My dad died a year ago, and I feel compelled to write some thoughts about the past year and reflect on handling personal tragedy. But there is also something else from my life I want to share.
Over the past months, I have straddled two worlds—with one foot in the world of journalism, something I have never hid from anyone, and the other foot in the world of comedy, which I have mostly kept private until now.
I can honestly say I do not know how I would have avoided severe depression if I had not taken improv classes at Second City in Chicago this past year.
My dad, Thomas Gosztola, was 56 years old, when he died. In a two-story home in Elkhart, Indiana, where he lived with my stepmother and two sisters, he suffered a heart attack in the middle of the night on November 14, 2014.
I live in Chicago. That morning, I woke up to a phone call from my mother, who told me I had to call my brother. I knew something was wrong. In fact, I thought my grandfather—my dad’s father who was 82 years old at the time—had died because he was in poor health. I made one of the worst phone calls of my life, and my brother gave me the news our dad had died.
My girlfriend, Julie, immediately took in the news, and like the pillar in my life that she has become, she made all the arrangements for us to get to Mishawaka, Indiana, my hometown, where I could be with my brother, stepmother, and sisters and plan the funeral.
By the time I arrived, the Emergency Medical Service had already taken my dad’s body from the living room floor, where he collapsed in the middle of the night. I waver back and forth on whether that makes me fortunate or not. I do not have a grim picture of my dad seared in my brain, but I wonder if seeing his body removed would have given me certain level of closure.
There was my stepmother screeching at the top of her lungs, begging for my dad to walk in the back door to the garage. “I just want my husband back,” “I just need my husband,” and, referring to my sisters, who are 4 and 7 years-old, “These girls just need their daddy to come back home.” Of course, everyone there for my stepmom did their best to deal with this panic, and let her wail loudly as she confronted the pain of the moment.
I spent the days in the run up to the Tuesday funeral on November 18 thinking about the final moments I had with my dad. I do not know if everyone who experiences death goes through a struggle to remember final moments, which were once thought to be entirely meaningless.
I do not remember the last time I saw my dad, but it probably was around Labor Day weekend. The last time I talked to my dad was over the phone on Monday, while I was in Washington, DC, at Jane Hamsher’s house. I stepped away from a gathering with Thomas Drake, Jesselyn Radack, Kathleen McClellan, Brian Sonenstein, and Jane to answer my dad’s call. He wanted me to come home next weekend for a catfish dinner at my grandpa’s house. I told him I would call him back later and let him know if I could make it.
I never would have thought that call would take on any significance. I also was asked to come home for fall photos in September but did not make it a priority to get home. I even recall a conversation with my dad about how we would see each other in December around Christmas and have time for photos so there was no reason to worry about not making it home. For the rest of my life, I will feel unease when thinking about the choice I made.
Nevertheless, I think back to the viewing when I was in the funeral home surrounded by people, who were all positively impacted by my father. Each person shared fond memories of my dad, who was the manager of a successful small business called JPD Controls. I appreciated hearing about how my dad was willing to meet with his employees in his office when they needed help. He talked them through their problems and attempted to help them get through their troubles—whether they needed emotional or financial support. He was a kind optimistic person any time anyone had problems.
It also brought some peace to me when we made the decision to bury him next to his mom, Marlene, who tragically died in 2010. She slowly gave up on living after my grandfather divorced her. However, my dad never gave up on her, even when her depression got the worst of her.
For the most part, I returned to life after my father’s death without a whole lot of trouble. What really helped me deal with everything (including the untimely and unexpected demise of Firedoglake) was an improv class at Second City.
I had a good cry while taking a shower on the Wednesday after the funeral, when I was working at home alone and could no longer distract myself by helping others grieve. I also had a panic attack a few days later and ended up in the emergency room for a couple hours because I believed I was suffering from all the major heart complications my dad had. I turned out to be perfectly fine and healthy.
Wednesday night I slipped into improv class, as if nothing traumatic or life changing had occurred. It was a basic Level A class, which I had been in for three or four weeks at that point. I incorporated the “Yes and…” philosophy of improv in order to move onward.
In an improv scene, if an actor were to say a person is dead or actually kill that person on stage (which rarely happens), the scene would have to keep moving. Every person in the scene would be expected to accept the death and would not say no and challenge the choice. Like all choices, it would be accepted so the scene could continue to be built by actors in the scene.
Essentially, I convinced myself there was nothing anyone could do to bring my father back. We could cry, wail, moan, and protest the fact that he had died, however, doing that for too long would stall my life. It was up to me to react and, perhaps, respond to my father’s death in ways that would make me stronger. Yes, my father was dead, I told myself. And I’m not going to let this get me down to the point where I stop living life to its fullest.
I made a couple promises to myself in order to honor my dad. One, I would continue to take improv classes at Second City and do this because it made me happy and I felt like I was doing reasonably well at learning how to be myself, listen, and find the funny in scenes. It also offered a much-needed creative outlet that I did not have as a journalist.
The second promise I made was to propose to my girlfriend, Julie. I saw this as a way to counteract death, to stifle the sadness by doing something that would create joy and hopefulness. In February, I traveled with my girlfriend to Costa Rica to attend her friend’s wedding. And, on the last day in Costa Rica, I stood on the balcony of the villa with the rainforest around us and asked her to marry me. Of course, she said yes, and we’re getting married on July 23, 2016.
Now, as for improv, I never would have imagined that it would go so well for me. I completed the five-class Second City Training Center improv program in August. I performed three times on stage as part of the classes. I auditioned for something called “Coached Ensembles,” and made it into an improv group, which performed at Stage 773 on Thursday nights for four weeks. I started writing comedy sketches and will be part of shows performed at the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival on January 17.
I also made some marvelous friends while going through classes at Second City. The women in our group are incredibly talented and never cease to amaze me, and the guys are really good and committed as well. We formed a group that continues to take classes, perform, and look for ways to support each other.
I chose to take improv before my dad died so, perhaps, you’re wondering what led me to make that choice.
On August 9, 2014, Robin Williams committed suicide. We now know he suffered from symptoms of Diffuse Lewy Body Dementia, a neurodegenerative disease. The disease was accelerating fast. Anxiety attacks, delusions, and impaired movement were too much for Robin to handle. However, in the days following his death, all of the people who loved his movies and comedy simply believed he had depression and killed himself, which is not true.
I never knew Robin personally at all, but his death had an impact because I loved almost everything he ever did, even his appearances on late night television shows, which are more fun to watch now than ever. So, I thought about how Robin had said something about how a person is given a little spark of madness and should not lose it. I wanted to hang on to the spark I have, and do more than simply express myself through journalism. I was a fan of many of the well-known people who came through Second City and decided to see what would happen if I took a class.
In some ways, Robin’s death emotionally prepared me for my dad’s death. For example, my dad’s autopsy revealed his heart had enlarged to 500cm and had stopped pumping blood. This was extraordinary, since he had previously had heart bypass surgery, exercised regularly, and had seen multiple doctors in the months before he died.
Comedian Jamie Kilstein, who was a friend of Robin’s and frequently incorporates improv into the popular “Citizen Radio” podcast, gave me the confidence to give myself permission to try doing this. Both Jamie and Allison Kilkenny made me believe I could still do my part to help make the world a better place. Being involved in improv would not weaken my commitment to truth and justice in the world.
The first year without my dad was tough, however, I can say I learned how important it is after death to find something positive to commit yourself to doing so you do not become permanently damaged.
I recognized the easiest way to prevent lasting sadness was to hold those people I loved closer and to find more time with friends and family. I made strong choices that made me content again with life.
If something terrible were to happen to me, I would want people to respond similarly and keep on living as they had been living when I was alive. I am convinced that is what my dad would have wanted, and I honor everything he ever taught me by being kind, optimistic, and by pushing myself to accomplish new things each day.