I know I haven’t been on here….I started constructing a post in my head a million times to just not have the courage or the energy to actually go through with it. But it has been a rough couple of days writing helps me get some of this overwhelming volume of emotion out. This may be a bit scattered as I have a lot I want to cover…and I may just have to stop and walk away for a bit to get my head in the right space. Do you know that when a woman is pregnant, her blood volume increases by 30-50%? If that were to happen to a man, it would kill him. It is simply too much. My heart is pregnant with emotions…I feel like I can’t always appropriately cope with so much grief and sadness. I am typically a light hearted kind of person and the weight I feel in my heart is crushing. I have a friend from my Air Force days who lost her 10 year old daughter to cancer several years ago. I was so hurt for her. I couldn’t imagine the pain she was feeling in losing her child. I now know and it beyond any words I can offer. I tell people that I am utterly devastated. That doesn’t seem to even touch the tip of the iceberg. Do I know it will ease with time? I am sure it will. I am an educated woman and used to be a perinatal grief counselor. Time goes pretty slow when you are wading through molasses though. One hour at a time….because one day is still just too big for me. This will be long…but know it is for me to get my thoughts and memories out before brain fog starts snatching them away from me. No one has to keep reading, but there is a lot about behind-the-scenes stuff that you may not know…so keep reading if you want.
My brother and sister-in-law, Joe and Heather Messina, arranged to have Tim fly out from California to Omaha the day Joe died. I cannot thank them enough. What a relief to have my children under by wing and held close! My sister-in-law, Tammie Revallo, fly out here from Florida a few days later. It was great to have her here. She got pretty good at finding the nearest tissue box when one of us had a wave of grief crash over us. Tam did so much more than that, including spending time with Lily while the rest of us went down to Kansas City to be with Michelle as she organized Joe’s services at the mortuary. She went shopping with Tim and me to get him a suit for the Celebration of Life and some more business casual clothes for the visitation. Evidently when you are 25 years old, you high school suits tend to run a bit on the small side. He knocked it out of the park. I have never seen him looking so professional and handsome. He was the first one up to speak at the Celebration of Life, reading his older brother’s life history in his obituary written so eloquently by his wife, Michelle. Tammie then went back with me later that day with Lily for us each to get dresses for the Celebration of Life. We quickly found what we wanted and I took up our dresses to the register to be rung up. The lovely woman behind the counter said, “Oh aren’t these beautiful! You must be going to a festive occasion! What fun!” My face crumpled as I told her they were our funeral clothes for Lily’s brother – my son. I totally lost it right in the middle of Von Maur. She felt horrible, God bless her….she stepped out from behind the counter and enveloped me in a hug and then quickly found me a box of tissues. Welcome to my new reality. I thought after I accepted my cancer diagnosis and moved on to accepting my impending death that the tears would stop flowing so easily. Wrong. I have cried a river…and I am not sure I knew that a human body could produce so many tears. We came home and Rich was there. He had had an appointment of some kind that day and was unable to help me pick up Lily from school, which doesn’t usually happen. However, he looked at all of us (Tammie, Tim, Lily and me) and said, “You are either going to gasp or cry.” I ended up doing both. It is not a secret that Joe had a lot of tattoos. He loves the art on his body and was always planning the next one. He had just finished his second sleeve with a large Valkyrie. More on that in a sec. Rich hates tattoos. Joe had his first tattoo for 18 months before Rich found out about it. He was mad! He is so anti-tattoo – it was a big point of contention between the two of them. Anyhow, Rich had been going through a lot of Joe’s files on his laptop, trying to help Michelle get into accounts in his name, etc. He found a drawing that Joe had done with he was about 14 or 15 years old of a cross that he had drawn himself. He wanted it to be his first tattoo. By the time he was in college and started getting tattoos, he never got that cross. He had elaborate tattoos of St. Michael the Archangel, La Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, Japanese masks, olive branches, two roses for each of his siblings, quotes in Fijian on his ribs, a stone angel, a remembrance tattoo for his great grandparents, and a Valkyrie – but he had never gotten this cross. Rich found a tattoo artist who tattooed Joe’s cross exactly as drawn on his arm. Rich also put Joe’s name, the date of his birth and death, and then “remembered forever” in Italian…which was also part of a tattoo Joe had. The magnitude of this act Rich did floored me. There was also a call for all of his soldiers going to drill the weekend after his death to wear the “Messinastache”. Joe loved that corny moustache he wore. Every 4 weeks he had to shave off the downward growing hair on the sides of his mouth in order to be within regs of the Army for drill weekend. As soon as drill was over, he would start growing it down again. He called them his “little firefighters”. I have to be quite honest with you. I couldn’t stand that cheesy moustache and gave him a lot of gruff about it. However, Rich grew his out for the visitation on Friday night in KC. So many people were giving him double takes and saying how much he looked like Joe. Rich said the tattoo never gave him any discomfort. He hated the moustache though. He shaved it off within 5 minutes of getting back to the hotel from the armory on Friday night.
The Valkyrie comes from old Norse legends of the Norse Gods. A Valkyrie was a female warrior…kind of like a ghost, who would come righting in on horseback to take up the spirits of the fallen warriors on a battlefield. Those who had died a good and noble death and led a good and noble life, would have their souls be swept up onto the back of the horse with them and taken across a bridge to Vahalla…a large banquet hall where the warriors of days gone by would sit at a large banquet table with horns of ale and eat, drink, tell stories, and enjoy their lives after death. On the memorial bracelets that Joe’s unit made in his honor, the last line reads, ” ‘Til Valhalla Brother.”
I can’t begin to tell you how last Friday and Saturday went down in Kansas City. The Olathe Fire Department and the Missouri National Guard pulled out all the stops to send Joe off in true style. There were so many soldiers there….so, so many firefighters….so many Delta Chi alums…and so many friends and family from all over the country who came to help us mourn and celebrate a life well lived. We were there a couple of hours early each of the days because we wanted to be present when Joe’s ashes were brought to the armory. They left the mortuary in a hearse, but they were accompanied by Joe’s crew on the firetruck with his bunker gear neatly folded in his spot on the truck. They led the way with lights going, leading Joe to us. There were also firemen in their dress uniforms as honor guard at the armory, creating a corridor to the entrance to the armory. They saluted Joe’s ashes as he was brought in by his crew and received by his family. It was incredibly emotional both days. Friday there were almost 100 people there….Joe’s family and closest friends and colleagues there to welcome him. We each took our turns paying our respects to Joe…which was hard….how can a man so full of life be reduced to ashes in an urn? To be quite honest with you, Rich and I just sobbed uncontrollably in front of that urn…as did his silblings. My heart shattered anew watching Michelle stand there with her hand on the top of the urn…speaking words to her soulmate in her heart. Watching my mom kiss her fingers then place them on the urn of her oldest grandson…gutted me. There were 250 well thought out photos Michelle and Joe’s friends help pick out for a slideshow that played in a loop during Friday night. Although the actual visitation didn’t start until 5, we decided to start receiving people at 4:15 as there were already so many people there. The line lasted for two and a half hours. First off, this was a long time…a lot of people. They figured we had 550-600 people there on both Friday and Saturday. The army got one keg donated and others were brought by Apex Realty…the company Joe worked with prior to becoming a firefighter. We ordered food. Never really saw any of it. The firefighters picked up the tab…which was sizeable. They really were so kind and made sure we were taken care of in every sense of the word. The funeral home picked up 95% of the tab because Joe was a veteran and a first responder. They did a wonderful job helping Michelle do all the things that a 28 year old should never have to do. When we went to pay for the rest of the bill, the firefighters with us told us it was already taken care of. We literally just had to show up and grieve. Michelle and I had brought scrapbooks and photos and things that were just “Joe” to put on display for people to look at. I think that helped some people see other sides of Joe, which was nice. There were lots of wreaths and flowers. There was even a spray of flowers from a bunch of people in Europe who had gone to school with Joe at the International School of Stavanger. It took my breath away when I read the card in the flowers….the last time he saw these people was at the end of his 9th grade year. I don’t know how to thank them…so I am doing it here. You touched me so much by that…after all this time. So many teachers of Joe’s reached out to me…especially from ISS. Most of his former rugby coaches have reached out to me as well. I have had nothing but love and support from literally all over the world…and that goes to show how one goofy guy with a huge smile and even bigger heart could touch so many people. Michelle, Rich, Tim, Lily, and I hugged and cried our way through the long line that seemed to never end. Lily is not a hugger…she is not one that likes to show emotion. We have been joking with her that she hugged more people that weekend than she had in her 17 years combined. She was a good sport about it though, and it was a good thing for all of us. I got to meet some people I only knew by name and reputation…Michelle got to meet some of our parish family from Omaha, who graciously travelled to Kansas City to support our family and celebrate Joe’s life with us. I saw some of Joe’s high school friends I hadn’t seen since he graduated in 2013. Military friends from all over the country travelled to support us, even though they hadn’t seen Joe in years. It was overwhelming and touched us so very deeply. We are just sorry we didn’t get to spend as much time with everyone as we wanted to. We did get to share stories though. I think there is a Joe story for every day that he lived. Goodness, he did not live life carefully…but full throttle with an emphasis on fun. People from all walks of life came up and shared Joe stories…some funny, so more serious on how Joe had affected their lives. At one point, the Goosenecks (Joe’s company in the army) came up and presented Michelle with Joe’s combat helmet. He had taken that to Qatar on deployment and then to St. Louis, when they were activated to keep peace on the streets during riots.
As Saturday rolled around, the Olathe fire department once again knocked it out of the park by putting a ladder truck in front of the armory with a huge American flag draped from it. Once again, Joe was accompanied from the mortuary to the armory with his crew in a firetruck. The surrounding fire departments each volunteered a crew or two to cover Olathe’s district during the service on Saturday, so the majority of the Olathe Fire Department could be there. When I got up to read the scripture verse, I looked up and saw a packed armory with firefighters and army servicemen standing in the back and on the sides several people deep. My heart swelled with pride that my child was a part of two such wonderful groups of people…a brotherhood with the OFD and a brotherhood with the MO ANG. There were three key speakers besides the OFD fire chaplain: Zac Oslica (Joe’s soul brother…his best friend), Rich (my husband – Joe’s Dad), and Michelle, Joe’s love of his life…his wife. All of them did so well considering how hard it was to be up there talking through such immense grief. I have to say that Michelle wow’d me. I couldn’t believe she was able to get up there and speak so eloquently about what if felt to be loved by Joe Messina. Here is a young woman who has just lost her husband tragically, has two black eyes, and a brace on her knee. She has to be one of the bravest women I have ever known. Joe was posthumously promoted in the Army National Guard. They were kind enough to give us two copies of the promotion paperwork…one for Michelle and one for us. SSgt Bingham…our casuality assistance officer, thought of everything. Michelle was presented with a flag from the OFD…one that had been flying over Station One, where Joe usually worked. They also made a wonderful shadow box of Joe’s rank and badges . There was also a beautiful wooden box filled with letters from fire fighters for her to keep. They are surrounding her with love and food, God bless them – they are already arguing over who will mow her lawn this summer. The Army did a flag folding ceremony and presented a flag to Michelle along with a coin. I lost it a few times, but when all the firefighters’ radios went off with the last call from the dispatcher, I really lost it. The pallbearers, Joe’s brother and then his closest friends, carried Joe outside. The corridor was lined with friends and family in uniforms, saluting Joe and sending him off. Only the immediate family went outside. Taps was played….also a gutcheck. The bag pipes and drums from the Fire Department got me to weeping. The three by three gun volleys by the Army got me sobbing. I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful tribute to my son. I am sure he was in Heaven looking down pink-faced, embarrassed that this was all for him.
After Michelle and I went through all the things to take to our respective homes after the service, the firemen drove us to our hotel and Michell and her close friends, to her home. They handled all the transportation, which was huge. I can’t thank the OFD enough for taking such good care of us. All of our family in town along with some of the firefighters, met us for dinner and drinks to toast Joe at O’Dowd’s Irish bar in Kansas City. We were all emotionally and physically exhausted but it was good to be together and share more Joe stories. I did, however, almost get in a fight with a very drunk young lady. She came right up to my brother, sister-in-law and me and got right in our personal space…swaying to and fro like a drunk cartoon character. I asked her, “Can I help you?” She said, “Why do you have to be a hater? Can’t I join the party?”. Um…yeah. So I am typically a nice person…99% of the time. She caught me at my 1% moment and my mama bear instincts just roared to the surface. So I repeated my question…then told her this was a private party and she needed to go find her friends. Again with her calling me a hater. I snapped. I grabbed her by her upper arms and moved her about 15 feet away and let her have it. I told her that I had said my final good byes to my son today and since she didn’t know Joe or anyone in our party, it was rude and thoughtless of her to bring her drunk self into our last celebration of Joe for the night. My brother, Craig, must have somewhat panicked, because he had a waitress over to get this poor girl away from me before she opened her mouth again to say something I might not be able to handle. Sigh. Yep, mom of Joe Messina…nearly in a bar fight. Nice. Classy. Years of taking and teaching martial arts where you avoid confrontation…and certainly never cause it. Sigh. Not one of my better moments. However, the memory of it still gets my blood pressure up. One of the firefighters there was in Colorado just before the services for Joe and went to the site on the highway where Joe died and placed a wreath there. Another gut-check moment. What an absolutely thoughtful thing to do. So there are now numbers which never leave my head….446…Joe’s OFD number that was on all his gear. The OFD had made stickers with his badge number on it. Others have taken tape and put it on their own gear. 377 – the mile marker in Colorado along I-70 where Joe died on March 6, 2022. I see things that trigger my grief to the surface…maybe a song…a woman with a t-shirt with the number 94 on it…the year Joe was born. Crazy stuff. Sometimes I can just smile and laugh and talk about Joe with a warmth in my hearth, other times, it is crippling grief. We were so fortunate to have our families spend the weekend in KC with us. It was a pleasant distraction and good to catch up with everyone. My dad and Rich’s mom are both suffering from dementia. While the rest of us were grieving, they were out of the safe spots of their homes and thrown into a situation where they were lost as to who people where and why we were gathered together. This added another layer of pain on the weekend, so see them both so lost and confused. God bless my mom and my father-in-law for making the trip to be with us as we honored their grandson. It was so hard a trip for them as caregivers.
So that brings me to toilet paper. Gotta end on a lighter note. We have had so many people come by and bring food, flowers, memorial gifts, and paper products. We even had a beautiful tree delivered to our house from friends of mine from my high school days in Alexandria, VA. What a wonderful surprise! But I guess when people lose someone in the Midwest, they bring you packages of toilet paper. We literally got 6 large packages of toilet paper. I was agog at the whole thing. They simply mentioned that we would be having a lot of visitors and our guest bathroom would run out of toilet paper. Hm… never thought of that. Good thing they did! It was just a small thing that made us smile that first week. I will end this small novella with a thank you to everyone who has reached out to both us and Michelle. I think I am safe to say that we are both still coming to grips with everything that has happened and what our new “normal” lives without Joe in it will be like. My heart aches for her and I ask that you keep her in your prayers. She needs all the strength and love you can send her. Here are some favorite Joe photos….