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Posts from the ‘People who have changed my world’ Category

Lean on Me: Thoughts on friendship, sisterhood, and the loss of a parent.

Me and my bestie atop Mount Isabel de Torres, Puerto Plata.

Me and my bestie atop Mount Isabel de Torres, Puerto Plata.

My best friend lost her dad yesterday. It was sudden and unexpected, and tragic as only losing a parent can be. She is left hurting so badly. And here I am a more than a thousand miles and an ocean away, totally helpless to do anything about it.

I never had the privilege of meeting Julie’s dad, the infamous ‘Duff’ Cook. I have heard a lot of stories, though. He was something of a legend in the town where he lived, and at the factory where he worked as a welder for many years. He must have been one heck of a guy, if his daughter is any indication.

There’s no one quite like Jules, as I like to call her. While I haven’t known her my whole life, I feel as though I have. Our friendship, forged in both good times and bad, has transformed into something so much more. We have long since crossed the line from friend to family.

Our families – the real ones – have followed our lead.

Jules was the one I called late on a Friday afternoon in early January 2012. I had just found out my father was being sent home from the hospital and being placed in hospice care. It was…devastating…to hear this news. But I had to switch into action mode, because the house needed to be prepared both for his arrival and that of the hospital bed. Jules met me there, and helped me do the heavy lifting – both physically and mentally.

Jules was also the one there with me, walking laps in the hospital, when I had my own health scare a few months later.

She’s the one who not-so-subtly tells me when I’m working myself to death, or when I’m doing – or have done — something stupid. That said, she’s remarkably supportive of some of my riskier moves. She was one of the first I told that I was trying my hand at writing fiction. And she’s been surrogate daughter to my mother in so many ways since I skipped off to the Caribbean.

Jules is the one who cried when I told her I was getting married. Not that she wasn’t happy for me, she was just worried she wouldn’t be there for the occasion. She was, though. Even though she had to move heaven and earth to do it. (Not to mention the fact her son is about to graduate from high school and she has major back surgery coming up.)

See what I mean about the bouquet! Perfect!

See what I mean about the bouquet! Perfect!

Jules was my therapist when the strain of planning a wedding in a month started to get to me, not to mention a co-conspirator in planning the bachelorette bash. When the time came, she sent me down the aisle with a perfect bouquet (fashioned from purloined frangipani blooms). She played photographer, too, capturing all of the precious moments and memories of our special day.

How did I repay all of this when I learned of her father’s death?

Well, I’d like to say I found words that were the perfect blend of wisdom and sentiment. Something that would both sooth her pain, and let her know it’s ok to feel how she’s feeling. That she’ll get through this. That even though it may not seem like it in this moment, she will. Because I know she will. But you have to take it one day, one hour – sometimes one minute – at a time.

But did I say that? No. In the face of the raw emotion that she shared, I said none of those things. Not even close.

Instead, I blathered on about okra. Yes, OKRA.

I think it’s safe to say I’m out of the running for friend of the year.

Oh, Jules. Can you forgive me? What I really want to tell her is that I love you and your family, and I’m so, so sorry about your dad. I wish more than anything that I could be there to help you get through this day, and the next, and the next…just as you was there for me.

I will, of course, be there. But not in person, and I know it’s just not the same.

You will get through this, because you’re one of the strongest people I know. And even though there are a thousand miles or so, plus an ocean, between us, I AM here for you.

Whatever you need, Jules, you can always lean on me.

Sending strength, love, prayers and positive healing thoughts from my heart to yours. You, Lyndon, Jesse, Jaret, my other brother Dennis and all of Duff’s family and friends are in my thoughts and prayers.

xo

M

 

 

One Very Special Lady: In Memory of Bethel Jarvis

The woman, the myth, the legend: Bethel at 86.

The woman, the myth, the legend: Bethel at 86.

Some people are important to us, not because of the direct impact they have on our own lives, but because of the role they play in the life of someone we care about. For me, one of those people was Bethel Darrow Jarvis, who passed peacefully in her sleep on Thursday, April 2. She was 91.

I knew Bethel as Grandma Jarvis, the beloved, doting grandmother of my best friend, Melissa. I met her on the very same day I met Melissa for the first time. It was June of 1982, and we were in the women’s restroom at the Colonia Theatre in Norwich, having just emerged from the matinee showing of Annie.

It was fate, I think, that when Grandma Jarvis called “Missy,” I answered. And when my mother called “Melissa,” she answered. The ensuing friendship has lasted for three decades and counting, through every curveball life has seen fit to throw our way and is still going strong.

I have always been fascinated by the relationship between Melissa and her grandmother. A little jealous too because, having lost both of my own grandmothers before I was three, I never had the chance to experience that kind of bond.

And what a bond Melissa and her grandmother shared!

Melissa and Grandma Jarvis.

Melissa and her grandmother,

My friend’s childhood was a tumultuous one, and her teen years even more so. Through it all, Grandma Jarvis was one of the few constants in her life. Her anchor through good times and bad. And she remained her closest friend, confidant and champion until her last breath.

Grandma Jarvis was the one who bought Melissa her first Barbie, and set her on the road to being a serious collector. The one who organized her childhood birthday parties. The one who (along with Grandpa Jarvis, of course) swooped in just about every weekend to whisk her off and lavish her with love and attention. No matter what else was going on in Melissa’s life, they always made her feel safe, special and incredibly loved.

Grandma Jarvis was also a role model. And not just when it came to collecting Barbies. She worked in the same factory for well over 50 years before her health forced her retirement. (Sometime in her 80’s, if I remember correctly.) By her example, she taught Melissa the importance of independence and hard work from a very young age. These are lessons Melissa definitely took to heart. She was the first of my friends to get her working papers as soon as she came of age.

Over the years, their roles may have changed – with the caregiver becoming the one who needed to be cared for. But Grandma Jarvis never lost her independence. Melissa made sure of that.

In the end, Bethel died just as she lived. With the same steadfastness, independence and confidence of purpose that I have always so admired about her. I believe she went to bed that night fully aware that it would be her last on this earthy plane. She had said her goodbyes and was ready to move on, at peace with the fact that life would go on for those she was leaving behind.

Perhaps what she didn’t realize was how much richer that life would be as a result of her influence and her memory.

To Melissa, her beautiful daughters, her father and the rest of the family – I send my heartfelt condolences as they lay this wonderful woman to rest.

May you rest in peace, Bethel.

Grandma Jarvis and her 'girls'.

Grandma Jarvis and her ‘girls’.

A birthday wish for one of my favorite cousins: Coleen Farrell Coffey

The Farrell clan in action at our cousin Amanda's wedding. As usual, Coleen is at the center of all the fun!

The Farrell clan in action at our cousin Amanda’s wedding. As usual, Coleen is at the center of all the fun!

I’m blessed to be a part of an amazing family: The Farrell’s. My mother was one of twelve, so it’s an extensive clan. The first cousins alone number 35. Add in the spouses and various offspring and, well…I’ve never even tried for a grand total.

We cousins are a tight-knit group, despite the fact that we span 4 decades or so in age and are scattered across the country. (Well, mostly the East Coast, but a few in Texas.) It’s a pretty awesome bunch, and I feel privileged to be related to each and every one of them.

As in any family, it’s unwise to label anyone as your favorite. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a special shout-out to one of my all-time favorite Farrell’s today. Especially since it’s her birthday.

The one, the only…Coleen Farrell Coffey. (Photo cred to her incredibly talented son, Eric Coffey.)

The one, the only…Coleen Farrell Coffey. (Photo cred to her incredibly talented son, Eric Coffey.)

I speak of the one, the only…Coleen Farrell Coffey.

She’s wild, crazy and more fun than I could ever dream of being. She’s also one of the kindest, most caring people you could hope to meet in your life. She possesses the biggest heart of anyone I know and is so incredibly strong. Nothing can knock her down. (And let me tell you, plenty of things have tried.) She’s an amazing daughter, sister, aunt, niece, mom, cousin and friend. I’m constantly in awe of her and I thank my lucky stars that I have the honor of being related to her. (I also think her husband, Steve Coffey, is an absolute saint!)

We’ve always had a special bond and the trials and tribulations of the last few years have only brought Coleen and I even closer. Not only is she one of my favorite cousins, but she’s also one of my best friends.

This weekend, Coleen and I will get to spend a lot of quality time together. In fact, we’re planning to stay up all night on Saturday.

No, we won’t be out celebrating her birthday. Not in a traditional sense, anyway. No, we’ll be walking with Team Chenango in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Overnight – an 18 mile dusk ‘til dawn walk to break the silence and bring the issues of depression, mental illness and suicide into the light.

When Coleen first told me that she wanted to walk with me this year, I was excited that she would be joining us. But then she told me why she felt compelled to support the cause. You see, suicide had hit close to home for her.

She told me about the 25-year-old son of one of her other cousins who took his own life earlier this year. He left behind his parents, two sisters, a long-time girlfriend and so many friends and family members – all of whom mourn his loss and struggle to understand why he chose to take his own life.

This Saturday, Coleen will walk in his memory. I know it will be an emotional experience for her, as it is for all who participate. But we’ll channel those emotions into every step we take.

For with every step, we hope to help someone who is struggling with depression get the help they need before they choose to end their own life.

With every step, we hope to prevent other families and friends from having to endure the loss of a loved one by their own hand.

With every step, we will help bring the issues of suicide and depression out of the darkness and into the light.

Since Coleen joined our team only a few weeks ago, she’s still working to meet her fundraising minimum. Will you help her get one step closer to her goal by making a donation today?

I can’t think of a better way to wish her a Happy Birthday.

Happy Birthday, Col!

Daddy’s Little Girl: What I’ve learned since losing my dad

My dad, Fred Stagnaro, and I at my cousin Elizabeth's wedding in 2008.

My dad and I at my cousin Elizabeth’s wedding in 2008.

This weekend, a post reminded me that today was a somber anniversary for three siblings I call friends. You see, two years ago, they lost their dad.

Frederick L. Stagnaro (a.k.a. Fred, Roy, Uncle Fred, Gramps, the Pops, Freddy, Fred-o…)

My dad, Frederick L. Stagnaro (a.k.a. Fred, Roy, Uncle Fred, Gramps, Dad, the Pops, Freddy, Fred-o…)

Truth was, I didn’t need to be reminded. I’ll never forget the death of their dad, because he died just two weeks after my father. In my heart, their grief is inexorably linked with mine.

This may seem odd, particularly given the fact that we’ve been more acquaintances than friends for most of our lives. I didn’t really know their dad; they didn’t really know mine. But now we share this bond; a bond formed out of the pain of losing one of the most important people in our lives. For we had each stood by, helpless, as the men who had been our heroes our whole lives passed from our world into the next.

My dad fought a courageous three-year battle with cancer. They were three incredibly difficult years. In the end, I knew it was his time. He was in so much pain, and I didn’t want to see him suffer any longer.

Losing him tore my heart out. And I knew I would never, ever be the same. Don’t get me wrong, I put one foot in front of the other. Life hasn’t stopped, but it’s as if my personal history is now broken into two distinct parts: before my dad died and after.

If you’ve lost a parent, you’re probably nodding in agreement right now. If you haven’t, then cherish EVERY minute. Yes, even the ones where they drive you absolutely crazy. Especially those. Because in a strange twist of fate, those are the things you’ll miss the most.

I’m not sure that anyone who hasn’t lost a parent (or parent figure), can truly understand the emptiness that comes from knowing one of the people who shaped you into who you are as a human being – not simply on a genetic level, but on every level – is no longer there. No longer there…

…to talk to.

…to lean on.

…to love you unconditionally.

…to confide in.

…to teach you what it means to be a good person.

…to give you that advice you don’t want to hear.

…to roll their eyes when you wear something a little “fashion-forward”.

…to intimidate your boyfriends.

…to frustrate you more than any other living being.

…to be your hero.

…to hold your hand.

But you get through it. You have to. Because life goes on, even though you can’t understand why the world didn’t stop when they died. Because your world did.

In the days, weeks, months and now years since I lost my dad, I have been so incredibly lucky to have the love and support of so many amazing people. Collectively, these friends and family members have been my rock. They never let me forget that my dad is still with me and always will be. I carry him in my heart, just as I carry him in my DNA.

I have also been incredibly lucky to have one friend in particular: Tina.

A couple of days after my father’s death, Tina sent me a note. In it, she started out by saying that she didn’t want me to feel obligated to respond. But as soon as I read the rest, nothing in the world could have stopped me from telling her how her words had touched me.

You see, she shared with me her own experience with losing a parent. And in doing so, she validated everything I was going through. Everything I was feeling. She showed me that I wasn’t alone in my grief, because others had gone through the same thing. And, perhaps most importantly, that I would be ok. It would always be hard, but I would be ok.

Her words, which were both incredibly kind and impossibly wise, still give me goose bumps. Because yes, I have trundled them out a time or twenty over the last two years.

I can’t think of a better way to pay that forward, then to share some of what I’ve learned/discovered about myself these past two years – mostly through the kindness of amazing people like Tina.

(Disclaimer: Please remember my degree is in Economics, not Psychology. I’m sharing my personal experience, not giving unsolicited medical advice..)

Here goes…

1. First and foremost: it is OK to miss my dad like crazy. 

Getting ready for a father-daughter golf outing, circa 2010. (Note the coordinating golf shirts!)

Getting ready for a father-daughter golf outing, circa 2010.                                     (Note the coordinating golf shirts!)

I lucked out in the father department. My dad was an amazing guy (yes, that’s been independently verified) and I have always felt incredibly privileged to be his daughter. We had a very special relationship and I have a lifetime of cherished memories to show for it – birthday fishing trips, flying, golfing, hiking through the woods and far, far too many hours spent watching Clint Eastwood movies and so much more…

I know how lucky I am, because not everyone is so fortunate to have that kind of bond with their fatherAnd I fully believe it gives me license to miss him forever.

2. I’m going to miss him forever.

Silly me, I thought the first year would be the hardest. I was ready for every holiday to hit me like a ton of bricks. But I think the second year was worse because, damn it, I THOUGHT it was going to be so much easier and it wasn’t. So I guess I better wrap my head around the fact that I will always miss him.

But I do have something that will get me through even the roughest of days: the knowledge that he will always be with me. I can feel him with me in spirit, and he will always be in my heart. (Heck, some days, I can almost hear him whispering in my ear.)

3.  I’m stronger than I think.

stronger than you think

The plaque, as it now hangs in Ryan Frederick’s room.

Two days after my dad died, I missed my best friend’s baby shower. It was in Connecticut, and I couldn’t make it for obvious
reasons. After the party, Liz posted a picture of a plaque someone gave her for the baby’s room. It said something along the lines of: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you think and smarter than you know, but the most important thing is that even if when we’re apart, I’ll always be with you.”

It felt like a message from my dad when I needed it most. Because it came as I was getting ready to write his obituary. Which I thought was the hardest thing imaginable. Until, that is, I decided I wanted to speak at his funeral.

I had notes with me, as I stood before those gathered for the funeral mass, but they didn’t do me much good. Frankly, I couldn’t see them through my tears. But somehow, I got through it. I’d like to think that I did him justice and, that in doing so, I proved myself to be my father’s daughter.

I closed with the words from that plaque.

4. In order to be there for anyone else, you need to be there for yourself first.

When everyone went home after the funeral, it was just my mom (whom I’ll henceforth refer to as Mumsy) and I. Not to say we didn’t have a huge support network, but at the end of the day it was the two of us. (Well, and Lulu the ninja kitty.) And I felt responsible for her. (No, not the cat.)

But while I was “taking care” of Mumsy, I wasn’t taking care of me. Add in a boatload of work stress, and it was a rather dark

Mumsy and me.

Mumsy and me.

time for me. I was angry, bitter and filled with guilt for all the time I was spending at work when I felt I should have been “taking care” of my mom. I wasn’t really grieving. Not in the healing sense of the word. I was keeping it all in and it was just getting worse.

The good news is, I don’t feel that way anymore. Know why? Because I opened up with my mom about everything I was feeling.

It wasn’t easy. In fact, it involved a couple of what I like to call “Come to Jesus” meetings. There’s usually a fair bit of screaming, crying…you name it. But at the end of the day, it’s helped us both move forward. Because we are in this together…in an admittedly co-dependent kind of way.

5. Pick the right people to talk to.

After my dad died, I felt like I couldn’t talk about it. Not because there weren’t people there to listen, I just felt that I’d already overburdened them with my tales of misery and despair. As time passed, I was even more reluctant, because I figured they’d give me the polite brush off. (You know, the “it will get easier” speech.)

Unfortunately, it was all bubbling up inside me. And it started leaking out at the most inopportune times. Like on a first date, when all I did from appetizer to dessert was talk about my dad. Or in the middle of a business meeting. (Ok, maybe it was more than “a” meeting…)

And I couldn’t talk about it with my mom, or my siblings for that matter. Because I couldn’t handle their grief on top of my own.

I was lucky enough to have friends that understood. Friends that had also experienced profound loss, whether of a parent or loved one. Like Tina, they validated what I was going through and helped me find peace with what I was going through.

That might not work for everyone, I know. But thankfully there are wonderful professionals out there who can help. The important thing is to find someone you can open up with and who can help you heal.

6. Let the tears fall.

I’ve always been a crier. So it will come as no shock to anyone who knows me that I cried for about 2 weeks straight after my dad died. And I’ve cried many times since. I get some of my best crying done in the car, but am no opposed to other locales as well.

Now, some people may interpret this as a sign of weakness. But not me. I firmly believe that tears are cleansing. A good cry helps you get it all out. And then you can move on.

7. Laughter is healing.

I still have a hard time talking about my dad sometimes. And I have an incredibly difficult time talking about the knock-out-drag-out battle he waged for three years against the cancer that ultimately took his life. Perhaps because he wouldn’t let us talk about it while it was happening.

But I have made in-roads. Because there are things we can laugh about, even from those darkest of days.

Humor makes it all a little bit easier to bear. I say that, while smiling through my tears.

I miss my dad so very much, and I know I always will. But as I sit here reflecting on the good times and bad, thinking of all the things he taught me, I can’t help but feel blessed to have had the honor and privilege of having Fred Stagnaro as my friend, my role-model, my hero and most of all, my dad.

I love you, pops.

In loving memory of Frederick L. Stagnaro. June 20, 1934 - January 26, 2012

In loving memory of Frederick L. Stagnaro.                                          June 20, 1934 – January 26, 2012

Wonder Woman (a.k.a. Doreen Rowe)

One of our Wonder Woman's passions is being an adaptive ski coach at Greek Peak. She gave me the full experience - including a trip down the bunny slope in a mono-ski,when I tagged along for a story in 2011.

One of Doreen’s passions is being an adaptive ski coach at Greek Peak. She gave me the full experience – including a trip down the bunny slope in a mono-ski – when I tagged along with her in 2011.

The weeks leading up to Christmas are always hectic, filled with last minute shopping and holiday gatherings. So why I thought it was the perfect time to plan a reunion of sorts for my Leadership Chenango Class of 2010 classmates, I’ll never know. With everyone’s schedules packed to the gills, it was nearly impossible to find a time that would work for even a meager majority. But finally a date and time were identified that might work.

And it just might have worked, if not for Mother Nature’s untimely intervention. The heavy, wet snow was beautiful, but it made the roads rather treacherous. So much so that I wasn’t entirely surprised to find only one of my compatriots at our chosen venue (Uncorked Cafe & Lounge in Norwich, NY).

I was glad to see that person was Doreen Rowe. Doreen and I had met as part of the community leadership program, and our paths had continued to cross professionally and through shared interests so often that we’d naturally grown into friends. It had been awhile since we’d had an opportunity to catch up. So, we had a glass of wine and did just that as we waited to see if anyone else intended to brave the weather.

It was close to an hour before another member of our group, Roger Connelly, arrived. By then Doreen and I had worked our way through a number of topics, from the sudden turn my career had taken and some things that had been weighing heavily on my mind to her volunteer work as an adaptive ski coach, an upcoming ski trip she had booked and our respective holiday plans.

Doreen left shortly after Roger arrived, anxious to get home to meet her daughter Amy, who was driving down from Albany. But our conversation stayed with me. The last couple of months have been a bit tumultuous, and our time together did me good. Talking to Doreen – even just being in her presence – always helps me put things in better perspective.

I was still thinking about Doreen and reflecting on our conversation the next morning, when I received a message from a mutual friend. Doreen had suffered a major heart attack and was in very serious condition.

The tears came instantly, as a jumble of thoughts and emotions hit me. She had been happy and laughing and her usual amazing self the night before and I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that this had happened so soon after I’d seen her. I was scared to death for Doreen and her family, fervently praying that she’d pull through, scrambling to think of any way I could be of help to her family, and feeling completely lost.

There was one thought in particular that caused my heart to ache so badly it felt like it would burst: what if the time I had spent with Doreen the night before was the last time I would see her? If I’d known that was even a possibility, what would I have said? What would I have wanted her to know?

Let me tell you a story.

Doreen is extremely intelligent and incredibly knowledgeable about her fields of expertise (of which she has many). She’s also one of the strongest, kindest, most caring and selfless people you will ever meet. But I didn’t realize that at first. Because Doreen is calm, cool, collected and incredibly modest.. where I, umm, skew to the emotionally impulsive and wear everything on my sleeve. So, you could saw we were a bit like oil and water when we first met.

That all changed after Doreen came to one of our classes with a new haircut. I mean no offense when I say it wasn’t very flattering. It had an air of mullet about it, cut very close – almost shaved – on the sides with the top/back a tight perm. I am ashamed to say, I may have thrown her a few sideways glances when I first saw it.

But then I learned WHY she’d done it.

You see, a dear friend of Doreen’s was scheduled to have brain surgery. And one of the things causing her the most angst was what she’d look like after she had the operation. So Doreen went with her and had her hair cut, too.

I went home and cried after that. I had clearly, almost criminally, misjudged this woman. Who was a better person than I. See, my father had recently started chemo. He too had been self conscious and anxious about loosing his hair. But it had never crossed my mind to do what Doreen had done.

From that moment on, I paid more attention and had a bit of an epiphany. I realized that the differences I perceived between Doreen and myself came down mostly to communication styles. (And some startling immaturity on my part!) But once I got past that, I began to truly discover what an amazing person she is.

We all have our own way of making a difference. For me, that way has been through writing. But Doreen makes a difference by doing.

One of my more spectacular spills of the day! (Which Doreen was more than happy to capture for posterity…)

One of her greatest passions is volunteering as an adaptive ski coach, helping blind and physically disabled individuals learn to ski and snowboard at Greek Peak’s Adaptive Snowsports Center. I got to see her in action in 2011, when she invited me to do a story about the Winter Challenge she’s involved with.

The day I spent with her and the challenge participants was truly life-changing for me on a personal level. (And not only because I learned how much abuse my body can take – I fell A LOT. You can read all about it here.)

It also solidified my friendship with Doreen, something for which I will always be grateful. We’ve golfed together, skied together, laughed and cried. I’ve come to value her opinion and her insight on so many topics and issues, particularly those relating to education and agriculture. And one story she told me, about a piece of advise someone gave her early in her career, has been something I’ve gone back to on more than one occasion.

Every time I see or talk to her, I am more amazed. There’s a reason my mother calls her Wonder Woman. She’s a one woman dynamo. And she pushes me to be a better person, simply because I want to be more like her. Although she has no way of knowing that, because I’ve never taken the time to tell her.

Until now.

Doreen, without realizing it, you’ve become an amazing influence on my life. You inspire me to put my heart into everything I do, and to be there for others. Your selfless acts and strength have touched so many lives, including my own. I cherish the time we’ve spent together, and I can’t wait to hit the golf course and the slopes with you again.

You have never been far from my thoughts these last few weeks, and you and your family will remain in my prayers throughout your recovery.

Get well soon, my friend.

And thank you for teaching me yet another life lesson: how very important it is to let people know how much they mean to you.