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

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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