OCEANSIDE — The landscaping outside of Helena Cwiek’s home is as immaculate as any could be.
Not a sole weed sprouts from the rock garden that curls around her entryway; not a single stone leading to her front door seems out of place.
Everything outside of her home appeared so well-maintained, that to look at it, anyone passing by wouldn’t have given it a thought that the person on the inside was in so much despair.
Inside, Cwiek, 77, crippled with grief over the losses of her husband of 54 years and their beloved dog, was going to kill herself.
Day by day, grief had mounted over the loss of her husband Lucjan four years ago from complications stemming from a gallbladder stone procedure that kept him in the hospital for more than a month.
The couple had moved to Oceanside from Michigan more than 10 years ago. They’d decided it was enough with the snow, and Cwiek had opted to leave her job working at a railroad, instead of following it out to the East Coast where the company was moving to. Her husband had been rendered unable to work and was on disability following two surgeries to try and fix his bad back.
For the Cwieks, dogs had always played a large role in their lives.
Their dog Peaches, a Chihuahua-mix the couple had gotten when they moved was her husband’s. He was her master, Cwiek said. “She tolerated me only because I fed her,” she added.
But during Lucjan’s time away at the hospital, Cwiek said that Peaches began to suspect something was wrong when she couldn’t find her master.
Peaches, Cwiek said, was waiting and waiting for him to come home. But he never did. Lucjan’s condition worsened and he passed away in the hospital.
When Peaches realized that her master wasn’t coming home, she and Cwiek began to form a stronger bond — one to which they would ultimately become inseparable. Things went on like that for the past four years, until Peaches became gravely sick.
She remembers the day that she had to make the decision to put her down. It’s a date that she said she will never forget.
Getting by on Social Security alone for her bills, and without Peaches and Lucjan, Cwiek was left all alone in her home to grieve. Her son lives in Michigan with his wife and three daughters (she lost one son to cancer when he was 7 years old). Her family had asked her to move back to Michigan after Lucjan died, but Cwiek said she couldn’t do it. Oceanside was her home, she said.
AS RIGHT AS THE MAIL
United States Postal Worker Mike Tom was making his rounds in Cwiek’s neighborhood as he’d been doing for the past several years.
Only about seven years ago, Tom moved to San Diego. He grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii before moving to Chicago, Ill. For the past 12 years, he’s been working with the Postal Service as a letter carrier.
A few years back Tom put out an advertisement in the Postal Service’s internal publication, seeking a transfer from Chicago to California.
His co-workers thought he was dreaming, he said. Who in their right mind would leave California for Chicago, they asked.
Sure enough, not long after the ad went out, Tom received a call from a Postal employee in Orange County who wanted to make the swap. Ensuring the call wasn’t a joke, Tom and his wife seized the opportunity, made the swap and moved to California. He would eventually wind up in Oceanside, where he got to know the Cwieks pretty well from his daily mail deliveries.
He talked with Lucjan and would visit with Peaches, who adored the extra attention.
When Lucjan passed away, he knew that it was devastating on Cwiek.
And last October, when he stopped to deliver the mail, Cwiek came out, crying and despondent, telling him about the loss of Peaches.
In mourning over the dog, it was clear that she was also re-mourning the loss of Lucjan because the dog was her only connection to him, Tom said.
And she started talking to Tom, telling him that she couldn’t handle this, and then she said to him that she thought she was going to kill herself.
He was caught off guard by this, he explained. He tried to calm her down, but she kept on weeping and kept on saying that she was going to kill herself, he said.
It was then that he made her promise not to do anything foolish until they really talked.
It was a spur of the moment type of thing, he said. “I had no other option. I couldn’t say, ‘Oh, you better not,’ like a parent to a child — she’s an adult.”
And he made her promise every day for two weeks straight that she wouldn’t do anything foolish.
“And I would have to promise him, although I wanted to kill myself,” Cwiek said. “And after he left, I would think, ‘well how do I do it?’… And I’m contemplating it, and yet, in the back of my mind, I made a promise. I can’t do it.”
His daily visits with Cwiek, albeit brief, made him a basket case, Tom said. He started looking for a support group that he could call, knowing that she needed professional help.
“I was looking for a help group, or somebody to assist these seniors that have problems, because they primarily live alone,” he said.
Tom called the Oceanside Police Department, not knowing what else to do.
A ‘LUCKY’ SITUATION
Oceanside police and detectives followed up on Tom’s call.
Officer Robert Sarracino and Terry Allon of the PERT (Psychological Emergency Response Team) were two of those to respond.
“Most departments have a PERT unit, which basically goes around to calls similar to that,” said Sarracino.
As far as the types of calls he responds to, Cwiek’s case wasn’t typical, but he said he’s encountered other cases where people are widowed and get depressed.
“Anytime somebody is verbalizing suicidal ideations or gravely disabled or anything along those lines, we’ll go out,” he said. “I ride with a clinician, and we’ll go out and do an evaluation, and if need be, we’ll take them to the hospital. If not, then we can give them referrals.”
But during the evaluation, Cwiek told them she wasn’t crazy. “I had a big hole in my heart. I will make it,” she told them. “But I didn’t want to tell them I was going to kill myself.”
Sarracino said that Tom did the right thing by calling police.
“Anytime somebody is presented with a dilemma like that, where they know somebody is either talking about it or contemplating suicide, they definitely need to call the police.”
In a unique attempt to help further, officers took Cwiek to the Oceanside Humane Society.
“We went in there and there was one dog,” Cwiek said. “And we looked and she was in a cage with four or five other dogs and they were all scrambling around trying to get to my hand…but she was all in a corner by herself.”
The dog, a 7-month-old Chihuahua mix, eventually came around to Cwiek and rubbed against her arm. Though at the time, Cwiek said she wasn’t yet ready to adopt another dog.
Eventually, Cwiek decided to go back the Humane Society and look at the dog one more time. When she arrived, she’d been told the dog was already in the process of being adopted and was no longer available. That, she said, sent her back into her depression.
But in a turn of events, the dog was, all of a sudden available. The couple that was going to adopt it ended up bringing her back.
She and the dog came home together.
Once home, Cwiek had tried out a few names on the dog, but none really seemed to fit. It wasn’t until Sarracino came by and made a few suggestions. “And then he says, ‘Lucky.’ I said, ‘That’s it.’ I knew it right then and there that that was a fitting name for her.”
Sarracino and some of the others involved with the case still go back to check on her as friends now. And after Cwiek adopted the dog, Sarracino even stopped by to drop off a 50-pound bag of dog food. “And I’m still using it,” Cwiek said.
“It was a situational condition that she was involved in,” Sarracino said. “And we were able to actually get her the dog, which worked out well; we’d never done that before. All the ducks lined up in a row at one time and everything worked out well for her,” he added.
Cwiek maintains how wonderful everybody was with her, including the people at the Oceanside Humane Society that helped out with the adoption papers, toys and gifts for Lucky.
Today, Cwiek admits that things are getting better slowly but surely. And Tom still delivers the mail and visits. She said he can tell when she’s had a bad day. “I call him my guardian angel,” she said. And Tom and Lucky get on very well, too.
“If it wasn’t for him, I would not be here. And I know that for 100 percent. If he was not here every day and making me promise, I would not be here,” Cwiek said.
“I think anybody that would have known the situation would have tried to do something,” Tom said. “It was fortunate that I was there; I was lucky that I was there at the time so that I got involved,” he said.
“To me, my personal view, I felt some worth. Everybody thinks about it, ‘What are you put on this world for?’ … Well, I don’t know exactly, I’ve been trying to search for it, but I think this one thing really says, ‘Hey, life is well worth it for yourself.’”
The following resources are available for those who are seeking or need help:
Oceanside Police Department (760) 435-4900
Up2SD.org; Up2SD Crisis hotline (888) 724-7240
County of San Diego Aging & Independence Services (800) 510-2020