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Thursday, August 22nd, 2013
Joe DeProspero has two sons, a wife, and is complimentary birth control for anyone who sits near him in a restaurant. His writing has been described as “outrageous,” “painfully real,” and “downright humiliating.” He talks about the highs and unsettling lows of parenthood while always being entertaining and engaging in the process. He has written the fiction book “The Boy in the Wrinkled Shirt” and is working on releasing a parenting humor book. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons and can be emailed at email@example.com or followed on Twitter @JoeDeProspero.
It’s something I never imagined I’d have to do while my children were so young. In most cases, it’s a role we’re thrust into without so much as a day or two to Google some helpful tips to prepare for it. But on April 14, 2012, my whole world changed, and I was faced with an insurmountable task: dealing with an unthinkable loss while simultaneously teaching my oldest son what death means on a level he might understand.
My 83-year-old Grandma Helen called me that Saturday afternoon at about 1:00, concerned that my mother (who lived alone) wasn’t answering her phone. This was not like my mother, who called my grandmother every single morning religiously. She wasn’t answering my calls either. About an hour later, I stopped by her place which was only 15 minutes away. And I found her on the floor. She was dead at age 59. And just like that, life as I knew it was dramatically changed forever. I was then tasked with breaking the news to my grandmother, who in turn suffered a severe stroke and also died two days later (yes, really). I was crushed. But feeling sorry for myself could only last so long; my son Antonio’s 3rd birthday party was the following weekend, and I now had two gaping holes in the family to explain to him. We would end up holding a double funeral for them the day before the party. But how was I going to explain all of this to a child whose beloved grandmother AND great grandmother suddenly vanished without saying goodbye?
My immediate reaction was to avoid any mention of “Grandma Linda” or “Nana Helen.” I had no idea how to approach their deaths with my one son who was old enough to ask about them (my younger son was 10 months old at the time). But neither my wife nor I wanted him to wonder why they hadn’t bothered to show up to his birthday party. My wife, Sonia, did her best to convey the losses in a way his young mind could comprehend. So she pulled him aside one night that week.
“Honey, Grandma went to heaven. She’s high up in the sky now and is always watching, but you just won’t be able to see her anymore.”
I’m paraphrasing because I wasn’t present for the conversation, but that’s basically how it went. A bit of a high concept for a toddler, but we were trying. And it was obvious that he didn’t understand a word of it. He simply smiled and continued mashing the buttons on his Buzz Lightyear. But while he didn’t understand, as days went by, he could clearly tell that something had gone awry. If we brought up Grandma, he ignored us. It got to the point where he wouldn’t even say her name, purposely avoiding having to bring her up, much like I did at first. Then, one day, in my car on the way to drop him off at day camp, he asked the question I’d been dreading for weeks.
“Daddy, is Grandma ever coming back?”
I froze for about eight seconds. It was like being on a job interview where you’re asked the one question you weren’t prepared for. And as the seconds ticked by, it became clearer that the truth was my only option.
“No. Honey, I’m sorry. She’s not. But she loves you and she’ll always be watching. And hey, remember that pillow fight we had with her? Wasn’t that fun?”
I was nervous, so I reached for a distraction. He nodded solemnly. But over the following weeks and months, I realized I had two jobs when it came to the death of my mother: Don’t fall apart and don’t let mentions of her yield anything but a smile.
So far, I think my wife and I have been fairly successful. We started by showing my son video footage of the aforementioned pillow fight I’d captured on my iPhone, then with watching our wedding video and asking him to point Grandma out. Then, after attending a birthday party, my wife accidentally let Antonio’s helium balloon slip out of the car and into the sky. Naturally, Antonio was not pleased. But he was certainly intrigued when we determined that the balloon wasn’t lost at all, but it was merely “sent up to Grandma.” To this day, he associates balloons (one of his favorite things) with my mother. And he smiles.
In recent months, instead of asking if Grandma is coming back, he instead asks questions about heaven.
How did she get all the way up there?
Where does she sleep?
Does she still have my balloon?
Frankly, the questions break my heart. But if he never asked at all, I think it’d be worse. So I answer him as cheerfully and imaginatively as possible.
She has special flying abilities that take her up, up, up into the sky, and she uses a cloud as a pillow. And of course she still has your balloons. She always will.
In a way, I feel like I’m writing a fairytale on the fly. This magical lady who flies with the birds and sleeps above the raindrops. Sometimes I even get caught up in the fantasy of it all, detaching myself from reality for a moment. I suppose I do it for me as much as I do it for him. I don’t want her to fade into a memory for either of us.
So if you’ve recently found yourself in this unenviable position, know that you’re not alone. And also, don’t be afraid to tell your children the truth. Or as much of the truth that you determine they can handle. Ignoring my mother’s memory around my son was not the solution to my grief or to his understanding of this dreadful situation. Honoring her memory and reminding my son of how wonderful his grandmother was (and magically continues to be) is a step in the right direction. Because while I will always be saddened by any mention of her, my children deserve to know how much she loved them. And she deserves it, too.
Antonio and my mother, two weeks before her death. Strangely, she already looked like an angel.
I truly hope that you either found solace in reading this or will think back on it if you ever need to explain the unimaginable to your children. In closing, here’s a picture of the inside cover of Green Eggs and Ham, as inscribed by my mother to my son. I always point it out when I read it to him.
Feel free to share your stories by adding a comment below.
* If you prefer my humor-based posts, forgive me for the seriousness of this one, as I felt it was a story that needed to be told.
Read more about how to talk to your kids about death and tragedy:
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buzz lightyear, death, death of a parent, explaining death, grandparents, green eggs and ham, heaven, joe deprospero, parenting, tragedy | Categories:
Fearless Feisty Mama, Joe DeProspero, Losing a Parent, Mom Situations, Mom Tricks and Tips, Must Read
Monday, October 15th, 2012
…right before you get on a plane with your husband, you email your closest girlfriends, your aunt and your brother a document titled “Final Wishes” that spells out exactly how you want your children raised, what type of schooling they should have and what sort of life you want them to live should you perish.
Yes folks, it’s called rock bottom crazy and I hit it last week.
Phil and I were flying to a wedding in Sante Fe. This is the first time we left both kids behind. Something I regretted and vowed to never do again. (Though drinking until 1 a.m. at the wedding and then sleeping in was a treat so I may retract that sentence.)
Earlier in the week I had our will all updated, legal guardians set, etc. But then the what-ifs started to creep into my brain. In a last minute frenzy I typed up the document and sent it out. Thing is, I didn’t feel crazy. Still don’t really. It made me feel saner.
After my cousin was killed earlier this year, I figured that having your bases covered was prudent. My aunt and brother agreed. My two girlfriends told me to go back to my shrink (who happens to be a hypnotherapist). I am heeding their advice, but more for my general need for a tune-up.
Needless to say, we got back safe and sound. My heart was aching for my babies and I said I wouldn’t leave them again. Then a work gig came up and 48 hours later I found myself flying to New York. Ack. But it was a quick 1-day shoot and I was back. My plane didn’t crash. And Phil didn’t go, so at least one of us would be around, god forbid.
My next trip is in a month. To Vegas. With one of my best–and most fun–friends. (Yes Dena, I’m talking about YOU!). Phil will stay home, so I’m covered. But after that, I swear, I’ll never leave my kids again… or on second thought, just seek the professional help I clearly need.
Anyone else want to tell me their version of crazy to make me feel better?
Airplane picture courtesy of Shutterstock
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children, crazy, death, final wishes, hypnotherapist, legal guardians, neurotic, travel, will | Categories:
Have Baby, Will Travel, Mom Situations, Mom Tricks and Tips
Monday, August 20th, 2012
My first cousin was killed in a freak accident. Yeah, I know this isn’t a great way to start off a blog post. But I don’t know what else to do or how to write about it. He was 44. A great dad to two sons, ages 12 and 13. His mom, my Aunt Nancy, my Baba Yaga, is “my person.” She is perhaps the one I am closest to in the world. In a mother-sister-best friend kind of way. No one will ever understand our connection. And that’s okay. We kind of like it that way.
In 2007, Nancy and I went down to Florida for what we called “Rehab Tour 2007.” My mom had been in a drunken blackout for a year. Crack, alcohol and god knows what else. There were dog feces everywhere. There were three huge talking birds with feathers and sh-t covering every surface. There was a dead rat embedded in the carpet. And this is just the quick summary. It was too much for us to tackle alone.
We went to the bank, pulled out as much cash as we could, then picked up day workers and begged them to clear out her place. Even the refrigerator and stove went. We hired cleaning ladies who worked side by side with us, pouring buckets of bleach on the walls. We went to thrift stores and bought replacement furniture. Nancy had just survived Hurricane Katrina and we kept saying, “Pretend we are helping Katrina victims.” It made it more of an out-of-body experience.
That mantra and some amazing martini’s got us through.
At one point I said to Nancy, “If we can tackle Mount Mom, why don’t we climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?” A friend had suggested the trip to me the week before. Nancy said she’d think about it.
After three days of hard labor, we picked up my mom from rehab. We took her shopping for groceries; we put together a “schedule” for her to follow; we went to AA meetings (I loved them so much, I briefly wished I was an alcoholic). But as we said goodbye, neither of us were that optimistic.
Ten days later she got on her scooter, went to the liquor store and bought a bottle of vodka. She was hopeless.
But Nancy and I had each other. Even though our mission ultimately failed, we felt invincible for what we had done. The Mountain was now calling.
Fast forward six weeks. We are in Tanzania, caked in mud, trekking up the Shira route. For 7 days we battle rain, wind, snow, sleet and bitter temperatures. Nancy is 64 years old and has lived at sea level most of her life. Our guides call her “Super Mama.” I could tell on summit day they were skeptical if she would make it. But on March 7, 2007, she was the first to reach the summit. At 19,343 feet we stood on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, arms in the air, touching the wind. We knew we could do anything. Or so we thought…
But burying your son isn’t supposed to be part of that equation.
Justin was so proud of her for climbing that mountain. He, too, had his mom’s sense of adventure and determination. He was a kindred spirit in that way. Words can’t describe the loss. Healing–even acceptance–seems like an insurmountable mountain to climb. But carry-on we must. What choice do we have?
Mothers aren’t supposed to bury their sons. Children aren’t supposed to bury their fathers.
We hurt. We grieve. It’s the price you pay for having loved so hard.
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AA, addict, adventure, alcohol, Baba Yaga, climbing, crack, death, drugs, drunken blackout, freak accident, funeral, Hurricane Katrina, Mt. Kilimanjaro, summit | Categories:
Fearless Feisty Mama, Losing a Parent, Mom Situations
Thursday, June 7th, 2012
A year ago today my mom died. I woke up this morning not sure how to feel. Glad she is out of her pain? Glad she is no longer a burden to me? Relieved that her tragic life ended so peacefully? And yet, I’m sad. It’s hard to know how to feel when your heart is so full of conflict. From my tween years on, she was an addict. For three decades I simultaneously loved, hated and worried about her. Months went by with no communication. Years went by where I didn’t see her. But towards the end, we were all with her. I was able to whisper my final goodbyes.
In those last days she and I made a pact. We would communicate through lilacs. When Phil and I moved to LA, I realized lilacs don’t grow as abundantly here. But a few weeks ago, we went to the Descanso Gardens. I knew she would be waiting.
Phil played with Fia while I walked privately with Emmett.
I carried him up to the purple blossoms.
“Hi Mom. This is Emmett,” I whispered.
She reached out to us. I felt her smile. I felt her. God she would love him. She would be so happy that I had a son. She always talked about how my brother, her firstborn, was such an easy, good baby. How instant that love was. Mom, I know what you mean! I have so much to tell you.
But as I start to think about what could be, I know in my heart what could never have been. Tethered to tubes in the hospital for a year, free of illicit drugs and alcohol, I got glimpses of the mom I had in the early years. I’ve written about it before–how she was the best of them. That is, before the demons took over.
So on this day, I feel a conflict between my head and my heart. Between what I know and how I feel. I say to the good mom, I wish you were here. To hold him. To smell him. To hug me. I say to the tormented mom, May you rest in peace.
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addict, addiction, alcohol, bipolar, death, drugs, grief, illicit drugs, lilacs, losing a mom, Losing a Parent, mortality | Categories:
Fearless Feisty Mama, Losing a Parent, Mom Situations, Must Read
Wednesday, August 17th, 2011
Enjoying the beach with my baby
I take antidepressants.
I will continue to take them through my pregnancy.
I took them while pregnant with Fia.
I can’t believe what you just revealed. Hurry. Duck and run for cover!!
No. I’m not going to. It’s time to get this conversation on the table.
You sure? You will be nailed to the cross on this one. Judged and deemed unfit for motherhood.
I don’t believe that. I think women are terrified of talking about this. I think many will feel relief that I’m admitting my own dirty little secret. They may carry the same secret. And it’s okay.
Do what you will but don’t say I didn’t warn you…..
Alright, it’s out there. And I’m not shying away from it. It is my truth.
In my post about my dying mother, I mentioned her bipolar disorder. I breathe a deep sigh of relief that I don’t have that. But I do struggle with depression. And anxiety. For years I just “dealt” with it. With herbs and holistic medicine; with therapy and exercise; with meditation and yoga. Didn’t matter. Nothing changed how my chemical brain worked. I still do all those things, but now I take a small white pill everyday.
When I began taking it I felt this huge cloud lift. I felt less anxious. And far happier. I didn’t become an emotionless zombie. I became much more present in life–not in my head.
I went off of them a few times to see if perhaps I was “cured.” It can happen. Not me. That familiar dark cloud would start to drift into my periphery and I knew the storm was coming.
When I got pregnant with Fia, I struggled with my decision to stay on my meds. I even tried to wean off again. I felt the pit coming almost immediately. So I made my decision and stuck to it. I had to stop googling all the horrible things people talked about. I know it’s a risk. So is breathing the polluted air of NYC. So is going through the x-ray machine at the airport. So is my secret love of Taco Bell’s #3 with a diet Pepsi.
What I will say is more studies need to be done so women can have the facts. For a variety of reasons, there is just not a lot of conclusive data out there on taking antidepressants while pregnant. As an article in the NYT points out, pregnant women often aren’t part of drug studies. Therefore, a lot of the data is inferred, not proven. And even the most ardent studies have holes in them. I have an excellent OB and psychiatrist, both of whom agree: going through my pregnancy depressed and dark is far more dangerous than sticking to what works. (Also, during my pregnancy with Fia, we moved to LA for a bit. I saw 3 different OB’s/specialists. They all had the same unanimous opinion.)
What is proven is that some people have chemical imbalances. It’s in their genetic makeup. And sometimes medicine is the only thing that works. Yet when taking those meds, the judgment from others can be severe. I guess that’s why women like me don’t disclose this. But today I’m feeling brave.
So there you have it. Anyone else out there who wants to talk? I’m here.
Side note: I was recently informed about a study being conducted at Columbia University Medical Center exploring some of the issues around antidepressant use during pregnancy. If you are interested, and live in the NYC area, you can contact the study coordinator, Michelle Gilchrist at (212) 851-5175 OR firstname.lastname@example.org.
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addiction, antidepressants, anxiety, bipolar, blogger, death, death of a parent, depression, drugs, genes, genetic defects, genetics, mom dying, pregnancy, taking antidepressants when pregnant | Categories:
Fearless Feisty Mama, Must Read