We open where we left off
with our friends taking a break after a revealing and wonderful first round of questions. You’ve met Jon, Peter, Lauren, Brandon, Emily and Jae ( they will now all be referred to with their first names) and it is time to introduce the conclusion to this evening with their second questions and answers. This is where the conversation really blossoms, we see everyone wanting to get more out of their time to speak and everyone in return more willing to soak up what we came here to say. We start again, with Jon.
TW: Mental Illness, Fire, NICU Stays, Early Birth, Mental Illness, Religious Trauma
SC: What are your long term goals?
Jon: “Where do I start?” Jon starts firing on all cylinders, The man is filled with energy when talking about the things he wants to do and accomplish. He talks about releasing his own original music, following his passions, making sure he has time and space for the right things and people and above all, he wants to help others. Jon’s father, Dave, passed away 3 years ago in 2020, his funeral was packed and Jon shares something with us. At the funeral, in a state of fresh grief, Jon turned to a friend and said “Wow, look at how many people loved my Dad.” His friend replied “Sure Jon, but you’re missing the point.” Dave Wibben loved people in every day ways, it wasn’t about how many people loved Dave, it was about how many people Dave loved, or acted lovingly towards. This is what added up to such a huge impact, and why so many people felt his loss. “Being a good person and showing love will eventually always pay you back” - but it isn’t all about the payback, it’s about what you are putting in. Jon is aiming for greatness, but he is refocusing on how to obtain such greatness, in acting with intention, love and kindness. His goals range, always going back to his music (if you’re an Islander fan, you may recognize Jon as their National Anthem house singer this season) but his heart is always in finding a way to help others, “If I have the ability to, I should.” He wants to become a known Christian singer, maybe tour, but it all starts with one step - with intention, really Jon has such a long list of things that he wants to make happen and the reason is so that he can constantly give back - we all know Jon, and know that him speaking it out, is speaking it into truth.
Everybody gives Jon a smile knowing that he is destined for big things. Ideas and his list of goals have molded into smaller brainstorming sessions through the breaks in our conversation. After a lot of encouraging words from friends, the bowl of questions goes to Peter.
SC: What has been the biggest influence in your life?
Peter Mastrocinque: “I am struggling with the ‘what’ - because there is an answer people may expect from me, but really, it’s the people. The people is my answer.” [Peter's Father Rudy died in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th 2001. He has written about this and talked very openly, which is part of what he was referring to with this statement] The reason Peter was drawn to to this today is for that very reason - here are the people, a group that functions like a family and has for as long as he can remember. “Acting is embarrassing, and yet we have all done that in front of each other, we’ve seen those sides of each other and we are still here. Because we hold that respect for each other, we hold that support.” Peter highlights how us as a group show up for each other and that’s because we have all bonded by constantly being a part of activities where we have to reach a common goal. Putting on a play, you’re only as strong as your weakest player. You have to carry each other, look out for each other while performing yourself. You take turns being the leader and the background - and while we aren’t acting anymore, that’s why this structure, this ‘family’ works. Peter also talks about how his Dad put him in sports, and he doesn’t resent or regret that. It taught him something new, a skill he was happy to have and two games he liked to play. But the bonds within those teams are different, it’s more competitive, more self involved. “These people? The friends, the family, who have been there along the way - they make me feel safe. They are the biggest influence on my life.”
The room is smiling from ear to ear. Stephanie thanks Peter sincerely, as she has known Peter since very early childhood. “It’s nice to meet you again” she says as the bowl is passed over to Lauren.
SC: What is the next big step you need to take?
Lauren: “I am doing it right now.” Talking about what’s going on with her, is that next step in order to heal, and grow from where she is. The last 3 years have been excessive, to say the least, and finally Lauren is coming to a place where she is putting herself first in order to push through, The problem that she faces in looking for help that she doesn’t want to be a burden, she is well aware that everyone has their own stuff they are dealing with. Her first question was an introduction into her hardships for almost everyone at the table. Lauren keeps so much in/passes like nothing is wrong that people who truly love and care about her had no idea. What she opened up about next, was also a shock to most.
Lauren gave birth to her twins Griffin and Gavin on October 4th 2021, she was 26 weeks pregnant, meaning the boys were 14 weeks early. They were so small, and nobody knew just how to react when the announcement went out. Lauren isolated, all of her energy was spent by her son’s sides. She had to wait an entire month to hold her babies. She get’s very still and the energy tenses as everyone is intently listening “The NICU at Good Sam is one big room. You get to know everyone, it’s a new family since that’s where everyone is spending all of their time. So when Griffin was crashing, and the nurses asked everyone to leave - I knew, I knew it was bad. I watched him die. I watched my son die, and I watched him come back…..twice. I never prayed that hard. Jon (looks at her friend) I spoke to your Dad, I begged. I pleaded. I called on every angel I had. We were ‘lucky’ - we were living a personal hell, but he survived, we survived. But sometimes, I am emotionally still in that room.” The next step sounds so simple but is so complicated for Lauren, it’s just about being open. It’s about accepting help. It’s about pushing past anxiety. It’s about allowing herself to have a life again, even if it looks different than she pictured. So much goes into this type of growth and change - but here she is, making it happen. Lauren has only seldom talked about her and her husband's NICU stay with their sons, this was a monumental step for her.
Lauren’s body starts to react to her emotional release, the thing about MS is that as she is experiencing this stress and heavy emotion her body goes into overdrive. She vocalizes her physical pain and walks into the other room, and Stephanie follows. The table distracts themselves with small talk, not really sure on how to react. In the other room Lauren is panicking, this was not something she was ready to display. She wasn’t ready to show this side effect to her chronic illness. Talking about it, being heard is one thing, being seen? Different. After some comforting and calming Lauren asks Stephanie for her cane and Stephanie returns with only half of it. This breaks the emotional ice and laughter erupts as Stephanie runs back to find the rest of it. This is the first time any of Lauren's friends have seen her with a walking aid, or any of the physical effects of her MS. As Lauren returns to the table, Peter stands and pulls her chair out for her. Everyone acknowledges and responds to Lauren lending her comfort and support. It is decided that Lauren is still the same badass she always has been, probably even more now.
A small break is taken because everyone is processing, especially Lauren who is settling back into her seat. Brandon now goes through to find his second question. He had held one over from his first choice but decided he didn’t have the right mindset to thoughtfully answer. He finds a new one to pass to Stephanie and when the group is ready, he answers.
SC: Is there something you used to love that you don’t connect with anymore? Do you miss it?
Brandon: “Nope!” A huge laugh is shared at the table. [Stephanie observes that this is in a way to emotionally take care of Lauren while also adding relief to the entire table] after a few ‘Nope!’ Jokes and giggles are made, Brandon gets serious. It’s very obvious that he is ready to talk about something, and the story comes in layers.
The backstory, Brandon’s family home suffered a fire in 2020 - the day after Thanksgiving. Brandon was working in the basement (his art studio) all night and packed it in at about 7:00am and went to bed. Three hours later he would be awakened by his sister pounding on his door screaming FIRE - the house was filled with black smoke. Brandon got out, but then went back in to find his black cat, and did - but didn’t find the others. Their family home, was severely damaged in this fire and was able to be rebuilt but they were all displaced for an extended period of time. Brandon lived with this shadow of guilt, that he in some way started this fire - but really it was a mistake made by someone called for maintenance at the house [for legal reasons specifics are left out]. Brandon described when he went back in to save his cat, he got lost - he actually said to himself ‘this is it, you’re dead’ before falling into his room while feeling along the walls. He hit his head but was able to get his bearings and found his way back out. Later, he would cut a piece of drywall with his handprints on it to keep, “I’m an artist” he says, “This is probably the most important piece I have ever made.”
Fires are devastating, and the grief and aftermath is so complicated to navigate. When sharing about her experience with fire earlier in the dinner, Stephanie made a comment about processing the pain and how hard it is, because “You can’t go and punch a fire in the face and ask for answers.” Brandon related to this especially when talking about what happened next after he turned to his friends.
So the answer to his question directly, it is actually a story about him losing 2 friendships that were very important to him, and feeling that grief as well. Brandon needed to unload this. His answer is filled with details and self reflection as he navigates the hard topics of miscommunications and really, friends being in different seasons of their lives and instead of growing together, growing apart. He shared some hurtful blows, like how when he finally knew his workshop did not cause the fire, he shared his relief with his friends and was met with a snarky, passive remark - almost like his anxiety and fear over this situation was annoying. The entire table reacts to this, some of us even turn our backs to hide our facial expressions when he shared. Brandon lost all of his art creations, it’s beyond heartbreaking, along with his family losing their things and home for a period of time - it takes a toll, and it is very hard to navigate. Plus, like any type of grief it comes in waves. He echos his first answer, about finding out who he is - and maybe that means not connecting with people he once did. It’s a hard truth, and here he is, with another group of friends, who accept and welcome this vulnerability. Through these accounts too he offers a lot of self reflection, I mean a lot, but still just cannot understand why he was treated a certain way or what actually happened - you can feel his pain.
The energy is one big exhale after Brandon is finished, it is really felt that he needed to process these things out loud, and the space he had been given was the perfect stage. We can all relate to friendships and relationships ending or being strained - it hurts, and is unfortunately so relatable.
Brandon wraps his answer and it is felt how much he was carrying around and needed to process out loud. Emily chooses a question and passes it over to Stephanie
SC: Describe an experience that happened last year that you are most grateful for”
Emily: “Everything.” This question is the perfect follow up to Emily's first, since she got out all the nitty gritty details of what she went through - now she almost rejoices in the fact that she has shared, “Everything, every single little thing means so much now.” Her Panic Attack lead her to finding a new job that she absolutely loves, and also really taught her to always trust your gut. “Using your voice is hard when you don’t know what is happening but you just know you need help. Don’t shut that out, trust yourself,” she explains while illustrating that she truly is stronger than ever in so many aspects of her life. Emily echos the fact that she now feels like she can get through anything that comes her way - but also is aware that nothing in life is a guarantee. “You have to live in the present but not ignore how you feel, because that makes it worse.” She talks about how it’s hard sometimes, because people don’t always understand where you are at, and people can only meet you from their own perspective, but that doesn’t mean your thoughts and feelings are wrong, or don’t matter.” Emily says these statements without resentment, but within strength. The panic attack, the anxiety, getting help and saying she was not OK - none of it ruined her life. Instead it made her trust an inner power and proved that anxiety and emotional breaks do not indicate weakness, but the opposite - it shows incredible strength to pull yourself out of a dark place and an even greater strength when you are open and honest about it.
Everyone applauds Emily and agrees with the meaning of her statements. Everyone at the table has been through so much emotionally sharing and listening, the anticipation of Jae’s last and final answer reaches a peak as they search for their question.
SC: What makes you feel nostalgic? What time period of your life do you go back to?
Jae: “Listen…..” Laughter all around. “High School, high school was….interesting” [This project was partly inspired by a post from Jae on Instagram that was a video from the annual Caroling party the friends gathered for in December. Jae wrote 'and we're back in High School' which pushed Stephanie to reach out to pitch this idea] This being the final question is undoubtedly the best move the universe could have made for this table. “I moved to Kings Park in 6th grade, I didn’t have the same roots that you all did. I was bullied pretty terribly in middle school. I had friends, but it wasn’t until music/theater in High School that I really found my place.” Jae describes finding their footing and where they belonged even when dealing with heavy emotional struggle. They grew up in a very religious household and a lot of questions about their own sexuality and identity, but wasn’t safe to experience them out loud. “When you know how you’re feeling is going to technically damn you to hell, it’s really hard to figure it all out.” Jae was not out in high school, but they were a part of a group that served as a safe, found family. When they finally did come out, friends made them feel like nothing actually changed. There was a time period that Jae was very obviously dating someone but nobody bothered them about it. Nobody outed them before they were ready. Instead it was just always love. Love drew Jae to the group, love sustained them through every trial and tribulation. Every mistake, every hardship and every triumph was surrounded by everyone in the group who loved them. “Everyone, every person in this friend family, changed my life. I couldn’t be who I am today without everyone here and those who aren’t here at this table but are still in our lives.” Jae doesn’t have to go back in time to feel all of these things, because the friendships are very much here, and very real.
A conclusion seems impossible
You know those nights that you never want to end, yet at the same time you know they have to because your 'real' life is waiting to comfort you? That was this night. Truthfully there is one more question answered, mine, that ended the evening - and one day Act Three will come out in a personal essay form when I am ready to share. I know it seems unfair - since my friends all signed up for this to be written about, but my answer is a complicated share (legalities, privacy to those involved, not entirely my story to tell). What I can tell you, is I talked about things that I don't talk about. I opened up the heaviest bag I carry around and sat it down - and Lauren, my friend who physically and emotionally just bared her soul held my hand through it. It's really incredible when you sit back and analyze this type of give and take. Everyone at the table held so much space for everyone, while also taking up their own. There were no misery olympics, there were no dismissive statements about gratitude or positivity with blinders on. Instead we were just friends taking our own turns at being vulnerable.
Vulnerability is strength. We are breaking generational patterns by letting people know what’s going on with ourselves without judgement and without permission. This is an education, this is a history, this is being handed the blueprints to those you care about and deciding if you are going to pay attention or roll them up and put them somewhere more comfortable. There was no room for 'opinions' or 'Devil's Advocate' at this table. There was no advice. There was unwavering, unconditional support. There was strength in our sadness and wisdom in our wounds. Everyone left and I sat at my table, candles burnt all the way down, journaling my thoughts. I will leave you all with this.
"My idea was to see if we all were just stuck in bonds that maybe we outgrew. Could we handle actually getting to know each other again? Will this be taken seriously? It was proven that people grow, and change, and that doesn't mean we grow apart - because when the love is real, it accepts all of those parts when they are genuine. Yes, we wear masks to get through. Yes, we relive old memories in comfort - but it's because we take the best parts of those moments when we need to be carried now. This is not just a friendship, this really is a chosen family (a theme that was repeated again and again by everyone here), and I hope we have time to connect like this again."
If this is something you would be interested in doing with your friends or family please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org - I would love to organize this with a group I am not a part of and feature it here on the blog.