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.