With 5 kids to raise, Harrison mom still coming to terms with husband's death at 39
Selena and Tom Callender had been dating only four months when they hit the dance floor: 48 hours of nonstop, feet-numbing dancing at Penn State's dance marathon to raise money for children with cancer.
At hour 47, when both were exhausted and sleep-deprived, Tom picked up the boy with cancer they were sponsoring and placed him on his shoulders.
He danced the last, full hour with the 9-year-old pushing down on him.
“It showed me the type of man he was,” Selena said.
And so she married him five years later, setting in motion a busy life with five kids, including identical twins. They wanted it that way: Selena, who grew up in Vandergrift as an only child, and Tom, who grew up in Sarver with one older sister, both wanted big families.
They had moved to Natrona Heights a week before their wedding and it didn't take long for them to become active members of the Highlands community.
Tom coached basketball and baseball, became a boss as a carpenter, and seemed to be on top of the world.
Until one Saturday morning in December.
The coach everyone loved suffered a fatal heart attack. No one expected it. Not at 39.
“It just came on so quick,” Selena told me last week. “We still have a long life at 39. You don't think something like this will happen. We were ready to embrace 40.”
Those who know her say Selena is a Super Mom of sorts. She takes kids to basketball practice and musical rehearsals, volunteers for PTO and holds a full-time job as a substitute aide and secretary at Fawn Elementary.
She has an easygoing nature and fills her sentences with hearty laughs, even though the past two months have been overwhelming.
“Some people say ‘I don't know how you're doing it,' and I say ‘well, I wasn't given a chance,' ” she said. “I have five kids. I have to get up and keep going. I know how people can die of a broken heart. My kids are my only thing holding me.”
The kids — Marissa, 17, twins Ally and Abby, 13, Tommy, 12, and Ethan, 8 — are also grieving. And they're doing so in different ways.
“With five of them, we go through different emotions every day. Somebody is angry, someone is crying. It's something different every day.”
If the days are getting harder, it's because the kids have yet to experience firsts that their dad won't get to see. Marissa, for example, just appeared in the Highlands High School musical “Grease.” It was bittersweet because her dad appeared in many shows when he was at Knoch High School.
“He won't see anyone graduate,” Selena said. “There's a lot of firsts that you don't think of. I don't know that it's really hit home. A lot of us are still in shock because he was so young. My daughter went and bought her dad a ticket for the musical.”
As the kids grow older, Selena realizes she's under pressure to make sure the kids embrace the values their dad would have instilled. She often tells them “what would your dad say?”
“They can't just think because he's not here that he wouldn't want them to act the way they should be acting or do the things they should be doing,” she said.
Tom would want them to continue excelling in sports, she said without hesitation.
“Even though he won't be there to coach, he would want them to be out there playing,” she said.
Selena described her husband as a “complete jokester” who always had a comeback line. Tom was two days younger than her and always joked that he married an older woman. She wants her kids to be like their dad — to not sweat the small stuff and to always know that playing a game is not always about the big win.
“He was very proud of his kids,” she said. “We still have to continue on. He's up there watching.”
Luis Fábregas is editor of the Tribune-Review's Valley News Dispatch edition. Follow him on Twitter @LuisTrib