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Being 'Bubie Strong'  by: Natasha Arena



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Growing up, my parents taught me the many values that would eventually make me grow into becoming a strong, independent woman.  The most important lesson they instilled in me however, was the value of family and what it meant to be from a passionate, caring, and yes, sometimes overbearing, Italian bloodline. 

When it was a time in my life where most people around my age were going out with friends to the bar and partying, I preferred spending my free time at my cousins’ house, sitting around the table talking with my aunts, uncles, and my grandparents.  The one single place that I always would rather be though, was at my Gram’s.  My uncle would tease me about staying with her on the weekends instead of going out with my friends, but Gram was my best friend.  She was my rock through everything.  

When I was arguing with my parents, she was the one I would call to talk or go see to escape.  When I had my first break-up with boyfriend, she was the one who slept in the same bed with me just so I wouldn’t feel alone.  

When I was searching for a new job, she was the one I would ask for guidance.  When I made the decision to move across the country to California, she was the one who supported me even though it meant I’d be the first grandchild to live so far away from her; 3,000 miles away.  She would never hold me back from pursuing my dreams.  

Gram's name was Camille “Bubie” Nardone and I just couldn’t get enough of her.  She was the strongest woman that I knew.  Being the oldest of seven kids and practically raising her siblings, she set the precedent for our strong matriarchal family.  All throughout her life, she made sure to be ever-present for her kids, nieces, nephews, and of course her grandchildren.  Her main priority was putting her three children and eight grandchildren first in all aspects.  For everyone’s special moments, big or small, she was a constant fixture:  soccer games, wrestling matches, dance recitals, gymnastics meets, softball games, and graduations.  

To put into perspective just how amazing Gram was, the perfect example would be the day her youngest granddaughter was being born...on the same day she was taking her other granddaughters, nieces, and their friends to a concert in New York City.  As soon as she got the call, she turned the whole group right around (at the train station) to head to the hospital.  After meeting her newest grandchild, she then continued on to the concert as promised to the older granddaughters and nieces, making sure to not let any family members down and still do what she had to do.  

When Gram was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2011, collectively the family thought “this woman is a fighter, there is no way this cancer is going to win”.  She went through radiation, completed light chemotherapy, and then went into remission about nine months later with no foreseeable recurrence.  

Unfortunately for my family, by late 2015 we would have to face the hard facts.  The cancer had returned in a much more aggressive form.  At this point I had been living in California for three years, missing my family, especially Gram.  I couldn’t stand not being there for her anymore and decided it was time for me to go back home.  Fortunately, I received a job offer to work again for the New York Jets and of course Gram was the first person I told.  I can probably count on one hand how many times I have heard my Grandma cry...that phone call was one of those times.  Before I was even able to accept the job offer from the Jets, my phone was ringing nonstop; Gram had already alerted the whole family that I was coming home.  

In May 2015, I arrived in New Jersey and got right back into the swing of things; working, spending time with family, and just enjoying being home.  However the next year, 2016, would be my family’s toughest year yet, and one I wish I could forget.  From January to April, Grandma was in and out of the hospital.  I didn’t want to face the harsh reality that her health was deteriorating, so I would try to push her to get out of bed, to try more, to fight harder.  I never wanted to come to terms with the very real possibility that my Gram may never go home.  

July 15, 2016 is a day that will be burned into my memory forever.  I was at work and planning to go have dinner with my cousins that night.  My mom was sending me strange messages, saying Grandma really wanted to see me and to please stop by before going out.  I remember asking why, because my days with Gram were Saturdays, but my mom was persistent about me going to see her right after work.  

In my heart and in my gut, something felt off.  As I left work, I decided to call my cousin and see what was going on.  She told me that hospice had been called for Grandma because she was not going to make it through the weekend.  I remember the feeling of the blood leaving my face and a shortness of breath.  I could not understand or comprehend, nor did I want to believe that any of this was true. 

I parked my car and ran up to Gram’s room in a rush.  As soon as I turned down the hallway in the direction of her room, I saw my entire family waiting there.  They stopped what they were doing and gave me a look.  I felt my knees buckle, like I was going to collapse.  That’s when I lost it.

I knew I had to gather myself before going in to see her.  I didn’t want her to know how upset I was.  I walked into the room, held her hand, and said “Gram it’s me, Tashie”.  She tried to lift her head to talk to me but she couldn’t.  I told her how much I loved her, then left the room to gather myself again.  

That Friday, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends filled the room all day.  My mom stayed the night with Grandma and the rest of us would return on Saturday.  I remember going home and feeling empty.  I couldn’t sleep or eat.  At 2:00 in the morning, I showered and grabbed some clothes and went right back to the hospital.  By the time I arrived, Gram wasn’t responsive anymore, her breathing was basically gone, and a machine was the only thing keeping her alive.  My aunt and uncle came back shortly after I got there.  If there is one thing that Bubie’s kids and grandkids all have in common, it is that when push comes to shove and one of us needs something, we all drop what we are doing to be there for each other.  

Saturday, July 16th, was the most awful kind of waiting game.  We went back and forth all day with the doctors about taking Grandma off of the machine to allow her to go in peace.  I needed a break, so my uncle and I decided to go outside for some air.  I remember the silence weighing heavy.  I looked at him, wanting to ask how we got here, wanting to reach out and hug him, but afraid that if I did, it would all become real.  

By the time Saturday evening came around, all of our family had said their goodbyes.  My mom, aunt, uncle, and cousins were the only ones left.  It was time to let Grandma go.  The machine was removed as we all coached her through her passing.  At around 8:00 that night, she had taken her last breath.  My Gram was gone. 

I took that full week off from work.  I did not want to talk to anyone, answer text messages, or take phone calls.  I just wanted to be with my family.  Everyone always talks about how hard it is to lose a loved one, but nobody ever tells you what happens to those that they leave behind.  Nobody ever talks about the feelings, emotions, or what goes on in our minds.

My body and brain were going through things that I had never experienced before.  I felt depressed all the time.  I didn’t want to be alone, I was afraid of not having people around me.  I couldn’t calm down enough at night to sleep in my own bed, so I slept on the couch in my apartment with the TV on to keep away the silence.  I was having panic and anxiety attacks multiple times a day.  I felt like I was literally crawling out of my own skin and I couldn’t make it stop.

I remember my first panic attack.  It was on a flight home from California, after I had gone back out there for my best friend’s wedding.  I remember sitting in the seat and feeling like I couldn’t breathe.  I tried to talk to the flight attendant to get some water or Ginger Ale. The plane couldn’t land fast enough and I thought, “this is it, I’m not getting out of this”.  This feeling would come weekly, if not daily, after my Grandma passed away.

My mom and my aunt sat me down one day and told me that I could not continue living like this anymore, that I had to go see someone.  I was always the person that for the most part had themselves together, I was by the book and never let anything stop me; but depression, anxiety, and bereavement had taken over my life. I needed help to work through my grief.

November 2016 was my first therapy appointment.  I had never felt comfortable with the idea of talking to anyone outside of my family, but unfortunately at this point I had to.  I knew I was at my worst and I couldn’t lean on my family this time because they too were all going through their own grief. 

Talk therapy helped, and shortly after I was put on medication to help me cope with the anxiety and depression.  Being against going to therapy to begin with, I was even more against taking medication.  I didn’t believe in it, I always thought a natural remedy would be best; but I knew I had to better myself, even if that meant stepping outside of my comfort zone and trying to further help myself heal.  

2017 was a rollercoaster year of ups and downs, mood swings, and just going through the motions of life. I needed something to get me out of the funk that I was in.  New Year’s Day, 2018, I turned to my mom and said “that’s it, 2018 is going to be the year that I redefine myself.  I need a purpose.  I need something to make me feel alive again”.  I also knew that I didn’t want to turn thirty years old and be mentally depressed.  

I made my decision to run a half marathon in April 2018.  I did my research and found one that spoke to me:  the Women’s Shape Half Marathon in New York.  A coworker told me to join New York Road Runners so I started training.  Running was starting to become a new type of therapy for me.  As I ran, I would go through many different emotions.  I would think about the happy times, the great things going on, or sometimes I would go through lists of things I wanted to do in my life or the places I wanted to go, and other times I would cry, remembering the hurt and the pain and try to run through it.  

The day of the half marathon was great.  I drove into the City with my mom and my aunt, they tracked me throughout the race, and waited for me at the finish line.  We had dinner at Carmine’s to toast to my accomplishments and eat our carbs.  Sitting there in the “Bubie Strong” shirt that I had made, I told them that I was going to run in eight more races and go for the New York City Marathon.

I had always been an athlete my whole life but this new goal was something that was foreign to me, a little scary, and very much out of my comfort zone.  It was a goal that I needed.  I ran the remaining eight races over the course of the next nine months.  My last race was my qualifier and my parents were there to watch me ring the bell.  I was officially in the 2019 New York City Marathon. 

After my qualifying race with 2019 right around the corner, I was able to reflect.  These races not only helped me with my athletic abilities and my exterior appearance, it did something within my soul.  I changed as a person.  I started prioritizing things that I wanted in my life and the people that I wanted in my corner.  My relationships had changed drastically but I had to be okay with it.  

When you start going through major events in life, you start seeing a change within yourself and a change within your circle.  Some people disappear and that’s okay, some people go in and out and that’s okay, too.  The ones that stay though, those are the ones that you live for, and those are the ones I run for.

I wear my “Bubie Strong” shirt to every race I run, because I want people to know what it means to be Bubie Strong.  My Gram would have probably laughed about me doing this, would have probably said; “What are you doing, you crazy girl?!” I know she would have been proud and would have been waiting for me to cross that finish line.  She also would have loved that this is an event for all her kids (Terry, Dave, Gina, Robert, Rod, and Tammy) and grandkids (Jessie, Dominick, Angelo, Kate, Nina, Anthony, and Nico) to be involved in.  

These races were a gateway for me to redefine myself, decide who I am, and who I want to be.  I will be going back to school in August for my Master’s Degree, I am teaming up with and volunteering for Best Buddies New Jersey, I will continue traveling and seeing new places, as well as continuing my career with an amazing organization that has always supported me.  I hope to have my own family to one day pass on my values and share my stories with. 

Because of all of this; I am 'Bubie Strong'.  I will be running for my Bubie in November if you would like to sponsor my run here is the link:

Natasha Arena