By Jeff Castelaz
“June twenty-first!” I can hear Pablo proclaiming the date in his raspy little boy voice. June twenty-first is Pablo’s birthday, so you can image the childlike excitement, as he makes sure I somehow don’t forget.
If only he were here to talk to me—holy smokes! I would smash this laptop and never come back. I’d see colors with brilliant clarity. I’d hear sounds reserved only for the divine. The ever-present tension in my jaw and chest would instantly melt away. Most of all, I’d have someone to protect, someone to complete me. If Pablo were here, I’d be a parent again.
Nine years ago, with Jo Ann contracting in the passenger seat, and a young nine-year-old Grady in the back seat, I sped down Silverlake Boulevard, gliding over every bump and knot in the road, making our way to the relatively smooth pavement of Beverly Boulevard and its straight shot to Cedars-Sinai Hospital. A few hours later, a little ball of humanity was born. We named him Pablo. Not only because we had decided on that name, but because it was clear to us that he was just, PABLO! When we met him, it was that simple. Pablo.
The following 2,196 days were the best of my life. Pablo gave me a reason to live and to be in life. From the moment he was born, Pablo was my best friend. He brought joy into my life, slowed me down, and taught me to breathe and focus on what’s important. His very presence in a room made me feel complete. One of my favorite things was picking him up at the Walther School, where he would jump into my arms when he saw me, and we would sit on the sofa and read. We had fun, always. We had our own lingo, and we didn’t care how goofy we sounded. It was our thing.
The 1,100 days since Pablo’s death have been filled with many things: indescribable emptiness; feeling around in the dark for signposts; a joyful glow watching the The Pablove Foundation blossom in the world; self-worth that seesaws between Mount Rushmore and the gutter; physical fitness and a waistline that seesaws much too much; and a nonstop longing to belong. All of this, plus a relentless professional life at Dangerbird. A life I have chosen, or has chosen me, that is big and constant and sometimes fun.
My statement about fun isn’t an insult to those around me who have fun.
Unfortunately, when your child dies, all the things clinicians tell bereaved parents they can expect come true: “empty arms syndrome” (a longing to physically hold your child); a loss of purpose and self-worth (after all, parenting is the most important “profession” life has to offer); and intense blankness when others around you experience joy. The list goes on and grows every day.
Parents know that as we get older, our children quickly become the answer to the great “why.” They become “the reason” for everything we’ve built and for sustaining it all—to provide, protect, and remain present for them, so that they may have a better life than we had. Consequently, this mad dash to stay in the rat race is nourishing to the soul. By turns, the loss of a child is utterly disorienting to the rat racer. If you’ve ever been caught in a snowy whiteout (being from Milwaukee, I have), you only have a five-percent clue what I’m talking about. Snow whiteness is much easier than soul whiteness. That is all I can tell you. And I hope you never find out what I’m talking about.
Today, six months after my fortieth birthday, I sit at a crossroads in my life. I hobble into each day with my fractured heart. I try my best to look, sound, and feel normal. Some days are great. Some days are agonizing. Having endured the loss of Pablo in 2009 and my brother Scott in 2004, I am never ready for the instability I face in the music business. For a start, those of us on the front lines of the music industry are living through a trauma at the moment. Its unpredictable nature mirrors exactly the unknowingness I felt as a cancer dad. Never knowing whether any number or scenario can be trusted is often a rollercoaster from which I want to jump.
Having dedicated my entire adult life to advocating for others in the field of music, I don’t know anything else. Besides, I’m decent at what I do after twenty-plus years in the field. Where all of this is leading is here: I can feel myself wanting to narrow the scope of what I do and focus on things that bring joy and satisfaction to me. Not because I am not smart, not cool, or careless, but because I’m not sure I can volunteer to suit up for yet another cosmic war. I’ve fought enough of those in my short forty years on this earth. When things go well, there’s no better feeling. Seeing large groups of people mass up around small groups of people who pour their guts onto tape for all the world to hear is life-affirming, sacred stuff.
In a general sense, I know I’m not alone in this. Seems everyone I speak to is somehow examining his/her professional life these days. The neighborhoods populated by creatives all over the world are faced today with challenges wrought by worldwide economic uncertainty and the ease with which people can consume our output with little or no benefit to the creator or their backers. It’s an unfair game, with an invisible opponent, just like cancer.
So, on this day, my deceased son’s ninth birthday, in this open letter to the world, I proclaim that I will continue to do my best in life, in business, and in the work of The Pablove Foundation.
As I point my heart in the direction of Pablo and hope for some sort of luck or a break for the remainder of my days here on this hot, bizarre planet, I can guarantee only one thing: The best I can do is the best I can do.
My love to you and yours. Hug a kid today. Hug a friend today. Tell someone you love them. Make it real. Now, not later.
Jeff Castelaz co-founded The Pablove Foundation with his wife Jo Ann Thrailkill in honor of their son Pablo, who lost his battle with Wilms Tumor six days after his sixth birthday. The Pablove Foundation’s mission is to fund pediatric cancer research and advances in treatment, educate and empower cancer families, and improve the quality of life for children living with cancer through hospital play, music and arts programs. Jeff is also the CEO and co-founder of Dangerbird Records, a Los Angeles-based record label, artist management, and music services company. He grew up in Milwaukee and attended Marquette University. Learn More on Facebook and Twitter.