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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

Fairy Tale Restoration: Pondering my Compulsion to Write

She waited a little longer than usual to ask the question:

“Are you… OK?”

The question was laden with parental concern. She desperately wanted to understand, to help. But the hurts were not for a mother’s hug and kiss to fix.

It happens each time I publish a story. The first time it was almost immediate, accusatory. How could I leave her out of my recovery process? Why couldn’t I confide in her? I recognized the maternal urgency to enact a quick remedy.

Garnering the courage to publish was excruciating, but the words played through my thoughts on an endless loop. Like relentless children pestering their mother for attention, they wouldn’t cease until I acknowledged them.

The night before I posted my first story, I tossed and turned with apprehension and nausea. What if it was received with disdain? Thought of as hackneyed? What if no one read it at all?

The expected troupe of friends and family gave their accolades. When it comes to my writing, they view me through a thick lens of empathy and thus their assessment is skewed. But then there were the recommendations of strangers, known only by their avatars. Each one is intensely validating and rehabilitative. I wonder if they recognize their curative powers.

I find it easier to reveal my troubles through the written word, rather than face-to-face. The blank page reflects what I tell it and nothing more. People, on the other hand, are compassionate; their faces exhibit the emotional nerve ignited when you disclose your troubles. I end up comforting their distress and stifling my own. Every countenance is permanently lithographed into my memory.

I’m selfish and spent. I can’t take those faces anymore.

And so I made the leap. My first two pieces did fairly well, but the third burst through thanks to a tweet from Medium. Still in twitter infancy, I was enthralled by the endless streams of alerts in my inbox. It was the closest I’ve come to viral and I was burning with fever. I checked and rechecked the Referrers page to investigate where my readers (MY READERS!) were coming from: Sweden, Zimbabwe, Australia, Greece. I was punch drunk by the global locales. To be honest, I keep a list of every country on my desk. It’s becoming dogeared and smudged, but to me it’s the Stanley Cup.

I’ve now become dually addicted to self-expression and avatar validation. The necessity to quench both has made me manic. It’s a fair trade for lament, I suppose. But there are colorful strands of addiction and mental illness in my family pattern that have me worried. Like snags in a delicate fabric, will tugging at my threads smooth out the imperfection? Or cause the entire cloth to unravel? Perhaps I should just snip it away. Or will that enlarge the defect?

Are my words simply letting off steam or producing a tidal wave of angst that will eventually drag me back to the abyss? I only know that the gratification of writing is a soothing balm for the aches in my persona. Personal transcription has become my cerebral masseuse—easing the tensions of turmoil.

Is the euphoria of writing only a temporary placation? Should I really care? Putting pen to paper (or text to screen) has given me a separate identity. I’m not regarded as a mother, a daughter, a friend—a widow. To the avatar collective, I am a writer. Nothing more. Nothing less.

At the risk of being repetitive, I have referred to my rediscovered enthusiasm in prior posts. I’m like a new convert, attempting to explain an indescribable fervor. Can you comprehend the magnitude of release? Can you feel its vibration? Some will never truly understand unless they experience the turbulence of a life-altering upheaval. I hope no one will reach that level of chaos — or the resulting compulsion to expel their clusterfuck of emotions. A few are already there.

Sometimes, I feel my collection of essays resemble an episode of Concentration. I choose which fragments of my personality to expose, and contestants (Readers? Family? Friends? Me?) unlock the secrets of my identity by deciphering the revealed rebus puzzle. Other times, I liken them to squares on a Rubik’s Cube – continually manipulating the segments of my life in search of a pattern. As a teen, I became frustrated with the length of time it took to unscramble the toy. Impatient for perfection, I removed the jumbled stickers, replacing them back in their “proper” location. It initially looked appealing, but soon the colors began to peel and drop off. My cheating had only led to temporary symmetry.

With each written piece, I leach out a bit of the distress that grieves my soul. It is the paint for my self-portraits. Some still life — some abstract — an occasional cartoon. Many have been benevolently curated and displayed alongside other personal canvases in an internet gallery of human emotion. I feel unworthy to be included among such masterpieces and fear the moment when I might be discovered and discarded.

I wonder if I will ever be able to honestly answer my mother’s question. She wanted the happily ever after for her daughter. She still does. It’s just different now. The magic mirror reflecting an unspoiled fairy tale has shattered, but the shards are slowly coming back into place. The emerging mosaic is creating its own rhyme, a new reason. Some of the pieces still shimmer and sparkle. Others are clouded and chipped. A few are gone forever, leaving a hypnotically black void that I must be careful not to gaze into for too long.

My story is still unfinished; the so-called perfect ending may or may not be composed. For now, my writing grants me permission to wail, bitch, laugh, ponder, and cry through my heart’s discontent. It coerces me to chronicle the chapters of my spirit — the episodes of my humanity.

Staying silent just doesn’t work anymore.


Originally published @Medium.com

Beyond Her Wildest Dreams

She’s been having weird dreams. Not like the type she used to endure. The ones where she’d wake up in a cold sweat, weeping with grief, with loss — bereft. Unlike the other ones, either. Those she described as “whackadoodle.” A variety similar to nightmares that would occur when she was a child, sick with fever — apocalyptic tales of zombies and morphing faces. A quick Internet search revealed taking Tamoxifen in the evening could be the culprit. Switching to a morning routine solved that problem.

No, these were of a different sort. Not exactly disturbing, but when she awoke she was encompassed by a sense of unsettling curiosity as to their meaning. The premise was consistent. She’s with someone — an unknown acquaintance, an old high school friend — never an individual in her current sphere. They are always about to go out — to the movies, dinner — the destination is never the point. The problem lies in that they are unable to leave until someone joins them. That person is always the same:

Her deceased husband.

“This puts a new twist on the term, ‘late,’” she thought to herself after her last encounter with the dream. She knew her husband would have appreciated the pun. The dreams had been going on for months. In each of them, her dream partners and she are in a state of perpetual expectancy. Her husband is always on the verge of arrival, but never shows. In some dreams, his tardiness makes her anxious. Not worried, just a “Come on! Get here already!” temperament. In others, she is lackadaisical. He’ll get there eventually. She’s enjoying her present company. All of the dreams were underlined with uneasiness.

She rarely remembered her dreams before her personal day of infamy. Deep down, she had always known it was coming, but she had envisioned warning. Like a hurricane, she expected it to start slowly and then build. Forecasters would make their predictions, state that things were looking ominous. At some point they would realize the storm was indeed coming — better secure the household and prepare. It would hit them with full force and bombard their entire existence, but they’d be ready to accept the inevitable. Instead, it arrived like an earthquake, without notice. It shook her suddenly and violently; she felt her brain rattle and bruise. Her foundation cracked, leaving an abyss. It took her quite some time to regain her bearings.

She’s a native Californian. She should have known.

Still contemplating, she realized her morning had a mental soundtrack. Alex Clare’s “Too Close”.

…At the end of it all, you’re still my best friend,
But there’s something inside that I need to release.
Which way is right, which way is wrong,
How do I say that I need to move on?
You know we’re heading separate ways.

She was disturbed by the lyrics echoing in her head. It felt like the dream was remaining, intruding on her waking hours. Was it playing in her actual dream? She couldn’t remember.

You’ve given me more than I can return,
Yet there’s also much that you deserve.
There’s nothing to say, nothing to do.
I’ve nothing to give,
I must live without you.
You know we’re heading separate ways.

Still perplexed and getting annoyed, she went to the Internet to visit her modern day swami on a hill — Google. She entered several variations of “waiting for dead husband to arrive in dream.” The results were more numerous than she had supposed, but none had the answers she needed. All of them went completely off-track by the second or third page. By the tenth page they included “How to get pregnant faster with Bible promises,” and passages from The Iliad. She wondered what babies, faith, and Homer had to do with it before clicking back to the first page. The common theme there was how and do loved ones communicate with those “left behind?”

She had a friend, more than one, actually, who asked her if she talked to her husband. The friends claimed they talked to their dead relatives regularly. Every light flicker, every floor creak, was a sign. A “Hello!” from their departed loved ones. She, however, never participated in such communications. Nor did she believe in them. Heaven, to her, was perfection. Her husband was finally at peace, whole — free from the physical pain and discomfort that haunted him on earth. What good would it do him to witness one of their children suffering an injury? Or to observe her own tussle with cancer? How could he watch the anguish they all felt after losing him? He loved them with his entire soul and being. That wouldn’t be Heaven for him. That would be Hell.

And it feels like I am just too close to love you,
There’s nothing I can really say.
I can lie no more, I can hide no more,
Got to be true to myself.
And it feels like I am just too close to love you,
So I’ll be on my way.

She was sick of the daybreak disturbances that were now customary. She wanted to awake rejuvenated, refreshed. Instead, she felt pensive and agitated. Where was the promised ending of time healing all wounds? She’d made progress, done all the things they had discussed when they contemplated the “what ifs.” The house was paid off. She was going back to work full-time. Her social calendar was full. Intellectually, she knew that she was doing what was necessary. He would approve, applaud even. Her friends touted her “strength” and “courage.” But her heart (dreams?) would send in sneak attacks attempting to halt her advancement: “Fraud” “Betrayal” “Dishonor” were lobbed like grenades into her consciousness. Occasionally they would be duds. Often they would explode.

“Enough of this shit!” she declared as she shut down the computer.

And it feels like I am just too close to love you,
So I’ll be on my way.

So I’ll be on my way.

She’ll be on her way.


Originally published in @HumanParts @Medium.com

I Wasn’t Going to Cry on Valentine’s Day – But the Google Doodle Shot That all to Hell.

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Valentine’s Day, 2014 began like any other day. After all, five VDs had come and gone and I was sure this was going to be the one on which I didn’t cry. No more feeling sorry for myself. This was the year.

Then I saw the Google Doodle.

It started out innocently enough. A lovely illustration of conversation hearts headlined the page this holiday. “How adorable!” I thought. “How charming! I love conversation hearts.” (Yellow is my favorite.) My eyes glided, enchanted, across the sweet sayings of “Crush” and “First Kiss” and settled on the soon-to-be insidious PLAY button on the lower right-hand corner. “Bonus!” I thought. “It’s animated.” Naively, I navigated my mouse over the triangle and clicked, fully expecting the hearts to begin their pretty pirouettes, choreographed to a delightful ditty and magically morphing into a cupid-filled depiction of their illustrious logo. My need for alliteration satisfied, all would be right in Googleville.

That’s not what happened.

Instead a voice, a male voice, starts emanating from my speakers. What’s this? Where’s my syrupy sing-song or powerful piece of classical music? I’m confused. He explains that all the stories I’m about to hear are true. ??? Did I drop into an episode of Dragnet?

Hesitantly, I click on the pink “Mr. Right.” Another voice, this time an older woman, begins to tell the tale of the day after she got married. Worried that she has made a horrible mistake, she sets out on a walk that lasts well into the evening. She arrives home to her frantic husband and soon realizes this is where she is supposed to be. Forty-two years later, she has never had another moment of doubt. As the story is being told, line drawings come and go on the selected heart, animating the dialog. And so it continues on down the line from “First Kiss” to “Puppy Love” to “Blind Date.” Each story heart touching and poignant.

Commence the tears. You know the routine. Small pools form in your eyelids. A quick sniff or snort to try and make them retreat. Deep breaths — and then all is lost. Floodgates are open.

DAMMIT!

My expectations for the day completely derailed in the first thirty minutes, I began to ruminate over what just transpired. I was doing so well! My grief had evolved into an attribute — no longer my definition. I pondered this self-disappointment all morning — getting dressed, driving to work. Preoccupied, I had forgotten to pack a lunch. Then, in the drive-thru, the revelation struck me — I wasn’t weeping out of melancholy, I was weeping out of empathy. I had been responding to the tender moments of someone’s history. For so long I was pushing and compressing my emotions deep into the bedrock of my being, fully expecting them to fossilize. Meanwhile, my subconscious was constructing a derrick and had begun the gradual and cautious drill into my sentimental reservoir. The Google Doodle was just the final twist of the bit spewing the tears up and over.

I should have seen it coming.

There were hints. The previous summer, I attended a wedding. The bride was the daughter of an old and cherished friend. I traveled to Spokane with another lifelong cohort; the three of us inseparable since childhood. Our bond had survived through countless trials. We were bridesmaids for one another. This was the first wedding for one of our children and it was special.

The big day came and I was composed. No tears expected from me. Heck, I had been to funerals and not spilled a drop. You think a wedding could unsettle me?! Cue the music…

Release the Kracken!!!

It didn’t help the procession music was the love song from Princess Bride, one of my husband’s and my all-time favorites. But what the heck was this?! Hold on second — it’s not just crying — it’s blubbering!!! I wasn’t prepared for this assault. There was no feminine handkerchief in my pocketbook. I struggled for something to sop up the onslaught streaming down my face. Frantically, I grabbed an offering envelope from the pew and cradled it under each eye. Not their intended use, but it was better than nothing.

Completely taken aback, I struggled to make sense of this phenomenon and gain my composure. I had never, ever cried at a wedding. Why now was I bleary-eyed and snot-nosed? But the bride was the spitting image of her mom on her wedding day. In both appearance and mannerisms, she was a reflection of a date more than twenty-five years earlier when all was right with the world. Plus, I had held this wife-to-be when she was only a few days old, a little peanut of an infant. She was our collective first child. There wasn’t going to be enough envelopes to last the weekend.

My dear friend and closest confidante asserts I never stood a chance. “It’s the beginning of menopause,” she explains. “Those hormones will get you every time.” I suppose some of that is true. There could be a biological component bringing on the waterworks. But is that all there is to it? I hope not. That would mean that there will be an end to this epiphany. The change will eventually complete and I will return to being unresponsive and dispassionate. I am finally at a place where I feel it’s safe to express my vulnerability and I don’t want to retreat. I want to feel the sting of raw emotion and be confident that it won’t scorch my soul and turn me to ash. I want to shed a tear and be happy about it.

I want to cry at the Google Doodle.


Originally published in @HumanParts @Medium.com

Surviving Guilt

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One year ago today, after seven long weeks, I completed my radiation treatment. The twenty-something, male radiology tech I had daily bared my breasts and unshaven armpits to presented me with a certificate to honor my “courage and perseverance.” He hugged me goodbye while his smile sweetly said, “Don’t come back again.”

So now, twelve months later, I carry this sense of guilt that I can’t seem to shake. It haunts me in the wee hours of the night and chastens me at random moments throughout the day.

It feels like my dirty, little secret.

I have a compulsion to analyze everything; to know all the “whats” and “whys.” Consequently, I obsess over this dilemma. I’ve told no one, for who would understand my predicament? Worse yet, someone might respond, “Why yes, you should be guilt-ridden. You should be remorseful, embarrassed, and mortified you ungrateful b*+%#!”

In reality, I feel my diagnosis wasn’t devastating enough. I had an easy cancer, as cancers go. Caught very early, no mastectomy or chemo was needed. I don’t feel worthy to be a member of the pink ribbon club after witnessing the cataclysmic effects of a real, true cancer. My husband fought through leukemia and the impact of its treatment for almost seven years. He combatted this fierce challenger for control each and every one of those 2,539 days. I was the anguished observer and cheerleader, but I couldn’t stop the war. Finally, his body put up the white flag and he was gone. My four-month battle with the disease is insignificant in comparison.

I will at no time, ever, on any occasion, be able to repay all those who offered support through every test, appointment, surgery and treatment. I was cherished. Who was I to deserve this outpouring? I’m ashamed to admit that this self-debasement immobilizes me. Insecurities halt my desire to pay it forward — I would like to bring over a home-cooked meal (My cooking skills now suck.) Maybe dropped by unannounced, flowers in hand. (I’d be intruding.) — I guess some teenage angst stays with you forever.

Bouts of callousness and impatience engulf me. Trite memes bombard my Facebook page — Hit “like” if you want to cure cancer. Ignore, if you don’t — and make me want to scream. The constant pleas to “share” this pic or be faced with possible misfortunes are the new chain letter. These manipulations will do none of the things they promise or threaten, yet why do I judge? Why do they bother me so?

In the past, I volunteered as much as I could. I poured myself into these endeavors for they gave me a sense of purpose, a distraction from personal reflection. Now that time has ended and I feel like the rug has been pulled out from under me. Flat on my ass, I’m at a loss as to what to do next.

Some might say I am spent; I’ve given enough and I need some “me” time. Possibly, but I am uncomfortable with that assessment. It seems selfish. I am unsure why I am writing this and doubt I will hit the ominous “Publish” button taunting me. How can I admit publicly that I feel stagnant and full of excuses? To do so would reveal the scarlet letter that I have kept hidden, yet shamefully nurtured. The thought of it constricts my chest like a vice and I can barely breathe.

I take slow, deliberate breaths and wonder if declaration is the answer. Do I need to bare my soul, as I did my breasts, for treatment to begin? Does the secret need to be exposed in order to be eradicated? Will this confession radiate to my core and dissect the guilt that has invaded?

Perhaps that’s my real, true, war for survival.


Originally published in @HumanParts @Medium.com

In Search of Big Girl Panties

I have very little tolerance for martyrdom. It’s the helplessness and the “feel sorry for me” mindset. I am the first one to say, “Put on your big-girl panties and deal with it, woman!” If I see someone continuously curled up in a ball, my initial instinct is to kick him or her down a staircase. Not my most empathetic attribute.

A little over five years ago, my husband, Matt, died.

There. I said the “D” word. I’m a regular user of all the euphemisms — “passed away,” “the day we lost him,” “left.” There is nothing wrong with any of them and most likely I will continue to use them. It’s just that I have specifically avoided the word DIED. It seems so irrevocable — so harsh —

so … dead.

Maybe that’s why it has taken me so long to write this. Why it has taken over half a decade to begin the process of putting on my personal panties and dealing. I always had something else more important, someone else who needed my attention. In retrospect, there is no doubt I erected those “somethings” and “someones” as barricades to protect (obstruct?) my own recovery. These barricades even had their own set of panties: the mother, high-waisted and lacking all femininity; the candy striper, supportive and sticky sweet; and the trooper, camouflaged to disguise any hint of vulnerability. I need to get a new pair. My own fresh and unique undies.

Now — for the first time in my life — I am living alone. An empty-nester. A widow. Single. Honestly, I dislike all labels. I would rather be known by my personality and accomplishments than my “situation.” The situation is whispered about at parties or school functions. Occasionally, I’ll catch an attempt at the discreet finger point. No one introduces me as the Widow Gastaldo, but the title is there. It’s my aura.

Then there are the times that I want to scream it from the rooftops. I want to stand on a stage yelling into a microphone,

“Do you know who I am?!

Do you know what I have gone through?!

SYMPATHIZE WITH MY SITUATION!!!!”

I then consume an entire cherry pie, sit down to watch an episode of Parenthood and sob.

I guess it’s time to dissect and digest these classifications. Empty-nester. When my husband died (there, I said it again) our boys were thirteen and fifteen, in eighth and ninth grade. Resolute to make up for what they had lost, I threw myself into volunteering for their football team, their track team, whatever. If they were on the field, I was on the field. Matt had coached every sport they were in from the age of four and I was determined to continue that legacy. This was the era of the mother and the candy striper. Then the boys went off to college and suddenly high-waisted and sweet didn’t fit quite right. Don’t mistake me; I have never been one to pine for days gone by with my boys. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each stage of their life as it occurred. Ecstatic for what they have accomplished and what their future brings, #proudmama is my most frequent hashtag. But the nest is unoccupied now. It is too silent. I can go an entire day without uttering a single word. I need a new focus.

Widow. Wearer of the trooper. Most days I don’t feel old enough to have the title. Yes, I am aware of how cliché that sounds, but it is authentic. In my mind, I am that 16-year-old naïve teenager that my husband fell in love with. (High-school sweethearts, another cliché.) I still have years left to achieve and witness much. Other times, I feel extraordinarily ancient. A lifetime lived-and-done-with, begun-and-completed-earlier than most. Then there’s the look the word generates. I hate the look!!! It passes across their face when your situation is explained and people contemplate you like a caged dog in a shelter that needs rescue.

I swear I can hear Sarah McLachlan singing.

Now the worst of all — Single. Ownership of that designation is still difficult, maybe because I did not chose to be single. It was thrust upon me like a lance that I could not avert. Single sounds whole and complete. But I don’t feel whole. I feel hacked, a fraction of what I once was. For better or worse, clichés and all, Matt was my better-half and I was his. We shaped each other into adulthood. He was my seatmate in life’s roller coaster and now I’m the single rider — the extra. Sometimes, I wish people could see the giant scab that runs the length of me and has yet to completely scar and heal. They unknowingly pick at it and would be mortified to find out they do. Yet each time a husband lightly strokes his wife’s back during casual conversation or a wife gives her husband a look that can mean anything, but only he understands, the scab bleeds just a bit. I quickly wipe it away so no one will notice, but the sting lingers. It is the actual physical sensation that NO ONE warns you about and thus you are unprepared. Unprepared for the craving of non-sexual intimacy and chemistry you used to know. A forced detox if you will, constantly longing for the fix of a hug or caress or casual conversation. There are no undergarments for this, only bandages.

So that’s it. That’s the situation. I know I won’t be able to shed these classifications easily or entirely, but a girl has to start. It’s time to remove the roadblocks, resist the urge to roll up like a pill bug and shop for my new big-girl panties. Perhaps I will head to Victoria’s Secret and settle on an eye-of-the-tiger-wonder-woman hipster. Or (gasp!) a thong. If you see me veering towards the clearance rack located in the Aisle of Martyrdom, please take me to the top of the nearest staircase and kick.


Originally published in @HumanParts @Medium.com