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Posts tagged ‘family’

Farrell Family Favorites: A tribute to a favorite uncle and his amazing daughter

Two of my favorite ladies!

Two of my favorite ladies!

I opened Facebook today to find two of my favorite ladies smiling back at me. I was so excited to see that my cousin Coleen had chosen one of my favorites from my wedding day as her new profile picture. It’s a candid of Coleen and Mumsy, in their respective roles as maid of honor and mother of the bride, taken as we were waiting to be collected for the beachfront ceremony.

As I looked at those familiar faces, smiling back at me, I felt so incredibly blessed. I am blessed. Blessed to have found the love of my life and made it official before family and friends on what would have been my parents’ 56th wedding anniversary. And blessed, also, to have these two amazing women in my life.

For the last 40 years, they have cared for me, comforted me, supported me, cheered me on, laughed both with me and at me, and helped me celebrate all of life’s milestones – big and small. And even though we’re a few thousand miles apart at present, we all carry each other in our hearts every day.

In a family of 35 first cousins, it’s a dangerous thing to go picking favorites. Difficult, too, since the Farrells are a pretty amazing bunch. But Coleen and I have always had a special bond. The fact that more than a decade separates us in the roster of Farrell descendants has never been a factor.

It was Coleen who dropped everything and drove from New Jersey to Syracuse the night before my surgery a few years ago, so that Mumsy wouldn’t be alone during those tense hours.

Fun in Philadelphia for AFSP's Out of the Darkness Overnight walk to prevent suicide.

Fun in Philadelphia for AFSP’s Out of the Darkness Overnight walk to prevent suicide.

Who walked 18 miles from dusk to dawn with me to raise money for suicide prevention, a cause that has hit both of us far too close to home.

Who, quite literally, held my hand to keep me sane when a nasty infection in my leg had to be lanced. It was painful, yes, but worse was my fear that it would keep me from making it back to the DR in time for my own wedding! (Something I probably wouldn’t have been able to do if not for Coleen’s sister Jean, who diagnosed the problem and started me on a course of strong antibiotics before sending me to the clinic.)

It was she who moved heaven, earth and the passport office in order to stand up with me on my wedding day.

That’s just a sampling really, of the thousand and one ways she has been there for me over the years. This despite all of the challenges life has thrown at her along the way. You’d never know it though, the way she’s willing to drop everything for everyone around her.

While we have always been close, it was during my father’s illness that we went from being cousins to sisters. She, her husband Steve and their three phenomenal offspring (Jillian, Bret and Eric) were such a comfort to my dad during those three long years he battled cancer. And by a comfort, I mean an excuse to shoot off automatic weapons, adventure out on 4-wheelers or snowmobiles and engage in epic Wii tournaments. They brought a lot of love and joy to a man doing his best to hide his Stage IV cancer from the world. And they’ve helped us find the strength to get through even the most difficult of days leading up to and since he took his last breath on January 26, 2012.

Through all of that, I vowed to myself that I’d do the same for them if ever they faced a similar situation. That unspoken promise was put to the test this year, as both Steve’s mom and then Coleen’s father, my Uncle Bill, fell ill.

It has been difficult to watch both from afar, knowing there is little I can do from this distance. But I know that’s nothing compared to what they and our families have gone through.

I vividly remember the night of August 30. As I tossed and turned, I was overwhelmed by thoughts of my Uncle Bill. I finally gave up trying to sleep and decided to write down all the memories swirling around my brain. I was determined to tell him just how much he meant to me and to all of us Farrell cousins that had been privileged to grow up in his shadow.

My mother has seven brothers, but only one big brother. He was everyone’s big brother, in fact. I can’t imagine the pressure he felt – the responsibility he had – being the oldest of 12. At what it must have been like to lose his younger sister Agnes at such a young age. To have been closer in age to his mother, than to his youngest siblings well before the last of the litter, my Uncle Tim, came along.

One of my favorite pictures of another of my favorite ladies, Aunt Cecilia.

Our angel, Aunt Cecilia.

He would also be the first to go off to join the Navy and, later, to start his own family with the talented nurse who nursed his father back to health after losing his leg in an accident on the tug boats. This last was his coup de grace, in my opinion, because Aunt Cecilia – like her daughter Coleen – is a walking angel in my eyes.

It was from Uncle Bill that I learned to appreciate the Pecan Sandie above all other commercially available baked goods. And I’d wager I’m not the only Farrell cousin that swore never to get a tattoo after being weaned on the story of how he contracted hepatitis from those he’d gotten in the Navy.

Uncle Bill’s family newsletter, Farrell Family Facts, drew something of a cult following among my college friends. A few even angled for invitations to the Farrell Family Fun in the Sun Social, another brainchild of my dear uncle. And when it came time to plan a Winter Break trip to the sunny Florida Keys, a pit stop in St. Augustine to visit Uncle Bill and Aunt Cecilia was considered a given.

This is how I'll always remember Uncle Bill, dancing with Aunt Cecilia.

This is how I’ll always remember Uncle Bill, dancing with Aunt Cecilia and finishing each other’s sentences.

He was recovering from a stroke at the time, and my mother wanted a full report on his progress. But what I remembered most was how he and my Aunt Cecilia finished each other’s sentences. Not out of necessity, but out of habit. I thought to myself at the time that someday that’s the kind of relationship I’d like to have. And I do, with Andry. Although, granted, my fledgling Spanish may have something to do with that. (A topic for another blog, I promise.)

The last time Uncle Bill was at our house, he mentioned that visit to me and I was so touched. Until I realized, that is, that the reason he remembered it so vividly had more was because Liz and Melissa, my traveling companions for the trip, were both close to six feet tall.

It was these memories and more that I endeavored to put on paper that night. It was just a first draft, which I intended to polish up in the morning. I never got around to opening that document again, though. Because at a little before 6 a.m., a message came through from Coleen.

“He’s gone,” it said.

And with that, I knew I’d already said my goodbyes without realizing it.

It reminded me, though, how important it is for us to show our love, appreciation and gratitude while we can. So this isn’t a eulogy for the dead, but an ode to the living. Because he does live on in each and every Farrell.

Coleen, I love and appreciate you more than you know. You are not just my cousin, but a true sister and friend.

To you, Aunt Cecilia, Billy, Timmy, Jean, Cecilia, Terry and your families; My mom and the rest of the Farrell siblings; and rest of the extended Farrell clan – I send all the love in my heart and strength in my body. Because I know that even now, especially now, we reel from the loss of the man who was at once husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, uncle, sailor and friend.

Uncle Bill, I hope heaven welcomed you with an unlimited supply of Pecan Sandies and old Hollywood movies on-demand. Don’t let my dad and Uncle Rich take your last nickel at cards. Give Mom Mom a kiss for all of us.

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Dotting our I Do’s: Why Two Anniversaries Are Better Than One

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Andry and I tied the knot last Friday. Yes, I know, I know. I’ve said that before. The first time around was pledging our love and lives to one another in front of our family, friends and God. This time around was about getting the paperwork in order.

IMG_8693We chose May 9th as our wedding date because of its special significance. It is, as many of you know, my parents anniversary. It would have been their 56th, in fact. And I felt so blessed that my mother was willing to share it with us. I was blessed, too, that she and some of my dearest friends and family were willing to make the trip to my impromptu wedding despite the short notice, distance and expense.

So you can imagine my distress when I realized, only a few days before our wedding day, that there was a paperwork issue. Actually, there had been several, but we thought we’d worked them all out. But we hadn’t. We’d left one thing in the hands of the lawyer who had been helping us, and as it turned out, he didn’t fully understand what was necessary either. Only rather than telling us that… well, it’s a moot point now. Suffice it to say anyone that has dealt with the apostille process has probably felt our pain.

IMG_8692Mumsy talked me down from my mini-meltdown. She reminded me that a marriage wasn’t about paperwork, it was about our love and commitment to one another. She was right, of course. And we on May 9, we pledged ourselves to one another. It was a small ceremony on a beautiful stretch of beach. We were surrounded by the most important people in our lives, and the two random kids with beach towel capes that are in practically every wedding picture.

After the wedding, I set to work getting our paperwork problem sorted out. This was no small feat given the fact that I was in the Dominican Republic, and everything I needed to do was in New York. But thanks to some exceptional friends – most notably Nancy Brienza Duffy who ran around Manhattan for me and then hand delivered my documents to me here in the DR – we got it done.

Of course, there was still some legwork – translations and other documents

Andry's partner, Martinez, stepped up as our padrino.

Andry’s partner, Martinez, stepped up as our padrino.

that needed to be executed – on this end. Which we put in the hands of yet another lawyer. This one delivered, but on a slightly longer timeline than we had expected. It was starting to seem like our civil ceremony was NEVER going to happen.

And then last Friday, Andry called me. He was in Puerto Plata running some errands and had stopped to see the lawyer.

“How about 4 o’clock?” he asked me.

“Umm, today?” I stammered.

It crossed my mind to say no. To ask if they had any openings next week. I needed more time. We’d never be able to round up our padrinos (best man and maid of honor) in time. Could I get my nails done before 4? And there were my roots to think about!

But then I realized how silly I was being. After all, we’d already waited for months. And if there is anything life has taught me, it’s that you never know what tomorrow is going to bring. So I said the same thing I said the first time he asked me to marry him.

Yes.

 

Affectionately yours,

Señora de Gomez

It's official

It’s official

Andry Bismal Gomez Amarante

y Melissa Stagnaro

May 9, 2015 & August 21, 2015

Our padrinos, Martinez and his wife Rabelis, and our stand-in photographer, Jordy Brito.

Our padrinos, Martinez and his wife Rabelis, and our stand-in photographer, Jordy Brito.

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Home

Late summer/early fall is one of my favorite times of the year in Central New York.

Late summer/early fall is one of my favorite times of the year in Central New York.

We received the less-than-optimal news yesterday that Andry will need surgery on his knee. Apparently he had a fracture without realizing it, and now there’s a piece of his kneecap floating around wreaking havoc.

The patient.

The patient.

Or something like that, anyway. When it comes to all things medical, I’m even worse at it in Spanish than I am in English. Which is really saying something.

I hate seeing my love in pain, and with my own surgery still fresh in my mind, I’m nervous for him. Even though I have to believe he will be in good hands, and that once he’s all healed up he’ll no longer be in the debilitating pain he’s in right now. So, positive thoughts!

It’s not just the fact that Andry’s hurting that has me down. To put it frankly, the timing of it stinks. Because it means we’ll have to put off the long-awaited trip/delayed honeymoon we were planning for this fall. I know, in the scheme of things, the trip is inconsequential in comparison to surgery. It’s just that we were both really excited for what would have been Andry’s first trip to the US and an opportunity for him to meet more of the crazy cast of characters in my life – family and otherwise.

What I was looking forward to most, though, was the chance to show him where I grew up. To introduce him to the 152-acres that raised me as much as my parents did, and to the house where I grew up. Because I truly was bringing him home.

A picture perfect summer day in Chenango County.

A picture perfect summer day in Chenango County.

We’ll get there eventually, I know. But I’m still disappointed. I’ve been getting a bit nostalgic for those familiar rolling hills of late, as another gorgeous Central New York summer passes by without me there to experience it first hand.

It reminded me of a poem I wrote while living in Western Colorado. It was an anniversary present for my parents. But in the writing of it, I realized where my heart truly was. And it wasn’t in that junction between the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains and the High Plains Desert. I moved back to Chenango County less than a year later.

I’m not in the same situation today. I absolutely love my life in the Dominican Republic. But that doesn’t mean a part of me doesn’t miss Home.

 


 

 

HOME

 

I miss

the scent of the fields in summer,

newly cut hay

and tiny wild strawberries

baking in the sun.

 

I miss

the wild iris

blooming

in the high grass of the pasture.

The forty-watt glow of lightning bugs

dancing at dusk.

 

I miss

fingers of rain

tapping me to sleep

on the panes of glass above my head,

the silence of night

broken

by an unexpected storm.

 

I miss

the spearmint taste

of water from the spring.

The roar of water

rushing in the creek.

 

I miss

spider webs

glistening

with heavy morning dew

on lilacs

long grown from bushes into trees.

 

I miss

the cool stillness of the woods

soft pine needles

cushioning my feet,

near the Indian well.

The snort of a buck

startled from the brush.

 

I miss

the scarred trunks of shagbark hickory

standing tall at the tree line,

flanked by walls of stone picked

from a hundred years of fresh-plowed fields.

 

I miss

sitting on the stone patio

with the long shadows of late afternoon,

cup of tea in hand.

I miss Home.

© 2007 Melissa Stagnaro

This is Home.

This is Home.

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

 

 

Feliz Año Nuevo: Here’s to a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year!

That beautiful tropical vista I was talking about, at sunrise.

That beautiful tropical vista I was talking about, at sunrise.

When I drew back the curtains this morning, I couldn’t help but smile. Before me was a tropical vista that just doesn’t get old. Palm fronds swaying with the breeze against a backdrop of blue sky and even bluer ocean. Yes, 2015 is going to be a great year. I can feel it already.

Not that 2014 wasn’t pretty darn fabulous. It was, in so many unexpected ways, quite possibly the best one yet.

I’m not saying it was entirely without ups and downs. It had its trials and tribulations, I assure you. But these days I choose to live a positive life. And to do so, you can’t dwell on the negatives. They’ll consume you if you let them.

The defining moment for me happened a month or so ago. It was right after Thanksgiving and I was missing my family like crazy. I could feel the old doubts and fears creeping back. Past failures, would-haves, should-haves and a list of to-do list items I’ve so far left ‘un-checked’ started swirling in my head. I was dangerously close to feeling sorry for myself. But this vista before me – the same one that helped me greet 2015 and that is before now as I write – helped me pull myself back from the abyss.

That day, I started to take stock of the past year. And much to my own surprise, I found I had a lot more items to add in the ‘accomplishments’ column than I initially thought. 2014 has been a very busy year. Busier than I remembered, even.

The love of my life, on one of our many adventures.

The love of my life, on one of our many adventures.

See, I learned a new language. (Spanish, of course. And while I’m far from fluent, I can communicate better every day.) I not only discovered paradise in the Dominican Republic, I moved there. I met the love of my life. I watched my nephew walk down the aisle with the love of his life. I helped celebrate my Aunt Kathleen’s 60th Jubilee. Finally, after carrying the book around for more than a decade, I worked my way through The Artist’s Way – healing and awakening my creativity every step of the way. I picked up a paintbrush again after a very, very long hiatus. I wrote a few poems. I went kayaking for the first time. I ‘hoed’ out the accumulated detritus of (most of) my past lives. I started freelancing again (and might even have some income to show for it in 2015). I dragged my mother first to the Dominican Republic and then to Ireland, the latter of which was fulfilling a lifelong dream for her. I started this blog (although I continue to be negligent in posting). I even lost 20 pounds.

Well, before I went home for the holidays, anyway.

And, after years of telling myself I couldn’t, I started writing fiction. And I have two (really horrific) first drafts to show for it.

The fact that they are utter shite is beside the point, really. I learned so much in the process. And I proved to myself that I could do it. That, along with the fact that it was more fun than I ever imagined, made my little experiment a roaring success. And I can’t wait to do it all over again. Novel #3 is burning a hole in my head as we speak, eager to spill out on the page.

So, yes, that’s on the to-do list for 2015. As is taking up a hatchet in one hand and a scalpel in the other to have a go at its predecessors, who are currently aging like a fine wine. I make absolutely no promises that either will ever see the light of day, mind you. But it will be good practice for my future experiments in fiction. Because now that I’ve started, I have no intention of stopping.

So, yes, 2014 was a very good year. I’ve had so many adventures. I’ve explored. Made new friends. Learned anew how to forgive, to heal, to fully appreciate life. There have been challenges along with the triumphs, but the laughter has far outweighed the tears for the first time in a very long time.

Every day I am filled with gratitude and more of a sense of prosperity than a fat paycheck ever provided. And every day, I count my blessings.

As I look ahead at 2015, I don’t just think it will be filled with unlimited possibilities. I know it will. Because I’m no longer afraid to live life to the fullest. No longer afraid to take a few risks. No longer afraid to imagine the life I want for myself – nor afraid to actually live it. I know that when I take that leap of faith, my wings are strong enough to carry me over the abyss of fear and self-doubt.

I’m very familiar with that abyss. After all, I lived in it for years. Believe me, I have no desire to ever, ever go back.

What’s changed? Me. I’m not the same person I was a year ago, when I looked ahead at 2014 with trepidation and fear, unsure what my next step would be. In the last 12 months, I healed, I learned, I loved…and for the first time in a very long time – maybe ever – I am truly living and loving life.

The best part? I’m just getting started.

I hope you’re ready, 2015. Because I know I am.

Here’s to a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year!

Feliz Año Nuevo, amigos!

Happy Birthday, Mumsy!

Mumsy and I in the Walled Garden at Powerscourt Estate, Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. July 2014

Mumsy and I in the Walled Garden at Powerscourt Estate, Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. July 2014

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” – Sir Isaac Newton

I am a lucky, lucky girl. I know I say that all the time, but it’s true. I am blessed in so many ways. Especially when it comes to the people in my life. Friends, family, former colleagues – they have all made my life richer and more beautiful just by being there. Offering a kind word, lending an ear, giving a helping hand, being there when it mattered most.

They are my “giants”, as Isaac Newton would have called them. And all I have seen, done and accomplished in my life, is as a direct result of standing on their shoulders.

There is one giant, though, who has shaped my life more than any other. By standing on her shoulders, I have seen furthest of all. Which is really saying something since, according to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicle, she stands at (a very respectable!) five feet and one-half inch.

Her presence, though, is much taller. In fact, some people have mistaken her for 5’6”. And she doesn’t wear heels.

I am speaking, of course, of my mother. Eileen Bridget Farrell Stagnaro. A.K.A.

Eileen, Ei, Farrell, Aunt Eileen, Grandma Eileen, Gram, Mrs. Stagnaro, Mrs. S, Mom Stags, Weenie Peppers…and the list goes on.

But to me she is Mumsy.

It all started one bleak morning in the Evening Sun newsroom. Our early morning deadline was looming and my editor, Jeff Genung, was no doubt breathing down my neck for my column. I intended to type ‘my mom’, but in my haste my cold, tired fingers tapped out ‘Mumsy’ instead.

And just like that, a legend was born.

At first, my mother rolled her eyes when I used her new moniker in print. But it caught on quickly. The next thing I knew, other people were calling her Mumsy, as well. At some point in the last six years or so, she stopped fighting it. And it was a true moment of triumph for me when I noticed she was signing her emails ‘Mumsy.’

I’m glad she’s embraced it. Because it really is perfect. There are millions of moms out there, but only one Mumsy.

I am who I am because of her. And I’m not talking about my very existence on this planet, which of course she had a lot to do with. Nor am I talking about my love of old musicals, addiction to romance novels or my ability to make a mean apple pie. All of which can definitely be laid at her doorstep, along with a thousand of my best (and worst!) traits.

Mumsy with her first great-grandchild, Harper Lee Franklin.

Mumsy with her first great-grandchild, Harper Lee Franklin.

No single person, other than perhaps my father, has had such a hand in shaping me as a person. And she did it by example. Because there are few people out there who are as kind, compassionate and giving as my mother. She is also the strongest person I know. Not to mention fierce in the best possible ways.

It is from her that I get my sense of adventure, my grit, my compassion, my desire to heal every wound (well, the emotional ones anyway. I don’t do well with actual wounds), as well as the aforementioned ability to bake pies. She’s also the reason I sob at sad movies, but I won’t hold that against her.

Through her actions, she has always given me something to live up to. Because I hope that some day I have half her strength, poise and purpose.

People often tell me that I look like my dad, but it is when people tell me I look like my mom that I am most touched. (And once they’ve said it, they’re automatically added to my most favorite people list. I’m looking at you, Diane Troxell and Mary Ann DeMellier!)

Like any mother and daughter, we’ve had our share of strife over the years. But there is no woman I love and respect as much as my mom. We have weathered a lot of storms together, and there is no one I’d rather have at my side in moments of challenge or triumph.

She is my biggest fan. My staunchest supporter. My protector. My rock. My ally. My moral compass. The voice in my head that spurs me on in my moments of doubt. My best friend. She is all of those things and so much more. She has taught me so much, but perhaps most importantly how to love – and be loved -unconditionally. I am and always will be proud and truly grateful that she is my mother.

I am truly blessed to be her daughter.

I love you, Mumsy. Happy Birthday.

Happy Birthday, Mumsy! (A toast from our trip to the Dominican Republic in January 2014.)

Happy Birthday, Mumsy! (A toast from our (first) trip to the Dominican Republic in January 2014.)

Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad: A Modern Air Travel Adventure

I would have a preferred a strict "No Bag Left Behind" policy, but I suppose two out of three ain't bad...

I would have a preferred a strict “No Bag Left Behind” policy, but I suppose two out of three ain’t bad…

“You can only check two bags,” the man in front of me said for the second time. Seeing my expression – and no doubt both questioning my grasp of the English language AND grateful for the counter that stood between us at this point – the airline representative repeated himself yet again. “You can only check two bags. There’s a strict embargo going into Santiago.” Perhaps I would have been better able to process this information if I hadn’t just slid all three of my to-be-checked bags to this man. The three bags I’d spent a week packing and repacking. The three bags containing everything I thought I’d need during the 3+ months of my extended stay in the Dominican Republic. The three bags which, incidentally, I’d had no trouble checking in online the second I was able to do so 23 hours 59 1/2 minutes prior to departure. I couldn’t do anything but stare. First at the man in front of me – whom I’m sure really is a very nice man and I feel horrible about the things I was thinking toward him – and then at those three beautiful bags. Because I want you to think, just for a minute, what it’s like to pack for a trip of that length. Three and a half months in another country, one with a climate completely different from your own. A country where not all of the comforts of home are readily available. And where it is nearly impossible to ship anything without considerable expense and red tape. As you can probably imagine, a great deal of angst went into that process. It seemed never ending. And it wasn’t until I zipped up the final bag that morning that I felt a sense of calm. I was even a little proud of myself, because I felt like I’d struck the perfect balance: prepared, but not ridiculously over-packed. And now this man was essentially sending me back to the drawing board with only the narrowest of windows. I could have wept right there but, frankly, I knew I couldn’t spare the time. The cut-off was quickly approaching. Would it have been different if we hadn’t hit unexpected construction on the way to the airport? Maybe. But even with more time, the task wouldn’t have been any easier. My mind was already working, trying to calculate what was in each of the (very full) bags. What did I absolutely need? What could I live without? Because I wasn’t going to waste time arguing. The important thing was ME getting on the plane, after all. And I couldn’t risk running afoul of the air-travel gods any more than I already had. “I need 2 minutes,” I announced, reaching around to pull 2 of my 3 bags to the side. (Which sounds easier than it was. Keep in mind these were two rolling duffle bags stuffed to the gills.) I unzipped both, picked the one that held the most essential items and, as quickly as I could, removed as many non-essential items as I could. A half seconds later, they were replaced with the most important things from the other bag. Or what, at that split second, I thought were the most important things. Only, of course, I wasn’t half as calm and collected about it as I’m making it sound. I was nothing short of a hot mess. Time crunch or no, I was still distinctly aware of the fact that I was the floor show for the other passengers in line. As a result, that three-month supply of feminine hygiene products I had the foresight to pack didn’t make the cut. (A decision I may very well come to regret.) What felt like 30 seconds later, heart pounding and palms sweaty, it was time to zip up the overstuffed case. In my post-adrenaline haze, I had no idea what made it in and what didn’t. And I was too shell-shocked to care. Thankfully my mother, who had so graciously offered to drive me to the airport in the first place, had insisted on coming in with me. So she was there to take possession of the poor lonely suitcase I had to leave behind.

Post-adrenaline rush

Santiago-bound at last!

As for me, it took the entire first leg of my trip for my nerves to quiet. But now, a few days later, I’m settling in to my home-away-from-home in my tropical paradise. And I can’t for the life of me remember what was so important in that other bag. Because, let’s be realistic: this is hardly the worst airline horror story I’ve ever heard. Heck, it’s not even MY worst airline horror story. And it’s not like I’m never going to see the contents of that bag again. All that truly matters is that I’m in this beautiful place, following a lifelong passion and living a life that still feels a bit like a dream. And if I bit of worry or angst starts to creep in, well…I have the rustle of the wind in the avocado trees, the crowing of the neighborhood roosters, a view of both the ocean and the mountains, and the gentle clatter of the keys on my keyboard to remind me just how lucky I am. Besides, this is supposed to be an adventure, right? It wouldn’t be fun if it was too easy.

Sunrise over the avocado trees on my first morning. #100DaysInParadise

Sunrise over the avocado trees on my first morning. #100DaysInParadise

Confessions of a (Recovering) Workaholic

Exhibit A: A typical daily to-do list from the height of my workaholism. (It does sound like a dirty word, doesn't it?)

What my daily to-do list looked like before I saw the error of my wicked, workaholic ways.

I’ve always been passionate about my work. My career path has had its twists and turns, but my level of commitment has always been the same – nothing less than 100 percent. It’s just my nature. Additional responsibility? Extra hours? Unexpected challenges? Sign me up! Because I don’t even know how to say ‘No.’

Not when it comes to work, anyway. In my personal life, it’s another story. Because when you’re really passionate about what you do, sometimes you do it to the exclusion of virtually everything else in life.

But then, work is life when you’re a workaholic.

And that’s what I am: a workaholic. And if you were nodding along to any or all of the above, you’re probably one, too.

Only sometimes it’s hard to recognize that fact when you are in the throes of an addiction. It can take a truly life-changing event to wake us up.

For me, that life-changer was the Great Restructuring. That’s my little pet name for the event that lead to my unceremonious and unexpected unemployment a few months ago.

Now, I suppose I’m a recovering workaholic. Although let’s face it, I’ve been actively looking for a way to fall off this particular wagon. But I’d like to think I’m making progress.

In the beginning – the first week or so following the aforementioned layoff – I was a hot mess. I still woke up in the middle of the night, mind whirring through a laundry list of projects and tasks. Only instead of the angst of having them looming over my head, I felt relief that I no longer needed to worry whether they got done.

Which would have been refreshing if, say, I wasn’t lying awake in the middle of the night.

During the day, I didn’t know what to do with myself. So many hours of my day had been spent consumed by work. Now they stretched before me like a barren wasteland.

And when I took stock of what was left after I subtracted out work, well, it wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was downright depressing. Because who has time for things like family, friends and hobbies when you’re a raging workaholic!

Thankfully there were a few friends I hadn’t yet managed to alienate – despite my track record of canceled plans and unreturned phone calls – and some family members that were still talking to me. I both clung to them like a lifeline AND tried to make up for lost time.

Which is to say, I started smothering the life out of them.

I also realized that I’d been woefully negligent when it came to the community boards on which I was serving. Now that my schedule was a bit more, err, flexible, I could actually attend all of the meetings I’d previously been missing.

It was also about this time that I realized that, while I was very committed on a philosophical level to the organizations I was involved with, I should have been committed for saying yes to all of them. Even if I was physical able to attend all of the board meetings, committee meetings, fundraisers, etc – and I couldn’t because many of them overlapped – I didn’t have enough time or energy to do them justice.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from trying. Because you know, that’s what workaholics do.

I wasn’t use to having down time. So between the smothering of loved ones and the manic volunteering, I endeavored to fill every moment with…something. Anything.

Well, anything short of daytime television. A girl has to draw the line somewhere.

Thankfully, we were on the verge of what would be one of the longest, coldest and snowiest winters in recent Central New York history.

(Yes, I just said that. Which is a sign of my fragile – and deeply disturbed – state of mind at that point in time.)

As a result, I spent a lot of time shoveling. And when there wasn’t enough fresh snow to necessitate shoveling, I trekked through the woods on my snowshoes.

Both of these activities would terminate with me collapsed in a sweaty, exhausted heap, content in the fact that with Mother Nature as my personal trainer, I didn’t need to renew the gym membership I’d long since let lapse. After all, I needed to be more careful about my discretionary spending. (In retrospect, the gym membership would likely have been cheaper than the massage therapy and chiropractic appointments I needed to fix me after all that shoveling.)

I also spent copious amounts of time bingeing on sci fi/fantasy novels and Justified. (I have a serious addiction to both.)

This was all in addition to the time I spent searching for and researching job opportunities online; reconnecting with past colleagues; fielding questions about my change in employment status, etc. All while studiously avoiding the dreaded resume update.

I think that even in those early days, while I was struggling to make sense of it all, I knew that I needed to make a change. My workaholic tendencies were sucking my soul, even in my unemployment. And I knew I couldn’t let myself ever be that all consumed by a company or a job ever again.

I knew my thinking had shifted when, maybe a month after the Great Restructuring, I had dinner with a former colleague.

During our meal, she was constantly checking her phone, frantically (and almost unconsciously) fielding text messages, emails and even a quick call between bites of her (woefully neglected) salad.

As I savored every uninterrupted bite of my delicious entrée – a lovely eggplant parmesan, if I recall correctly – two things hit me.

The first was that I had been like that too, not all that long ago.

The second? That despite the horrible shock to my system, despite the uncertainty of the future, a part of me was both grateful and a little relieved that I’d turned that page. (Even if perhaps technically it had been turned for me.) Here the universe was presenting me with an opportunity to reconsider my workaholic ways.

And maybe, just maybe, I can still be incredibly passionate about my work but not have that passion be at the expense of everything else.

Now, my to-do list looks a little different...

Now, my to-do list looks a little different…

It’s not the easiest of transitions to make. Especially since in order to have a semblance of a work-life balance, you need to actually have a life. Which is what I’m working on right now. The whole getting a life bit.

It might be the most important project I’ve taken on to date. It involves quite a bit of travel and a lot of writing.

And I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that I’m giving it my all.

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