Sometimes you lose.
When I was in high school, I coached boys football and basketball at my former junior high school. This was my first real job.
As a parent, I coached my boys’ soccer and basketball teams. I didn’t get paid for that; I was a volunteer.
I attended countless soccer, basketball, football, rowing, tennis games, matches, races, etc. I cheered for my boys’ teams.
I was never one of those parents who yelled at the refs. Even when they made a bad call.
My daughter played concert piano in junior high and high school. She attended an arts conservatory, once playing at Carnegie Hall during her senior year.
Between coaching and the boys and Bree, competitions were common.
As a coach, our teams won some. And we lost some.
As a parent, my children won some. And they lost some.
I taught my young players, and my young children to be good winners, and good losers.
Never would I allow poor sportsmanship, even if a ref made a bad call. Never did I allow complaining or whining the other team “cheated.” At the end of the game, win or lose, you look the other team in the eye, shake a hand, say “good game.”
What mattered more to me than the final “score,” was character.
Why? Becasue later on in life, all children need to know that things just don’t always turn out the way you want.
Sometimes you lose.
Life isn’t always fair.
Later in life, I competed for political office. I ran for United States Congress in 2018. And I lost. And my loss was public. I immediately called my primary opponent, the current Congressman who defeated me, Harley Rouda. We had breakfast a few weeks later. After Congressman Rouda was sworn in, I visited him at his office in Washington DC, congratulating him, even though he was in the “other party.”
I lost bad in the my first forray into poltitics. But I felt, for the sake of any of those players who still watch me with me (and some do), and, more important, my children, I must model good sportsmanship.
I wrote about How I Didn’t Win — But I’m certain I did.
Some things in life are more important than “winning.” In fact, winning, at the end of the day, is about doing your very best, humility, and character — not some number on a screen.
I wish more parents felt this way. I wish more voters did, too.
Sometimes you lose.
One month ago, gripped by the harrowing statistics regarding children in foster care, I wrote this on Day One:
May is National Foster Care Awareness Month. Each day of this month, For The Children, I will say something about “The New Epidemic.”
Why “new?” — because reports of child abuse have dropped. Why have they dropped? — because mandated reporters (teachers, pediatricians, coaches) with their eagle-eyes, aren’t able to see the kids. They can’t see the bruises or the dissociation or the trembling.
On average, 5 children die every day from child abuse. Because of COVID-19, that average is on the rise.
Incidents of sexual abuse are also on the rise. For the first time, over half of the visitors to the National Sexual Assault Hotline were minors. Of those who called with concerns related to the COVID-19, 79% said they were living with their perpetrator.
I’m writing today to raise awareness. I will write every day this month.
But the writing got harder. Because every morning I receive an email from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). And the email lists news stories about child welfare. And I read about how – all across the country, and the world – children were suffering, in unprecedented ways. Sexual abuse and physical abuse — and I could help wonder what it must feel like to be locked in an apartment for months with your abuser. I thought about the children I’ve met. Victims.
All you’d see on the news every hour is COVID-19 COVID-19 COVID-19 but noting – zero – on those who live in the shadows. Children. Minor children of neglect, abuse, and abandonment. These ones not suffering from the virus, per se, but from something I believe to be far more dangerous: family-induced childhood trauma.
In January, I visited my psychologist for the first time in over a year. I seemed to be dealing with symptoms of depression. Everything in my personal life was flourishing. At RFK, our work was expanding to new states and new countries.
There was no “reason” for the depression. But something was up. Have you ever felt that way? — you just now something’s wrong even though everything in your life is going really well.
My therapist introduced me to the term, compassion fatigue — a disorder known to those who work with ailing populations:
Those who have experienced compassion fatigue describe it as being sucked into a vortex that pulls them slowly downward. They have no idea how to stop the downward spiral, so they do what they’ve done since medical school: They work harder and continue to give to others until they’re completely tapped out.
I now had a name for my new pyschological state of affairs. Always a good first step. I soon went to the literature, working on self-care and awareness. More yoga and prayer and exercise.
I began feeling better.
Then COVID-19 hit the headlines I wrote about maybe being stuck in DC with Coronavirus. After 5 days, quarantined to a hotel room, I returned home.
Work intensified. We developed new programing. How do we reach these children? Who will help them in this time of crisis?
When I interviewed for this role, during one of the many interviews, I was asked, “What do you believe to be your greatest strength with respect to this role?” Without hesitation, I responded, “compassion.”
This is weird to write. I’m just helping it real. I’m most certainly not like Mother Teresa or anything. But I feel the pain of others. Many who know me know this aloof kind of logical socially awkward introvert; that’s just my exterior. It’s my personality. Inside of that exterior — I can be kind of a mess when I see people suffering. Literally — somewhere in my chest, I feel it. Sometimes I have to gasp for air. Especially when the pain is the pain of a child. I don’t know why. It could be because of what happened when I was a child, but I’m not ready to write about that.
Maybe you feel the pain of others, too.
I remained connected to our RFK chapters and to HHS. Our RFK team began working on a national partnership to help the new emergency first responders: social workers.
I wrote on days six and seven and eight. It was getting harder.
Day 10, the entirety of my post read, “I can’t write about the pain. Goodnight.”
I don’t want to read it, anymore.
The morning reports. About the children. Not your loved and sheltered and guided ones.
The millions shacked up with torture. Torture. In America. COVID-19 makes them illusive to the press. Who talks about them. No mandated reporters to help.
I feel for the homeless; I fear more for children of rampant neglect, abuse, abandonment, far more.
They will end up incarcerated unless we act.
Unless we act.
We can act.
I didn’t write again until May 17, day 17. Then day 19. Then day 24.
Today is the 31st. Last day of National Foster Care Awareness Month.
Last post for the month.
I will keep speaking and writing because the children are still at home and there will be a flood of new abuse reports in the upcoming months.
But I will probably take a break.
Because compassion fatigue.
Protect was my word
Today Bree turned 25. Bree, my eldest, my baby.
She lives in New York City. She attends Columbia University Medical School. Her graduate work is the field of genetics.
I wish she was here. But her life is there now. She finished her first year, last week. Her second year begins in a few days. She will intern at Presbyterian Hospital, this term.
We had a Zoom call, this morning – a surprise Zoom birthday party for my 25-year-old baby.
The call was her mother’s idea. Not all of la familia could get on the call. But I and her mother and her siblings and aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins and stepfamily all joined at 8:30 a.m. PST.
Protect was my word.
We wanted the surprise Zoom birthday party to actually be a surprise. We all dial-in. Then it dawns on us that nobody told Bree about the call.
We laughed. Would she be available? She could be taking a shower, be on a walk, her phone could be dead.
Planning isn’t my specialty.
I text her.
I text again and again and again and finally she replies: “hi.”
Told her I wanted to Zoom with her. Suspiciousness must have been in her; we have never Zoomed. We use FaceTime.
Anyway, she gets on a few seconds later and her face beams.
Our family is very close.
After a few minutes of catching up and laughing, her mother suggested that each of us say a word or words describe Bree.
Her mother and siblings and aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins and stepfamily all joined and revealed their words with an explanation. Their words were radiant, fun, loving, music, joy, intellect, sweet, peacekeeper, lovely, caring, intelligent, diligent, fun, caring, brilliant, dance and funny stories.
It was my turn.
I said something like this:
Protect is my word. Because 25 years ago, at about this exact time, you came into this world. And I hadn’t known what love was until that moment. Then the nurse said she was going to take you and clean you. I told her I would accompany her. And she took you into this room and she placed you on a small bed under this warm light. And she stepped away to gather the cleaning materials. And you lay there, exposed, without touch, crying. And I put my two hands on you and whispered into your ear and told you that I would always protect you, until the time I breathe my last breath.
I’m thousands of miles away from her today. And if I saw her now, I’d, for the first time, kiss her 25 times on the forehead. (Whenever I see her, I kiss her years on her forehead.)
I’ll see her soon enough.
I’ve been thinking of my 25-year-old baby all day today.
But I couldn’t not think of the 125,000 children in American whose parental rights have been terminated. That means they live in the foster care system and have nobody — neither father nor mother nor sibling nor sister nor aunt nor uncle nor grandparent nor cousin nor stepfamily — to protect them.
Protect is my word.
I want to touch her so badly. It’s Mother’s Day, but I can’t.
People have lauded me for the love I have for my mother, Maria Luiga Zeppetella Martin, or “Louise.” They see the all the photos and videos and terms of endearment that I’ve posted on social media since her massive and unexpected hemorrhagic stroke in the evening on August 21, 2015. I wrote about it here.
But I can’t see her today. And I’d be lying if I denied my urge to run past the security guard, the one who sits outside the entrance — one of those kinds who gets to carry a gun — at her skilled nursing facility, just to see that look of joy on her face.
Then she would caress my face.
Later we would sit, and I’d hold her hand.
When one suddenly dies, or in my case, suffers a mentally debilitating stroke, for the first time ever, you appreciate her as you never have. This is loss, defined. In the case of death, the qualities of the loved one exist only in your mind; in the case of mental impairment, you still get to see and touch and listen, but it’s not the same as before.
Not even close.
I haven’t had a conversation with my mother since her stroke.
In addition to Mom, today I think of the millions who have no mother. Or of those estranged from their mothers because of addiction or mental illness. Children in foster care have lost their mothers, temporarily, and oftentimes, permanently.
I relate with them: grief.
My love for my mom is deep. Inside my body. My chest. Real pain — a somatic reality completely different than the emotional pain.
I want to touch her so badly.
Some have said, “Just think about what an amazing woman she was and all the good memories.”
That doesn’t work with me in times like this.
The thing about Mom was that she wasn’t really amazing in the sense of being one of those super-moms. She didn’t care about my grades, as long as I passed my classes. We never took “Mother-Son” trips or have dates or do any of that stuff.
She didn’t care whether I sat on the bench or played quarterback.
Her expectations were simply: help others, respect people, respect the planet.
But she’d always be there. Wearing whatever team pin or t-shirt. And when I finally got up to bat, I’d hear this distinct faint voice, “Go Paul!” And I’d look and you could see the expression that blended smile and joy and pride – her living and loving me, caught up at that moment.
That same faint voice sang flat at every Sunday at mass, or later at the Protestant services. But she’d sing with all her being. And she meant what she sang. You could just tell.
In every season of my life — when I was succeeding and all those times I was failing — she loved me the same.
Mom is gone. The nurses will let us FaceTime with her, but I won’t. It will only confuse her, and I’m almost certain, in spite of her mental fragility, at least possibly, cause her to wonder why I’ve abandoned her.
If she doesn’t see me, she’s not thinking about me.
I want to touch her so badly.
Three mental realities bring a tinge of solace.
First, I am a lucky man to have a mother like Luigia Maria Zeppetella Martin. I was loved, unconditionally, from the time she bore me, to the day I kissed her and told her I loved her and went on vacation. (She had the stroke while I was on vacation.)
Second, I think of the hundreds of thousands of children in the United States (and millions around the world) that either have no mother or have lost them because of neglect and abuse. I work for those children. I’ve been with hundreds. I’m blessed to have that which I…had.
Third, Mom’s real name is Maria. When she immigrated to the U.S. with her family, she didn’t want to be called “Maria” because back in those days Italians weren’t liked much. So her aunt used her middle name, Luiga, and gave it an American twist: Louise.
But I think of the name Maria. And, growing-up Roman Catholic, I think of the respect they have for Maria, Mary, Jesus’ mother.
Mother Teresa was once asked about why Catholics make such a big deal about Mary. She replied, “No Mary, no Jesus.”
Mom’s name in English would have been Mary.
So no Mary, no Paul. No me. That’s the thing about mothers, without them, we wouldn’t be here.
I want to touch her so badly.