Happy 28th Birthday, Joe Messina

Yesterday was my oldest son’s birthday. He was born 28 years ago. This was another one of those “firsts” that are awful. His first birthday in Heaven. This was my first birthday not getting to talk with my son. Even when he was deployed to the Middle East, we still found a way to communicate on this special day. Yesterday was a pretty busy day for us, so I didn’t have time to really digest the day. I left that for today, when I could take off my mask and cry into my dog’s furry face, because he never lets me be alone if I am unset. He’ll throw himself at a closed door to get to me. For Joe’s 27th birthday, he and Michelle were attending one of her best friend’s wedding here in Omaha. I got to see my son for his last birthday on earth. What a blessing. For those of you who have grown children who no longer live in your state, you know how getting together gets further and further apart. They have their own families, jobs, and lives to live. So what a blessing. I took him out for brunch. He had one of the biggest breakfast burritos I have ever seen and I think he managed to finish it…and regretted it. Joe was also present at my last birthday. He came up and surprised me in February. My birthday will forever be known to me as the last day I hugged my oldest son in person.

Yesterday, we had Joe remembered at Mass at 0800 at our church. His best friend, Zac,….well, his parents are like siblings to us. They are closer than friends. Another blessing is Joe’s friends, and their families became our extended family since we lived so far away from our relatives. Ed and Wanda came to Mass with us and sat with us during the service. We then changed and headed to Kansas City. That is a little over a 3 hour drive for us. We went to see Michelle, Joe’s wife. It was a hard day for her as well. We got to see their dogs, Moose and Jenna. I miss not seeing all three of them. We then took off to Olathe, Kansas, another 30 minutes away. We made our way around to all 8 of the OFD fire stations and dropped off a dozen cupcakes at each station. We met a lot of wonderful firefighters on our rounds and since this will be our last year in the region, we felt this was a wonderful way to celebrate Joe’s birthday. The cupcakes had red and yellow swirled frosting on top…to honor the firefighters and the KC Chiefs, who Joe loved to cheer for. Luckily, they managed a win yesterday! We ended the day at Joe’s best friend, Zac’s, house. Michelle was there along with other close friends of Joe’s. We had cupcakes and talked for an hour or so before leaving to head back home. It was a long day, but by the time we left the 2nd of 8 fire stations, I knew we had done the right thing to honor Joe’s birthday this year.

I don’t know what subsequent birthdays for Joe will look like, but I hope that we will do something that would have made Joe proud. To say that I was missing him yesterday is a very big understatement. I helped to make that man…I grew him inside my body, labored and gave birth to him through the night. I nursed him….I raised him. I travelled the world with him. I helped him when he struggled with dyslexia through elementary, middle and high school. I hugged him and talked to him when his heart was broken for the first time when he was 15. I took him to get his driver’s license and made sure he got his 2 minutes prior to Zac. This was a big deal at the time. I listened to him as he told me about meeting and pursuing Michelle as a freshman in college. I loved the man he had become and I couldn’t wait to see the things he would accomplish as a firefighter, as a soldier….as a husband. That man with the huge smile that I love so much because he is a part of me, had his earthly body reduced to ashes in an urn. That is really hard for me to wrap my brain and heart around. His spirit lives on, and I so hope he could feel the outpouring of love for him yesterday…today…and everyday, really. All that love that is poured so unconditionally towards a person just can’t be turned off when they die. That is where grief comes in. It is a place for all the love to go. I walk hand in hand with grief these days. Grief is forever attached to me, holding my hand. Somedays I feel like grief wins out and tackles me and knocks the wind right out of me. Other days, we walk through the day calmly….me still feeling grief’s presence, but I can still manage a smile perhaps. One thing I do know, I will never stop loving my Joe….or missing him. Happy 1st birthday in heaven, my beautiful boy. I miss you so very much.

A Photo Shoot with my Favorite Girl

Okay, so I admit it. I totally ambushed my daughter on Wednesday afternoon. The temperature was a balmy 75 degrees, and there was a cold front due to blow in the next day, bringing winter temperatures along with it for the next few weeks. I had ordered a traditional Chinese Hanfu dress for her a few weeks ago to take some photos in. I got the idea after my portrait class at the zoo ended up in a high fashion Asian shoot with models at the beginning of October. So with a nod to her heritage, I ordered two dresses: one very traditional and the other more modern. One has yet to arrive, but I received the hanfu dress a week or so ago. I casually mentioned it to her over dinner one night. I am not sure she thought I was actually serious about the whole thing. However, with the last day of warm weather upon us, I had to take the bull by the horns and be ready to move fast when she came home from school. This involved getting props…a Chinese fan and a lantern with fairy lights. It also involved getting makeup for Lily. We obviously don’t have the same color palette, and she has worn make up maybe a handful of times. She walked in the door and I asked told her we were taking these pictures today and we had to hurry because with the time change last weekend, we had less than an hour and a half to get ready and get these done. There may have been a few “Whoa, what are you doing exactly?” comments coming from Lily as I started tying up her hair and putting in the jade pins. Then came the make up and jade earrings and necklace that are mine from when we lived in Asia. Then I said a small internal prayer that the dress would fit and started wrapping her up in it and then tying the waistband of the skirt. Luckily, she knew quite a bit about the dress itself and was pretty helpful. Then we sped off to a small wooden bridge that Tallinn and I walk over all the time about two miles from our house. We ended up having fun. There are several that turned out pretty good. I am taking a “dark and moody” photography class online right now…it is based out of my women’s photography classes I took from a group in Australia…but is being taught by a woman from Scotland. My homework this week was inside photos, so I took a few shots of Lily in her room as the last of the light started fading outside. She was a good sport about it all, even though most of the time she was complaining, she still had a smile on her face. Portrait photography is not my thing, so she was really nice to let me just practice a lot with her. By the way…it is currently 28 degrees here.

Veterans Day 2022

This has been a hard week. We started off with the 8th month anniversary of Joe’s death….then I had treatment at the cancer center here yesterday….today is Veterans Day and I am missing Joe something fierce today….then Sunday is his birthday. He would have been 28. So a hard week and I haven’t really done a stellar job of keeping it together. I did do one really on-the-fly photoshoot with my favorite daughter…but that is for a later post. That is the one thing that kept me sane this week.

For those of you who know me well, you know I come from a family of military service members. Rich’s family, too, has quite a lot of service members. In fact, all of our siblings on Rich’s side of the family and their significant others have served in the military. Many of our uncles served as well, either in Vietnam or as a career. Both my grandma and grandpa Neitzke served during WWII in the Navy and WAVS. Let’s just say there are a LOT of military in our family. Today, Joe would have called me and told his dad and me Happy Veterans Day. We would have said the same to him. Every year on this date, I would tell him how incredibly proud I was of him….that he decided to serve his country. He loved the guys he served with. Whether they were in Ft. Chaffee, Ft. Polk, deployed to Qatar, or assigned to St. Louis, MO during the riots (the most scared this mom has been for her soldier son…and it was right in our own country)….he loved the guys he was serving with and always made friends wherever he went. He was the one who would sit next to the O6 in the chow hall because “he puts on his pants just like me…one leg at a time, and I might learn something.” He would do crazy things while he was deployed like order this nasty fermented fish in a can and have a betting pool on who could stomach the smell and eat it. (he split the winnings by the way). The video of that whole incident is hysterical to watch. So many of his soldier friends have reached out to me over the past 8 months…and I appreciate it so much. I love to hear stories about Joe. He loved to push the envelope with military hair regulations. His hair was short on the sides and the back, but he used some kind of hair product to take that huge mop of curly ginger hair to flatten it down so it looked short. In reality, he looked like an alpaca and his bangs went down past his nose. Then there was that moustache. I hated that moustache and so did his CO. However, that added fuel to the fire to keep said moustache. So many of his buddies wore a Messina ‘stache for the first weekend drill after Joe’s death and for Joe’s Celebration of Life…including his dad. Through it all…through “all the suck” of the military, he still had that smile on his face. Through cold, wet nights and no showers for days,…when he decided to hunker down and sleep in a hole that was lined with poison ivy one night at drill….he was still smiling. When he got to shoot the biggest gun…and therefore had to carry it around everywhere…he still smiled,and told me it made the coolest sound. All fo this pride I have for Joe didn’t die with him; it is still here. I am still so very proud of him and I am missing him so very much. Here are a few Veterans Day photos for my Joe.

8 Months of Missing My Joe

Eight months ago today we lost my oldest son, Joe. How can he have been gone for that long? When I say I have cried an ocean of tears…I am not sure it is much of an exaggeration. I am still not at the point where I take things day by day. Most of the time I take things hour by hour. The craziest things will set me off….going to a class at the YMCA and hearing a song with lyrics that hit me differently now…..looking up at my echo show and seeing a picture of Joe and his wonderful smile. I wake up every morning and look at my memories on Facebook for that day…hoping there will be a memory of Joe. There usually is. I miss Michelle, his dogs, his friends. Joe came with a big package of life….his wife, his dogs, his friends. I miss all of them. I try to keep in contact with them in some way, but they all have their lives to live, their own grief to deal with in their own ways. Sometimes I just feel like a painful reminder that he is gone to them. So, I don’t only mourn the loss of my Joe, but of all that came along with him, which makes the loss so much bigger. Who better to talk to about Joe than the people closest to him? So, I have had quite a lonely patch lately.

I am spending this afternoon attending a class on how to survive the holidays with grief. Sigh. I mentioned in my online mother’s grief class that thinking about the holidays just makes me want to throw up. Honestly, if we didn’t have Lily still at home, I think I would just not do anything. However, it is unfair to her to skip the holidays for our grief. I also think Joe would never want me to not celebrate my favorite time of year to cry over him. I know he wouldn’t want that. So, I soldier on…trying to keep that in the back of my mind. Rich managed to get Tim to agree to fly home for Thanksgiving this year. That was very unexpected and a wonderful surprise. I am guessing they will talk about this all this afternoon in this grief seminar, but I am going to give myself grace to have a low-key holiday season. I have Christmas cards in a basket next to my desk. Cards I bought last January on sale. I have been writing a family Christmas letter from the time we were married in 1991. I lay awake at night thinking about what I am going to say. No one wants to read a Christmas letter laced with incredible pain. There are several people who are our friends whom we really only communicate with at Christmas…so they don’t know what is going on with us. I want to honor Joe’s memory, especially this year. But before I can wrap my brain and heart around that project, I have to get through his first heavenly birthday, which is a week from today.

For Joe’s birthday this year, we are going to attend a Mass being said for him that morning at our church here in Omaha. They we are then going to head to Olathe, KS and take cupcakes to all the OFD stations to celebrate his memory. I am sure it will be a difficult day but seeing his brothers at the fire department will help, I hope. I also hope to be able to see his wife and best friend. We shall see!

Until then, I leave you with a photo of my Joe. This was taken the last couple of days I saw him, in Feb of this year. I told him he had llama hair. He was always pushing the limits of that floofy mop of ginger hair. He is so loved and so missed.

Montana in the Fall

I mentioned in a previous post that we went to Montana for a short 5-6 day trip to go on a college visit with Lily in Bozeman and then up to the Flathead River Valley for a trip to Glacier National Park and our land. I wanted to share some photos of our time in Montana. Big Sky country definitely gives some spectacular sunsets. Even though it was mid-October, we still caught some of the colored leaves before the snow started to fly. The pictures of the white berries are called snow berries. They are edible. Lily and Rich tried them. They are supposed to taste like a wet wintergreen tic tac. Evidently that was a bit of a stretch as neither really liked them. We had just never seen them before.

Indian Cave State Park

I had a beautiful afternoon a couple of weeks ago with warm weather. In the hopes that some of the colorful leaves were still hanging on (literally), I took a jaunt over to Indian Cave State Park in Shubert, Nebraska, near the Missouri border. The drought has really dampened the colors of the trees this year, but still got a few photos I liked.

Jack-o-lantern World 2022

Thanks to an email service I get about “all things Nebraska”, I stumbled upon this little gem of an event in nearby Ashland, Nebraska at Mahoney State Park. From September 30th through October 30th, they had four nights a week you could come and meander through a huge maze of pumpkin carvings and displays. These photos don’t do it justice. There were thousands of carved pumpkins and it took me nearly 90 minutes to walk through the whole thing. There were a lot of people there, so I am guessing SOME people knew about it. There are 3 cities in the U.S. that do this: Lake Zurich, IL, Ashland, NE, and Grand Rapids, MI. I am so glad I was able to discover this on my last October in Nebraska. I highly recommend it! They had food trucks and apple cider and some drinks with a little more warmth to them for the adults. No one else was interested in going with me, so I went alone, but had a really good time! They had displays that were built with dozens of pumpkins and there was appropriate music playing at each section depending on what the theme of the carved pumpkins were. The Chinese dragon was amazing….it was made up of dozens of pumpkins. They had pumpkins glowing pink for the Breast Cancer themed display. The American flag was designed with pumpkins carved of jobs that are done in the United States. It was really cool. The most intricately carved pumpkins were of people. They were amazing. Rosie the Riveter was my favorite. I highly recommend you attend next year! Go online…you have to make reservations!

A Rare November Visit to the Wildlife Safari in Ashland, Nebraska

All of the locals in the Omaha area know we have the best zoo in the country. It is our best kept secret. Part of the Henry Doorly Omaha Zoo is the Wildlife Safari, which is in rural Ashland, Nebraska…about 30 minutes from the zoo proper. There are herd animals here….buffalo, elk, deer, sandhill cranes, wolves, and bears. There are owls and bald eagles who are not able to be released into the wild due to eye issues or wings that didn’t heal properly. There are sandhill cranes and pelicans. The weather has been so unseasonably warm here, they have decided to keep the Wildlife Safari open a few weeks later than normal. I spent a couple of hours there a week ago enjoying the wildlife. You drive your car through miles of trails where you can go no faster than 7 mph and you are meandering through the pastures the animals are congregating in. The turkeys and the bluejays were just an added bonus. I saw a cardinal for the first time in MONTHS yesterday. However, I have been seeing bluejays EVERYWHERE. They had just fed the sandhill cranes and a bluejay couple decided they should share.

A Walk with Tallinn in Chalco

The colors here in Nebraska have been beautiful but somewhat muted due to a dry conditions. As the leaves began to fall, I wanted to try and capture some of my last fall here in Nebraska. I took Tallinn with me to Chalco to go for a walk one evening. He is constantly by my side, so I thought he not only deserved a bit of a change of scenery for a walk but also his own mini photo shoot. Sometimes angels on earth are in disguise with fur and four feet. Tallinn has been such a wonderful companion to me over the last 3 years. Here are just a few photos from that evening.

October Zoo Photos

So I have to admit that I have my favorites at the zoo. There are the baby elephants…Eugenia and Sonny, both born in January of this year. They are just adorable. They are best friends and I love to watch them play. I have had the pleasure to see them learn to roll in the mud holes (and get stuck and have to have their moms pull them out) and to spray dust on their backs. I have some photos of that in this post as well as Eugenia piling hay on Sonny’s back….just to annoy him. There will be two more elephant calves born in 2023; one in the spring and one in the fall. One of the times I was there, the zoo train went by the elephant enclosure and something must have set the adult elephants off. They trumpeted and immediately surrounded the two babies and faced outward to protect them. Lily was with me when this happened. It was quite impressive. Watching the love between the mother elephants and their calves is amazing. It just gives me all the special feels. They are my favorites. Others that I enjoy looking at are the big cats: the leopards, lions, and tiger. The red panda is so stinkin’ cute, but likes to hide. If he is out and about, I will spend a lot of time waiting for him to look up and get out of his tree house. A lot of the birds are fun to look at as well. Pelicans just are so very different…they have been off their exhibit due to avian flu for much of the year. It is great to have them back. I have a few other random shots in there of animals that caught my eye. Enjoy!