Happy 15th Adoption Day, Lily!

Fifteen year ago yesterday, we were given this tiny, timid, dirty little girl in bright new clothes and shoes by Director Ye, the director of the Shangrao Orphanage. We met them in Nanchang, the capitol of Jiangxi province, in China. We had been doing the “paperchase” for her adoption for months…then the waiting began. We lived on Okinawa, Japan at the time, and Joe was 11 and Tim was nearly 10. We got the call from the adoption agency and we were on our way. We were one of two families adopting special needs children that morning in Nanchang. The other was a little girl named Faith…going to a home in Michigan. We had met her mother while trekking the Great Wall of China outside Beijing the day prior. Little did we know when we heard that American voice and struck up a conversation, that we would be spending much of the next two weeks together…and 15 years later, would still be in touch. I have already texted their family back and forth today! Faith and Lily spent time together in two cities in China as our families accomplished all the adoption paperwork, and we even met them for lunch in Michigan several years back. Now our daughters are juniors and both functioning as only children as their older siblings have grown and left the nest. Evidently Faith is getting her nose pierced for her adoption day gift this year! Lily won’t even get her ears pierced, so I don’t have to worry about that quite yet. We were given Lily and told to go to the hotel and spend time with her until the next day, where we would go before the magistrate and she would officially become our daughter. We were given 24 hours to decide if we could do this…if we could go ahead and take her as ours.

Lily was exhausted and traumatized by being taken from her foster mother and being on a bus in the summer for 3 hours and then placed with a family that didn’t look or smell or talk like anything she had ever seen. Even the toys we brought for her scared her at first. She had never seen a stuffed animal. She was so tiny….20 months old and wearing 9 month clothing. She had never been in air conditioning. It was so hot outside and we had to dress her so warmly inside. We couldn’t get her to drink the formula we had. All water has to be boiled in China…every hotel room comes with a boiler pot to make the water potable. She wouldn’t drink it. We started feeding her rice congee….like a soupy rice mixture. We were told not to introduce too many foods at once, but she was STARVING. Literally. We mixed pieces of chicken in there…then some carrots and beans. We fed her a lot of snacks we had brought with us. Teddy Grahams were a quick favorite. We gave her fruit and veggies. She ate us all under the table….for about 6 months. We found out that the formula she had been drinking up until that point had traces of lead in it (I had heard this and had her lead levels checked upon returning home). She loved water and apple milk. Yeah, haven’t seen it since I left China, but it was a staple for her while we were there….apple milk. She was very quiet and stoic that first day….never smiling and trying her best not to cry out loud. Have I mentioned that witches in China are blond and white? Yeah, I don’t think she understood that, but still, I was the last person she wanted to spend time with. The boys played ball with her and she just watched….until suddenly she picked up the ball and threw it hard at Joe, who was so surprised, he pretended to be knocked over. She laughed. We all just stared. The ice was broken after that with the boys. I knew enough Chinese at the time to tell her that they were her brothers and what their names were. She loved her Baba (Rich – her dad). They snuggled together and she crashed hard that first night. For a guy who wasn’t sure about all this daughter stuff, he sure was wrapped around her little finger pretty quickly. He wasn’t around very much when the boys were really little because the Air Force had him flying all over the world. I could tell he was going to make it different with her as much as he could. He was giving her a bath that first night….it had been weeks since her last one…her feet were so dirty and the dirt in her toenails…ugh. I was working with the translator to get paperwork signed ahead of time for the adoption the next day. He came out in a panic. First of all, Lily wouldn’t sit in the water. She just stood. She was afraid of it. He thought she had pooped in the bathtub and was freaking out. False alarm…she had been holding a teddy graham in the crook of her sweaty arm and it fell into the tub water. The whole thing still makes me laugh. He tried to brush her teeth…something totally foreign to her. He also let her watch him shave by putting white shaving cream all over his face. She DID NOT like that at all! So today is the official day the Chinese government gave her to us to be our daughter. She stopped being Ling Guang Su and became Lily Su Grace Messina.

I don’t know what her big brothers would say, but Lily has definitely brought life into our family that wouldn’t have been there without her. She is so funny…so smart and inquisitive. Lily is now 16 and a half years old…driving with a permit and working at Rich’s store. She is a junior and loving her classes, especially psychology. Lily is unabashably afraid of bugs of all sorts. She is the queen of miniature origami. She is NOT a morning person and can pop up with weird facts about all sorts of things. She makes my day better and I wish that her teenage years wouldn’t have been marred by my cancer diagnosis. I am super honest with her about all that is going on with me. Although she never buys much of anything or asks for anything, she is so much fun to go shopping with…or on a photoshoot with. She has a great eye with composition for photography. Lily is also a fantastic artist. She blows me away with her talent. She is also in German IV, which I find amusing that my Chinese American daughter speaks German. Lily has been a great travel companion on our trips here and there. She left Canada a few years ago with a love for Tim Horton’s, maple candy, poutine, and Banff National Park. I am so very blessed to have had her as my side kick and daughter for the last 15 years. My life is so much fuller for it.

Another Goal Achieved….Happy 30th Anniversary!

Rich and I were married on a hot summer’s day in Alexandria, Virginia, 30 years ago today. We come from two very different family dynamics and we were pretty young when we said, “I do”….but it has stuck – for three decades. We have raised three fantastic kids…in three wonderful countries. We have traveled to over 40 countries together and 49 states (that pesky Oregon will get checked off at some point). We have lived through deployments….surgeries….starting a new business from scratch….and cancer treatments. We have agreed about a lot and learned to agree to disagree about some things too. We are still standing and we still love each other.

Today we went to the Master’s Hand in Tekamah, Nebraska and had cinnamon rolls for lunch. We enjoyed a quiet day together and then went out to eat at Brothers Sebastien for steaks. It was our first time there and we’ll be back again! It is set up like an old, dark monastery. It was pretty cool. We had well wishes from our kids, brothers, and parents….and many other friends and family from around the globe. Thanks! We laughed that 30 years ago, we left our reception starving because we didn’t get a chance to eat. We got to the hotel and ordered a pizza from Dominos. Tonight, Tim started his first shift as a Dominos pizza delivery man for his paying side gig whilst doing his internship in West Virginia. It all came full circle!

Going to have to think up what the next goal should be! Suggestions?

Celebrating 50 1/2 years!

Yesterday I turned 50 1/2 years old. I figure no one really counts half years unless you are under the age of 18, over the age of 80, or have a terminal illness. Well, I fall into one of those categories so I made it to my half birthday! I celebrated by doing something I absolutely LOVE doing….taking photographs in sunflower fields with Lily. We went out to Nelson Farms in Valley, Nebraska again. This is my third year going and I absolutely love it. They set aside a few nights a week to be open during sunset hours for photographers. Lily and I tromped around the sunflower fields until it was dark last night. These are only my phone camera shots. I have yet to go through my good camera shots yet. I have been busy going through the nearly thousand photos I took in Alaska. (I would say I am blushing shamelessly stating that, but wow, it was just so much to take in while we were there!) Those photos will come soon. Until then, here are some sunflower photos with Lily and me. I wore my purple shirt as Leiomyosarcoma’s symbols are the sunflower and a purple ribbon. I decided to just embrace it.

Garth Brooks Comes to Lincoln

On Saturday, Rich and I were able to go see Garth Brooks on his stadium tour in Lincoln, Nebraska. He played at Memorial Stadium, home of the Huskers football team. The last time there was a concert there was 34 years ago during Farm Aide. Our stadium rivals most pro stadiums and holds about 91,000 people in the stands. However, the floor of the field was also opened up, so I am guessing there were over 100, 000 people there. I have to admit when I saw that crowd, it made me nervous. I don’t like huge crowds to begin with. Add me having stage IV cancer and COVID running rampant…well, it added to my anxiety spike. By the grace of God, I was on the end of a row…a row that was blocked off and just had open space between sections. There aren’t many spots like that in Memorial Stadium, but I had one. I wore a mask. Not many people did. I needed to try and protect myself as much as possible yet still live my life and enjoy myself. Garth Brooks was floored by the huge crowd that sang each of the songs right along with them. I wish I could have heard what it sounded like a block away in the Bottoms, where Tim used to live. 100,000 people singing “Friends in Low Places” had to be phenomenal. It was inside the stadium. This was the biggest concert Garth had ever put on. If you have ever been to a Garth Brooks concert, you know he gives 110% and will just keep on singing. He sang for over 3 hours…and it was glorious. Most songs I knew…some were new to me. It was almost as fun to watch the people around me reacting with pure joy when he started singing their favorite song. There was a young man in his early 20’s with his girlfriend a few rows down from me. He had on his cowboy boots (as did I) and his cowboy hat and he sang every word to every song with this pure joy on his face…like he couldn’t believe he was there in that place….as if Garth Brooks was singing with him and not the other way around. Were there hiccups? Yep. Trying to get people into certain gates became a huge mess. We waited almost an hour in line to get into our gate. Some people were really drunk. Not my favorite. I worry about them. The stadium concession stands ran out of food before the concert even started. Yikes. That needs to get fixed before they open for Husker games! Added perks….the weather was phenomenal. It was a clear summer night with lower humidity. I wore jeans and wasn’t sweating. There was a nice, cool breeze. Garth’s wife, Tricia Yearwood, came on stage and sang several songs with him. She, too, was blown away by the “motherhusker” awesomeness of it all (Garth quote). I think half of Nebraska was there. Seriously.

Random Early August Musings

Well, we made it back from West Virginia! Goodness, it was a long but wonderful trip! I am so glad that we got to see so many friends and family members along the way. That made the trip that much more special. We are all getting caught up at work, which allows for the post vacation stress to ease somewhat. Tim is getting settled into his new life and is having a good time doing what he loves most…training elite athletes. He has some great roommates and an all around great group of interns and preceptors to work with. He even got together with a group of them for a few card games and beers this past weekend. A far cry from his more solitary life in Colorado. He had to pick up a job that allowed him a lot of flexibility for his schedule, so he is going to be delivering pizzas starting pretty soon. He figures it will allow him to learn his way around pretty quickly.

Joe and Michelle are doing well. Joe survived his annual training with the Army National Guard in Fort Polk, LA (where I graduated from high school and lived for 2 years). It is no fun in the summer. He managed to have no fun and no shower for several weeks. I am guessing his uniform could walk on its own by the time he came home. Michelle survived her month without Joe and dealing with their two large dogs and everything that comes with having two large dogs and working full time. They are looking into buying a house…with a yard…and as Joe put it, “A decent-sized mancave.” He has started his time with the Olathe Fire Department and is loving it. As the new guy, he is cooking all the meals. He has hit me up for some of mine in the last few days. I don’t think he is used to cooking for 9 people at a time. Sounds like his Tuscan chicken was a hit and his stuffed manicotti was also decent…although he was told that he HAD to have protein in the meal, so sausage was added to the cheese mixture. I think chicken enchiladas were on tap for tonight. He is already getting to see and do a lot at his new station, which is good.

Lily is going to start grade 11 this week. She is excited to get back to school…and to see her friends again on a regular basis. It has been nice spending so much time with her this summer. She and I have spent several hours together working at the store, as well. We actually went in tonight because we had a late delivery several hundred hockey sticks that had to be unwrapped, marked, and put out. Rich calls the two of us in to help with stuff like that when they need instant staffing. I still do all the books at home and Lily is on the schedule to work at the store a few nights a week and some weekends.

Rich is keeping busy between his work at the store and putting in a new, raised flower bed in our front yard. We had some pretty wild and rangy shrubs that were most likely several decades old. We finally cut those out and put in some brick and flowers to add to the curb appeal. We just have about an hour’s worth of work to finish it off. He is also flying with the Civil Air Patrol whenever he gets the chance. He has been working with the gliders and that takes him back to his glory days at the Air Force Academy when he taught soaring there as a captain and major. He also got himself a motorcycle and is having a lot of fun riding around the countryside of Nebraska and Iowa.

I am still doing the same. I keep getting my Lupron shots every 4 weeks to make sure my one ovary is nonfunctional. I then take this tiny white little devil pill every night that cuts off all estrogen and progesterone to my body. That is the life juice of a woman’s body…what makes her skin supple and smooth…her joints moving easily and keeps the weight off. Whelp, my body is sucked dry of all of that in the hopes that it will starve my tumors into stability or better yet, shrinkage. Is it better than chemo? I am not sure. I now feel like I have cancer…I feel old and can’t move as well. That part is hard on me. However, usually once I start to get moving, it gets much better. I am also still on my blood thinners twice a day. I take a few other things each day to try and decrease the amount of stiffness and pain I have in my joints. I am not sure they are working but am scared to not take them in case they are helping. I will be seeing the nurse practitioner on Sept 2nd. I will have scans soon after that and will meet via zoom with my sarcoma specialist on Sept 23rd. I am guessing I will be told that I qualify for a booster shot for the COVID 19 vaccine. We shall see. Until then, I am hoping for cooler, less humid weather and an occasional rainy day so I force myself to do something indoors. I am making up for lost sunshine for the 15 months I was on chemo and couldn’t be in the extreme heat or in the sunlight. I read or listen to an audiobook outside on the back deck nearly everyday. Tallinn loves keeping me company out there and tries to hint to me that it’s time to head outside on the days I don’t sit out there.

I have included a few photos of Tallinn, the Sarpy County Fair, and some visions we see when walking around Standing Bear Lake and Lake Zorinsky. We went to the Sarpy County Fair on the last day…it was kind of a bust. There had been really severe weather in the area the night before, so I think the 4H kids were told to take all the animals home. We got to look at a few tractors and see needlepoint, drawings, and championship squash. Lily had invited her friend from Omaha and she was pretty non-plussed about the whole country thing….I had to tell her it was not normally like this! Rich was wearing what I call his “Forrest Gump” shirt. He was asked by a vendor if he farmed. He said no. He looked to me as if I knew why people would think he was a farmer. Just then, three men walked towards us wearing the same type of shirt but with jeans on. Light dawned…it still makes me giggle.

Our Trip Home

On Monday, we spent the morning getting Tim settled into his new apartment. He moved in early so took it “as is” from the former tenant. He had a LOT of cleaning to do before he even wanted to start unpacking his stuff. It is a four bedroom apartment and one of his roommates is already living there through the summer…although he was so appalled at how the other roommates were living, he basically kept everything in his bedroom with the door locked. Tim and Connor have spent quite a bit of time deep cleaning and they are much happier about how things are looking now. Rich and Lily worked together to put a new bookcase together for Tim’s room. He has quite a collection of professional and motivational books. We took Tim out to lunch on Monday then started on our way home. Tim spent the rest of the day cleaning and unpacking. He contacted his supervisor at WVU via email and was told he could start the next day rather than waiting 2 weeks. No rest for the weary! This is probably a good thing as Tim likes to stay busy.

We left Morgantown, WV and made it to Dayton, Ohio. We had dinner with my cousin, Bill Neitzke, and his wife, Lori. We were stationed together a couple of decades ago at Grand Forks, ND. We ate at a British Pub restaurant and it was really good. Rich even had the fish and chips. (when in Rome…) It was great catching up with them and what their kids were up to….along with different branches of our family tree. Even though we have the same last name (Neitzke is my maiden name), we figured out that our great grandfathers were brothers….at least I think that is what we decided. We then drove a few miles out into the countryside to Xenia, Ohio, to stay with good friends, Matt and Lorraine Bonavita. Our two boys are the same age as their two oldest boys. We lived on Hawaii Street some 20 some odd years ago on Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota together. I have always just loved this couple….we always had so much fun with them. That has not changed. We were up until midnight talking like the years had never been there. We had planned to spend several hours at the Air Force Museum showing Lily around, but we just stayed and visited with them. It made my whole week for sure! We drove from Ohio to just outside of St. Louis on Tuesday. Rich had contacted a whole bunch of people he had connected with on LinkedIn that he used to work with in Grand Forks AFB, ND 20+ years ago. A lot of them were working as civilians at Scott AFB, IL. This is also where our oldest son was born….so we drove by our old house as well. We got together with several folks for dinner and drinks from the 906th tanker squadron. There were boom operators, pilots, the commander at the time, orderly room personnel….a mishmash of people that all worked there in the mid to late 1990’s. We had 11 folks there at one point. It was a lot of fun. We also got to reconnect with Chaplain and Shannon Howard from our time in Norway 11 years ago. (I can’t believe it has been that long ago already!) It was awesome catching up with them and finding out how their kids were doing. They went to the International School of Stavanger with our kids. We stayed the night in western Illinois (the photo of Rich in the corn was from there…figured we were getting closer to Nebraska if we saw corn this high!) and then took off across Missouri on Wednesday to get to Kansas City in time to have lunch with our fabulous daughter-in-law, Michelle. Joe wasn’t due back from his month of fun in Fort Polk, LA with the Army National Guard until the following day, so we had her all to ourselves! After a nice lunch and even better company, we put Lily behind the wheel and had her drive 3 hours home to Omaha.

Lily drove a lot on this trip and has driven in at least 9 states now on her driver’s permit. She had a driver’s lesson in the car today and they just gave her the driving test, which she passed. She has to wait until she has had her permit for 6 months, so she can’t get her license until mid November. We are now just catching up at home, enjoying the Olympics each evening, and loving on Tallinn. He was pretty thrilled to go on a 5 mile walk with me this morning. I have a doctor’s appointment for a Lupron shot tomorrow, so we may have to postpone our walk if it gets as hot as they say it might be. I think he is happy to have his people back though. I know I missed him….not his hair…but his dynamic personality. I heard that Joe made it back to his wife and dogs today, so I am guessing there is a lot of dog love going on there as well.

I have been to 13 states in the last 6 weeks and I have been in 4 times zones. School starts in less than 2 weeks and I am ready to be at home for a little bit. Never thought I would say that after 18 months of isolation with COVID 19. I am so blessed to have gotten to see so many people along the way…meeting new people and reconnecting with old friends.

Country Roads….Take Me Home…

We made it to West Virginia! I have to say it is absolutely beautiful! There are more than rolling hills….rolling hills on steroids maybe. Everything is so green….lots of trees and fields with cows. The best thing is the weather has been decent. I was expecting really hot, humid weather and we maxed out today at 81. Rich’s brother, Joe, and his wife, Heather, came down yesterday to spend Saturday night and most of Sunday with us. They live in northern Virginia, so it was about a 3.5 hour drive for them. What was even better was today was Joe’s birthday. It has been a long time since these siblings have been together for one of their birthdays. We spent the morning playing Settlers of Catan, a board game that is a family favorite. Joe won (of course he did, it’s his birthday!). Heather is training for the Marine Corps Marathon on Oct 31st (she is a way better woman than me!) and went on an 8 mile run this morning whilst we were placing the game. We left soon after to head to a nearby park to go for a hike near Cheat Lake. It was a wonderful place to hike and I have a feeling Tim will be back many times. We then went down to eat at a place called Mountain State Pub and Brewery in the Wharf District down by the water. Joe and Heather have left now to head back and I am posting photos of our first full day in West Virginia. (we are less than 10 miles from the Pennsylvania border….and Pittsburg is about an hour north of here). Tim is getting a workout in the hotel gym, which is actually quite descent, and we are going to go meet one of his roommates later this evening and move his stuff into his apartment. We will get him settled and start heading west tomorrow. We aren’t going back the way in which we came so we can see a few more things and more importantly, people and friends.

Pro Football Hall of Fame

Saturday we got up and started to finish our way across Indiana…then into Ohio. We stopped in Canton, Ohio around lunchtime to tour the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is really very cool. If you are a football fan at all, I would highly recommend it! We were there for a couple of hours….but could have easily doubled that time. I went to high school with a man named Kevin Mawae. We both graduated from high school together down in Leesville, Louisiana. He has been blessed to have a long and successful NFL career after playing at LSU. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019. I wore his jersey and got a picture next to his bust in the Hall. Very cool. It was sure a nice break from the two days in the car. Afterwards, we got in the cars and drove the last three hours to Morgantown, West Virginia!

Starved Rock State Park

Friday we took off with two loaded down cars and four drivers to head towards Morgantown, West Virginia. We stopped for a bit of a hike in Starved Rock State Park in Illinois….near Chicago. It is a free….and beautiful park. There are lots of waterfalls…but I guess during the summer it dries up quite a bit. I can’t imagine the beauty of this place with fall colors or in the spring when the water is running much higher. We took a few pictures there. We then hopped back in our cars and struggled through the Chicago traffic in the late afternoon on a Friday. I have never found a good time of day to travel around or through Chicago….but Friday at 4:30 p.m. is definitely not ideal. We also lost an hour as we entered Indiana. We drove as far as Elkhart, Indiana and stopped for the night. My sister and her family live less than 30 minutes south of there, in Goshen, Indiana. Pam, her daughters, Kara and Alyssa, and Alyssa’s boyfriend drove up to Elkhart to meet us for dinner. It was nice to have these four cousins together to talk over dinner, as they don’t get to see each other often.

Final Photos and VA Irony

First off, our awesome jeep tour guide took a few photos of us on his phone and then emailed them to us. They are what he calls “Alaska postcard photos” so we are pretty small but the mountain range behind us aren’t! Also a photo of us with what he called the skittles jeeps…because from the air, we look like scattered skittles on the dirt road.

As for the VA….you know I had a horrible experience with them when I was trying to get vaccinated earlier in the year. I was turned away from a patient empty clinic with 20 free spots to be vaccinated…even though I had my separation orders in hand with the history of my service. They turned me away because I didn’t meet their criteria. Simply serving my country and getting an honorable discharge did not count enough for them. I am still a little salty about that. Well, while I was in Alaska, the VA sent me a letter. Actually I have been getting mail from them almost every week saying that they can loan me money to buy a house, car, etc. So not only did they turn me away, because I filled out their paperwork, I am on their spam mailing list. Wonderful. This letter was different though. It called for me to once again serve my nation and be a responsible citizen and get vaccinated!! Really? Argh. The irony. They want me to contact them if I have been vaccinated outside the VA system so they can keep track of me….even if I am not allowed to be seen by them. Grrrrrr.