most brutal thing really,” she said.

Her mother was fortunately surrounded by family as she passed.

“Our cats and dog, Cocoa, were there, we were all there,” she said.

As horrible as it must have been, DeCicco is happy her mother was in her own home surrounded by her family. Everyone assured her that she was loved in her final moments.

“She asked me for permission to die, and obviously I had to say ‘yes mom, don’t hold on for me, I’ll be okay,’ and she told me to take care of myself and that she loved me, then she passed,” she said.

Today, DeCicco thinks she is doing well in life compared to where she could be. She owes it all to her support system.

“I have lot friends, selfless people who understand me, love me, and try to talk to me, despite my dark days,” she said.

Theater professor Harry McEnerny is part of that system and said he marvels at her ability to keep moving forward.

“It doesn’t show up in my classes or my rehearsals, it’s not overt. I’m sure it’s there,” McEnerny said of her troubled past.

What he sees, he said, is DeCicco constantly working hard and improving her life.

“That’s what I see, and that’s what I delight in, because she is definitely moving forward,” he said.

He told of her joy at recently getting a paid acting gig where the cost of attendance was $20.

“She took 80 percent of what she made on that show and bought tickets for recent relatives to come up and see, and the rest of it she spent on broccoli and tofu. And that’s just, shooting forward,” he said. “She was just excited to get paid for acting, that’s looking forward.”

The fact that she now knows she has support and doesn’t have to be alone has made all the difference. Despite everything, she feels she has adapted “emotional ruggedness” and feels she can handle anything now. “One of the things my mom taught me is love: love is the most important thing,” DeCicco said. “She taught me how to give love as well.”

That’s why her support system works; it’s a two-way street full of love.

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