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Dads Forge Special Bonds with Their Children in Face of Extraordinary Challenges

by on June 18, 2017 5:00 AM

Steve Shedlock takes his role as a softball coach for the State College Area School District seriously, but he takes his role as a father even more seriously.

That’s because he feels an added responsibility to teach his teenage daughters — 16-year-old Ainsley and 19-year-old Alissa — to be confident and independent.

“It comes down to wanting them to be happy — be happy with who they are and have a full life with what they want to achieve while knowing they are loved and supported,” Shedlock says.

As a coach of teenage girls, including his daughters, he tries to instill a feeling of empowerment in his players.

“It’s important to shape young girls’ minds on how to pick yourself up and push yourself forward,” Shedlock says. “The joy I receive is having the girls knowing I believe in them, but in the end knowing they believe in themselves.”

Shedlock feels an added responsibility to teach his daughters such lessons because he is preparing them for a day when he will not be around. A reality he must consider after losing his wife, Stephanie, six years ago.

Shedlock will not be alone in this reality on Father’s Day, which is June 18. Of the 1.9 million single fathers in the U.S. in 2015, 6 percent were widowed, according the U.S. Census Bureau.

“He’s the only one we have right now, so he’s preparing us to survive in this world without him one day,” says Alissa, who graduated from State College Area High School and plays softball for Juanita College. “As a father he’s always been kind of hard on us, but he’s raised us to be independent and he helps us achieve our goals.”

Bonding through softball

When Ainsley and Alissa were in elementary school, they began playing softball, which launched a special connection with their father that continues today. Before Alissa graduated, Shedlock coached both girls at State High. A sophomore, Ainsley is still a member of the team.

“I like that he coaches my team, even if it’s stressful at times, because it makes me better,” Ainsley says.

Shedlock admits that coaching his daughters has its challenges.

“It’s one of the most difficult things,” he says. “I try not to treat anyone differently, but in some ways I’m harder on my own kids. I try to take my kids out and put other kids in (the game). I always try to be fair. At the same time, the pressure is enormous for me to see my kids succeed.”

As Shedlock shared this passion with his daughters, he watched Alissa earn an opportunity to play softball at the collegiate level while studying biochemistry and pursuing a career as an optometrist.

“She’s doing really quite remarkably. She’s put a lot of work into it,” Shedlock says. “Her achievement is a collective achievement for all of the coaching she’s had and her success is a tribute to all players, umpires, and coaches in the area.”

On Father’s Day, Shedlock typically finds himself at the field with his daughters, whether it’s for a tournament or other event.

“It’s the softball bond that brings us together and playing it on Father’s Day makes it a little more special,” Ainsley says.

Congress passed a joint resolution in 1972 declaring the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day in the United States. The resolution calls on the president to issue an annual proclamation that in part urges “the people of the United States to offer public and private expressions of Father’s Day to the abiding love and gratitude they have for their fathers."

An unimaginable loss

Hanging in the Shedlock home are two professional photos of Stephanie, one with each of her babies soon after their births. The images show the love she had for her daughters. As they grew, the special bond Stephanie shared with Ainsley and Alissa was cheerleading, which included taking them to cheer competitions.

Then illness started to take over.

According to the National Institutes of Health, lupus can cause your immune system to attack healthy cells in the body, including joints, skin and organs. For Stephanie, lupus attacked her brain, which eventually caused her other organs to shut down.

For two years, Shedlock cared for his ailing wife while raising their daughters. It was that experience that not only changed Shedlock as a husband, but also a father.

“As a man, I didn’t understand the unique bond a mother has with her child. Males do not give birth so we don’t necessarily understand that,” Shedlock says. “But when you take care of someone and you get very little back, if nothing but grunts and stares, and you wonder if there’s anything in there because they have dementia and your routine revolves around them 24 hours a day — that’s when you understand what unconditional love is. This is how you should love your partner or child on a regular basis.”

Stephanie died on July 31, 2011. She was 40.

Afterward, the Shedlocks sought support from Tides, a support program for grieving children, teens and their families. The organization helped the Shedlocks honor Stephanie through various programs and events.

“A death is a loss regardless and Tides is there in many different ways, especially for the children, to help you feel as though you’re not alone,” Shedlock says. “There are a lot of people who give to Tides and it truly is a wonderful organization.”

A different parent

Losing his wife has changed how Shedlock parents. He says he’s softer in many ways, he tries to listen more, and he tries to be more affectionate.

“It’s easy to be selfish when you’re in my shoes, or going through a divorce, but I always try to be aware that there’s someone who’s always worse off and my situation isn’t as bad,” Shedlock says.

Still, it’s difficult for Shedlock to describe the best parts of parenting.

“The big joy is that you’re the one here and you get that, but it’s equally painful in some ways, too, because the other one misses it,” Shedlock says.

Like after any loss, there are good days and bad days for Shedlock. “It’s like a shadow. Sometimes the shadow is really long and other days you don’t see your shadow,” he says.

Positivity in the face of hardship

For Thomas “TJ” Politza, a Blair County resident who is director of operations for a State College company, there is something powerful about seeing his son Max, 13, experience life.

“Watching my son grow up and experience the same milestones, hardships and joys I did growing up and being there to experience it with him is the best part about being a father,” Politza says.

A joy like learning to ride a bike and ATV, or a hardship like experiencing the loss of a family member.

Along the way, Politza tries to instill in his son a set of core values, including honesty, compassion, respect, empathy, tolerance, and emotional stability.

“One of the most challenging parts of fatherhood is teaching him to uphold the same core values I have, which were passed down to me from my father, while realizing he is his own person, and accepting his own unique development,” Politza says.

Then, there are the things you cannot prepare for. The things no parent ever wants to hear.

In 2016, Max went to the doctor after complaining of pain in his arm. Following some tests, the physicians diagnosed him with synovial sarcoma, a rare soft tissue cancer. That started a period of regular doctor visits hours away from home and a procedure to remove a tumor in his arm. 

As an offer of comfort during the scary parts, Politza stays near.

“There were times he was nervous about the CT or MRI scans or when he had to get an IV, and I always make sure I’m there with him, even during the scans, so he knows he’s not alone,” Politza says.

In between appointments, the pair discovered a way to have special time while at the hospital.

“One thing we do consistently is spend some time at an outside patio-garden area at the children’s hospital between his scans and doctor appointment,” Politza says. “This area is several stories off the ground and he really enjoys the view.”

 

Through it all, Politza tries to remain the same dad. 

“It did not change my relationship with him,” Politza says. “I don’t want to allow his diagnosis to change how he develops as a person, I want him to be happy with who he is and not feel abnormal.”

Before the diagnosis, Politza and his son always tried to do fun things on the weekends, guy stuff. And they still do. For Father’s Day, they typically celebrate at a water park or amusement park.

“On our weekends together, it is all about us and what we want to do,” says Politza, who is divorced and shares custody of Max.

Now, to offset the bad with the good, Politza sometimes makes larger trips out of the doctor visits.

“Sometimes we do something fun like go to Dave and Buster’s or plan a weekend around it and go to Kennywood for a day,” Politza says.

Max still undergoes regular CT scans to check for any growth in nodules doctors located in his lungs, which are too risky to biopsy. Fortunately, those nodules have not increased in size.

“Max really didn’t, and still doesn’t, show much concern for his diagnosis. I appreciate that it’s not a big deal to him. It shows me he just accepts it for what it is and it is not his defining quality,” Politza says.

Jennifer Miller has worked in journalism since 2001. She currently works as a writer and adjunct professor at Penn State. 



Jennifer Miller has worked in journalism since 2001. She currently works as a writer and adjunct professor at Penn State.
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