My Papà was a big dreamer. He was a grower of things. He loved this life even when he hated it, and there were times that he did, don’t get me wrong, he made his dream of coming to America come true. He met and married a beautiful woman, who for him was his love at first sight. He started his own business. He opened up a barber shop even though he had no idea how to cut hair. He used to tell me that he gave out Mohawks before they became popular. He had four children, helped raise them in a home that he was able to afford on a salary that never surpassed like 25 grand a year. He lived the life of his dreams. He just never bargained for mental illness to sometimes turn those dreams into nightmares. In my book, the S word, I told my truth of how my Papa navigated my mother’s schizophrenia, caring for her and for us when she could no longer. On Father’s Day, I thank him. Not only did he stay in the middle of the madness, but he was one of my greatest teachers in how to turn it into magic.
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Hi, and welcome to Madness To Magic, and my podcast, I’m with Crazy: A Love Story. I’m your host, Paolina Milana, author of “The S Word”.
This show is for those of us who find ourselves surrounded by madness and wanting to find the magic within. We’re going to come together here as caregivers to those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Maybe it’s someone in the family we’ve been born into. Maybe it’s someone we love. Maybe it’s someone we work with. Maybe, even, it’s ourselves. Whether we’ve been thrust into this caregiver role or taken it on by choice, this podcast is where we’re going to share our stories and learn to realize the magic in all the madness we may have been experiencing. I promise you, it can be done. So let’s get to it.
Hi everyone. Thanks for joining me for today’s podcast. It’s been awhile, and I’ve missed chatting with you. I’ve actually been pretty busy working on a few projects, including flying home to Chicago to interview other people who have experienced madness, who have loved crazy, and who agreed to share their stories here on my podcast. The first one of these that I plan air is with my lifelong friend from grammar school, Jenny and her daughter Jean. These two have been through a lot, and especially for mothers and daughters out there listening, you won’t want to miss what they have to say. That podcast will be up on June 30th, a day that has meaning for Jenny and Jean since it’s Jean’s birthday, and a day that brings up a lot for me because it’s the anniversary of my own mom’s death. So I do hope you’ll listen in.
As for today’s podcast, this one’s all about a caregiver of crazy, who is for me the single greatest male influence in my life, and that would be my father, my Anonino Milana.
Today’s actually the anniversary of his death, 29 years ago. I’ll be honest, I can’t believe he’s been gone that long. I was only 24 when he died unexpectedly. It was 1990, it was a Sunday, the Sunday following father’s day. As I’ve mentioned before, my parents are both from Sicily. My father used to tell me stories of how as a little boy in his hometown of Cousteau Nachi, he’d cause all sorts of mischief. Once he and his friends wanted to see what would happen, he told me if they pushed this giant boulder off the top of a hill, and they didn’t realize that the path down the hill, if they succeeded in getting it off the top of the hill, would take that boulder right into the middle of main street, and that’s exactly what happened. He laughed so hard telling the story and all of the havoc he caused and then he laughed even harder when he told about how his mom couldn’t conceal her own laughter while doling out his punishment, which did include a belt and other other things.
My father, he was always laughing. His eyes would twinkle, his mouth would open wide. He’d toss back his head. Just always laughing, and I can still see his hand gestures that always accompanied his storytelling. I think that’s just a given for those of us who are Italian. I do it too, I can’t speak without my hands moving. Sometimes you may hear noises on this podcast, my hands bumping into something.
Anyway, I love visualizing my dad and the stories that he used to tell. One of my favorites is when he would say he would lie on his back on the beaches of the Mediterranean or on the grass as a little kid and he would dream of hopping up onto one of the clouds floating by in the sky, and he would envision himself riding it all the way to America.
My Papa was a big dreamer. He was a grower of things. He loved this life even when he hated it, and there were times that he did, don’t get me wrong, he made his dream of coming to America come true. He met and married a beautiful woman, who for him was his love at first sight. He started his own business. He opened up a barber shop even though he had no idea how to cut hair. He used to tell me that he gave out Mohawks before they became popular. He had four children, helped raise them in a home that he was able to afford on a salary that never surpassed like 25 grand a year. He lived the life of his dreams. He just never bargained for mental illness to sometimes turn those dreams into nightmares. In my book, the S word, I told my truth of how my Papa navigated my mother’s schizophrenia, caring for her and for us when she could no longer.
Did he make mistakes? You bet he did. Did he let his own rage and confusion get the best of him and say and do things that hurt? Of course he did, he was human. One reader of my book commented that we were idiots. She said, that my father was a terrible head of the family. She couldn’t believe some of the decisions he made and some of the actions he took. Honestly, that comment stuck with me for a long time. There were times when I too, either during it or in the writing of the book, rereading of the book, there were times where I was like, oh my God, we were fucking idiots. The hell are we thinking? How could we have chosen that, or done that, or said that or, yeah. But the last thing I wanted to do was to portray my Papa as anything less than what I saw him to be, and that was a hero.
Flawed and imperfect, yes. He had choices, in hindsight, always critiques harshly at times and Monday morning quarterbacks, that’s what I’ve found. But when dealing with madness in the moment, there is no playbook. There’s no resource, there’s no magic bullet solution. Only the best possible choice to be made that very second with whatever knowledge, resources, emotions you have in that second. One choice my Papa consistently made was to stay. It could have just said, fuck it. As a matter of fact sometimes he did say that. When he was at the end of his rope and he couldn’t find a way out, he’d say out loud at the top of his lungs, things like, I’m going to set fire to this whole place and be done with it all. And then sometimes he would just say to me, you know, sometimes I just scratch my head. I don’t know what to do.
But he didn’t set fire to the whole place, and whatever it was that he did do that wasn’t at his best, he always did apologize, and he never ran away. He never abandoned any of us. And with all of the crazy he was combating, he never lost his sense of humor and his positivity or his optimism. I mean, he was a realist, don’t get me wrong, but honestly he could find something to sing about literally every day. When my mother was at one of her lowest periods, she had stopped all forms of personal hygiene. I remember coming home one day to find her in the bath, just sitting in the warm water, completely catatonic, and there sitting on the edge of the tub washing her hair, scrubbing her back, and soothing her with his voice was my Papa.
My father used to teach us using Sicilian proverbs, one he would use often translates into something like, it’s not when the sea is calm, but when the storm comes that you see how good of a captain you are. I think we all get surrounded by madness at times. We all do our best in the moment to weather the storms and keep cray cray at bay. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail, but through it all my Papa taught me to never give up, to always believe and to try and find the magic that’s always present in the moment.
On Sunday, June 24, 1990, I wasn’t supposed to be home that day. I was supposed to have gone into work, and mysteriously I had fallen ill. So that morning I still was in bed. My Papa came to check in on me and he was all smiles, full of energy and he whispered that he was going to make my favorite pastina for dinner, guaranteed to make me feel better.
Him just saying it already brightened my spirits, but he never got the chance to make the pasta, and I never got the chance to see his gapped tooth grin again. Hours later, he fell to the ground and I, the only one home at the time, other than my mother was attempting CPR. I knew he already was gone. I knew he wanted to go. I literally felt a presence pushing me off of him, stopping me from trying to restart his heart. My Papa was the kind of guy who would cross some hidden path and spontaneously take a detour to see where it would go. Ironically, my husband is the same way. The man I married actually is a lot like my father. My husband sings, serenades me with his guitar and even the mandolin, he cooks and he loves to take paths that are unknown, he’s spontaneous and he can so make me laugh.
Is he perfect? Hell no, but neither am I, and he’s imperfectly perfect for me. I thank my father for showing me what a caregiver really is, and for modeling what a real man, and a husband, and a captain of rough waters is meant to be. On the day my Papa left us, my world darkened. It was for me the start of my own descent into a whole nother kind of madness. Shortly after he passed on, that’s when my little sister was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenia. I’m pretty much left to handle it all, very ill-equipped and very much shamed and silenced and not asking for help, not even getting it when I did ask. So it was very dark after he left. I remember though months after he passed, my Papa loved to garden, and when he died he left behind his growing plot of beloved land and it was in the back yard, but it was huge.
He had already planted a lot of the veggies, zucchini, eggplant, beans, broccoli, tomatoes, you name it he planted it. It was coming up, and we all growing up we never bought veggies from the grocery store. We had such an abundance each year that my Papa would make these little care packages for all of the neighbors and he’d share the veggies as gifts that he grew from his own hands and heart. Everybody loved it. But after he died, I tried to keep up his garden and I remember it was August, and that’s when you’re supposed to get the fruits of your labor, so to speak. But I was not born with his green thumb, and pretty much everything he planted perished. I felt bad about it, and I remember dreaming of him one night. He came back to visit and to see his garden, and in the dream I was so ashamed at not being a good enough care giver and destroying the very thing he loved so dearly.
He made it known that I had nothing to be sorry about. And there he was, that big old smile of his, and those twinkling eyes. And he turned and showed me his garden and now magically it was flourishing. It was just ripe with so many colorful veggies and he just smiled at me. It’s interesting, I didn’t understand then, but I think I do now. The seeds my Papa planted long ago, they still bloom and bear fruit, often in unexpected ways that are bigger and better than I could have ever dreamt them to be. To him I owe so much, including being able to find the magic in the madness by remembering who I am, the captain I was born to be with his spirit as part of my core. Anyway, I miss you Papa [foreign language 00:15:33] and see you again soon.
Thanks so much for listening to Madness2Magic, and my podcast, I’m with Crazy, a Love Story. I believe we’re all here for a purpose and I know that this is part of mine. Please share this with anyone you think might benefit or might even have a story of their own to share. You also can visit me at madness2magic.Com, or check out more of my stories, including info on my book, the S word, at PaolinaMilanaWrites.com. I hope to hear from you and to join forces with what I consider a unique caregiver tribe. As we all learn to embrace all of ourselves, to have compassion for others and to come into our full power by the grace that is both madness and magic. Until we meet again, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite mantras. Be bold and mighty forces shall come to your aid. Thank you.