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Posts tagged ‘healing’

Happy Birthday, Pops.

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

Me and my first hero and lifelong best friend at my cousin Elizabeth’s wedding in 2008.

Today is my dad’s 82nd birthday and I wish more than anything that he was here to celebrate the occasion.

It wouldn’t matter if we spent the day on the golf course, or had dinner at his favorite restaurant, The Silo. Maybe just a few friends over for cocktails. There would be cake, of course. Because in my dad’s eyes, no meal was complete without dessert. (Yes, even breakfast.)

I try not to count the months or years since he left. Instead, I remind myself that he’s with me every moment of every day.

Time has passed, of course. Four years and change. And I miss him no less today than I did in those first few heart wrenching moments when I realized he was gone. When I wondered how the clock could continue to register the passing of time when my world stood absolutely still.

That feeling of soul-crushing sorrow has mellowed to an ever-present dull ache. The sadness still finds its way to the top at times. Usually at the most unexpected – and often inopportune – moments. It’s all part of the healing process, I know. And I barely apologize for it anymore, mostly because I am so very grateful that these emotions are bubbling up rather than festering inside.

That knowledge is one of the ways I know that true healing has and is taken place. Another is that my memories are no longer tinged with so much loss and longing. I can take them out, one at a time, like favorite toys from a childhood toy box. I can cherish them and feel the warmth and joy of love and gratitude for the amazing relationship I had with my dad. Because I am truly, truly blessed to have had him as one of my best friends.

Funny, I never thought to call him that before. But he was. He was also my hero, my coach, my mentor, my conscience, and my consigliere. Both my biggest critic and my biggest fan. And the one person in the world I ever worried about letting down. The person I always wanted to prove myself to. Am still trying to prove myself to, if I’m completely honest.

That sounds silly, I know. But my dad was larger than life in so many ways. And he left very big shoes to fill.

I realized not long ago that it isn’t only grief I’ve been carting. There’s a pocket of guilt deep inside me.

I moved home, you know. So I was there with my parents for the three years my father battled cancer. I’ve always said I had no regrets about that. But I do. Because while I was there physically, living day to day with my parents through all of it…Well, I just wasn’t always there mentally. Far too often I retreated, either upstairs or to another world entirely. One where sickness hadn’t found its way inside our family.

Could I have researched more? Fought more? Advocated for his care more? Yes, I probably could have. But what I really wish I’d done is spent more time holding his hand. Because it was only in his last month with us that I realized how he himself craved the touch of others after he had spent so long withdrawing from it. That withdrawal was his way of making it easier on us, so we didn’t know how much pain he was really in.

As I sit here, fresh tears spill down my cheeks. There are more to shed, I know. Because cancer leaves scars on everyone, not just those who battle it first hand. Someday, I’ll be ready to let that pain see the light of day. But not today.

Because today is your day, Dad. And I’d give anything to split a piece of chocolate cake with you. Nothing fancy. One of those frozen Pepperidge Farm cakes will do. Mom probably has one in the freezer waiting.

There’d be a side of Breyers ice cream, too. Natural vanilla, of course. Or Neapolitan in a pinch.

After all, that’s the standard Stagnaro birthday celebration.

See, look at me. Sitting here with a smile on my face, thinking of all the birthdays we’ve celebrated like that over the years.

How very grateful I am for all of those memories. And for you, Dad. With me every day, in my heart and thoughts. And in my near-constant cravings for chocolate cake.

Happy Birthday in heaven, Pops.

Love you & miss you more than I could ever say.

xo

M

 

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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Counting My Blessings

I took this photo over a year ago off my favorite spot on the beach to hunt sea glass. A year later, and we're living in the house, behind which this was taken.

The Universe moves in mysterious ways: I took this photo over a year ago off my favorite spot on the beach to hunt sea glass. A year later, we’re living in the house, behind which this was taken and I walk this beach every day.

When I sat down to write this morning, I wasn’t feeling all sunshine and happiness. In fact, I was as close to my breaking point as I’ve been in what feels like a long time. (Even though, in reality, it was probably only a week.)

I’m not going to go into the gory details. We all have challenges in our lives and I don’t need to bore you with mine.

Suffice it to say that, as I started pushing my pen across the page, I felt…overwhelmed…by just about everything. But I can’t let it get to me. I’ve come too far in my journey for that.

Shenanigans at our friend Kerri's wedding. Katie - stunning in red - with our friend Maureen on the left and yours truly kicking up her heels...

Shenanigans at our friend Kerri’s wedding. Katie – stunning in red – with our friend Maureen on the left and yours truly kicking up her heels…

Even if I was feeling inclined to wallow, I can’t. Because my friend Katie arrives in a few short hours. That alone makes today a GREAT day. The next week is going to be filled with belly laughs, high adventure and, per her decree, plenty of ‘frolicking’. I’m excited to introduce her to my life, the love of my life and this beautiful country and culture that I’ve adopted as my own. I’ll be doing both her and I a disservice if I don’t throw off this funk. So I hereby promise not to let anything put a damper on the next seven days.

I know exactly what I need: to change my perspective. Instead of dwelling on those negative thoughts – itemizing what I don’t have and what I haven’t yet achieved or accomplished – I need to count my blessings. Celebrate what I DO have. Because those blessings are numerous and bountiful. Too numerous to even count, really.

Here I sit, under the gnarled branches of a massive sea grape tree, not twenty yards from the Atlantic Ocean, listening to the symphony of the waves crashing on the reef and on the shore like an old school round. As I watch, the harbor pilot guides a giant cargo ship through the narrow channel into the Puerto Plata harbor with practiced ease.

It’s going to be hot today, already close to 90 at 9 a.m. But from where I sit, there is such a beautiful breeze that it feels fresh and cool. There’s a dog at my feet that adores me so much that she’s curled up here even though she has a whole yard to play in. I can already taste the perfectly ripe flesh of the avocados that Freddy has promised to bring me this afternoon.

Home sweet (borrowed) home.

Home sweet (borrowed) home.

Freddy, in case you’re wondering, is basically my new best friend. Partially because he keeps me in mangoes and bananas and whatever other fruit happens to be in season, but also because he and his brother take care of this oceanfront property where the love of my life and I are lucky enough to be housesitting.  It is home for us in a way no other house has been for me, other than the 150-year old farmhouse where I grew up. I know it will only be temporary, as the owner has it up for sale, but we will enjoy it as long as we can. The fact that we’re here at all, makes me have to pinch myself. Because I dreamed about living here the first time I walked by – on my first trip here to the Dominican Republic last January.

Funny, isn’t it, how the Universe has a way of granting wishes we don’t even realize we’ve made.

I am blessed to be able to do what I love – CREATE! When I allow myself the luxury, anyway. Even here – far from the trappings of my former corporate existence – I find myself being stingy with my inner artist. I convince myself I have other obligations that must come first. But do they really? And I am forever finding excuses why I can’t sit down and write or create when that’s exactly what every fiber of my being is straining to do.

The why behind this is complex, but I’m working on it. Well, working on working it out and getting past its arbitrary barrier, anyway.

Fear is a big part of it. Fear of taking that first blind step off the cliff – even though the Universe has already made it abundantly clear it’s here to help me fly. I just have to take that first step.

There is also fear of failure. For some reason, it feels safer to let a dream be just that – a dream that we never really try for. Because in pursuing it, we take a risk. That risk is seeing a cherished dream crash and burn. So, rather than risk that failure, we never try. Of course, following this course of action (or, more precisely, inaction) we sabotage any chance of success.

If we can get past the fear, there’s still doubt to contend with. For me, that leads to second-guessing the Universe. Not quite able to believe my good fortune in being here and living this life, I question whether I deserve it. No matter how much positive reinforcement I receive!

But I’m working through all of that. Really, I am. I have started to listen closely for the messages the Universe sends, and then I do my best to follow its instructions. They always lead me in the right direction. The challenge is in both hearing through the other noise out there, and being willing to accept the good that comes my way. I work hard, too, to keep up my end of the bargain. For every step I take in the right direction, the Universe rewards me ten-fold.

So, yes. I could sit here and wallow in self-doubt, self-depreciation, self-pity and fear. But I won’t. Because I BELIEVE – in myself AND the Universe. I choose to embrace the positive. When I do, positive things happen. The Universe is generous like that.

Even now, when I’m experiencing a crisis of personal faith, I will keep positive. I’ll listen for the Universe to guide me, but at the same time keep putting one foot in front of the other. The Universe likes momentum.

I’ll fill one more page, line by line and word by word. I’ll reach out to one more contact. Never forgetting, always appreciating, the blessings I have already been shown. And always ready to receive whatever good the universe decides to send my way.

Because I BELIEVE…

…in myself.

…in this path that I’m on.

…in the power of the Unverse to help me dream big.

…in the ability of the Universe to make wishes – whispered in my dreams and carried away on the night breeze – come true.

Yes, I BELIEVE.

As I type these last words, rain drops have started to fall. For some, that may not be a good sign. But here, where it has been close to three months since we’ve had rain, every single drop is a blessing.

For me, it’s yet another sign that the Universe is listening.

Maybe I should have told Katie to pack an umbrella…

Mother Nature's Blessings: A gift from my friend Julie Gates.

Mother Nature’s Blessings: Photo credit to my friend Julie Gates.

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

 

 

This is (Almost) 40: Counting down to the big 4-0

This is me, scheming. I hope you're ready for me, 40!

This is me, scheming. I hope you’re ready for me, 40!

In roughly two weeks, I’m going to be 40. I know, I know… I don’t look a day over 39, right? Believe me, I find it just as hard to believe as you. I mean, didn’t I turn 30 like 30 minutes ago? How did an entire decade fly by since I was last crying in my cups about having a milestone birthday!

The good news, I suppose, is that I don’t FEEL old. Not that 40 is old. Maybe at one point in my life, I thought otherwise. But believe me, I’ve revised my opinion on that matter significantly in recent years. I now consider 80 to be middle age. So by that standard, I have plenty of good years left.

Many of my good friends have gone before me, over this invisible wall into our 40’s. They’ve done it with style, grace and, in some cases, copious amounts of alcohol. I’m hoping to more sneak over the line while no one is looking.

My 30’s were, in all honesty, a mixed bag. Some of it really sucked. Like losing my dad. But there were some great times, too. Like taking my mom to Ireland for the first time.

I’m going out with a bang, though. I mean, I do get points for moving to the Caribbean, finding and marrying my soul mate AND writing 2.5 novels (even if they are still in first drafts) – all in my 39th year, right?

The problem isn’t so much leaving my 30’s behind. It’s figuring out how to top them in my 40’s. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been feeling restless. Like there’s a big question mark over my head. I keep asking myself, “What’s next?”

The view from my 'desk chair', aka the hammock. Definitely not complaining...

The view from my ‘desk chair’, aka the hammock. Definitely not complaining…

I don’t know the answer to that, nor am I even sure why I’m asking the question in the first place. Not to brag or anything, but I have a pretty awesome life. I mean, I just married the man of my dreams. I live in one of the most beautiful, culturally intoxicating places on Earth. I spend my days writing, which I love. My ‘office’ is a patio roughly 20 yards away from the Atlantic Ocean and my ‘desk chair’ is a hammock. So, really, I can’t complain. I’m not complaining.

I just… I think I’m ready for some new challenges. What that entails, I’m not quite sure yet. I do know that it’s going to involve starting a new blog about my adventures here in the Dominican Republic, and launching my own business. I’m still working out the details on both of those undertakings, as well as 38 other goals I’m going to set for myself. Because, yes, as corny as it sounds, there will be 40.

So stay tuned. Because there will be no 39-and-holding for this girl.

Here’s to turning the big 4-0!

But first, you’ll have to excuse me. I only have a couple of more weeks of my 30’s to enjoy. I plan to make every second count.

Not to brag, but this is the view from my 'office'. See, really! I'm not complaining.

Not to brag, but this is the view from my ‘office’. See, really! I’m not complaining.

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.

My Paradise: Costambar, Dominican Republic

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I’m going to write.

That was the excuse I gave people when they asked me why I was going back to the Dominican Republic for a month.

It wasn’t a lie, per se. I did plan to write. Maybe even paint a little. But the trip was about more than that.

The 5 Gringas: Mumsy, Jules, Kathie, Nona y yo.

The 5 Gringas: Mumsy, Jules, Kathie, Nona y yo.

It’s not often that I’ve felt a true connection to a place, but that was what happened when I spent two weeks in Costambar – a small, gated community just west of Puerto Plata on the Dominican Republic’s North Coast. The trip was a much-needed getaway for my travel companions and I. (One of those travel companions was my friend Kathie, who offered up her house in Costambar for the trip.)

Almost as soon as I arrived, I knew I had to come back. I didn’t just want to come back; I needed to. I had healing to do, and decisions to make, and I felt like I could do that here.

But I couldn’t really explain that to people, for to do so would be to admit how claustrophobic I was feeling. How stifled I was by my usual surroundings, how overwhelmed by the opinions of those around me, all of whom knew just what I should do next. How much I needed some time to just BE. To refill the well inside me that had run dangerously low while I was trying to be everything for everyone. (Forgetting in the process that I had to take care of me, too.)

And I needed time to remember who I am as a person, and as a writer. Because one thing I’ve realized these last few months is that somewhere, somehow I’d gotten so far off track I wasn’t sure I could find my way back.

The view that won me over. (Taken that first morning.)

The view that won me over. (Taken that first morning.)

Until, that is, I came to Costambar. I knew this place was special from my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean glimmering in the early morning sun. We’d arrived in the wee hours of the morning, but neither the late hour of our arrival or the 24 hours of travel hell we’d endured to get to our destination, were enough to keep me from waking at first light to get my look at paradise.

Now, some people may think paradise is a 5-star resort, but not me. Oh, I can appreciate the finer points of life as much as the next girl. But a developer’s idea of perfection is not my definition of paradise.

Don’t get me wrong, Costambar does meet the classic definition of paradise. It has palm trees, lush tropical foliage, sandy beaches, a seemingly endless string of sunny days and crystal clear skies, and an ocean that contains more hues of blue and green than I’ve ever imagined. There are amazing restaurants, cabana bars on the beach and some of the best rum in the world. But it’s more than that.

It’s the rhythm, the idiosyncrasies, the character (…and the characters!) that speak to me along with the sounds of the wind in the palms and the dull roar of the surf on the reefs. It’s the rooster that crows every morning (and sometimes all night). The motoconchos whizzing by. The horses and chickens on the golf course. The pomegranate, fig and banana trees I can see from my windows, all heavy with fruit. The flowering trees I can’t yet name. The seductive beat of the bachata, merengue and salsa – dances I can’t hope to master with my gringa hips.

I came here quite by accident, or so I thought. I was looking for a vacation spot, and Kathie offered up her place. It was that simple.

But as soon as I saw the ocean on that first morning, I knew it was no accident. I was meant to come here. And only a few days in, when I could feel my heart starting to beat in time with this place, I knew I would come back. The only question was how soon and for how long.

And here I am. Three weeks into a four-week stay in (my) paradise. Already plotting my return.

And, yes, I’m writing. Every day. Painting a bit, too. I’ve only just scratched the surface, but there is so much more there. I can feel it. Already the threads are there, I just have to tug slightly and they start weaving all on their own.

It’s just the rhythm of this place. It has seeped into my bones.

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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