A photo of a little shortstop sits on a bookshelf in Ron Donatucci’s Queen Village home, the boy’s brown bangs peeking out under a creased ball cap, bat held high, a whole life waiting in the world beyond the outfield.
On his face is just a hint of smile.
“He was the fastest kid in his class,” Donatucci said, holding the picture.
Decades later, when periodically it seemed as if a dam would fail in Michael Donatucci’s mind, and anxiety and depression flooded the good things he’d known, Ron would wade in, trying to rescue his son.
Remember your brother’s wedding, he’d urge, or how much we laughed in the car in Italy. You were a natural on the ball field, the father would tell the son, holding that same photo in his hands.
“He’d say to me, ‘Dad, I’ve never had a happy day in my life,’ ” Donatucci said.
Michael Donatucci, 30, had a good career, many friends, and a fiancée, but the well-educated workaholic, his father admits, still suffered greatly. Michael Donatucci saw a psychiatrist, took medication for depression, and practiced mindfulness, but the mood disorder that eroded smiles and rewrote the past overran him.
On July 7, 2016, Michael Donatucci came home from work and took his life in the carriage house where he lived behind his father’s home. He was only months into a new, well-paying job as the chief investment officer of the city’s pension fund.
No one knew he had bought a gun.
“May his soul rest in peace,” his father said after reciting the details.
Donatucci, 69, Philadelphia’s longtime register of wills, doesn’t use the S-word when talking about his son, but he said that’s not a matter of denial. The family doesn’t want Michael’s ending to end his story, and relatives are using their grief to reach “other Michaels” out there.
“Don’t say, ‘Not my son’ if your son has a problem,” Donatucci said. “Two aspirins aren’t going to take care of it.”
A few months after Michael’s death, Ron Donatucci and Michael’s brother, Ron Jr., began Michael’s Giving H.A.N.D.(Handling Anxiety Navigating Depression), a nonprofit aimed at helping teenagers open up about anxiety, depression, bullying, and addiction while giving teachers, parents, counselors, and coaches the resources to do something about it.
During the last school year, the organization gave presentations at 16 area high schools, including Michael’s alma mater, St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, and it’s aiming for 25 in the coming year.
“They weren’t going to just let this pass and face this loss in silence,” said the Rev. John W. Swope, president of St. Joe’s Prep.
A golfing fund-raiser is scheduled for July 10 at the Union League Golf Club.
After his son’s death, Ron Donatucci took in the statistics and pored over stories about mental illness, trying to understand the “dark hole” he said his son talked about. He rattled off a few things that struck home: the suicide of another St. Joe’s Prep alum, Kyle Ambrogi; Bruce Springsteen opening up about depression; and Michelle Carter, a Massachusetts woman convicted of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging a boyfriend to go through with a suicide attempt.
“It’s just terrible,” he said of Carter’s case.
Donatucci said there’s a shortage of adolescent psychiatrists in the country, and advisers to Michael’s Giving Hand said the Donatuccis are helping to get that word out.
“The issues they are raising are things you can’t talk enough about,” said William Dubin, chair of the child psychiatry department at Temple University Medical School.
Anxiety, Donatucci said, drove his son to be a perfectionist most of his life. Michael graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an economics degree, passed the arduous certified financial analyst tests, and spent eight years at a Montgomery County-based asset management firm, handling a portfolio valued at $2 billion.
“It’s the divided self. People can function, can do their job, but at the same time, they’re being tortured. Michael was a selfless person. I think he was afraid to get married, that he would get worse, and he didn’t want to burden his fiancée,” Donatucci said. “He was getting help. Michael never wanted to talk about it, but we believed it was helping him.”
Chris Tereo, 25, said he grew up idolizing his cousin Michael. People gravitated toward him, and Tereo took note of how generously Michael treated everyone, including a trash collector he befriended and helped formulate a business plan.
“He was an older brother I never had,” Tereo said.
Ron Donatucci still goes to work every day, his cellphone always buzzing. He dotes on his grandchildren and remembers how loved and admired Michael was, noting the long line of mourners for his visitation.
Nothing fills the void, though, and he chokes up trying to describe his loss.
“When I wake up in the morning, it’s Michael,” he said. “When I lay my head down at night, it’s Michael.”
Michael was a constant companion around the time the Little League photo was taken, his father said, the two of them driving all over Philadelphia together on business.
“My little buddy,” he whispered at the photo.
At St. Rita’s Church on South Broad Street, Michael would go down to the shrine to St. Rita, kneel, bow his head, and close his eyes. Ron would light a votive candle and fade back, watching his son, silent and earnest, his little hands clasped together.
“He had it in his mind for a long time that he wanted peace, and that’s what I have to accept,” he said. “I think he was praying for peace, even back then, and now he’s at peace.”
If you or someone you know is suicidal, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
For more information about suicide prevention: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at afsp.org.
For more information about Michael's Giving Hand, visit michaelsgivinghand.org