Candis Castorani knew exactly when she found her path in life.
It was during a lecture in a college class called Introduction to Psychology. The professor was addressing questions she’d long wondered about the workings of the brain. For years she’d watched a relative grapple with anxiety. Why does this happen? And how can we make things better?
Castorani was a confident young woman, quiet, self-motivated and driven – a natural leader, the go-to person friends turned to in a jam.
Psychology felt like a perfect fit with her goals – to help families, especially children in a school setting.
She could not yet know how it would serve her years later, amid her own family’s unimaginable wave of cataclysmic loss, when the inexplicable would bring her to her knees.
Finding a calling, and a foundation
Born and raised in Sarasota, she was surrounded by a large extended family anchored by her strong Italian mother and grandparents.
Castorani remembers she’d always wanted to work in schools. When she was a child, her parents set up a chalkboard for her on the back porch, where she taught to imaginary students using expired textbooks.
By the time she reached college at Florida State University, many assumed she would major in music – she had been the drum major at Sarasota’s Riverview High School in the 1990s. At FSU, she became the saxophone section leader in the Marching Chiefs.
But her career calling lay elsewhere. While initially drawn to elementary education, she also was fascinated about the brain and how its functions relate to human behavior, cognition and emotion.
She found a way to bridge her passions – graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in child development.
Back home, she got her first job at The Thinking Center of Sarasota. There she helped children and teens with academic interventions, particularly through remedial reading.
She also was back in the orbit of family and old friends – with Castorani and her sister pulled in to help her mother and grandparents host annual Christmas festivities with cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.
In 2008 she started what would become a long career with the Sarasota School district, beginning as a reading specialist tutor. That same year she obtained an Education Specialist degree in school psychology.
Meanwhile, around 2010, someone special entered her life, a man she would later marry. William Landers complemented her in every way. While Castorani was short and expressive, William was 6-foot-4 and stoic, quiet but kind. With an MBA in accounting, he worked for a business in north Sarasota.
William had three young children from previous relationships, as well as a Golden Retriever puppy named Jackson. Together the two got a second dog, Zoi, a Great Dane, their “gentle giant,” who was particularly attached to William.
Soon they started their own family, living in a house Castorani bought. A daughter, Sophia, was born in 2014. The next year Castorani obtained her doctoral degree in school psychology.
Through it all she worked full time, evaluating gifted children and those with learning disabilities, helping tailor interventions for each specific child.
Within a few years, they decided to build a house – with four bedrooms, large enough to accommodate their merged families when they were all together.
As Castorani balanced a demanding job and a hectic home life, William was her rock.
“He was the foundation,” she said. “I was the glue, but he was the foundation.”
That became especially true when her mother, by then in her late 50s, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
Many days, while William retrieved Sophia from daycare, Castorani would go straight from her job to her parents’ house to help take care of her mother until her father got home from work. Then she’d scurry home to cook dinner and get Sophia ready for bed.
“You dig deep, you do what you have to do,” she said.
While her sister was the caregiver, Castorani took command of the paperwork, doctor visits and specialists for their mom, who did not like accepting help. Castorani kept her focused on tasks.
“So that she still felt in charge of things,” she said. “To shift the mood, so there is no ‘woe is me.’”
Then one day in 2018, amid her mother’s fight with cancer, William began to complain of arm and back pain. At first they thought it was from lugging a new area rug into the house. When it persisted, Castorani worried.
“Going through this with my mom, we were already on high alert,” she said.
Castorani kicked into gear, setting up tests and scans.
Days later, as William drove south to Venice to visit his kids, his doctor called his cell phone.
“You need to come to my office,” he said.
A wave of tragedy and loss
Castorani heard the diagnosis through the phone from William: In his early forties, he had stage-four kidney cancer.
Mirroring her strong mother, Castorani took a deep breath and pulled her shoulders back. They would face this battle with the same force they’d tackled her mother’s.
“Okay, time to buck up again,” she thought.
Once more, Castorani dove in, seeking options from William’s doctors and material she researched on her own.
For eighteen months, William went through a promising immunotherapy treatment. He seemed to be making great strides – attending his son’s baseball games and Sophia’s soccer practice.
In the meantime, Castorani’s close family was hit with more bad news. Grandparents on both sides of the family fell ill.
In September of 2019, her father’s mother died and a month later at the end of October, her mother’s father passed away, too.
By then, Castorani’s own mother was declining fast, and in February, 2020, at the age of 60, she was gone, as well.
Still reeling from the death of her mother and two grandparents, Castorani learned weeks later that she was pregnant with their second child together.
That summer and early fall 2020, at the height of the pandemic, as doctors watched Castorani closely for signs of preeclampsia that she’d suffered with Sophia, William worsened.
In September, 2020, he was hospitalized for surgery to remove a kidney. The next month, Castorani went into labor at 37 weeks. Staff at Sarasota Memorial Hospital put them in adjacent rooms so William could visit, cradling their baby girl, Mia, in his arms.
After six weeks off, he went right back to work.
“He was a bull, he just kept going,” she said, “even though he was in substantial pain.”
Through the next year, into 2021, Castorani watched William push himself to help provide for them.
Most of their expenses fell to Castorani, their finances hit from William’s missed work and both of their unpaid leaves and out-of-pocket medical expenses not covered by insurance.
As his weight dropped, William, normally stoic, broke down at a friend’s wedding.
“I’m sorry,” he told Castorani crying, “I’m not going to be around.”
This past August, as Mia was nearing her first birthday, he had a stroke and was hospitalized.
“I can’t do this,” he told Castorani, wanting out. “I need to come home.”
After four days, on September 3, Castorani got him released, lining up a wheelchair, home health and a hospice bed for their room, fitting it with expensive sheets and bedspread.
“I wanted him to be comfortable,” she said.
That evening, Sophia and Mia came in to say goodnight before leaving to stay with relatives.
“He adored those kids,” Castorani said. “I think he pushed hard those last seven or eight months to be there for them.”
When they left, after 9 o’clock that evening, he stopped opening his eyes.
“Once he was home, he knew it was okay to go.”
As the night wore on and William’s breathing grew shallow, Zoi – their Great Dane and gentle giant, now 10 – lay at the foot of his hospice bed, not leaving his side. Castorani curled up next to her on the floor.
Into the next day, on Sept. 4, two of his older children had a chance to say goodbye. Then just before 1 p.m. – surrounded by Castorani, other family members and both dogs – William slipped away.
The following day, with the kids to worry about and so much to plan for a funeral, Castorani went on auto-pilot.
Then something caught her attention.
It was Jackson, the Golden Retriever. She heard him whimpering next to Zoi, the Great Dane, in a back corner of the living room.
When Castorani walked closer, she discovered Zoi lying motionless on the floor. Their gentle giant was dead.
Like a thunderclap, the accumulation of so much loss in two years suddenly struck Castorani with full force, bowling her over.
Castorani fell to her knees, screaming.
Community support, steady recovery
After a near-lifetime in Sarasota – including years of helping countless children, families and fellow employees as a school psychologist – Castorani found herself amid her grief on the receiving end of a community-wide embrace.
“The outpouring of support has been nothing short of amazing,” she said.
Throughout her ordeal, school district staff organized meals, said Sarasota schools social worker Jim Camelo. The department head went to the house to help watch the baby.
“Supervisors have called me asking, ‘Is there any other way we can help out?’” he said.
Camelo and other district staff were also able to step in with additional assistance through Season of Sharing.
Season of Sharing:Help your neighbors in need by donating now
With Florida lacking guaranteed paid family leave, Castorani’s friends and co-workers watched her power through unimaginable emotional grief and loss along with crippling financial strain. Medical and funeral costs piled atop regular expenses. Castorani fell behind on bills after missing weeks of work from the baby’s birth and caring for William.
She felt guilty about tapping into Season of Sharing, telling co-workers it should go to someone else.
“That’s what it’s made for,” said Camelo, who helped process $1,800 from Season of Sharing this fall to cover Castorani’s mortgage payments, while $1,000 in a previous year went to the mortgage, electric, child care and other bills.
Castorani feels fortunate to be surrounded at work by school psychologists, licensed social workers and mental health counselors, who are always there to listen.
“I don’t hold it in,” she said of her emotions, noting one way that she differed from her intrepid mother. “It’s therapeutic when I talk about it. I want help.”
She extends help forward, as well, sharing information and resources on doctors and treatments with other staff members whose loved ones are fighting illnesses.
Castorani, 39, is also in counseling, realizing that the pace of the last two years has left her unable to fully process the trauma they all endured.
“You have to take care of your own mental health, and I know I haven’t been doing that,” she said.
Mostly these past weeks, she has been focused on Sophia. Mia, she knows, will not remember these times.
Sophia, though, has lived through more loss in her short seven years than many adults experience across a life span.
As they search for a new normal together, Castorani has had to make death a daily part of their conversations.
Sophia has shown wisdom beyond her years, she said. Wondering why at first there weren’t as many gifts under the Christmas tree this year compared to the past, Sophia devised a way to move all the wrapped presents forward, trying to fill in the absence they both knew was there.
Sophia asks her if something will take Castorani away, too. Castorani doesn’t lie. Sophia has seen too much. Instead, Castorani tells her that though we never know what tomorrow will hold, her mom already has a plan for whatever may come. Sophia can trust that she will always be cared for – surrounded by loving family, friends and community.
Castorani – at times breaking down – smiles as she says this, tears rolling down her face. She knows that though many painful days lie ahead, her daughter will be okay.
“She comes from tough women.”
How to help
Season of Sharing was created 21 years ago as a partnership between the Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County to get emergency funds to individuals and families on the brink of homelessness in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. There are no administrative fees and no red tape – every dollar donated goes to families in need to help with rental assistance, utility bills, child care and other expenses.
Donations to Season of Sharing may be made online at cfsarasota.org/donors/support-season-of-sharing, or by sending a check (payable to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County) to Attn. Season of Sharing, 2635 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, FL 34237. Contact the foundation at 941-955-3000 for more information or to request a credit card form. All donations are tax-deductible.
This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at [email protected]