Happy Father’s Day, Mom

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This Father’s Day, one writer celebrates the person who taught her independence, fortitude and how to be a superhero: her mom.
This Father’s Day, one writer celebrates the person who taught her independence, fortitude and how to be a superhero: her mom. (Photo courtesy Stephanie Castillo)

This past spring, during what was supposed to be a personal best half marathon, I took my first DNF. DNF is the term runners use for “do not finish.” I knew the race was a long shot after an aggressive case of shin splints made for a laborious training cycle. But pulling double sessions with Evan, my physical therapist, wasn’t enough to get me 100 percent for race day; you can’t rush recovery.

When I texted my mom disappointingly from the sidelines (and OK, I was crying a little bit) she said to me, “A woman of character is one that strives to win, but also accepts challenges; this was just a little challenge.” And who would know better than my superhero mom … and dad?

**

My parents got divorced when I was a freshman in high school. I knew they were having trouble as early as eighth grade after I’d happened to overhear them some random night I’d woken up to use the bathroom. I’d overheard everything you’re afraid of at that age, eventually interrupting their conversation to tell my father I hated him for what he’d been doing to my mother. It was the first, but not the last, disrespectful outburst I’d have.

To this day, my mom has not said a single bad thing to me about my father. Not when he didn’t bother to call on birthdays because he thought I’d be “busy with family.” Not when he made plans to visit me in college and canceled them the day of. Not when he made a bunch more plans with me over the years and cancelled those, too. Not when his then-girlfriend rolled her eyes at me during my cousin’s funeral — or when she said a picture of he and I with my sisters would be nicer if I weren’t in it. And she definitely didn’t say anything when I rushed home after my father unexpectedly proposed to this same girlfriend at what was supposed to be a birthday barbecue.

I’d purposefully called my sister that night because I knew as much as my mom encouraged my sisters and I to spend time with our father, it still hurt her to see us leave. I went right to my sister’s room to cry, and it wasn’t long before my mom was comforting me, crying too. I should’ve known my sister would tell her; that’s what sisters do. And thank God.

I’d all but given up on my relationship with my dad after the silent treatment, outbursts, calm conversation, more crying (wash, rinse and repeat) didn’t seem to do much for us. My father is the type that if I move two steps forward, he’ll move two steps back to see how much further I’ll keep walking. I know these scenarios pale in comparison to the fathers who’ve completely abandoned their children, who are no longer alive or something more serious than he didn’t bother to show up when he said he would.

But feeling like my father had abandoned me after a polar-opposite childhood, after he’d dressed up as Barney on another, literally scorching birthday or made scrambled eggs seem like magic when he mixed ketchup right in, was enough to kill me. I felt the weight of it in all my personal relationships; why get too close to someone when literally the one person who’s supposed to be there for you had no trouble leaving, too?

And then my father was diagnosed with cancer.

It was as if someone had thrown me into a pool and I didn’t know how to swim. I didn’t even comprehend what he was telling me initially because I was so distracted with getting his birthday dinner and cake on the table. Here he was telling me the doctor had given him the worst news he could’ve possibly imagined, and I was worried the steak sauce had too much garlic.

When it did hit me, right after my sister texted me the next morning to say his consultation had gone well, I was sitting in my cube at my old job. The condensation of my iced coffee was pooling on the desk, no doubt leaving a ring, and it took me a few minutes to really react. I reached for the phone, managed a breathless “Mom,” before I completely unraveled. Dad has cancer.

How do you be there for someone who you’ve felt for so long hasn’t been there for you? How do I reconcile years of resentment before it’s too late? How dangerous is lymphoma, really? I can relay doctor-patient-caregiver tips and information all day long until I’m blue in the face, and they’ll escape me until I need them for the man who made my magic scrambled eggs. Cancer feels worlds away until it’s someone you love.

I saw more of my dad in the six months following his diagnosis than I had in previous years. I went to visit him in his new home even though I hated physically being there. I called him after he’s had chemotherapy, and I did my best to distract him the night he’d lost all his hair.

I hated to think it, but after those few months, I started to see he was still my father. Only now he was sick. I didn’t know which version of him was worse.

**

Father’s Day doesn’t only honor and celebrate fathers everywhere, but paternal bonds, too. You wish your brother a Happy Father’s Day, your uncle, your grandpa. While my dad and I have gotten to an OK place since his cancer (today he’s in remission), I’m sadly aware — and I’ve accepted — our relationship will never be the same. Accepting challenges is part of the gig, remember?

So on Father’s Day, I celebrate my mom. That I’m even here writing from a treacherously hot Brooklyn apartment (what is AC?) like I’ve always wanted to do is because of her. My mom endured her divorce with such fortitude; she gritted through her grief to make sure my sisters and I felt few differences between life with my father and life without, and in turn I learned the value of independence. She alone put me through college, a private school no less, because higher education was non-negotiable. She bought my first car, helped me find my first apartment and managed not to say “I told you so” when a career move I made didn’t work out, like she knew it wouldn’t. Instead, she just let me cry into my burger.

Perhaps it was her quiet, more vulnerable moments that taught me the most. Try as she might to hide it, superheroes get overwhelmed, too. They feel tired, nostalgic, neglected — but they take a beat, pour themselves a glass of cabernet, and keep going. The woman I’m growing up to be is a shadow of the woman my mom is, so yeah, I’m going to buy her some flowers. It’s the least I can do.

Stephanie Castillo is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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