The Season

Sunshine Skyway bridge

Above is the Sunshine Skyway, spanning 21, 877 feet and rising 430 feet in the air, connecting St Petersburg, FL with Pinellas county. It is both majestic and frightening with its thin lines and elegant style.

Today I drive this bridge almost daily on my way to and from the office. With sun shining and no traffic it stands as a highlight along the route. Though gorgeous in sunshine, when windy or raining it can be harrowing. Years ago I can recall crossing as we raced home before on oncoming storm. The moment sticks with me as any drive though a blizzard in years past.

While the sleek lines or visually appealing for the photographer in each of us, they also bring tight shoulders and cramped spaces. Not only is there no shoulder on the bridge, but there is no sidewalk, no place of refuge. In fact, this last spring was the first time since the 1987 the bridge was opened to foot traffic, a 10k run for charity. Otherwise, no pedestrians or bicycles are allowed on the bridge and stopping for any non-emergency reason is forbidden.

Thus, when a car is left empty at the top of the skyway in otherwise working condition it leads to a single depressing conclusion by us passing motorists. Suicide attempts from the bridge are high, with over 207 suicides recorded between 1987 and 2009. 34 additional attempts were made, but these individuals survived. While 24 hr monitoring and and crisis hotline is available, it does not seem to deter so many.

Throughout the year as I pass over the bridge typically on my way home, but sometimes in the early morning light, I will find an abandoned car often accompanied by an emergency vehicle. In those moments, as you watch heads peer over the edge and shake, your heart sinks. Last night was one of those times, and last week there was another.

I did not notice it the first year I made the daily crossing, but then I started seeing them. The cars, sitting solemnly to the side of the road as if waiting for their owners to return. Once I started seeing them you start taking notice. And it seems that at this time of year it happens more frequently.

I cannot pretend to understand. Each of us have our own demons and our own problems. Debt, drugs, or loss of a loved one. While I can sit here and say “there is always a way back”, for some they just don’t see it. Yet, it is not only for them my heart sinks. It is for the friends and family they leave behind.

It is almost ironic that at this time of year. At time which is often pronounced the be the “most wonderful time of the year”, is often that time filled with the most depression and despair. We put on so many masks hiding the pain, bottling it up and hoping for a better outcome in the new year. We smile for the cameras and sing christmas carols with coworkers and avoid looking past the ugly sweaters to see the person hiding underneath.

I know over the next few weeks I will cross paths with several more cars no longer with drivers. With each one there is a story. A story now lost to the waves below. A story of friends and family that did not see the suffering, or did not understand the depth of the pain. A story of inner turmoil.

I know I don’t understand. Yet, I do know that telling your story, even just to the empty pages of a small notebook, can help put them in context. Telling them to someone who can understand will help. This season, please tell us your story.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline


In the path of a storm

It has now been almost two weeks since hurricane Irma blew through the area.  For the most part our lives have slowly returned to normal.  There are some families still without power and internet was only restored here at home earlier this week.  Kids have returned to school from an unplanned week-long break; after providing shelter for many of the families around the community the schools had to once again be prepared for the onslaught of children.   You can still see fallen trees, broken branches, and a few wind-torn buildings – but nothing too bad.  In fact, most of the issues in our area could be considered “first-world problems”.  Mostly inconveniences and yard cleanup 1.  Yet, just hours from the storms arrival on the Florida coast there was a very different tune playing – and it could easily have have been much worse.

In the days leading up to the storm I was playing things pretty cool.  I had seen this before, having lived through the onslaught of storms during 2004 and 2005.  For the most part I knew what to expect and was preparing for it slowly as I calmly monitored the situation and continued with my daily life.  However, one thing struck me this time – more than anything else – EVERYONE was leaving town.

Much to the dismay of family and friends living up north, I was a long way from leaving town.  Yet with each passing day the storm’s path drew closer to us and the storm kept growing, in size and strength – at one point Irma had grown to become the strongest Atlantic storm in recorded history. Yet instead of following the news coverage on TV (no cable 2), I was reading and monitoring the weather apps … and I prepared.

While I was not running from the storm, I was not being completely complacent.  I knew what the storm could do and I have a sense as to what the aftermath would look like.  I was taking a realistic approach to the situation – something my family and many friends could not always see.  I planned for several days without power, filling the pantry with water-based food for cooking and other dry foods.  I had candles and recharged all my batteries for flashlights. I both planned and visualized how I would handle the worst-case scenarios … a tornado, post-storm flooding, and more.  However, I also knew I was not in a flood zone, I was outside the standard evacuation zones, my ground floor walls are concrete brick, and I have few windows.  Geographically and structurally I was better off than many of the designated shelters.  While I hadn’t boarded up my windows (on my list of future enhancements if I am going to stay here) … I was otherwise as prepared as I could be.

Yet, the storm still grew.

As an individual I knew I was safe, yet as a parent additional concerns and fears set in and the boys were with her this particular weekend.  Since my ex continues to live in ‘our’ house I was confident in the geographical location and structure security of the place, and that was where they were planning to be.  I also knew her and her capacity to calmly and effectively plan for such situations.  I trusted her and this allowed my parental anxiety to ease.  However, as the path tightened and lined up with our little community we discussed our options.  While together we had always had a plan … we evacuate at a “category 4” storm.  We had seen the damage such a storm could produce in 2004 and once we were parents we had responsibilities.   We could not live the adventure as we once had. Yet, we had not had the conversation since we have split … haven’t had to. However, now there was a storm barring down on us, its track had fouled already fooled both of us and remained unpredictable to the experts.  Gas stations were running dry, grocery stores were empty of food and water, and the roads out of town were clogged with traffic as everyone and their dogs, cats, and birds were trying to “get out”.   After a quick conversation we decided to stay put – putting our faith in our existing preparations rather than road conditions.

This is when she made, what I feel, was a huge co-parenting suggestion and request.  In the event the storm did continue to progress towards our area, she asked if I would stay with them at her place.  She felt that having both parents around would reduce the anxiety of the kids, as well as our own … and I had to agree. At this point I had prepared to fend off the storm alone.  I had visualized scenarios where sh*t hit the fan … planned out different scenarios and prepared myself for the need to get across town in case the worse happened. However, I must say that being stuck alone with winds ripping at the roof and walls of my house did not sounds like a bundle of fun. What she offered was a far better situation for both me and the family as a whole during the storm.

Yet, there was a caveat to the whole plan.  One that turned my stomach.

The thought of weathering this storm together, as a family, warmed my heart.  Not in hopes of rekindling some lost love, but of returning to a state of friendship and cooperation. Maybe romantic image of the situation, a situation that is completely devoid of any romance (there are some fires that just won’t ever spark again).  Problem was we would not be alone … there would be a full house.  Due to the geographical and structural nature of the house, she had essentially set it up as a shelter. Joining us would not only be a family friend and with her family … but also her (ex?) boyfriend, his daughter, his ex-wife (and her sister) … and, yes, it was as messed up as it sounds.

A storm within a storm we called it … and a situation I did not want to be a part of.  I was not comfortable.  I did not trust the environment I was entering.  She has lied to me about her relationships before – and I felt like I was being lied to again.  Of course this was I just a feeling, I don’t know. I can go on rumors and stories from third parties … but I know they have been mislead at different times to suit the needs of the moment.  I have learned to trust my gut, and my gut told me I wasn’t getting the whole truth.

So … I had a choice: stay at home alone or “Dad-up” and be there for my kids … and when looking at it like that the choice became obvious, though maybe not easy.  Just like I did with the storm, I prepared.  I ran through different scenarios in my head and pre-planned how I would handle different situations.  I knew I didn’t want to just hide in the corner the whole time … giving off the scent of resentment and depression.  I also knew I would need to avoid possible explosive situations. In reality, whatever was going on did not impact me anyways, I had my own life now.  I was grateful for the offer that was extended and the opportunity to spend some extra time with the boys – I wasn’t about to screw that up. This is what it means to move on.

It all seems sort of lame now, looking back as I write this.  Not that it was emotionally easy, but I think it easily managed.  My focus was on the kids – right where it needed to be.  I tried hard to not put any additional stress on my ex (as I can’t imagine it was easy for her either), so I helped in the kitchen and helped keep an eye on the kids.  I was not there to socialize with the adults and fake friendships … I was there for my kids.

Prior to the storm, I slept and took some time to read and relax.  I had stayed up late the previous evening completing some of the final preparations at my place, especially with me not staying at the house.  As the day wore on I took the kids outside to loosen up before a possible long night inside.  Then, as the winds picked up, my oldest and I started taking regular walks around the neighborhood to see “the state of things”.  Enjoying the windy and wet adventure for as long as we could safely do so, we would explore the neighborhood finding all the new trees that had ripped from the ground 3 so we could share it with the group back at home. Life is built by your experiences … and the two of us were not going to hide inside.

I think the best moment of the night came at about 11:30pm after the primary threats had passed.  As a group, primarily our family, we ventured out into the black unknown.  The winds had calmed but it was still raining a little too much to take our phones and cameras.   The adults had had a couple drinks and the kids were enjoying a relaxed bedtime.  The drains for the community roads had clogged, and provided a few inches of “flooding” … enough for some splashing and water play.   We dunked the kids … we dunked the adults.  We played.  The anxiety of the situation melted away and for a moment, a very brief moment, it felt like we were a family again. Later that night as we all slept the final bands passed by us, kicking up the winds once more and depositing more twisted and broken branches around the neighborhood – but we all remained safe and sound.

The next morning my ex and I both woke before the rest of the house and for the first time in a very long time we enjoyed a cup of coffee at daybreak.  The conversation was light but friendly … and hopefully just as the community rebuilds around us, we too can rebuild our friendship and develop that partnership that our kids deserve.

In the end, I have some great memories … though, I hope to not have to do that again any time soon.

1 – Of course, I am strictly speaking of the Sarasota area.  There are many communities, especially down in the Keys and Caribbean that were completed demolished from Hurricane Irma, but also some in our surrounding region.  The cleanup for Florida will be costly … but it always is when mother nature rings the doorbell.

2 – Even outside the 24-hr news channels and ratings war, I think just the act of reading vs watching changes the scope of impact on our anxiety.  To be able to carry the same weight and impact of words, I feel we often search out the most dramatic photo and videos. This simple fact, I believe, plays a big part in anxiety.   Not to mention a devastating storm, Harvey, in very recent history and the infamous Katrina is still burned into our minds.

3 – The ground became so saturated with water from the rain, the wind would push the trees right over, roots and all.  Think this was primarily due to types of trees and the fact they were planted by landscapers and not grown.

Summertime is here!

This week marks that time of year when School’s out for Summer. As a kid growing up this was the best time of year, a time to turn up the music and let loose. As the schools slowly let out I have watched as parents and families start to celebrate the upcoming break, excited with all they plan to do. As a single parent the joys of summer are often tempered by challenges. Summer throws a kink into the coparenting relationship and messes with the schedules. Add in summer camp and vacation coordination and you have a pot of stress ready to boil over. It happens every year and always manages to work itself out. So you relax, breath deep, and enjoy the sunshine on your face.

After all it is summer. A time for family and fun. A time to get outside and enjoy the sunshine and a chance to reach out and explore more of the world without concerns of homework and school. A time to enjoy the pool, waterpark, and beaches … a time to enjoy the great outdoors.

Yet you can’t, as a parent, completely relax. In all that summertime excitement you need to remember to keep the family safe. For a single parent this is just one more of those challenges times as your attention is that much more stretched. That is why when the Digital Dads recently had a podcast episode on this very topic that I wanted to share – not just for single parents … but all parents. They discussed, with Dr. Shoba Srikantan out of Orlando, many of the summer safety tips we should keep in mind. I won’t go into a lot of the details as I would encourage all parents to take a listen. However, the key takeaway for me was ‘be vigilant’. It only takes a few second for a child to escape your protective zone.

While the podcast seemed primarily focused on water safety, a big concern in the summer, summertime is a time for heightened awareness all around. Summertime offers kids more time to explore and to be more independent. As such, it might be a good time to discuss any rules or boundaries you have regarding playing outside or at the park. As they mentioned repeatedly, we as parents can’t relax. We are not off the clock while the kids are around – so stay vigilant and don’t let your guard down, especially when there are dangers around. The podcast also reminded me that I need to go get at least my CPR certification, Dr. Dad is always on duty so I better have the skills.

However, I thought I would add a few additional points to remember. I know we have all been told them before, but never hurts to get a refresher right.

Mind the Fire

One of my favorite activities during the summer is getting the change to go camping, now granted in the hot summer heat of Florida it tends to be put off until later in the fall – but for many this is the prime time of year to pitch a tent or park your RV and enjoy the great outdoors. There is often nothing better than roasting marshmallows over an open fire under a full moon, with nothing around you but trees and the sound of wind flowing through the trees. So, remember Smokey Bear and pay attention – a tossed match or renegade spark is all it takes.

Don’t Feed The Wildlife

My kids are some of the worst for this, always tossing crumbs out for the birds and turtles. They are cute, and pleasant. It is such a thrill to get close to wild animals. Your heart starts racing and you can feel the blood rush through your body. I admit, I am one that loves the encounters. But you have to be careful. Animals are primal, creatures of habits. Once they associate food and attention from humans they will seek it out, and sweet creates one moment can be aggressive the next. They are Unpredictable. They are wild. Which is why it is a thrill, just recognize it and keep yourself safe.

Be Prepared

As with almost every aspect of life, make sure you are equipped before heading out. A simple 45-min, late afternoon, drive into the woods can turn into an overnight stay (I will save that story for another day). So before heading out make sure you have the right gear – first aid kit, matches, and a plan.

With that, enjoy a safe and happy summer. Lets get on with those adventures!