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.

,
Mom


This post originally appeared on Medium.com

Advertisements

A Mother’s Tale: Shielding and Letting Go

17337602656_aa396066df_k

Photo Credit: Flckr Commons

Once again, it was thrust upon us.

My sons and I were watching television and soon realized “IT” was going to be part of the storyline. Our lighthearted summer romp through The Hamptons was referencing a significant anniversary in the life of its main characters, a pair of brothers. Being the shrewd (and somewhat rabid) TV viewer that I am, I was able to quickly deduce the meaning of the upcoming fictional date.

Intuitively, I scrutinized my boys’ expressions to see if they had caught on. One of them readjusted his relaxed posture to more formal pose; the other shifted a bit in his chair. What used to take effort had now become instinctual. A narrative meant to tug at the heartstrings of most viewers was going to twist and turn ours. All three of us braced ourselves accordingly.

It had been 25 years since the death of their (the main characters’) mother.

“Shit!” I thought for seemingly the thousandth time. For a few years after we lost my husband, I would sidetrack my boys’ attention away from the television when such a plot development occurred. Sometimes, I would “accidentally” change the channel. “Oops!” I’d exclaim in my best, pseudo-innocent voice. Such tactics can only work for so long.


Wonder Woman Bracelets

Source: Giphy

The difficulties escalate this time of year.  My maternal eye views every Father’s Day themed commercial as a dart aimed squarely at my children. I would like to stand in front of them like Wonder Woman, deftly deflecting the onslaught of paternal imagery with a PING! and a POW! of my magic bracelets.  I’d encase both of them entirely in chainmail, if possible, to repel the wily projectiles that made it past me.

Regrettably, I haven’t always made the best decisions when it came to exposing my sons to unsuitable material. Case in point: I took both my sons to see the movie, ‘The Express’ mere months after losing their father. It was a film about Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. We were a football-obsessed family, so this should have been an enjoyable, but relatively uneventful weekend outing. What I carelessly overlooked is that Davis dies shortly after being drafted by the NFL. Of leukemia!!! Not my wisest parental decision.


I know it’s completely unrealistic, but I have often fantasized about a process where a cable customer could create a personalized warning system. A subscriber would enter whatever topics offended their sensibilities or damaged their emotional well-being. Shows would be subsequently scanned and customized alerts would appear when necessary. In the case of our household, they would read:

Caution, the following content contains scenes either depicting or referencing the death of one or more parent.

VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED


n59bv

In the movie, ‘A Knight’s Tale,’ it is a woman who constructs the breastplate that best guards the heart of Sir Ulrich. It is lightweight, flexible, but durable. He is able to joust without unnecessary constraints. I used to be my sons’ blacksmith. The sole designer of their shields. But they are now young men. They must forge their own suitable armour.

In the end, the hero of the movie winds up being overburdened by his defense mechanisms. His metallic safeguards, no matter how accommodating they once were, become too rigid for him to continue. The newly christened knight discards his gauntlet and faces his final opponent unmasked, unshielded, and exposed.  Ultimately, he is victorious over the enemy that challenges his rightful place in society.

Whatever fortifications my sons select – whether they are walls, moats, or armour – it needs to be an individual choice. It is up to them to determine if they want to erect barricades. They alone elect whether to build them up or tear them down and when. As much as I may desire to, I can’t protect them anymore.

And so, tonight we will turn the TV on again. Will our viewing choices be friendly to our little family? Maybe. Maybe not. A strong fatherly lead could induce a wave of melancholy in my sons. A commercial featuring an affectionate husband might strike a chord with me. It’s impossible to predict. Unless we choose to live a life of solitary confinement, complete avoidance is impractical and not at all feasible. We will each weigh our options. We will measure our selections against our defenses. Hopefully, at least for now, we won’t be found wanting.

Dazed and Confused: Enduring an Emotional Concussion

Grief by Sarah Gath

A little while back I was having a heart-to-heart with a close friend.  Within a period of six months, he had lost both his stepfather and his mother. Dealing with his grief was becoming increasingly difficult. “It’s like I’m in a constant haze,” he explained. “I can’t seem to comprehend or complete the most basic of tasks.” “Makes perfect sense to me,” I replied. “You’ve been emotionally concussed.”

As a dedicated football mom, I am quite familiar with the physical ramifications of a brain bouncing inside a skull like a pinball. For four years, I ran the high school sidelines. I knew the signs of a concussion and subsequent protocol. It was my task to make the calls to 911 and/or an unsuspecting parents more times than I would have preferred. There were the instances when the brightest kids on the team had no idea what day it was. Sometimes, the athlete would drift in and out of consciousness, complaining of an intense headache when he was briefly coherent. Then there was the kid who acting as if he was happy drunk. We needed to assign him a babysitter to keep him from frolicking back onto the field.

When my own son had his first concussion, I witnessed the day-in and day-outs of such an injury. A designated “math kid,” he couldn’t add 2+2 for nearly three weeks.

The NFL, FIFA, International Olympic Committee, and other sports organizations look for numerous symptoms when assessing a possible concussion. Besides a persistent headache, these include:

  • Feeling slowed down
  • Nausea / vomiting
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue / low energy
  • Sadness
  • Nervous or anxious
  • Feeling “in a fog”
  • Feeling more emotional
  • Difficulty remembering and/or concentrating
  • Irritability

Due to the recent outcries (and lawsuits) over the long-term damage of repeated concussions, both the NCAA and NFL have revised their guidelines regarding possible brain injuries suffered either during practice or competition. With the general medical consensus being that the more severe damage occurs when an athlete returns to play too soon (before the brain has had adequate time to heal) many injured professional and collegiate athletes are now mandated to refrain from competition until he or she has demonstrated satisfactory cognitive function. A secondary concussion suffered by an athlete who resumed competition too early can result in catastrophic brain injury.

Putting aside the debate on whether or not the sports community is doing too little too late to prevent brain injuries – what are the correlations between concussions and emotional trauma? Or overwhelming grief? In my own personal experience, and in the lives of those whom I’ve consulted on the matter – plenty.

Photo by Kevin Dooley-Originally in Color

Photo by Kevin Dooley-Originally in Color

Some say I’ve had more to “deal with” in my life that most. I might take issue with that conclusion, but I can’t dispute the facts: My son was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at age 2 and a half. He was in and out of the hospital for nearly a month. My father-in-law was stricken by colon cancer and was forced to go on dialysis due to a tainted batch of chemotherapy. My husband donated one of his kidneys to save his father’s life. Some years later, my husband was diagnosed with leukemia, underwent a stem cell transplant, almost lost his eyesight, and eventually went into cardiac arrest and died a few years later. Personally, I have been affected by debilitating endometriosis, infertility issues, rheumatoid arthritis, and breast cancer to name a few. I guess my plate has been full for quite a while.

In many of these instances and others, my emotional circuitry was fried. Most of the time, when I needed to function despite of my circumstances; any and all sentiment was suppressed. I went numb. Other times, I sparked like an overloaded transformer, singeing those closest to me with blistering words and scalding outbursts. With my sideline sports history, you think I would have recognized the signs of something a little more serious than “feeling down” or being “overly sensitive.”

It’s been said that emotional trauma is stress run amuck. According to the American Psychological Association and the National Center for P.T.S.D., the symptoms of emotional trauma include:

  • Detachment
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Fatigue / low energy
  • Extreme sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling “in a fog”
  • Feeling out of control
  • Having trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Loss of intimacy
  • Eating disturbances
  • Memory lapses
  • Irritability
  • Feeling distracted

When you compare the symptoms of emotional trauma to those of a brain injury, they are almost identical.
Hence – emotionally concussed.

While scientists continue to debate the sequence of physiological events that produce emotion, the central nervous system is still considered to be the mastermind behind whatever we are feeling on any given day. When your CPU (your brain) has been strained to the upper reaches of its capacity, there are bound to be ramifications; much like the recently-documented cases of broken-heart syndrome, where excess amounts of stress hormones damage the heart. If the traumatic events happen in succession, the damage can be devastating.

Severe emotional distress can make you feel like you’ve been hit upside the head with a 2×4. Stunned and dazed for a moment, it might take you a moment to regain your bearings. If you are stuck repeatedly, or if the blow hits you just right, that “moment” can take days, months, or years.

Cool Texture by Ryan Houston

Cool Texture by Ryan Houston

Sports enthusiasts and ER personnel are frequent users of instant ice packs. These portable plastic packets are filled with a powdered chemical. Inside that is another pouch filled with a liquid chemical or water. When you squeeze and/or shake the packet, the inside pouch pops and the two chemicals react. As you are holding it, you can feel the reaction progress through the packet as it slowly turns completely cold.

Your brain can act the same way under extreme stress. Too much and Kapow!, your inner composure is burst, oozing into your surrounding grey matter. Soon, your synapses are cooled and your temperament is frozen into a mechanical and barely functioning tranquility. Your cognizance is in “Safe” mode.

As with an athlete, those who grieve run the risk of returning to life’s playing field too soon. Jobs, family, and friends may expect you to bounce back faster than you are ready. You, yourself, might be overly ambitious and presume you are prepared to get back in the game when you are far from it. Resuming strenuous, or even normal, activity before you are recuperated can be highly detrimental.

There is no pharmaceutical quick fix for a concussion — or grief. In reality, giving a brain injury patient certain analgesics can cause more harm than good. Aspirin or ibuprofen can thin the blood and exacerbate a brain bleed.  The best prescription is physical rest, mental relaxation, and time. Unfortunately, in the era of instant gratification, we are loathe to allot ourselves suitable amounts of any of them.

When my husband passed away, I was offered numerous agents to help me “cope:” one pill to help me sleep, another to boost my spirits, still another to help me get through the day. I declined them all.  I was wary of becoming dependent on any type of mood enhancer. More importantly, I didn’t want any agent to either dilute or dull the experienced trauma. To me, doing so would only delay the inevitable. I needed to experience the rawness – the full brunt of anguish – in order to get through it.

This is not to say that I always followed my own “sage advice”—far from it. I suppressed a lot of the grieving process, telling myself there were things that needed to get done, kids to take care of, other family and friends who needed to witness my composure so they could get on with their own lives. In my warped opinion, time was too precious and not worth the expense.

It's time to relax and unwind: Vinoth Chandar

It’s time to relax and unwind: Vinoth Chandar

Recently, I have had to go on short-term disability due to a persistent illness. I have to wonder: Is my body finally saying enough is enough and forcing me to slow down? Have I ever taken the time or done the work to truly rehabilitate? In the past few months, I have been able to experience quiet and search my soul, expand my creative writing, and enjoy more time with immediate and extended family.

If I had continued to be deemed physically fit, would I ever be emotionally well?

I am unsure if Emotional Concussion is listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Manual of Mental Disorders. I doubt if I am the first one to coin the term.  I only know it accurately encompasses the symptoms of grief my friends and I have confronted. It helps to realize that we are not alone in this condition. We are not suffering from a rare, orphan disease.

We are not losing our minds.

With over 2.5 million deaths occurring each year in the U.S. alone; there are tens of millions of left-behind loved ones who currently and will continue to grieve for years to come. Acknowledging that we have been battered and bruised – that we need a breather – is the first step. It is crucial to heal our minds and our hearts, create our new normal – restore our sense of self.

Rest is not a dirty word.

Grief Lessons You Are Never Taught: The Prelude & Aftermath of Special Occasions

Lee Hayword

Few things in life are more personal than grief. The only one-size-fits-all premise is that everyone encounters, digests, and processes it uniquely. Since the progression of that process is in a perpetual flux, I find myself commonly exhibiting three different modes of grief. (Although I am sure there are others lurking.) The personalities in the trio take their turns coming and going, sometimes intertwining with one another and at other intervals completely overshadowing a counterpart. They are predictable in their unpredictability. My current triad includes:

  • The Neon Sign: This is time I want everyone to take notice of my widowhood. I yearn to have my grief heralded by the town crier with exclamations of “Sympathy for the suffering!” and “Alms for the widow!”
  • The Grace Kelly: Like a favorite pair of classically-styled earrings, my grief during these moments is subtle and demure, never ostentatious. It’s the pièce de résistance that you can’t quite put your finger on, but you know it’s there.
  • The Influenza: This is the ailment you try to ignore – attempt to maintain the stiff upper lip. The problem is, the more you try to stifle this type of grief, the harder it is to breathe and the increasingly nauseous you become.

All these types are prowling about, waiting to crash the party, when you are about to confront a significant occasion. Birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries will forever be altered once you have lost the person you primarily celebrated them with. My struggle dealing with the date of my 25th wedding anniversary was recently discussed in a post on Medium and subsequently featured in the Huffington Post.

What I didn’t disclose, and what nobody prepares you for, is the before and after of such monumental events. The prelude and the aftermath are the most grueling of days – and the ones when you feel the most isolated.  

The days, often weeks, before are a gradual crescendo. You become increasingly anxious, making sleep problematic. You’re apprehensive about facing the day. You fret about whether or not you should even get dressed or answer the phone. If it’s an event that you have to attend – want to attend – such as a child’s graduation, you are fearful that you might collapse into a puddle of tears at an inopportune moment.

When the date arrives, it is rarely as troubling or as uplifting as forecasted. You feel guilty and grateful simultaneously. The sorrow is a deep, throbbing ache. The loss is palatable. Yet, the compassionate comments of friends and family are consoling. The cards, flowers, and other reminders of their affection boost your disposition and fortify your resolve to make it through the day. Soon, you experience a delirium of grief that is both euphoric and melancholy.

But, the day after can be the cruelest for the uninitiated. Calls, emails, or presents don’t materialize to celebrate, soothe, or mourn this day. Beguiled with sentiment just 24 hours earlier, you feel forgotten – bereft of comfort and understanding. Like a burn victim, you need to debride the dead tissue: expose the uncontaminated and living flesh existing underneath the defunct scabs of yesterday. Most of the time, this is a solitary and nerve-wracking assignment. No one else recognizes the necessity.

For those who are grieving, give yourself the time you need to contend with a celebratory challenge. Allot at least 72 hours to endure and not be your customary, post-loss self. If you need more – take it! Don’t berate yourself if you can’t “get over it” in an arbitrary “timely” manner. Sorrow’s schedule is subjective. To the friends and family members of such individuals, please be wary; be conscious of your loved one’s struggles.  Grief never leaves. It is never concluded. It simply evolves.

Photo credit: Alone by Lee Hayword

To My Son on His 21st Birthday: Lessons on Manhood

gastaldos 2014 100

Dear Son,

In my first letter, I related to you and your brother what I had learned about manhood from your father. On this, your 21st birthday, I want to acknowledge the lessons you have taught me:

BE AN INDIVIDUAL: Don’t conform to what other people think you should be.

HAVE A STRONG WORK ETHIC: Go the extra mile. Don’t rest until the task is completed.

ADAPT: Don’t bang your head against a wall that is impossible to move. Acknowledgement and assimilation of a difficulty is sometimes your best option.

BE A FIERCE DEFENDER: God help anyone who harms a loved one.

LIGHT UP A ROOM: Have a contagious smile and infectious personality.

DEMONSTRATE GENEROSITY: Even the smallest gesture can have meaningful impact.

HONOR YOUR HERITAGE: Cultural roots are strong and deep.

BE TRUSTWORTHY: No one should doubt your dependability.

OWN UP TO MISTAKES: Excuses are the tools of cowards.

TACKLE TREPIDATION: Conquering a fear is euphoric.

BE A MENTOR: Teaching the next generation is a gift to eternity.

CELEBRATE JUBILANTLY: Life is meant to be embraced.

HAVE A GOAL: Resolve and determination will keep you on your path.

DISAPPOINTMENTS WILL HAPPEN: Picking yourself back up strengthens character.

BE NOTABLE: A little infamy can be a good thing.

TRAGEDIES MAY BEFALL: Allow your soul to grieve.

POSSESS COMPASSION: Empathy is a scarce necessity.

BE PROMPT: Consider another person’s time as important as yours.

PLAY NICE WITH OTHERS: You won’t always get your way. Deal with it.

CULTIVATE AN ATHLETIC DRIVE: Dedicate yourself to improvement. Strive for excellence.

TAKE PRIDE IN YOUR LEGACY: It’s your most cherished inheritance.

LAUGH until you cry.

LOVE to the heavens.

LIVE to make a mother (and father) proud.

Love,
Mom


Originally published in @HumanParts @Medium.com

To My Sons: Lessons on Manhood I Learned From Your Father

scan0002 (2)

Dear Boys,

BE A STUD — Eat and breathe whatever you are involved in. Study it. Practice it. Focus.

BE A MAN’S MAN—Have a real friend, not an occasional drinking buddy. Cultivate a colleague and confidante.

DON’T SHY AWAY FROM WOMANLY MATTERS—Sometimes your wife or girlfriend might need you to pick up a box of tampons. Don’t freak out. Menstruation is not contagious.

START A FOOD FIGHT—Embrace the silly side of life.

DANCE—Nothing is more romantic.

MARRIAGE ISN’T ALWAYS 50/50—Like a see-saw, the amount of give-and-take fluctuates.

GET INVOLVED—You have no right to criticize if you don’t contribute.

NO WHINING ALLOWED—Don’t let your troubles be your definition.

MODESTY IS OVERRATED—Some of our best conversations were during your father’s “morning constitutional.”

BE A HERO—Allow someone to look up to you. Earn that adoration.

BE COMMITTED—Buckle up and tough it out. There’s joy in the roller coaster and pride at the finish.

APPRECIATE IMPERFECTIONS—Don’t let someone’s faults (or your own) become a catalyst for conceit.

BE A LEADER—Establish your own character. Don’t follow indiscriminately.

BE HUMBLE—Boasting is not masculine. Save your hot air for balloons.

PAY IT FORWARD—Blessings are communal.

FAMILY FIRST—Never, ever let them doubt who is most important.

HAVE FAITH—God rules.

EMBRACE ALL GENERATIONS—Nine-years-old or Ninety-years-old, everyone has wisdom.

ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE VULNERABLE—You won’t always know the answers. It’s OK.

HAVE INTEGRITY—A man is his reputation.

LOOSEN UP—Not everything will go as planned.

BE COURAGEOUS—Your family and friends will draw strength from you.

LAUGH—Even in the direst of situations, there is humor to be found.

LOVE—Let it be your compass.

LIVE—It’s the finest way to honor your dad.

Love,
Mom


Originally published on Medium.com