Maria Quiban Whitesell, YOU CAN’T DO IT ALONE

Maria Quiban Whitesell, YOU CAN’T DO IT ALONE

Zibby Owens: I am going to be joined today by Maria Quiban Whitesell who wrote an amazing memoir called You Can’t Do It Alone. Just by way of bio, and then I’ll invite her to join us, Maria Quiban Whitesell, I hope I pronounced that right, greets millions of Los Angeles viewers daily each morning as Fox 11’s meteorologist. The Whitesell family, including Maria, her late husband Sean, and his brother Patrick, are among big entertainment families in Hollywood. Sean was a writer and producer for television shows including HBO’s Oz, Fox’s House, and AMC’s The Killing. Maria herself has been on the air and praised by Danica McKellar, Dr. Oz, Leeza Gibbons, and so many more. She has also been on shows as a meteorologist including my kids’ favorite show right now which they are in the other room watching, Ryan’s Mystery Playdate, not playhouse. Anyway, let’s talk to Maria. Her book is sad, amazing. It’s called You Can’t Do It Alone: A Widow’s Journey Through Loss, Grief and Life After. It is inspiring. She is amazing. I cannot wait to talk to her. Here we go.

Hi. How are you?

Maria Quiban Whitesell: Hi. Can you hear me okay? Hello.

Zibby: Yes. Hi, how are you?

Maria: I’m well. Thank you. I caught a little bit of the introduction. That is so awesome that they watch Ryan’s Playdate. So fun.

Zibby: Yes. I actually emailed your publicist as I was researching earlier today. I was telling the kids, I was like, “Later today, the person I’m interviewing has been on this show.” They were like, “We want to watch it.” I emailed and I was like, “Could you send me a link to this episode so they can –” I was hoping they could watch while we did this, but they’re watching another episode. I’ll find it.

Maria: That’s so funny because I did it last year and I haven’t even posted that. I should try to grab it and post it. That is such a fun segment that we did. I brought my young son with us because he’s a fan. He’s nine. I think Ryan just turned nine. They were really close in age. They got to say hello. It was a really fun experience to go to Nickelodeon. It was amazing.

Zibby: I bet. That sounds amazing. They were telling me all about the mystery playdate and how exciting it can be. It sounds like a big hit.

Maria: It was fun. It was really fun to do.

Zibby: I saw you from afar. I’m sure you wouldn’t remember. I’ve been on Good Day LA twice. I feel like I saw you through hair and makeup. I was like, oh, my gosh.

Maria: Oh, my gosh. Belated virtual hugs. I’m a hugger. That’s why this time is so hard. Next time you come in, we’ll have to plan it. Definitely, we’ll talk. Hopefully, we’ll get back to normal soon.

Zibby: That would be nice. I am so ready. I read your book, which was, oh, my gosh. First of all, now I feel like you and I have already had a three-hour talk that you didn’t know we had. It was so good and so heartfelt. All the stuff you’ve been through, I’m so sorry for your loss. I really am. I know it was a while ago now. I am so sorry that you’ve had to go through this in your life. I just wanted to start by saying that.

Maria: I really appreciate that. Thank you. Four years now, but it really doesn’t feel like it. Sometimes I’ll wake up and think, was that really four years ago? It does feel like it was just four months ago sometimes.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I loved how in your book you not only tell your story, but you give tips for anybody reading it, and not even from you, from your coauthor, right?

Maria: Yeah, Lauren Schneider. I was really, really lucky and fortunate to partner up with a licensed clinician who is also an educator and such an expert on grief and loss and specifically, as well, with children. My story was sort of the way in. I think everyone can relate to my story to some degree. Lauren just takes out the nuggets and the pockets and really expands it so that it can apply to many other people dealing with some sort of loss or grief. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the exact same disease that my husband had gone through.

Zibby: Would you feel comfortable telling the story of what happened, the short version?

Maria: Of course.

Zibby: I feel bad asking you. I know you must tell it a lot, but it must be upsetting. I don’t know.

Maria: I did have a Live, I think it was yesterday. It does make me sad to some degree to talk about it, but it’s, more importantly, really a way for me to heal my heart. To talk about it has been really good for me. I am embracing, hopefully, more of these Lives and more of these chats so I can talk not just about our experience and also about the book, but mainly really to talk about our love story. It really helps me to bring back those joyful memories that I have about my husband and my son’s father. I can tell you, I can go back to really quick how we had lived this amazing love story. We got married late in life, later anyway. I had been through a divorce. I was single mom already when I met him. I had a sixteen-year-old son by that time. I was kind of done with children. I thought, you know what, I’m at the prime of my career and my life. When I met Sean, it was kind of a surprise to me, this really perfect guy for me. He wasn’t perfect by any means, but he was perfect for me. We had just had our baby. He was three years old at the time. We hadn’t traveled much, like any new mom and dad. Gus is our son. He was three years old at the time. We decided to go on this big trip to Paris. We had never been to Paris, certainly not together in this really romantic trip. We went on this trip together. Leading up to that trip, we really hadn’t spent too much time with each other. We were kind of like passing ships. We worked all the time.

A lot of the strange behavior that he had been displaying, I could justify it because he was working hard and late. I was too. When we were in this beautiful city of Paris, he was acting very strange. The symptoms were all there, not just forgetfulness, but just really strange behavior. He would want to sleep in. He didn’t want to get up and run around the city like he normally would. He was the planner of our trips, and he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to sleep in. Little things would confuse him, like even getting a cab. He was the guy that lived in New York City for many years. For him to be confused about the concept of trying to hail a cab was not right. I made him promise to see a doctor when we got back home. Every day on that trip he got progressively worse. I was very, very concerned. By the time we got back home and made the appointment, it was two weeks. Exactly two weeks from when we landed, we received the bad news that he had brain tumors. He had had something called glioblastoma, which was a progressive disease, malignant cancer in the brain which there was no cure for. There is no cure for that. We had very limited time together. We got, in total, eighteen months, amazing months, together before he died.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. The great news is that I feel like you brought him to life through the telling of all of the stories about him. I love how you include not just the good, but the annoying or how when you were dating at the beginning and you decided to split up for a little bit and he wasn’t quite ready. Then it took reuniting at a crowded venue for —

Maria: — It was Bruce. Bruce Springsteen brought us together again.

Zibby: That’s great because that is what life is like. Life isn’t perfect. You don’t always have fireworks and things go according to plan. Obviously, things have not gone exactly the way from day one. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. How did you decide after going through this painful process to turn this into a book? Had you wanted to write a book? What was the impetus for turning this into a memoir?

Maria: First of all, I’ve never written anything in my life. My husband would beg to differ. He was the writer in our family. His job was writing. He wrote for episodic television. He was used to writing stories, not just from television, but he would write short stories and things like that. I would always be the one running into his office and say, “Hey, here’s an idea for a story.” He would listen to my crazy ideas and he would say, “Now go write it.” I think, “No, I’m not the writer.” He goes, “Yes, you are a writer.” I had never written anything. Even my job working as a meteorologist and an anchor on Good Day LA here in Los Angeles at Fox, I don’t read a prompter. I don’t write things normally. I ad lib everything. Writing is not my first strong skill set. When Sean was diagnosed and we were asking our why’s — if something really tragic happens to you, I’m sure you can relate, it’s why did this happen to us? Why? We didn’t do anything wrong or bad. We had so many moments of asking why to God. Part of it had to be that we — I wore a microphone every day. Sean wrote every day. We thought, you know what, maybe we need to write this story because there is no cure for brain cancer. There’s not very much information out there about glioblastoma, so maybe it is because of that that we need to write about it, bring more awareness and bring more funding to find research. That was kind of our goal at the time, never really planning on him dying, not at all. We always held onto the hope that he would be part of that five percent that would live much longer than he did. Over time after he died, I didn’t really think about it too much until a couple of people brought it to my attention. I went, oh, yeah, that was a promise I made to him and a promise I made to myself. About a year and a half after he died, I picked it up, the idea. I got on my computer and I started writing and remembering the things that we had gone through.

Zibby: What was that process like? Easy? Hard? A lot?

Maria: It was a lot. It was hard. It was cathartic. There were a lot of tears. Up until this point, it was everything. Even doing the audiobook for the book, I was in a recording studio and it was the first time that I had really read the book in its entirety out loud. That was a totally different experience. It was all those emotions coming back like it had just happened. I was grateful for it because I felt even closer to Sean. I just look at that as a gift. There was pain, but there was so much joy as well. We have our son. I have to look at that. I have to look at the gifts that I have because of it.

Zibby: It was so moving in the book how you talked about how you can see his face in Gus’s face and that as Gus is getting older it brings you closer to Sean in a way as well, a happy, sad, happy, sad type of moment. The part of the book that, not the only part, one of the parts that I felt like tied on the heartstrings the most is how you had to deal with yourself and deal with your child at the same time. You’re already going through this enormous period of grief and loss. Yet even that first night, even as it’s happening, you’re taking Gus into consideration, and of course you are because you’re a mom and that’s what moms do, is think about the kids. Even just ushering, like when he actually dies, to decide, should I tell Gus or should I wait until the morning? and then Gus being upset, oh, my gosh. It was just so emotional.

Maria: That was hard. That was really hard. I’ve got to say, telling Gus — well, waking him up at that moment was really difficult for me. I made that decision sort of that night about not waking him up because Sean had died in the middle of the night. Lauren Schneider who also authored the clinical part of the book — I shouldn’t say air quotes, but Lauren Schneider, who helps many children go through grief, there was a moment where we did discuss this pain that Gus went through because he really did feel a lot of anger that I didn’t wake him up to say goodbye to Daddy. I reminded him that that night before he went to bed, he did say goodnight. He did say I love you, and he said it many times before, but specifically that night. I apologized to him that I didn’t make that decision for him at the time. This is why it’s so important to seek family therapy because I didn’t have the right words to say during that day that he happened to bring it up and ask me why I didn’t wake him up.

I couldn’t have done what I did, we couldn’t have gone through what we’ve gone through and continue to go through today without our family counselor, our village I like to say. I know that I couldn’t have done it alone. I think that’s why we decided to title the book You Can’t Do It Alone. You need to have a village. You need to find your people. I know some people might be saying, you know what, I don’t have family, I don’t have a circle of friends like you did, Maria. I say, you’re actually wrong because of this, we have technology. We have the ability to actually find our village ourselves. I encourage you to do that because it’s really important for your heart, for you, and for the people who are helping you. Don’t deprive them of helping you because helping does heal. It feels good to help other people. Please invite that in your life.

Zibby: I was really struck by how your in-laws and your family and just everybody rallied and how great that was. You’re right, not everybody has that same support system in place, but it is possible to reach out and to go beyond your comfort zone to get what you need. Especially with a child or children involved, you need that. It’s like not an option.

Maria: Absolutely. You really need to seek it out. In fact, there was somebody who I met recently who had heard the audiobook. He got something from my book which was so great. It was such a compliment. He said, “You know what, Maria? My wife is disabled.” I guess he’s had to be her caregiver for a number of years. He said, “I’ve always took pride in the fact that I could do this myself. I didn’t need help. I want to do this on my own.” He said, “You’re right. I need to go ask for some help sometimes. I’m going to do that. I’m going to go do it.” I thought, wow, that’s great. I’m glad that at least I’ve helped in some way. That’s my hope, is that the book can resonate and can help in some way for you watching or for other people.

Zibby: Has Gus read your book?

Maria: No, not the whole book. I read him some parts of the book. He asked if he was in it. He goes, “Am I in it, Mom?” I said, “Well, I couldn’t tell this story without you, Gus. You’re an integral part of this story. I think your experience is going to help other kids.” I think he’s looking forward to that, maybe talking about it himself. He’s nine. He’s a little shy. He’s turning into a little bit of hambone. I’ve been working from home doing the weather. He’s kind of snuck into my broadcasts. He’s getting a little bit of the bug, the lights and stuff.

Zibby: When you were going through this — you have such a public-facing job. You have to be on. You have to look up and peppy and be energetic and just be on. How do you do that when inside you’re feeling so awful?

Maria: Oh, I know. I definitely have my moments. I definitely have my days. There are days when I don’t want to smile and I don’t want to seem like the happiest person in the world because inside I don’t feel that way. Inevitably, I put on the smile. Whether it’s an artificial smile at first, I kind of force the smile, but at some point, I get lost in my work or I get lost in the day. There’s a way to compartmentalize your thoughts. I’ve been able to do that. Generally, when it’s time for me to go to work, I do sort of put away that Maria and I put on the Maria, I’m at work mode. I also look at it as an escape. It’s kind of my excuse to not feel so sad and bad and depressed, if you know what I mean. In a way, the work has been really good for me. It has allowed me to at least escape from some of the sadness that I can feel, quite a bit actually. I’m grateful. I’m grateful for my job. I’m grateful for the opportunity to just not be in that place of sadness for a part of my day. And I look at Gus. I look at him. Inevitably, I will laugh because he is a funny kid. I try to just balance it out.

Zibby: What is coming next for you now? Do you want to take this on the road and be a grief resource to people? Do you just want to get your story out and move on, or write another book? What are you thinking?

Maria: Oh, my gosh. You know, all of the above. I don’t know. I’m going to just take it one day at a time. That’s sort of been my motto since all of this happened. I feel like I’ve been in crisis mode since Sean was diagnosed back in 2014. I’ve learned to just kind of retrain myself to not think too far ahead in the future and just think about today and the real short term. I’m really proud of myself for finishing the book, actually, because it’s been a few years in the making. I just want to take that in and enjoy the fact that I have finished it. I would love to talk more about it. I had planned to travel and go on this concept of a book tour. In my mind, it’s kind of glamorous. Obviously, I’ve had to pivot from those plans. We’re thinking of different ways of getting the word out for the book. Ultimately, I really want to it help not just families who have just been diagnosed with glioblastoma or brain cancer, but any debilitating disease or anyone who has just suffered a loss, going through some grief. I really hope that this book can provide some kind of encouragement to say you aren’t alone. That’s my main focus when it comes to the book. I’d love to write another book. Now I can say I’ve got one. I can try to sit down and do another. I always ask for help from Sean, the writer. I feel like he really wrote this book, a lot of it. I would always call out his name. I talk to him out loud all the time. Maybe a movie. I don’t know. I’m just putting it out there. I would love to see a movie made of the book in some way. I’d love to, again, get the word out about glioblastoma and the need for research and a cure for it.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like there’s so many people who need what you wrote right in that moment. People need to know it. Maybe there’s some way to partner, you’ve probably thought about all this, with hospitals or funeral homes, even, or just ways to get the book right when people need it, right when they’re grieving. It would be so powerful, or grief groups. Anyway, whatever, I’m sure you have marketing people on the case.

Maria: On the case. To as many people as I can. We can all relate to loss. I think everyone has gone through that in the world. I’d like to get it into as many people’s hands as I can. It’s a short read. You talk about moms who don’t have time to read. I purposely made it really short because I’m one of those people who just, I don’t have much time. You can get through this in a day. I hope you get something out of it. Thank you so much for reading it. It means so much to me. Thanks so much.

Zibby: Of course. It was great. It really felt like I was just sitting talking you, like I said, that you were just telling me the story. I always feel so privileged when someone decides to become an author and share their story like that, and that I get to sit there and read and be a part of something so private in their lives. Then I get to take that experience and it helps me. So anyway, thank you.

Maria: No, thank you. I’m a reader as well. I love books. Just a real quick sidebar story, Sean and I are both lovers of books. He’s a writer, like I said. We got married in a library because that’s how much we love books. I love books.

Zibby: That’s so great. What kind of books do you like? What are some of your favorite types of books to read, if you can think of any specifics?

Maria: I love all genres. I love horror, so I’m a big Stephen King fan. The first book that I ever, ever fell in love with — well, I shouldn’t say, but it was back — Island of the Blue Dolphins. I was a little kid, but that was when my love of reading started. Are you familiar with that book, Island of the Blue Dolphins?

Zibby: No.

Maria: Then I got into VC Andrews, of course, and all the Attic books. The book that really changed my life was Leo Buscaglia. He wrote a book called Living, Loving & Learning. That will forever be one of my top ten books ever to read and reread. If you haven’t yet picked it up, I encourage you to do it. He is the author of Love. This book could change your life. I know it changed my life, definitely.

Zibby: Wow, all right. Excellent. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on the podcast, the Instagram Live. Thanks for sharing your sad experience which has become an inspiring one and a helpful one for so many other people. Very selfless of you to do what you did.

Maria: Thank you so much for having me on. I look forward to seeing you when you come back to Good Day LA.

Zibby: Yes, that’d be great. Bye, Maria.

Maria: Bye.

Maria Quiban Whitesell, YOU CAN’T DO IT ALONE