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

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

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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

A Long Overdue Thank You for a Priceless Gift

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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.

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

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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.

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.

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

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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

Turning 50 is Difficult at My Age

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I was recently at a birthday party where the honoree was turning fifty. A cousin raised a glass to her “half-a-century-old” relative. I turned to my younger sister and glaringly whispered, “If you call me that in my birthday toast, I will despise you for eternity!” She just smiled and gave me a look that said, “It’s on!”

As I approach fifty, I’m revisited by remnants of my youth. Teenage zits reemerge as menopausal acne. The music of adolescence is the melody of car commercials. Unbeknownst to me, someone took my personal timeline and folded it in half before the ink was dry. Souvenirs from my younger days have been spattered and smeared with the present, creating a haphazard Rorschach test. Sometimes, I glide across a faint smudge—the encounter generates a background hum that vaguely prickles my consciousness. Occasionally, I stumble into a solid splotch. These happenstances startle me like a stranger abruptly grabbing my ass, heightening my awareness. I am compelled to pay attention and scrutinize my surroundings.

I’ve always been a bit behind the times. When I was in my twenties, thirty was the new twenty. In my thirties, forty was the new thirty and so on. Now that I am approaching mid-century modern, I’m too outdated to be a hipster, yet too immature for the senior discount. I’m smack dab in the middle.

Fifty, it seems to me, is a point flanked by coming of age and an old wives’ tale. I now find myself situated between:

  1. Daisy dukes and sequined track suits
  2. Thongs and granny panties
  3. Bartles & James and Ensure
  4. Two a.m. chili cheeseburger runs and early bird specials
  5. Fraternity parties and funerals
  6. Moonwalking and walkers
  7. Ten-speed bikes and electric shopping carts
  8. Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful and I’ve fallen and I can’t get up

Fifty does sound a bit half-baked. I have half a mind to look at the glass as half-empty and declare myself half-dead. I’m not half the woman I used to be and half the battle is not going off half-assed as I wait to see how the other half lives. I suppose I should give it half a chance, realize that getting here was half the fun and that it’s not half bad.

I still don’t know the half of it.


Originally published in @HumanParts @Medium.com