THE BLOG

Wishing I Could Protect Their Innocence

01/09/2014 08:17 am ET | Updated Mar 11, 2014
Alexis Castellano

My husband came home from work the other night and before he could take his jacket off and set his bag down on the floor, my daughters were in his arms. They raced toward him in a way only gleeful little girls can. "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!" I smiled as I watched their eyes light up, twinkling with wonder as they gripped their father tightly. And I thought of my dad, as I do each night when this same scene repeats itself.

I was dancing with him in the kitchen, my bare feet resting softly on his, as we swayed to the sound of his voice. "The first time I saw you, I said oh my, oh my, that's my dream." The song was from Dreamgirls, but he said it was written for me. "We will dance to this at your wedding," my father promised as I nuzzled into him and inhaled the potent Drakkar Noir lingering on his clothes.

It never happened. Instead, he was rushed to the hospital after suffering a seizure during a sales presentation. The nurses asked him questions. "Joel, who is the President of the United States?" "Joel, can you tell me what year it is?" He didn't recall everything. But he was sure of something. Sitting on that stark white bed, my dad leaned toward me and whispered fearfully, "I don't want to die, Lexi." I didn't know what to say. I was 12.

My younger daughter is only 3. She began her second year of preschool last September. On the first day, she wrapped her arms around my leg and cried, begging me not to leave. The teacher bent down and said, "Ella, mommy always comes back." I followed suit. I looked my daughter straight in the eye and said, "Ella, it's OK, mommy always comes back."

I lingered in the hallway, listening to her through the closed door, hoping she would stop. I felt like a liar. Of course, I had every intention of coming back, but I knew from personal experience that sometimes, people don't. Promises can't always be kept. I looked around at the other moms and wondered if I was the only one who felt this way. They all looked happy, comfortable, ready to start their kid-free day.

I pictured myself as a child, wrapped around my own mother's leg. "Alexis, please," my mom pleaded. "I just need to go to the bathroom. I'll be right out." I waited outside the door, heard the flush, sighed with relief as she came into the hallway. "See?" she said. "I'm still here."

My daughter knows nothing of tragedy. She is a typical child who doesn't want her mommy to leave her at school with strangers. Life has not yet thrown daggers her way. If and when it does, I'm not sure I'll be as open with her as my mother was with me. She exposed me to everything (or at least, it seemed like everything). Even before my father "got sick," he was sick. He had colitis, endured numerous surgeries, and wasn't properly weaned from the painkillers after his last operation. He'd try to explain to me why he couldn't fart, and I thought this was funny. Sometimes, I would stand outside the open bathroom door as he changed his colostomy bag, watching as he emptied the brown waste into the sink, cleaned himself up, and reattached it.

"Mom, what's that red thing I saw when daddy took his bag off?" I asked once. "That's his intestine," she answered matter-of-factly.

Another time, I found a small white pill on the tile floor of our entryway. "What is this?" I asked her, eyeing the flat, round object while holding it carefully between my thumb and forefinger.

"That's a Percocet," she said, and she was angry. "It's your father's."

Recently, I spoke to my mother about why she was so honest with me as a child, why she let things unfold before my girlish eyes.

"Because I'm a truthful person," she said. "Sometimes, the truth hurts."

"Did you worry I was too young?" I asked.

"Well, I did protect you by not letting you see everything that happened," she said. "But I never lied. I didn't want to be the person who lied, even to my kids. I'd rather deal with the consequences of telling the truth than the consequences of telling a lie."

It sounded so noble, but I didn't know if it was right.

"Alexis, I always felt you should deal with things," she continued. "If I told you daddy was going to live and he died, you'd be so mad at me."

She was absolutely right about that.

During the six weeks my father was in the hospital, I heard about everything from brain tumors and life-as-a-vegetable to comas and blood clots. I would ride the elevator up to his floor, sit in his room full of cards and flowers, and look out the window to this city unknown to me. We lived in New Jersey, but we were "New Yawkers." We hated the Philadelphia Flyers. We didn't come here to dine or shop. Why was he stuck here? I didn't want to leave his side. I knew I was going to lose him. And I did.

I shudder to think of my daughters experiencing this. I want to cover them, make things pretty, lather up their little bodies from head to toe and protect them from life's blistering rays. My mom turned me about-face, head-on. She wanted me to be ready for anything that came my way. Felt this would make me a stronger person. Tough. And yet, I developed anxieties just the same. I feigned stomachaches as I got on the school bus each morning. I begged my mom not to drop me off at my aunt and uncle's house. I came home in the middle of the night from every single sleepover.

My daughters are still so young. Their greatest concerns are about wearing a dress with tights to school vs. leggings and a sparkly shirt. Should they play Barbies in the dollhouse or that new make-your-own-cupcake game? They'd like to string beads on a necklace, but they can't decide between pink and purple or green and blue.

Please, can I just press pause?

I think of my dad, his visions and his goals. He told me of the cramped quarters he and his siblings shared in their tight two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, how he always vowed he'd have a house in the suburbs with a dog, a big backyard and a pool. He worked extremely hard, never finished college and still managed to rise to the executive level. He made his childhood dreams come true for his children. I'd love to give my girls the innocence I never had, but no matter what my work ethic or how much I believe in myself, this is not an attainable goal. It is out of my hands.

So as much as I'd love to, I will not hit the pause button because life has no remote control. Yet, if I shift my thinking, I can give my girls something I did have, something I always had: support. My mom might have been right, or wrong, in leveling with me they way she did. It doesn't matter. She did what she needed to do to get me through. Sometimes it was in the form of a hug; sometimes it was simply listening as I cried; and sometimes it was pushing me on, showing me that if I faced my fears, I would make it to the other side. No matter what, she let me lean on her at all times. I just never realized until I had my own children how strong a pillar she stood.

Recently, I learned of another shooting in our country, this one in my own state of New Jersey. Disgusted and disheartened, I turned off the TV and went into the playroom, where I found my girls blissfully engaged in a game of princess tea party. Ella looked like a porcelain Cinderella doll in her blue ball gown, blond curls dangling from her silver tiara; Avery more mature in her purple Rapunzel dress and long braided hair trailing down her back. I snapped a mental picture, forever etching it into my memory. Tragic things happen, and in time I might need to explain, level with them, encourage them to face the truth. When that happens, I will look back and prop myself up. My daughters will lean on me. Until then, I am happy to let them be princesses and sip pretend tea, in their perfect little world of happily-ever-after.

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