Brian Satola, Ulman COO, sent me a harmless text yesterday asking for my email address and then, upon receiving my address, promptly sent me a short email with three simple questions.
Three simple questions about a made-up holiday.
Three simple questions about a day originally created so Hallmark and stores that sell neckties and coffee mugs could capitalize.
Three simple questions centered on Father’s Day.
Three simple questions that literally tap into what I believe to be the core of my drive, my identity and my happiness.
Three simple questions with complex and emotional answers requiring a few days of reflection and collection of thoughts.
I am no philosopher so please don’t expect any grandiose keys to life or epiphanies. I just hope I can convey on paper half the flood of feelings rattling inside my brain as some of the questions and answers are obviously intertwined.
A little background about my story for those that do not know: I am a firefighter in Orlando and I lost my first child, Camden, to cancer at the age of 160 days.
I have since had a healthy daughter, Kendall, now age 9.
Many have told me that they believe that Camden was sent down for a purpose and is one of God’s angels, but I can honestly say that Kendall is the closest “sign” I have ever seen to make an argument that God exists.
This is not a religious doctrine, but simply the most flattering way I can think to say that Kendall is the greatest gift to me and the best example of a human I have ever come in contact with.
Fast forward a little more than 10 years since Camden passed away, I still work for the FD, I stay present in the cancer community in various ways, and I am at my happiest when Kendall is around.
Simple Question 1: Why is Father’s Day meaningful to you?
Like many, it is not about receiving recognition for fathering a child or the quality of the gifts.
On a broad scale, I pride myself on unintentionally being a good role model by simply doing what I think is best on a day to day basis with Kendall and when honoring Camden during an event.
I pride myself on being considered a good father by my daughter Kendall, my family, friends, peers (and sometimes complete strangers) that have witnessed my relationship with Kendall or my love for Camden and Kendall and the choices and actions I make to show them how much I love them.
On a small personal scale, it is the happy tears that trickle not only on Father’s Day for the yellow bracelet with giraffe print Kendall gave me at the age of 5, because “Daddy you wear a yellow bracelet (Livestrong) and I love giraffes, so I thought you could have a bracelet that makes you think of me and Camden.” (I still wear the bracelet today, the giraffe spots wore off years ago, but the meaning did not.)
Happy tears trickling for unwrapping a tee shirt on my birthday of Mario Brothers characters walking across Abbey Road like the Beatles album because she knows the significance of the Beatles and “Let It Be” (a song we had on repeat the last moments of Camden’s life reminding him and us that he had fought hard and if it was his time we wanted him to know it was ok to rest and leave us peacefully.)
It is not only the physical gifts that bring me to tears as a father.
It’s watching Kendall’s face light up when I ask her if we can play Barbies and she knows I am always going to have the evil Barbie named Jehoshaphat (a name my mom and I used to use when I was a kid and we role played or told made up stories.)
Or when I ask her if she wants to have a build off in Minecraft knowing full well that not only will she create a multilevel castle with water features, trap doors leading to secret paths, and indoor zoos with exotic pets, while I pray to the Minecraft gods I can just complete a four walled structure that may or may not have a roof, but more importantly than the hour of building is to her that hour is an eternity of magical quality time spent with in that moment the most important person in her life.
It’s the happy tears that come when she hugs me at the end of the night and thanks me for those special moments.
I can go on and on about her sense of humor, kindness, thoughtfulness etc., but Father’s Day is only 24 hours long so I will move on to the next question.
Simple Question 2: How has being a father changed your perspective?
I grew up with 3 brothers. My oldest brother had 3 boys before I had my first child.
Needless to say I was the stereotypical boy and grown man when being exposed to so much testosterone.
Life revolved around sports, board games, cards, video games and rough housing. My childhood was a proving ground in the most competitive nature.
Part one to this answer:
At the age of 30, Camden was thrust upon us. He was plump, he was active, he was perfect and of course he was a boy!
Did life change? (I know the question asked about perspective on life…be patient and trust the process)
Very little actually.
I was already a firefighter so getting up in the middle of the night to “help others” was nothing new.
Helping raise two younger brothers and three nephews prepared me for “dealing with kids.”
Yes, there were small hiccups like the time I decided to blow on Camden’s nether area because he was all sweaty down there from his diaper and the boy’s knee-jerk reaction was to start peeing all over the walls, but we all make mistakes as new parents.
Life was to go on as planned. Raise a boy that did boy things.
Camden and I watched baseball together, Jeopardy and at the ripe old age of a few months, he would “help” me play chess against my brother.
Ok, so when he sat and wiggled on my lap it could take up to 20-30 minutes to make a single move and it was never a good one.
In all honesty, I went winless when he sat on my lap, but by golly we bonded!
Being a father to a boy just added another patron to the life trajectory of sports, games and rough housing.
Part two of this answer:
To those that trusted the process about perspective…
Fast forward about two years. Camden has left us, we have had a miscarriage and we find ourselves anxiously sitting in a waiting room for an ultrasound for our third attempt at a healthy child.
Jannae, (my wife at the time, an amazing mom and still a very dear friend of mine to this day) asked me if I thought it was going to be a boy or a girl.
I looked at her almost in awe that she could be so naïve as to think I could have a part in having anything other than a boy.
Remember I am one of four brothers, had three nephews, and one boy of my own. She retorted, “You never know.”
We repeated this conversation to the tech putting the cold goo on Jannae’s belly and the tech simply replied, “Mommy is right, it’s a girl.”
Jannae cried. She would have cried no matter what the outcome, but she cried more at the prospect of a girl.
I did nothing. Literally, I did nothing.
I could not hear anyone talking, I could not take my eyes of the peanut that was now a baby girl, I could not speak.
I did nothing.
Jannae actually became concerned and asked if I was ok.
When I did finally come to I was sweating and instinctively started rubbing my hat on my forehead as I often did with nervous energy.
A girl! What the heck am I going to do with a girl?
How am I going to be able to fill all the voids and things that were stolen from me like sports and army movies if she is a girly girl?
Forget perspective, this was a life changer.
First things first, we had to put a headband on Kendall because she was the spitting image of Camden without one.
Next was learning how to wipe her butt to not contaminate the girly parts.
With the physical essentials out of the way it was time to raise her as a strong, confident young lady that did not base her worth on a man or her looks.
She would be raised knowing that she is perfect and amazing in every way.
A few years after the life changing event of having a girl, came my divorce.
I don’t know the cause. Let’s just leave it at life. Divorce sucks and there is no reason to relive it. This information adds significantly to the perspective piece though so I put it out there.
Now I am a single father of a three year old princess.
It is at this time that perspective truly changes. A combination of the cancer piece (to be discussed in a bit) and being a single father turns perspective on its head.
I was determined to be more than just her dad.
I was going to do everything in my power to fill the gaps of her mom when she was with me.
Mind you, this is impossible, but I was ambitious. I took to Pinterest to find baking ideas, craft projects, and daddy/daughter date night ideas.
Skip ahead a few years and I can confidently say that I would almost certainly wipe the floor with anyone reading this in Disney trivia, lyrics to any song from Trolls and can name all the My Little Ponies by their beauty marks on their butts.
I have immersed myself in her interests and her life.
I guess I could have answered this question in the simplest of ways by saying I learned to be selfless and tried to see the world through her eyes instead of mine—living for her happiness and in turn, making me happy.
Simple Question 3: How has cancer impacted your role as a parent?
The obvious answer is “in every way.”
In a negative context, I am a helicopter parent.
The positive spin is I am more present for that girl than anyone can fathom and I appreciate so much.
The reality is cancer has made me not only a better father, but better human.
I used to be self-centered. I only cared about my four walls and what was in them. If I did a 5K, it was for a tee shirt. Most of the time I didn’t even know the cause and certainly did not raise any money for it.
After cancer, I try to listen, I try to follow up with friends when they are going through struggles, I try to offer as much support as I have been given. I try to be better in every regard.
I am sure I miss the mark at times, but cancer has forced me to try to be better.
I can remember being interviewed for a local parenting magazine after Camden was born.
I spoke about how it was hard as a father to stay interested in a little being that slept most of the day and when not sleeping he got to enjoy boobs that used to be for me and the most activity I had with him was changing diapers.
Many moms have that natural instinct to love immediately and appreciate their children from the first moment.
For me, with Camden, it was a bit forced. We had to bond. I was young, invincible and naïve.
Camden went into the hospital in July of 2008.
I was new in the FD and did not have a ton of sick time. I was trying to find a balance of work and hospital.
One day I walked into the fire station and my Lieutenant asked me, “Steve, why are you here?” I replied, “Camden is having a good day.”
The wise man opposite of me responded, “That is exactly why you should be with him.”
It was the last day I worked while Camden was alive.
Little did we know that he only had a few days of life left after that conversation. Camden’s last night was a rough one.
A lot of commotion and doctors and nurses in and out. After being up most of the night the staff asked if we needed anything. We said we just want to hold our baby.
They cleared out his crib and put two recliners in the center of the room. Jannae and I took turns holding him.
On this night, the last night of his life, I fell asleep holding him.
Cancer was ripping my son out of my hands and I could not stay awake to be in that moment.
This has motivated me and stuck with me all these years.
To be present. Appreciate every moment.
Life was no longer perfect and it could be fleeting and fragile.
All of those clichés about live in the moment all made sense.
Cancer has affected the entirety of my life, but I will try to keep this to the topic of being a father.
I do not have the luxury of knowing what type of father I would have been before cancer.
Maybe I would still be the same one I am today, but I am not going too far out on a limb when I surmise that that is just not true and cancer has altered every aspect of fatherhood.
Cancer is why I am still scared any time Kendall gets a fever.
Cancer is why I break down in sad tears on Father’s Day because I cannot hug my son.
Cancer is why I helicopter.
Cancer is why I have the happy tears.
Cancer is why I play Minecraft.
Cancer is why I know that Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather are Aurora’s fairy godmothers.
Cancer is why I am Jehosaphat.
Cancer is why I appreciate the little things.
Cancer is why I try to be better and be present.
Cancer is why I will never feel complete.
Cancer is why my best friend in this entire world is a 9 year old girl aptly dubbed Miss Amazing.
I do not know if I answered any of these simple questions. I am not sure if I hit the mark on this in the slightest bit.
Again, I am nothing more than a guy trying to navigate this journey of life after the worse loss imaginable.
I don’t know what I am doing and the only barometer I have to measure my success is the happiness I can bring to Kendall and the much appreciated words of kindness and support I get from others.
That’s all I’ve got. Three simple questions with very hard answers.
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