This has been a season like none other for Stewartville volleyball coach John Dzubay.
As wonderful as things look from the outside for the 70-year-old Dzubay, his team ranked first in Class AA and in the state tournament Thursday for the first time in four years, his stress level from August until just a couple of days ago was never higher.
“It has been noticeable,” Stewartville senior outside hitter Lily Welch said. “When (Dzubay) comes in to practices we often see that he is really tired. But I think, in a way, going to practices was a relief for him. It was an outlet.”
It’s Dzubay and ex-wife Penny’s middle child, 35-year-old Bret, who’s been the source of so much concern.
Life has never been easy for Bret, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy less than a year into his life. He’s never been able to walk, was issued his first wheelchair at 5 years old and his speech is discernible to only a few.
“We didn’t know he had it right away,” John said. “He was just slow in doing some things. When we found out he had cerebral palsy as an 8-month-old, we had no idea what it entailed.”
No one likely would have guessed that it would entail this — that 34 years later Bret would have just absorbed his approximately 25th major surgery. Just as no one would have likely guessed that one of those recent surgeries would have nearly killed him, or that his 10-week stay in the hospital this fall would have left him despondent beyond measure. Or that his weight from so many recent stomach and bowel issues would have sunk all the way to 89 pounds.
Bret had never experienced a 10 weeks as difficult as these, just as John and Penny had never worried so much about him in their lives.
One of them was in the hospital with their son virtually every minute of that nearly three-month stretch, including Penny rarely leaving his side.
“There would be times when I would come in to practice and my team would say to me, ‘You wore those same clothes yesterday,’ “ John said. “And I’d say, ‘I know, I spent the night in the hospital and came in to practice from there.’ ”
Though he was often blurry eyed upon showing up, spending those couple of hours each day with his team was therapy for John. It took his mind off of the real-life family stuff that was tearing him up.
That volleyball court and those players of his were an oasis, his respite from the storm.
“Coming to the gym, it got my mind off of things,” John said. “We’ve got a great team, the No. 1-ranked team in the state. You just forget about things when you are with them and it helped get me through the day. But I think this has been hard on my team, because I’m worn out all the time. I haven’t been there for them the way I normally would be. But they understand. They are supporting Bret.”
As difficult as things have been, things seem to be brightening some now for the Dzubays. Bret is finally out of the hospital, back to living at Hiawatha Homes. On Saturday he was at Mayo Civic Arena, reclined in his wheelchair and watching his father’s Stewartville team reach the state tournament for the first time in four years with a win over powerhouse Kasson-Mantorville.
“Bret is a tremendous sports fan and he loves coming out and watching (Stewartville) volleyball matches,” John said.
On Monday afternoon, Bret was visited by a reporter as he lied on his bed, a large screen television set inches from him showing an afternoon professional tennis match, and John standing with him.
Though his words were only discernible to John, he smiled often.
“Maybe he is starting to turn the corner,” John relayed later. “That’s the happiest I’ve seen him in the past month.”
It was just three days earlier that John wasn’t sure what his son’s future was, or if he had one at all. Bret’s zest for life, it seemed gone, all of the pain and setbacks he'd endured in his life having devoured him, and that 10-week hospital stay adding to his depression.
But now, here he was on Monday, smiling again.
John, tears in his eyes, says there is no one like him.
“I admire him so much, that after all he’s been through he still has a sense of humor and optimism,” John said. “He always bounces back from everything. He always finds a way to bounce back.”