Yosemite National Park

After a full day of rugby, we met back up with Rich and Lily and took off for a 3.5 hour drive east towards Yosemite National Park. I love going to National Parks and thanks to Rich’s life of service, we have lifetime memberships to go to these fabulous places. None of us had been to Yosemite and we were really looking forward to spending a couple of days there. However, there was a wildfire that broke out several days before we arrived and it was still not contained with we went there. It closed a portion of the park, but most of the park was still open. A lot of people cancelled there travel plans there because of all the smoke, but we didn’t really have a big choice. We rolled the dice and still went. We stayed in Mariposa, CA…about a 45 minute drive to Yosemite. Yosemite is pretty remote. There isn’t a whole lot of places to stay nearby. The town we stayed in was later devastated by separate wild fire that tore through the town about 2 weeks after we were there. I am not even sure the motel we stayed in is still standing. Anyhow, it was a tight squeeze with four adults in one room, but we were bone tired each night so it wasn’t a big deal.

The first day in Yosemite was Sunday, July 10th. We went to the valley in Yosemite National Park and it was pretty smokey. I was almost rethinking our plan when we arrived as the smoke was pretty thick. You will see it in the photos. It isn’t that I developed them to look moody and dramatic. That was the smoke hanging in the air. In several photos I took, I couldn’t even see anything in the sky, but when I pulled the levers in Light Room to process the photos, a mountain would pop out of the soupiness of the gray sky. We did two hikes each day. The first day we went to the valley and hiked the loop. We also hiked to the lower falls. The main road in Yosemite is closed all year for much need reconstruction. That will make it nice for future travelers, but made it a little inconvenient for us. Many sites we could have driven to were relegated to 13-15 MILE hikes in steep terrain. It was triple digits already and the air quality wasn’t great. That was a hard pass for us. We went to the eastern part of Yosemite the second day. The smoke was better because we were further from the wild fire. We were also a much higher elevation. Our second hike of the day was to Elizabeth Lake, a beautiful alpine lake that we saw a total of 3 people on the trail. That hike started at 8000 feet and went to 9200…in the first mile. The second mile or so was flat…just in thinner air. I have to admit, I thought I might die on that hike. It was labelled a moderate hike but I think that is all 4.5 miles averaged together. That first mile just about did me in. I participate in a cardio class at the YMCA maybe 5-6 times a week. Zumba did not prepare me for this elevation. I was breathing but it was like there was no oxygen in the air for my lungs to latch onto. I felt like a fish flopping on a dock, stunned and trying to breathe. I had to gently remind myself that I am not a spring chicken. I am on lots of meds. I have stage IV cancer, to include spots in my lungs. I was going to make it to that lake if it killed me (and it almost did). I also envisioned that if I had a heart attack or a stroke and was unable to walk down, that none of my family could carry me. I could just see Rich with one of my legs, Tim with the other, pulling my body down the mountain trail with my head bouncing on the rocks as they try to get me to safety. That would be awful for all involved. So I took a breathing break every 100-200 yards. It made it slow going up, but I was still upright and conscious. That was my goal at the end of that first mile. Going done? Piece of cake! I could feel the oxygen flooding my lungs with every step down. It took about 1/3 of the time to go down compared to going up. I ended the day with 27,000 and change steps. Long day, great views, even better company. I love watching my kids interact now that they are adults. Lily was only in the 3rd grade when her youngest brother left the nest and made her an only child at home. So it is fun to watch them banter back and forth because she was pretty little when Tim left home and he is shocked at her being a senior now. Joe’s name was mentioned a lot because of course we felt a piece of our family was missing. It was good to talk about him…to tell stories of random ridiculous things he did as a kid (or better yet, as an adult).

San Jose, California

Well, my friends. It has been a hot minute since I have been on here. I have been traveling quite a bit and sometimes life just gets to be a bit much, to be quite honest. But I want to catch you up a bit on the last month of what has been happening with me and our family.

As a big rugby fan, and one that travelled to Las Vegas for 6 years with a son or two in tow for a weekend of almost 50 international matches per weekend….I kept hearing scuttlebutt about the premier rugby 7’s league this summer. They have four men’s teams and four women’s teams and some are long time players who are in their glory days….and some are amazing athletes from other sports who are trying out rugby and are newbies. I noticed their season is only a month long….July. They had three weekends across the country where they would play a men’s and women’s tournament: San Jose, CA; Austin, TX; and Washington, DC. It is only one long day….and I was thinking about the summer heat. San Jose sounded like the best place to be…especially since it is a 25-minute drive south of my youngest son, Tim. Bonus! I told Rich I wanted to fly out there and go to the tournament with Tim. Rich went with that and planned a whole vacation around it. I am going to go place by place, so this is only San Jose, which is a pretty town, at least what I saw of it. Tim met us on Saturday morning and gave Rich and Lily the car to tootle around in while he and I walked across the street to PayPal Park for the all-day tournament. Turns out Tim actually knew one of the gals playing. She came up and talked to us after the tournament was over. She was a who’s who in the women’s field hockey world on the national level and moved on to try a new sport of women’s rugby. She did really well! She even scored a game winning try! I was really happy to chat with her. She sung Tim’s praises in the gym at Stanford as a strength and conditioning coach. I was beaming with pride and Tim’s ears may have gotten a little pink. Anyhow, it was a gorgeous day and some good matches. Not a lot of fans…it hasn’t really caught on yet, but it was a good 7 hours of rugby with Tim, and that was priceless.

4 Months….

It is so hard to fathom that it has been four months since I have talked to Joe….since he left this earth to be in heaven. Sometimes it seems like just a bad dream that I will wake up out of. Most of the time it seems like a torturously long time…as if time itself is just slowing down to allow me to wallow in my despair and grief. I miss his smile, I miss his laugh, and I miss his voice. Those were three things I got to see and hear on the regular….because he never just called me on the phone, he always video chatted with me. I think he liked to be able to see who he was talking to and by being able to see them, would give them more of his attention. My heart is heavy today, missing those calls….hearing about his day and the craziness that only came with talking with him.

July happens to be the month set aside for parents who have lost children. July 3rd is actually the date they set aside during the month to recognize these parents who have suffered unimaginable loss. July 15th is Leiomyosarcoma awareness day. Isn’t July a fun month? It has all the icky days wrapped into one. Thankfully, we will be travelling again soon and hopefully that will lighten the load a bit…or at least dwelling how heavy the load is. I have mentioned to many very close to me that grief of someone so close to you is not something that diminishes with time. The grief doesn’t lessen at all – you just learn to live with it in a better way as time goes on….at least I hope that happens. It is still all so very raw and new to us…the utter devastation is overwhelming at the strangest of times. It is like being at the edge of the ocean and the water is swirling around your feet. Your feet are sinking in the sand and you are a little nervous about it but feel that perhaps you can continue standing as the waves (grief) flow back and forth across your legs. Then a big wave comes from out of nowhere and knocks you clean off your feet. You didn’t even see it coming! You struggle to stand again and are continuing to be hit by smaller waves, that may not knock you over, but take your breath away. You have to decide if you are going to continue to fight those waves…or sometimes just ride them back to the edge of the shore….or….are you going to let them crash over you and drag you out to where the rip tide will take you out to sea and you can’t get back without help. That is the closest analogy I can come to with living with grief. It is awful and I hope that none of you ever have to deal with the loss of a child.

I wanted to leave you all with a few things I have found over the last couple of days…and then a photo I love of Joe. This was taken at a restaurant in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia when we were visiting a few years ago. I adored his smile and this one was his easy, “I have been fed and now want to sleep” smile. My son, you are missed with every beat of my heart.

July 4, 2022

Whenever I am home on July 4th, I attend Mass at our home parish, St. Gerald in Ralston, Nebraska. Today I brought Lily and Rich with me…and a dear friend, Kelly O’Donnell joined us in wearing our Joe Messina memorial t-shirts because the Mass intention was in remembrance of Joe. So we prayed for our country and oddly enough (although God works in only the ways HE knows) the Gospel lesson today was Matthew 9:18-26. I felt like God was talking directly to me, with my Joseph Matthew Messina, right by Him. The passage talks about a man who races up to Jesus in a panic because his young daughter has died, and asks Jesus to come and see her. As Jesus is heading to the house, a woman who has been ill…hemorrhaging for 12 years….reaches out to merely touch Jesus’s tassel on his cloak. She doesn’t want to bother Him…but has faith enough to know that if she could simply touch His cloak, she would be healed. Jesus does heal the woman….and sends away the crowds and people distracting the family at the little girl’s house. He raises her up and tells them she was only sleeping. So there I sit in the pew, totally relating to the father who is suffering greatly over the loss of his child….and the woman with the chronic illness. The crushing weight of it was a lot to carry. I have always been told that Jesus helps us carry our crosses, even when they seem to be too much to bear. I just need to place it at the foot of the cross. Easier said than done, I assure you. After Mass, we stayed for the Patriotic Rosary. It is one of my favorites. Patriotic songs are sung between the decades and the souls of every single state is prayed for by name. Readings from great historical leaders are also read and it gives you a sense of great patriotism to hear words from our forefathers of our country talk about how important prayer should be to all of us.

Joe was a soldier and a firefigher….an infantryman and a first responder. He served his country and his community well. These were some of the reasons I chose July 4th to have one of his Mass intentions. However, the big reason was this is a special day for Joe and Michelle. Three years ago, on July 4th, Joe asked Michelle to marry him. He had the ring for awhile…but was waiting for the right time to ask her. He had gone to visit her parents and ask for their permission to marry her….and was a wee bit nervous when Kevin, Michelle’s dad, didn’t say “yes” straightaway. He kinda made Joe stick around and talk about a few things first. Made him work for it. I remember being on “proposal watch” when we were all together in New Hampshire with family, thinking Joe might pop the question with all his family present. He informed me that he didn’t have a ring yet….so to cool my jets. Then I remember him calling me and asking me how big my diamond was in my engagement ring…because he wanted Michelle’s to be bigger than mine. lol. He took a lot of time and spent a lot of money designing the perfect ring for her, because he just wanted to bowl her over when the time came. July 4th came around and they were with their two dogs at a dog park in KC….there was a lake there and their dogs were swimming as it was pretty warm. Joe handed his phone to a random stranger and asked him to take photos. He figured July 4th was a good day to ask her. They were going to a big party with friends that night, but he wanted the proposal to be something between just the two of them (and a few wet dogs and a random stranger taking photos). He was so thrilled Michelle said yes. I am forever thankful for Joe bringing Michelle into our lives. I am forever thankful that she said yes and joined the wacky tribe that is the Messina family. She is one of ours for life…no matter what the future holds. Today has to be so very hard for her. It is hard for us as his family, but it can’t compare to the loss she is feeling today. I know she is surrounded by their friends this weekend, many of whom were in their wedding party. They are supporting her as best they can, but it isn’t the same as having the love of your life next to you in the flesh. I am sharing the photos Joe sent me that evening, three years ago. The joy….the promise of a future….all so very palpable in these photos. My love goes out to both of them today. We love you so much Michelle! Joe loved you for the rest of his life….and I hope you can still feel that love because a love like you two have doesn’t just go away.

Our Florida Trip

Rich’s sister and parents moved a few months ago from Destin, Florida to Palm Harbor, Florida (near Tampa). Lily and I had not been to their new area, so we both got to explore everything together. Rich’s brother, Joe, and his wife, Heather, spend the week with us as well. Rich has an aunt and uncle that also live in the area as well as their oldest son and his family who are longtime residents of Tampa. When we first arrived, I was just kind of having a bad day. I was missing Joe and knowing I wasn’t going to have pictures of him surrounding me like I do at home, and I was not sure how the week was going to go, to be quite honest. While I was in the airport waiting for our bags to arrive, I looked at the bag carousel next to us and I got a jolt. The flight there had arrived and all the bags and passengers were gone. However, it said “Belleville, IL has arrived.” That is were Joe was born. Until just a couple of years ago, there wasn’t even an airport there. It is very small. I took this as a message from Joe that he was right there with me, even if I was travelling to Florida.

We had lots of family around and with the temperatures and humidity soaring to the mid-nineties or higher, we sought out shade and water most days. We spent a day at the beach….Honeymoon beach. We set up a tent and some chairs and then hit the water, which was not even at all refreshing. It was like bath water. No problems with ninnies like me who are walking on their tip toes trying not to get splashed or go under….it was so warm. You weren’t chilly getting out in the breeze either. Lily and her Aunt Heather spent their time sifting through the sand under their feet for the prettiest and whole shells they could find. They each found a large shell to hold their others as they sifted through the handfuls of sand. Lily forgot to pack her bathing suit of all things so she got a bikini at Walmart….it did the trick. It was the first bikini she had worn since we adopted her in China and took her swimming there.

We spent a day at the pool at the apartments Rich’s sister, Tammie, and their parents live in. That was also like bath water. Did you know they actually have pools that are cooled in the summer and warmed in the winter in Florida? Crazy! As I already mentioned, we went snorkeling with the manatees one day. This was something Rich’s mom wasn’t up to, so the two of them went on an air boat ride in the everglades just down the road and then stopped for ice cream. (She made it quite clear she never turns down chocolate ice cream.) The younger two generations went on a tubing trip in Rainbow Springs State Park with Rich’s cousin John and his family. That was nice. It hit triple digits that day and because it was in the springs (near where we went swimming with the manatees) the water was 72 refreshing degrees. Other than Joe coming nose to nose with an alligator when he was snorkeling, it was pretty uneventful and relaxing. I know that Joe and Michelle loved to go tubing with their friends and this was the first time I had done it in many, many years. It made me think of them.

We spent time at city and state parks. We toured Safety Harbor and went to Tarpon Springs a couple of times for some great Greek food (HUGE Greek community). We had a big traditional Italian family meal at Auntie Joyce and Uncle John’s house one evening. She hosted 15 of us and I am pretty sure there was enough to feed double that, in true Italian fashion. One evening we all gathered in one apartment to watch the original Top Gun movie since Lily had never seen it. A few days later, we took her to see the new one in IMAX. Loved it. Lily liked it too. I may even go see it again. That is saying a lot for this gal who hadn’t been to a movie theatre in maybe 3-4 years. I am typically not a movie person. But it defined my young adult life and was done well, so I really enjoyed it. Watching a flying movie with a pilot at your side laughing at inappropriate times during the movie because it is improbable to happen in real life is somewhat of a buzz kill but that only happened once. Even Rich said it was done pretty realistically.

Most of all, we spent time together as a family. Rich’s mom has Alzheimer’s and her memory has deteriorated drastically over the last two years. Her sense of time is off kilter and even knowing her own children and grandchildren are becoming a fading memory. I made a memory book for her of her kids and daughters-in-law, grandkids, mom, and her siblings. Very simple with one person per page with their name and who they are to her. She remembered her mom and her sister the most, both of whom are in heaven. Heartbreaking to the rest of us, she doesn’t really seem to remember my Joe, or that he has died. We shed a lot of tears talking about it and explaining to her everything. Something must have clicked at one point because the next day she apologized and said that she hadn’t realized I had lost a son, and she was inconsiderate for not acknowledging that. Then she forgot again. It is hard, and I know even more so for her husband who is watching her personality and memory fade, and for my sister-in-law, Tammie, who is also right there everyday to see the decline. Luckily, they both have a pretty good sense of humor, because it would be pretty awful if they didn’t. I had a nice talk with Auntie Joyce, who has somewhat slid into the place of my mother-in-law, now that she can’t really carry on a conversation anymore. I talked with her about my health…about the grief that overwhelms me more often than not. Since I am used to being alone 90% of the time, not being alone AT ALL that week in Florida was hard for me. I couldn’t just break down and cry when I needed to. Tallinn is used to it and he comforts me when I am at home. So it was good to have a few stolen moments to talk with her.

Here are many of the photos I took in Florida. I have decided that Florida has really ugly birds….it is like they all are part turkey or something. They have a lot of alligators (not my favorite, but happy to have said I saw them in the wild). They have hot, sticky weather (which made me mention more than once out loud that I can’t wait to get to Montana next year!). However…..they have gorgeous trees. The Spanish moss adds another special touch. I love photographing trees….so be forewarned. There is a tree in Safety Harbor called the Baranoff Oak Tree. It is the oldest live oak in Pinellas County and it is BEAUTIFUL.

Swimming with the Manatees

Last week I got the humbling experience to go snorkeling with some manatees. My brother-in-law, Joe, my sisters-in-law, Heather and Tammie, my father-in-law, and Lily accompanied me on the excursion to try and find the “swimming potatoes”. Manatees are gentle creatures but very large. They can be very fast considering their size. I took a point-and-shoot underwater camera with me and struggled in the silty water to catch something other than tails. We saw several in the springs we were swimming in. The water is about 72 degrees all year round, so they had us wear 5 mm wet suits. We had snorkels and pool noodles to keep us on the surface so as not to bother them. The water was 4-6 feet deep in most areas. This time of year there aren’t a lot of manatees in the area as they are out in the ocean. In the winter time, there are hundreds….so we will be back in the winter! This is only about a 1.5 – 2 hour drive north from the Tampa area. My first go with the waterproof camera was not the best. I hope to be able to do this again this winter and get better results. I had a bad snorkeling experience about 10 years ago and now have a mini panic attack when I am attempting to snorkel…especially if I have fins on and cannot touch the bottom and have to enter from a boat. However, I was a woman on a mission and I had a pool noodle….which took a lot of the worry out of me. Lily did great! Michelle loves manatees. She has since she was in elementary school. Joe used to tell me about how much she loved them. I was DETERMINED to get a good photo of one for her. My 2nd photo of the swim was the one. A large manatee started to head to the surface to breathe (they do this every 5 minutes or so) and it came right up next to me….like inches from my face. I actually have a shot that is all whiskers and pores because it was THAT CLOSE. Joe thought it had kissed me. It was pretty darn close. Anyhow, after this swim, I, too, have an affinity for manatees and am determined to bring Michelle to Florida with me this winter to do this again. Maybe have a manatee weekend….where we can snorkel with them…..do a clear kayak ride amongst them….get a photo with her and a manatee. I think our Joe would love to see that happen for the both of us.

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Health Update

A few people have been shooting me emails or texts and asking about my health status. That was kind of the reason for this whole blog….was to be able to keep everyone updated on my health in one place…at one time. Joe’s death really side tracked that plan…my health news seems to have taken a very distant back seat to the grief our family is living through. However, since I have received news, I will pass it on. I can easily forget that there are those out there that actually wonder how MY health is, so here it goes.

I had scans and my big three month treatment on June 16th. On June 17th, I met via zoom with my local oncologist here in Omaha. He is flabbergasted this treatment regimen is working for me and has kept me stable for so long. So that was the answer to the CT scans…stability. This is good. We left for Florida and was gone for a week. Rich and I met with my Mayo Clinic sarcoma specialists while we were in Florida. That man must think I am never home. I only meet with him every three months, but this is the third time in a row I have been somewhere other than home. I have been in West Virginia, Texas, and now Florida. He does realize this means I am out and living my life to its fullest. He, too, is happy with my stability. My tumors have shrunk or stayed stable long enough that he suggest we go to only scanning every 4 months. What is one month, you ask? When you live your life and plan your life in increments of 3 months time….it is a gift. It is one less set of scans I have to do each year. With the tumor load that I carry around, it is really good news. So the next scans are in October. I won’t be sweating by then…it will be fall. I can live my life with reckless abandon until those results come in. So all in all, good news. I am not cured and never will be. I am still terminal…but I am currently stable and have been given a little respite because of that continued stability.

A Quick Trip to Montana

Rich and I went to Montana for a quick 4 day trip to talk to our builders, figure out where on the property our house will be (we got to stake out our house on our land which was made it a bit more real), met with the county noxious weed commissioner (she had no sense of humor whatsoever), and talk with a banker to work on financing our build. Even though it rained three of the four days we were there and the river was RAGING from the excess rain and fast snow melt…we had a great time and got a lot accomplished. We did get to spend a long afternoon in Glacier National Park. One of these times we are going to time our visit for when the full park is open. They were still working on clearing the several feet of snow along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. I think it is a pretty short window…July through Sept maybe. But that is where the bear grass and wild flowers are and the stunning views. However, we got to see some relatively stunning views down below as well…even if we were soaked with rain and covered in mud after the 4.5 mile hike. We actually saw a woman in her wedding dress (the bottom 6 inches was covered in mud) because they wanted to take wedding photos at Avalanche Lake. The rain stopped so I got a few photos without the rain drops. We also got to have dinner with a wonderful family I met as a secretary at Fort Crook Elementary. We can’t wait to be neighbors! Lilacs were blooming everywhere and we enjoyed 55 degree weather the whole time. Enjoy the photos…

why wouldn’t you want to live here?
Our view from our living room
a low rainbow

Dramatic Summer Skies in Omaha

It has been REALLY hot in Omaha the last week…and it will continue, unfortunately. However, this means as a part of tornado alley, we have lots of pop up severe storms, especially in the evening. Thursday night, I looked out the window and the outside was orange. I walked outside and it was hot and humid and ORANGE…like I was wearing orange colored glasses. I grabbed my camera and took a few photos. The sky and the clouds were amazing. So these are all from my front yard or back deck. God’s beauty.

A Trip to the Zoo with my Lucky Charm, Lily

I feel like I am forever playing catch up with my life on this blog, especially when it comes to processing photos. On May 31st, I took Lily to the Henry Doorly Zoo here in Omaha. I have been there several times, but we quickly realized it had been about 7 years since she had been there. There were not a TON of people there, as there was rain predicted, but there were definitely more than when I was going before if was completely opened and I was wearing a winter coat. We spent about 5 hours walking around. We had a blast. Lily really loves puffins. They had some in the aquarium near the penguins. She was pretty excited to spend some time watching them in action. They aren’t the most popular exhibit so we were able to spend quite a bit of time watching them on the way in….and then stopped again to say goodbye on the way out. She also really liked the red panda, which, I have to admit, is pretty darn cute. He doesn’t come out much but was out for about 20 minutes that day before going back indoors. I hadn’t had a chance to see him prior to this visit. Evidently he is shy. The bengal tiger who is always snoozing…was, well, snoozing. However, it is warm enough that the flies were out and bothering him enough that he got up and was pacing throughout his enclosure. This allowed me to get some good photos of him. Lily was certainly my lucky charm! The lionesses were out and when they hear the click of my camera, tend to look right at me, so that helps to get good photos…but it still makes me shiver on the other end of a telephoto camera to see a giant lethal cat like that staring me down. The rhinos were mud bathing. The pigmy hippos were blowing bubbles. The giraffes were making faces….although I found out later that the matron of the herd had died the day prior. These photos are of all the adult females…so perhaps they were feeling a bit lost. I know how that goes. The elephants were outside….Eugenia and Sony were with their moms for a big but then decided to give us all a show and have a bit of a romp. They were wrestling and playing. What a pure joy it was to watch them play together. I am guessing it is pretty rare to have two elephant calves to photograph that are so close together in age…they are only 2 weeks apart. They are still nursing. Sony is the youngest, but as a bull calf, is now bigger than Eugenia. She tended to be the one on top of the elephant calf pig pile though.

Now that the zoo is fully open, we were able to get food and drinks there. If you live here in Omaha, I am warning you that when they say “elephant sized pretzel” they mean it. It was literally the width of my forearm and came in a medium sized pizza box. It was the best pretzel I have ever had, but it feeds a family of six. You have been warned. Lily and I had such a wonderful time walking around experiencing the zoo. I had over 22,000 steps by the end of the day (I did go to a cardio class and walk the dog in addition to the zoo…but still….lots of walking). We haven’t seen the seal lions yet. Maybe I will try and head out sometime soon for that. It is just beastly hot right now and I am not sure a lot of the animals will be out because of the triple digit weather. Anyhow, if you are tired of cute zoo animals, sorry to disappoint. There are several photos. Even the cheetahs were cooperating. I am going to have to take Lily more often!