Eventually, even the fiercest of warriors loses the battle with mortality. For Dana Castellano, who fought valiantly and inspired so many after being diagnosed with Stage IV cervical cancer in January, the end of the struggle came on Saturday when she passed away at Hospice by the Sea in Boca Raton. At 45, she became someone to be mourned, a treasured memory, a guardian angel, all much too soon. But oh, the lives she touched during her time on earth.
Castellano's extended family -- those she was related to by blood and those who became family when she took them into her heart -- along with her many friends, loved ones and pals from South Florida's theater community will remember her and celebrate her life on Saturday, Nov. 15. First comes a service at 11:30 a.m. at Spanish River Church, 2400 Yamato Rd., Boca Raton. After that, a party (of course), a celebration luncheon at the Boca Barwood Recreation Center, 8900 SW 20th St. in Boca Raton. Because celebrating life and love and human connection was Castellano's style.
Born in New Hyde Park, N.Y., Castellano moved to Florida at the age of 9. She attended Spanish River Community High School, earned a GED, and among her many jobs worked as a tattoo artist and, more recently, decorated competition wear for female bodybuilders with intricate crystal designs. Her work as a Women's Theatre Project board member and theater volunteer began during her 14-year relationship with actress Lela Elam, and the friendships she made in that world stuck. When Castellano formed the support group Team Chaos in the early days after her cancer diagnosis, dozens of South Florida actors, playwrights, directors and theater artists joined the team.
In July, The Dana Plays, a benefit featuring original short works by South Florida playwrights, paid tribute to Castellano's courage and resolve. She was there, slender but defiant, her chemo-bald head covered by a bandana, pink boxing gloves on her hands -- a symbol of her ongoing fight. On Oct. 27, the Naked Stage's annual fundraiser, the 24-Hour Theatre Project, was dedicated to Castellano and driven by love for her. She was not there. She was in hospice, her fight nearly at an end.
Katherine Amadeo, co-founder of The Naked Stage, ran both benefits. She, her actor-husband Antonio and their two kids were good friends of Castellano, visiting her regularly in hospice. Amadeo still can't quite believe her friend is gone.
"She wanted it so much and was so strong. You think someone like her, she has to beat it," Amadeo says. "It's amazing to see how many people she touched. She radiated this energy. You were instantly drawn to her. As a lesbian, she had to overcome so much regarding tolerance. But she took everybody in and treated them like family...You knew you were never going to get any judgment. She was an angel on earth."
Atlanta-based actress Lisa Manuli met Castellano several years ago at a Naked Stage performance, and she and her actor-husband Christopher Kent became fast friends with her. When Manuli's mother-in-law passed away in June, Castellano called to express her love and sympathy, adding, "I want you to know that I'm here for you guys. If you need anything, just call. If you need to get away, you just come and stay with me, and you can hold my head while I puke."
Manuli says, "She meant it. Truly. Even t hough she was fighting like a warrior, she absolutely meant it when she said to come and stay with her. That speaks volumes about the truly selfless person Dana was. She loved so unconditionally. And when she trusted you, she did so with her entire soul."
Another Lisa, Lisa Ellenbogen-Sfarzo, is one of the administrators of Castellano's Team Chaos Facebook page. Her late husband Don was a high school friend of Castellano's, and she too became part of Castellano's family-by-choice.
"In our last phone call together, she referred to me as her 'press secretary,'" Ellenbogen-Sfarzo said, laughing. "And in one of her last text messages, she wrote, 'Thank you for always being there for me.' Most would have taken a Stage IV diagnosis as a death sentence. But Dana decided if it was going to take her, she was going to go out swinging."
Castellano is survived by her mother, Annmarie Porter; father Matthew Castellano Sr., brother Matthew, four nieces, a nephew and so many others she considered family. Ellenbogen-Sfarzo explains her friend's nature, the qualities that drew so many to her and let them see beyond an exterior of spiky hair, piercings and multiple tattoos to savor Castellano's soul.
"She was intolerant of intolerance. She accepted everybody: live and let live. Because of the whole judging a book by its cover thing, people would make assumptions about how she must be inwardly. She was a really deep thinker, yet playful at the same time."
Castellano, a woman who could wear her heart on her sleeve, also wore her sentiments on her body via her tattoos. The two on the outsides of her hands were particularly telling: on the right, it read "hopeless," and on the left, "romantic."
Those wishing to remember her can come to the service and party, or make donations in her name to the American Cancer Society or the Florida Humane Society, 3870 N. Powerline Rd., Pompano Beach.