Why I Want to Hate Fathers’ Day, But Can’t

Matt and boys 62007

Let me just state the obvious – as a widow and a mother, Fathers’ Day kinda sucks.

I know certain days are going to be difficult: funerals, weddings, our anniversary. As painful as they may be, I can usually find a way to endure. But while I am no longer a wife, I am and will always be a mother. Many life events can trigger some type of distress, but the third Sunday in June is an entirely different ballgame. Fathers’ Day takes my sons’ loss and ruthlessly thrusts it into the limelight. Worst of all, there is little, if anything, I can do about it.

Not that I haven’t tried. I have spent countless hours trying to fill the void. But my attempts are largely in vain. My persistence is futile. I’m trying to plug a deep, rectangular chasm with a small, round ball. Sure, it may seal it for a moment, but it’s not a perfect fit. It settles and slips, leaving gaps and exposing cavities.

I blame my late husband.
He didn’t make it easy on me. Not by a long shot.

Matt was not the perfect father, but he gave it one good try. From the get go, he was intricately involved in our boys’ upbringing, especially after he got sick. When they were infants, he requested to take the midnight feeding so he could have some bonding time (and I could get some extra sleep.) He coached every sport they participated in from the age of three. On Fathers’ Day, he bought them presents.


A typical Fathers’ Day haul

Later, Matt initiated what he dubbed “Daddy Breakfasts.” Just the tree of them would go out about once a month. The date wasn’t announced ahead of time; it was spur of the moment. I was invited, but inevitably declined. (What mother of two young boys would pass up a quiet morning all to herself?) During their meal, they would talk about whatever was one their minds. It was a safe zone where nothing was off limits. Their father’s wisdom seasoned the conversation and his comfort was the dessert. What they discussed was never disclosed to me, but they always brought me back a treat.

Leukemia may have stripped away Matt’s vitality, but it never robbed him of his spirit. He spent every hour of his last seven years in some degree of pain, but each morning he would wake thankful to have “another day above ground.” Our sons were ages six and eight when he received his initial diagnosis. My greatest heartache is that they have few memories of him well. Doctors appointments, treatments, and fatigue governed everyday life. Our sons don’t remember life without these overbearing dictators. But even as cancer therapies and their side effects corroded his physique, his exuberance for life – for us – remained and flourished.

After Matt was gone, I daydreamed that some man or men would come alongside my sons to mentor them. Like a beloved tear-jerker, a gentleman – perhaps an uncle, neighbor, teacher, or coach – would recognize the “missing piece” in their life and do his best to compensate. Whatever crisis that might been looming would be adverted, their souls would be soothed and the credits would roll. In reality, a few men made attempts, but only for a short time. These were temporary positions. No one developed into a lifelong father-figure for either one of them. I never was a fan of Lifetime movies anyway.

And now we are back to Fathers’ Day and how to handle the occasion. We can’t ignore it if we tried, so we muddle through. I’ve thought about purchasing presents for my sons, but it feels off – like I’m adding fuel to their continual smolder of loss. I reject the common single mother’s mantra of being both a father and a mother. They had a father – a damn good one – I could never take his place.

This year, circumstances have made it so we will be celebrating with their grandfather a week later, leaving us alone on the ominous day. I’ve decided our usual tactic of avoidance is not doing us any good – I need to do something about it. Ignoring the day would be discounting the impact he had on our lives; erasing his place in our hearts. So, I’m going to seize the day to honor Matt. Perhaps we will go to a movie that he would have enjoyed or maybe head to the beach. Sure, we will ache for him, but it will be a good, sentimental workout for all three of us. We need to exercise our emotions before they atrophy. We need to enjoy Fathers’ Day again.



Lessons on Manhood Part Three: To my Younger Son on His 21st Birthday

gastaldos 2014 177 (1)

It’s now a family tradition.

A couple years ago, in an attempt to fill the void left by the loss of your dad, I wrote Lessons on Manhood I Learned From Your Father for your brother and you. The following year, your brother turned 21 and a I penned a letter detailing what he had taught me. Now that you have reached this milestone, I’m proud to to detail the exemplary example you present:

Make your words count: A few deliberate comments are more compelling than an extended tirade.

Keep watch: Discreet observation can be the best educator.

Provide a safe harbor: Be known for the one to turn to when times are stormy.

Fancy f-words: Faith, family, and friends form a firm foundation.

Be brave: A heart of gold inspires nerves of steel.

Stay in the loop: Being out of touch induces ignorant decisions.

Tinker: Working with your hands enriches your mind.

Don’t seek applause: Pride in a job well done is all the cheerleading you’ll need.

Be a wolf in sheep’s clothing: Demonstrate your tenacity with quiet confidence.

Form a posse: A few cherished friends are more valuable than a gaggle of acquaintances.

Develop x-ray vision: Not everything (or everyone) should be taken at face value.

Be loyal to a fault: May it never be said you turned your back on those you love.

Take the bull by the horns: If something isn’t working, make it your job to fix it.

Build bridges: Seek common ground, not segregation.

Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve: Your scars are reminders, not honor badges.

Cross the line: Doing something unexpected is always intriguing.

Be a ladies’ man: Having only male friends restricts your perspective.

Hone your competitive drive: Choosing your battles wisely results in more victories.

Throw away the key: Confidences are not to be broken. EVER.

Chime in: Being a part of a team enhances your identity.

Go the distance: Perseverance forges character.

Cast off your armor: A little vulnerability soothes a wounded heart.

Laugh until joy abounds.

Love till your soul overflows.

Live to make your spirit dance.


This post originally appeared on Medium.com

Jenny’s World


6 a.m.

Time to rouse my mistress.

She’s been stirring around long enough this morning — teasing me twice by getting out of bed to go do her business. Enough is enough! I’m hungry.

Pouncing on her belly, I stride across her breast, and lick her face. A slight wince, an irritated groan, aaand she wakes. Mission accomplished.

She lumbers down the stairs, slowly sloughing off the night’s slumber. I’ve come to realize breakfast is always better after she ingests her daily dose of caffeine. Without it, she’s liable to forget to top my kibble with a healthy dollop of yogurt. Why humans need liquid stimulants to jumpstart their morning is lost on me. Isn’t sunshine and the promise of a good day’s frolic enough? But I need me some probiotics (I can be quite the flatulent pooch without them), so I can’t begrudge her cup of coffee.

Eating makes me drowsy, hence my quick nap on her lap. She watches the morning shows. I heard her tell her human friends she is striving to shed a few pounds. I’m guessing she can’t just simply shake them off like last season’s winter coat. Sounds like a loathsome process judging by the excuses she spouts. Hope she doesn’t lose too many. Her squishy thighs make a comfy pillow.


8:30 rolls around — walk time!! I chase my tail to demonstrate how excited I am to go outside. Deftly catching it, I perform the aerial whirly jig that makes her giggle. It’s gratifying to see her smile.

She has to brush her teeth first. Apparently, humans don’t like to broadcast what they have just eaten. I think it proves they are well-fed, but there’s no stopping her. It’s challenging to be patient when she takes so long to primp. I snatch a sock she left on the bathroom floor and skedaddle up and down the stairs. Come on already!

At long last, she grabs the harness. I’m frisky with anticipation. Doing my best to move things along, I try to thread my paws through the loops just like I’ve seen her don her human clothes. But I can barely contain my composure, zigging when she zags. It takes forever!

Out the door we go. I enjoy walking my person, tugging at the leash so she will quicken her step. Her mother hopes she will meet a nice male human on these excursions. Don’t think that will happen though; I bark at almost anyone passing by— whatever their species. They need to keep away. I covet all her attention.

I lift my leg like a boy when I urinate. No princess squats for me. With a whiz and a kick I declare, “This bitch has been here!”


Thankfully, my mistress doesn’t attempt to dress me up like a doll. The only clothing for me is my yellow rain slicker. With el Nino and all, it’s good to be prepared. Most of the time, I am au natural. I’d hate it if she puffed my fur like one of those teddy bear Pomeranians. You’re a dog, not a stuffed child’s toy. Own your canine self!

My lineage is maltipoo, one of the older, more established designer breeds. My kind were cultivating their human companions long before nouveau breeds like the labradoodle and puggle came along.

After 30 minutes, we return. I’m all tuckered out and make a beeline for my water bowl. When she was feeling especially ill, our outings were 15 minutes — tops — before she began panting more than me. I think she endeavors to make our walks longer. I’m going to have to start building up my endurance.

Jenny Window

Sometimes my mistress leaves for while — sometimes almost the entire day. I don’t like being left alone, but I try to make the best of it. She counts on me to stay on guard to protect our domicile. When she returns, I do my customary hippy hop dance greeting. She says I prance like a circus dog. Then, I present her with every toy in my bucket. More often than not, I can guilt her into playing with me.

When I’m feeling a little aggressive, I like to play with the tug o’ war rope. I grimace and growl as my human yanks it side-to-side and tries wrangling it from my vicious grip. Most of the time, she fails, because I am just that powerful. My mistress even growls back at me. She’s cool like that.

The little yellow tennis ball is my favorite. If thrown properly, I can catch it high in the air. That’s my primo trick. Usually, it bounces across the floor and I must scamper quickly to get it before it rolls under the ottoman. Ugh! Then I have to wait for her to retrieve it. She is not always prompt and I need to whine and bark for her to come. Patience isn’t my virtue.


My human has littered two misters. They are off “getting their education” the majority of the time. Honestly, I don’t know what you need to learn besides don’t poop where you eat and what’s the best spot in the house to sneak a snooze. I’m only permitted in their rooms when they are home. Still looking out for a chance to investigate behind those forbidden doors.

Occasionally, I can tell my mistress is unsettled, heartsick even. I think she is pining for her lost mate. I’ve seen him in photographs, but he hasn’t been back to the house since before I was adopted. He must not have been microchipped or maybe he has gone to forever sleep.

On her troublesome days, I’ll catch her sobbing in the shower. Hefty people tears slither down her face and harmonize with the faucet’s cascade. Thankfully, these episodes are becoming less frequent. Other days, she’ll weep gently as we watch TV. Drip drops of sorrow plop on my back and curl my fur before she caresses them away. She’s especially melancholy after the misters leave. I do my best to cheer her up. Snuggling seems to distract her from her distress. If she scratches under my chin, I gaze back at her with tender eyes that telegraph my devotion.


6:00 p.m. Dinner time! WooHoo! I know better than to beg for people scraps, so by this time, I’d consume the fuzz off my tennis ball. Sometimes, I get a midday treat for sitting up like a proper lady. I can also cajole a spoonful of peanut butter from my mistress if I play the cuteness card.

Periodically, my human will entertain some of her female friends. They slurp colored drinks out of clear, slender-stemmed glasses and laugh. Munching on assorted nibbles and treats, they discuss their litters and the things that occur beyond our neighborhood. Once in a while, they plot to find a mate for my mistress. This again! As long as he realizes that I take priority in her affections, I might agree to it.

A while later, we take a brief jaunt outside so I can drain my bladder before bed. Our abode has a little patio, but no grass. My human knows I will only relieve myself on concrete when highly necessary. She calls me a prima donna. What can I say? A girl has to have certain standards.

Once abed, I nestle up in the crook of her legs and drift off to sleep. I dream about chasing the neighbor’s cat, bacon, and peeing on the cable guy’s ladder. I don’t know what my mistress’ dreams are about. I hope they include me.

A Long Overdue Thank You for a Priceless Gift


Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia smear

I’m ashamed.

As someone who prides herself on promptness, I am more than a little tardy. In fact, one might accuse me of being over a decade behind. But, better late than …  Really, there is no excuse.

When I began my Bucket List of Gratitude, I should have started out with the woman who gave a gift more precious than gold. Who performed an act of kindness and love more treasured than a cache of diamonds.

She saved my husband’s life.

That woman is my sister-in-law, my husband’s devoted sibling, Karen.

A little family history:

In 2001, my husband, Matt, was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML). For a brief period, his disease was kept at bay with the latest miracle drug. This respite from the ravages of cancer lasted for about 18 months. Matt’s persistently stubborn immune system had become resistant to the medication and his condition had transitioned into the acute phase. His situation was critical. Just a couple months shy of his birthday, he needed a stem cell transplant immediately to garner any hope of making it to his 40s.

Karen was declared a match and the best hope for her brother’s survival. Without hesitation, she agreed to be his donor.

Collecting stem cells is much more complicated than giving a pint or two of blood. The contributor undergoes an arduous process of preparation before the process of “harvesting” can begin. For five days, the designated donor receives injections to increase stem cell production. These shots have their own set of significant side effects. Karen experienced them all including headache, bone and muscle aches, nausea, insomnia, and fatigue. 

Finally, it came time to gather what had been sown into Karen’s bloodstream. For a woman who is deathly needle-phobic and highly claustrophobic, it was the stuff of nightmares. She sat in her chair of torture, queasy and weak, for nearly 12 hours. A bed pan and a water-filled Dixie cup negated any need to leave (or run away). The I.V. drew her blood out of one arm and ran it through an apheresis machine — a medical apparatus calibrated to thresh and reap the healthy stem cells that would treat her brother. Remaining blood products were reintroduced into Karen via another I.V. in her opposite arm.

A petite woman, Karen looked frail as she shivered in a contorted fetal position under a pile of hospital blankets. Her parents were by her side. Worry for both of their children weighed heavily on their faces. Determined as a petulant sister, Karen persevered and the transplant commenced.

On February 18, 2003, Matt was given a second chance of life through the graciousness of his sister and his brilliant team of providers at the City of Hope. In August of 2008, we unexpectedly lost him due to complications that even his stubbornness couldn’t overcome. That span of time was a bonus we never would have had without Karen.

What can I say to a woman who performed such an unselfish act of lovingkindness? This deserves more than a mere drop of appreciation. It overflows any bucket of gratitude. It exceeds the capacity of all vats of gratefulness.

Thank you for giving our family 5 1/2 more years with Matt.

Thank you for granting me 66 additional months with my husband.

Thank you for bestowing 2012 extra days with their father upon my sons.


Karen, me, Matt, and our two sons-Albert & Nicholas-at the 2004 City of Hope Celebration of Life Reunion


To learn more on how you can bestow the gift of life to a patient in need, check out the National Marrow Donor Program at BeTheMatch.org.

Dear Newly-Diagnosed Diabetic Parent

Albert and Me on Harley

First things first: No matter how isolated you may feel – YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Each year, nearly 25,000 children are diagnosed with diabetes. Every one of these children has parents, relatives, doctors, and/or caretakers that know and love them. Banded together, we can move mountains to ease the struggles our children will encounter.

You have every right to be sad, angry, confused, overwhelmed, weary, and frightened. Chances are, you’re experiencing a kaleidoscope of emotions completely foreign to you. If you are like me, you were blindsided by your child’s diagnosis. Here’s the thing – don’t let your worries hypnotize you into the rabbit hole of despair. Take an hour, a day, or even a week if you need to, but buckle up. Your child needs you for the bumpy ride ahead.

Until your child is somewhat regulated, don’t plan on a good night’s sleep anytime soon. No matter what your child’s age, you are now parent a “newborn” diabetic who needs continual monitoring. Just like your family will need time to adjust to this new development, his or her body will take its own sweet time adapting to life with diabetes. If your child has been diagnosed relatively young, puberty will create a new cavalcade of adjustments. The same goes for any childhood illness, such as a cold or the flu. Alert your friends and relatives to the situation, realize that your brain may be foggy from time to time, and understand you will get through it.

Please, please don’t base your child’s identity on this diagnosis. Your son or daughter may be an artist, athlete, or scientist. Let him or her continue to be known for their wicked sense of humor, love for animals, or competitive drive. You are still raising the same child that existed before you encountered diabetes. Don’t let this condition douse your child’s dreams and aspirations. Yes, you need to acknowledge and deal with it daily – and, by no means – should you ignore it.  BUT, it doesn’t have to be your child’s definition. It doesn’t have to overtake his or her personality. There is no time for resentment. Teach the attitude of modification, not victimization. You’d be surprised how freeing that can be.

In case you haven’t realized it yet – YOU ARE YOUR CHILD’S NUMBER ONE ADVOCATE. You need to be vigilant, informed, and proactive. Unfortunately, it’s only a matter of time before you encounter an ignorant comment, antagonistic school environment, or even an unsympathetic doctor. Do your research, be prepared, and respectfully stand your ground whenever the well-being of your child is endangered.

Take heart – there have been amazing developments in the treatment of diabetes. What used to be considered an immediate death sentence can now be managed for multiple decades. The average lifespan of a diabetic has increased significantly in recent years. Regretfully, it still is a life-altering condition and there is no cure, but hope looms on the horizon. Mind-blowing advancements are just around the corner. We must not give up our quest to make this disease a distant memory.

You may have noticed I’ve shied away from the medical dos and don’ts. You will get plenty of those from your child’s endocrinology team. What I wanted to convey was a list of things I wish I was told nearly 20 years ago when my son was first diagnosed. My main piece of advice is to cultivate all the assistance you can. Reach out to your friends and family. Contact the American Diabetes Association or the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation for information. Join a support group if you’d like. Take my recommendations or tell me to shove it. Whatever works to aid you on this journey your family is now embarking upon.

I’m not going to sugar coat it – the excursion is long and treacherous, but it can be navigated. Look positively towards the future. Train your child to be their own warrior. Take joy in daily conquests and never look back.

This post originally appeared on TheMighty.com.

The Seven-Year Itch

Woman shroud hilltop

It’s been seven years.

A week of revolutions around the sun.

Happy (?) deathiversary to me.

I’ve made (some) progress.

My days no longer commence with torrential tears.

I seldom sense the vacant weight of my wedding ring.

Still, my singularity seems abnormal.

A bunker of pillows occupies the empty promise that is his side of the bed.

The duo I once was has been replaced by a shadowed silhouette and what is left of me.

I obstinately strive to satisfy my sons’ paternal vacuum. The maternal exercise in futility I refuse to cease — the truth I’m reluctant to verify.

Even in the slightest dilemma, I wonder: What words of advice would he impart? Would this be happening if he was here?

The absence of a father’s wisdom torments a mother’s heart.

My widow’s shroud swaddles and suffocates. It’s my daily personal paradox: Do I let it lull me into a muffled serenity or should I cast off sorrow’s cocoon?

Grief is the wolf that threatens my sheep’s clothing.

When my children were in elementary school, they each witnessed the metamorphosis of larva to butterfly. As it neared the time for the insects to emerge from their chrysalis, the students were warned not to “assist.” Aiding or abetting in the butterflies’ escape could result in malformations. There would be no choice but to let flightless creatures succumb to their deformities. Successful transformation required solitary struggles.

I continue to curb such a transfiguration. I’m seeking adaptation, not evolution. Disowning all traces of my former self would be tantamount to annulling my marriage. I need to move forward, not break away.

My mourning attire is beginning to itch. At times it is sweltering. But will shedding it completely leave me basking in a cool breeze or shivering from my cold reality? Is such a prophecy feasible?

Do I really want to know?

The future whispers from just beyond the horizon. Uncertainty muffles the echo, but I must submit to its summons. Inertia will only spawn decomposition.

That’s not what he desired for me.

That is not what I aspire for myself.

The Nurse With Kind Eyes


There are moments in your life that are seared in your recollection. Even though some of the finer details may fade with time, your heart is permanently branded with the memory. This is the story of one of those encounters.

In early 2003, my husband, Matt, underwent a stem cell transplant to eradicate the mutant white blood cells coursing through his veins. AKA – leukemia. For those who are blissfully unaware of the process, let me give provide you with a brief timeline:

  • What you don’t know will hurt you: The presentation of the 150+ page quick-reference guide describing the ins and outs of a transplant.
  • Getting to know you: Test after test after test to prepare the candidate for the procedure; including, but by no means limited to: multiple scans, blood work, full-body measurements, and psychological evaluations.
  • End of the world as you know it:  A combination of total body irradiation and chemotherapy to exterminate the diseased bone marrow. The patient’s native immune system is systematically obliterated.
  • Knowing what’s good for you: Harvesting and transplanting of the donor’s stem cells. In Matt’s case, his sister was the gracious benefactor.
  • Don’t know what hit you: While waiting for the donor cells to graft into the recipient’s immune system, the patient is extremely vulnerable to life-threatening infections. He or she is moved to an isolation room for protection. My story takes place during this precarious time.
  • Knowing whether to laugh or cry: Matt was given a 60 percent chance of not making it through the ordeal. It took eight weeks to see if he would overcome the odds.
Matt - One of his first days in the hospital

Matt – One of his first days in the hospital

During Matt’s entire hospital stay, he was never left alone. I would arrive each morning by 6:30 to catch his doctor on his early rounds. One or both of his parents would come each evening to relieve me and spend the night. The nurses at his facility were some of the best in their field, but with an entire ward of critical patients, they were stretched thin. Our devoted trio strove to pick up some of the slack. There was always someone there to hold Matt’s hand, fetch the vomit bucket, or help him to the bathroom.

The days in isolation were some of the darkest. The patient feels like they are dying (quite frankly, they are) and, at their lowest point, begs you to let them. All traces of their original bone marrow – the production locale of blood cells – have been annihilated. This grueling prep must be completed in order for the donor stem cells to seize control.

It’s the medical equivalent of a hostile takeover.

Blood cell counts are done repeatedly to gauge progress. White blood cell (WBC) counts for healthy individuals typically run from 5,000-10,000. A stem cell transplant patient begins isolation with WBCs in the single digits. Waiting for the new cells to take root and multiply is like trying to make an industrial vat boil using only a birthday candle. Slow and tedious, you are constantly worried the candle might burn itself out before the water even reaches a simmer.

Previously, I would quickly grab a light lunch to eat back in Matt’s room. Outside food, however, was not allowed in the isolation wards. Stubbornly glued to Matt’s bedside during this perilous phase, I was skipping nearly every meal. When this absence of nourishment was combined with my lack of sleep and constant worry, I was in danger of needing my own hospital bed.

Whenever you spend any length of time in a medical facility, it doesn’t take long to know much of the nursing staff on a first-name basis. Most of them will take care of your loved one up to a week at a stretch. There are a few, however, that only appear for a day or two. These fleeting engagements can prevent you from ever learning the names of these particular providers of mercy. Such is the case of the nurse with kind eyes.

She came in one morning, introduced herself (again, can’t recall her name), and tended to Matt. She popped back in each hour just like every other nurse had been doing for the past week. After about hour five, she asked if I was going to lunch. “No,” I replied, “I’m afraid to leave.” The nurse look a little concerned, but nodded as she left. I had been asked that question many a time and thought nothing of it.

An hour or so later, she returned, a small paperback book in her hands. “Go eat. You need your strength,” she instructed. “I’m taking my lunch in here.”

“He won’t be alone.”

She was of Asian descent and her gaze was sympathetic. Beyond that, I am unable to recall her appearance. Nevertheless, I will never forget the effect she had upon me. My mind had been hissing with incessant anxiety. In the short amount of time it took to reach the cafeteria, I was able to settle my fears down to a steady purr. The kind-eyed nurse took on my “burden” for less than an hour, just long enough to rejuvenate my stamina for the weeks and months that lied ahead. Her act of compassion still resonates more than a decade later.

This essay is the second installment in my Bucket List of Gratitude. Check out my inaugural piece to learn more about my goal to recognize the not-so-random acts of kindness that have impacted my life.