If you are a superstitious soul, you know that the month of March, and particularly March 15th, is a day you may want to spend in bed, with the covers over your head…. clutching your garlic and rabbit’s foot for dear life.  It sure was a crappy day for poor Julius Caesar….assassinated by 40 Roman Senators who he pissed off.   Man, I hate when that happens.  His appeal to the lower and middle-class Romans was the heart of his untimely demise.  His eloquence has long been denoted, and speaks to me in one of his most famous quotes ” Experience is the teacher of all things”.   No shit Julius.  Safe to say that March has certainly been a month of experiences for me….both good….and bad.

So let’s start with the good….my beautiful girls, Gianna and Daniella, came into this world on March 14, 1997.  They were originally due on March 20th, but a scheduled cesarean, to address their transverse breech position, allowed for their early arrival.  I was relieved to welcome them slightly early.

Now for the bad….my father passed away on March 18th, some 36 years ago.  I can remember thinking, toward the end of my pregnancy, that I did not want the girl’s birth date to be the same as my father’s death date, it was just morbid, thus my relief at my early delivery.  But now, I am not so sure that it would have been the bad women that I had lamented over. It could have functioned as a permanent reminder of daddy….because I need that reminder, now more than ever. Let me explain.

When I wrote my book, Worn Like A Badge, I referred to my father as a man “who endured tragedy that a hero would beg to be spared”.  I was criticized for being gratuitously dramatic in this claim.  I refrained from elaborating on the tragedy in question, as I felt and frankly continue to feel, that it is not my story to tell.  But, take it from me, as I sit here holding the short straw, the unanswered chain letter, and the shattered mirror…..If I say that someone has had bad luck…..take it as gospel.  Now I say this not to engender pity because everyone has struggles, some more than others…. right? My family definitely falling into the some more than others category. I say this because, in spite of his personal tragedy, my father lived a life that would make you skeptical of the storms he weathered.

I am ashamed and sad to say this, but, I have few childhood memories of my father.  It puzzles me that this would be the case.  My father was a family man, guilty only of working very long hours at our small family store.  Starting his day at 4:30 am, and returning in the evening 7 pm….my days were spent with my mother, as she never worked outside the home. My brother, 7 years older than me, helped my father in our store.  He would go to school and go straight to the store, so he was also less present in my childhood than I would have liked.  And although my brother was not pleased by the excessive hours he spent at the business, the time he spend with my father was something he would be grateful for, and also something I would be quite envious of.

When I was about eighteen, I found myself spending much more time with my father.   A cancer diagnosis drastically altered all our lives.  Daddy was unable to put in the same hours at the business, so my brother took over. I can remember being responsible for most of the medical appointments, I recall one appointment in particular that would affect me profoundly.  We met with daddy’s oncologist, and I was handed a packet of clinical data on esophageal cancer, and the extremely high likelihood of it metastasizing. There was virtually no chance of survival, this was 1983.  I can remember my hand shaking as I held this deadly handout, and wondered why a young girl would be burdened with this information.  I remember not sharing it with my father. Surely nothing would be gained from that.

So it took a cancer diagnosis to make my father more available to me. This is when the memories of my father started filling in.  I commuted daily to college, and I was often home midday.  My mother would make us lunch and we would watch The Young and the Restless.  It was quite uncharacteristic for a man like my father to be a fan of a soap opera.  He had a slightly rough around the edges persona, with a heavy Italian accent, and a somewhat salty sense of humor,  definitely not the type of person who looked forward to keeping up with the antics of Jack, Nikki, and Victor, but to our great delight, he was just that.  I discovered many things about him then, some funny and comforting, and others tragic and heartbreaking. The two years between daddy’s diagnosis, and his death in 1985, seem like a  blur now.  As you can imagine, the struggles associated with terminal cancer, for both the patient and the caregivers, are profoundly life-changing.  In hindsight, my mother was incredible, demonstrating strength in what must have been a very lonely and difficult time for her.   Now, as timing would have it, my father’s struggle coincided with my “puttana phase” (ask an Italian friend to translate). I was in college, working part-time, and very interested in going out with friends and socializing.  And although I was helpful, certainly to outsiders looking in, I now feel that I could have done more.  That is one of the biggest regrets in my life, and cause of guilt that stings to this day. Guilt continues to be a recurring theme in my life, the level of which can only compare to that of my Jewish compadres ( same corporation, different division).

My father’s suffering ended on March 18, 1985.    Regrettably, it was not until after daddy’s death, that I came to know how he affected so many people.   His wake, and the multitude of mourners, spoke volumes about how people perceived him.   My mother and I were surprised at the mourners that came to pay their respects to my father.  Many of them were neighborhood people that knew daddy from the store.  It was a strange mix of regular mourners, nuns, bikers, some of whom were quite emotional at saying goodbye to John. I can remember the funeral director bringing in more chairs to accommodate the crowd, most of whom were strangers to me.  I recall looking at my mother and being puzzled at the droves of mourners.  My brother was well acquainted with them and greeted them with great familiarity.  No surprise there, my brother is definitely his father’s son. Kind, well thought of, demonstrating great character, and that unmistakable family sense of humor.

My brother often tells this story about a meeting my father and he attended at his school.  My brother got into a fight with a classmate, the class bully,  and it resulted in a broken leg for my brother.  He recounts the meeting with the school principal, him with a cast up to his hip, and my father in rare form. As the story goes, my father leans into the bully’s dad, flashing that gold tooth smile (yes, my father was gangsta before gangsta was cool) and tells him ” Ima tellin you…when my son gets abetter…he’s gonna break both your son’s legs”.  The meeting came to an abrupt end.  If you were not acquainted with daddy, you were never really sure if he was joking, or serious, a clear advantage….and besides, one bully really does deserve another, wouldn’t you say.

Another strong skill my father possessed was the ability to give nicknames, that were so fitting, that the person’s given name was no longer relevant.  The lifelong gambler and petty hustler became TYCOON…the avid fan of the  Dolphins became MIAMI.  But I think the best of all was a nickname my father gave after a bizarre early morning conversation that he had with Craig, one of his customers.  Craig walked into the store at 5 am one morning, ordered coffee, and proceeded to confess to my father that his most sought-after ambition in life was to fly planes.  Now, coming from an unemployed, somewhat down on his luck young man, flying planes was probably not in his employment path.  He became THE PILOT….and to this day, when I see him, all these years later, he is still THE PILOT, and he identifies as such.  

Daddy’s parenting skills were interesting, to say the least. He was a man of action, not the disciplinarian (that was my mother’s jam) but playing more of the role of trainer.  Let me explain.  My father was known to jingle the keys in his pocket…..it was just something he was accustomed to doing, and it always got my brother’s and my attention.  It was as if it announced his arrival.   I can remember one instance when I was about 14 years old.  It’s just like it was yesterday…I went to the movies to see Saturday Night Fever with my friends.  Because the lines to get into the movie were so long, it started later than was planned, so I was going to be late getting home.  I knew I was screwed…. but the vision of Tony Manero, in his shiny shirt and tight polyester pants was just too much for me…I was compelled to continue watching, even though I was going to be break curfew. I just could not take my eyes off the screen….watching the rehearsal for the dance competition….that Stephanie was not good enough for him, she thought she was so fancy….. with that stupid white ballet outfit…..anyway……just as Tony and Stephanie were practicing their dance routine…I heard it…..the sound of jingling keys…right behind me…..and just like that…… I crapped my pants.  Like I said, a man of action.   

Shortly after my father’s passing, a meeting with a receptionist at a medical office also gave me a glimpse at the kindness my father would extend to his customers.  After noticing my last name, she asked me “are you John’s daughter ?” Yes, I replied. She told me how wonderful my father was to her, saying that she would drop her daughter with my father, at the store, because she needed to leave early for work.  She explained that my father would give her daughter breakfast and get her on the school bus.  She was quite emotional in her recounting, and it filled my heart with pride.  All these years later, I recall that story, with gratitude over the man my father was, but also stinging jealousy, that her daughter had interactions with my father that my girls have been deprived of.

I am officially older than my father was when he passed.  I still cannot believe that a man of his undeniable presence, could have been taken from us at only fifty-five years of age.  I often wonder how our lives would have been different if he had been alive.  I am certain that my life would have taken a very different path, this exercise in what if has been painful for me.  They say hindsight is 2020, and I now see the mistakes I was making. It was as if I was headed for the cliff, and my brakes went out.  My mother tried to advise me, but I was a willful… impetuous…bully.  I cannot help but think that my father would have saved me from myself, that his larger-than-life persona, and a little key jingling, might have altered my path in life. I guess we will never know.  

And more than just my life, I often wonder how all our lives would have been different.  But most of all, I wonder if my father’s presence would have made a difference in the way I parented my girls.  Their autism has been and continues to be challenging. How would daddy have interacted with the girls, and what would that involvement mean to their development.  In my darkest moments, I wonder  what he would think of the job I am doing, the decisions I have made, the mess that we find ourselves in.  I would find myself sitting quietly, shutting my eyes tight, trying to imagine our lives with him here.  What would he do if he was me?  I suppose I always will. I sometimes ask my brother “what would daddy do ?” He always comes up with a response, that confirms to me that he greatly benefitted from all that time they spent together. Making my lack of memories all the more painful.

Since my girls’ diagnosis, I have been spending tons of money on therapy from professionals to shape the negative behaviors that can sometimes be associated with autism.  Who knew, all those years ago, that my father had perfected the skill of behavior modification. And to think, with no training, and no additional letters after his name.

  Wait a second girls…..mommy needs to find her keys.

“Johanna Cascione is a mom of adult twin daughters with severe autism, and a first-time author of an autobiography – “Worn Like A Badge, Published under the moniker J. L. Verita.

After a career in the financial services industry, and a 10-year journey to have children, Johanna received the news that her twin daughters had severe autism. She experienced profound depression and anxiety. The diagnosis of her girls, especially in light of her struggle to have them, was almost too much for her to bear.

Ultimately she decided that the only way she could advocate for her daughters, was to become a stronger person, stronger than the fear that gripped her , stronger than the depression that paralyzed her, stronger than the diagnosis.

Her decision to replace the fear with hope, weakness with strength and the anger with kindness, was not an easy one, but she found it to be her only option. Her resolve to focus on hope, kindness and humor, especially when they were in short supply, served her well.

Today Johanna continues to advocate for her girls, as well as provide support for other families of individuals with autism. She has many stories to tell, from a life that was not at all what she expected. She is finding that her voice is one of honesty, hope, and yes…humor. Laughter heals the soul, and don’t we all need some of that.

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