One Year

Well, it has been one year today since our Joe was killed in a car accident in Colorado. My life has so drastically changed since that moment. I had no idea how much pain there was in losing a child. No idea. I didn’t realize that grief stays with you. It isn’t something to be gotten through, like a dense fog. It is now holding your hand for the rest of your life. You just have to decide from day to day…. sometimes hour to hour if it will drag you around to places you don’t want to be, or if you will walk companionably together along your life’s path. I can say there has been a fair amount of dragging with me and grief this year, but I am hoping it will be more of the latter…. walking together and experiencing life. I never know hour to hour which it will be. I also didn’t realize that “early grief” is typically defined as the first 2 years after a death of a loved one. I now realize that someone who is only three months out from a death is still in that protective fog of grief. It is when the acceptance and realization that this death is truly real, is when the true pain really starts. That fog lifts and stops protecting your mind and heart and you have to really start to feel what it is like to lose your loved one. Everyone’s grief is different. I never know what is going to activate my grief…. send my brain into a “grief burst”. It can be a song, a thought, a photo that pops up on Facebook or my echo device on my desk. Early on it was a simple as someone wearing a shirt with “94” on it to one of my cardio classes I attend. That was the year Joe was born. I would have noticed it before, but after his death, that was all I could see. I also have learned that the death of a child is particularly hard. I have learned that if you haven’t also lost a child, I can stop listening right away to your “friendly” advice. (And I have gotten plenty of friendly advice about how I should grieve).

Yesterday we had an open house at our home for those who knew Joe to come and gather and honor his memory and the fun life he lived. We had about 40 people come, and it was a beautiful day. The weather was in the low 60’s and sunny. Not bad for early March in Nebraska. We actually had to turn on the AC because it got so hot in the house. I think we had about a 50

Yesterday we had an open house at our home to bring together those who knew Joe to celebrate his life. I know his friends in Missouri get together often but we wanted to include the folks here in Nebraska as well. I think it was a 50/50 split of locals and out-of-towners. He had military friends here from his guard unit, Delta Chi brothers, and high school classmates. He even had a former employer stop by. We were blessed to have his wife, Michelle, here as well, to be surrounded by love for her as well as for Joe. I have been contacted by his OFD brotherhood, and a couple of them were headed to the crash site today along with some firefighters from Virginia (they are all in a firefighter class in Colorado together). It shows how deep the red line courses and what a brotherhood it is. The OFD firefighters are being supported by their classmates who didn’t even know Joe. It bowls me over every time…. this love these firefighters have for each other. I am so glad that Joe was blessed with that brotherhood, even if it was for such a short time. I also got a message from one of the FF/EMTs who responded to Michelle and Joe’s accident in the snow storm a year ago. He has been following my blog and felt that he and Joe were a lot alike. It was such a wonderful thing for him to reach out to me. God bless him as he continues his work as a FF/EMT.

Today Mass was celebrated in honor of Joe at our parish at St. Gerald in Ralston. We were greeted after the Mass in the narthex by several of our good church friends. They stood in a big line, and we went down the line hugging them as they gave us words of encouragement and a sunflower. We ended up with 30 sunflowers: 27 for Joe (one for each of the year he lived) and one each for Rich, Lily, and me. Sunflowers are my jam….I will travel a long ways to just take in a good sunflower field. I made it through the Mass without a lot of tears (Sunday morning Mass was different – I was a hot mess then). I looked up and saw all these beautiful people with these sunflowers and totally lost it. It was one of the most kind things. Thank you to everyone who played a part in that. It is making me tear up now just thinking about it. Thanks to everyone who came to the open house as well. I don’t know how we’ll celebrate Joe up in Montana, but it was so nice to get everyone together this year. Thanks especially to my brother-in-law, Joe, and his wife, Heather, and her son, Kevin, for coming from Virginia to be with us this weekend.

So here is to another year of beautiful memories of Joe. I have told a few people this, but wanted to mention it here. When Joe was alive, I had to wait to talk to him about things that happened to me or that I thought about. I don’t have to do that anymore. I have access to him all the time now, in my heart and mind. I have a book I write letters to him in quite often. I can talk to him out loud, which I do often because I am usually alone, but can also just think to him and know that he is hearing me. Sometimes I can hear his reply right away…or that wonderful laugh that he had. I no longer have to wait until he is off shift or not at BJJ or worry about interrupting time with Michelle. I have his attention whenever I need it. His death dropped me to my knees, literally and figuratively. I will miss him until my last breath. I want to live a life to honor his. I want him to know I eventually found my smile again and even though I was so very sad to be without him, I honored him by continuing to live mine until I see him again.


Have you ever heard of the Japanese art of kintsugi? I have seen and heard about it for a long time but just learned the name of it today. The Japanese make beautiful bowls of lacquer and pottery. But life happens. Earthquakes come or other accidents occur, and these bowls fall and shatter. The Japanese don’t discard these broken bowls though. They pick up the shards and using the art of kintsugi, they put the pieces back together. They don’t use glue to try and hide the cracks. They use gold – a precious metal – to hold the shards together. It shows the bowl has been broken and has lovingly been put back together. The bowl isn’t the same. It looks different. It may even be shaped differently, but it is a bowl again.

Grief is so much like this. My heart shattered in a million pieces almost a year ago. I remember sitting there and thinking that I could actually feel like air was blowing through my chest…. like there was a hole the size of a cannon ball where my heart should be, and the wind was just blowing right through me. I always pause now when I go to say, I wish something from my heart…. because me heart is still so very broken. However, I envision my heart going through a long kintsugi process of being repaired but still being able to see the many cracks – evidence of my heart breaking – and proof that it is healing…but will never be the same. Anyhow…this was brought up in a grief zoom I was part of today and I wanted to talk on it now that I know the name of this art. I have put a couple of photos of examples below. I lived in Japan for 2 years but I don’t have any Kintsugi art. I think it is beautiful and each piece tells a different story.

A Gift to the Zoos in my Life

So many of you have commented on the zoo photography I have been doing…. which has been a lot. Being at the zoo makes me feel closer to Joe for a number of reasons. On Rich’s suggestion, I am sending a copy of the photos to the zoos. I wrote a letter to each of the zoos: Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium/Wildlife Safari in Omaha, NE; Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, KS; Busch Gardens in Tampa, FL; Fort Worth Zoo in Fort Worth, TX; and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, FL. I enclosed a photo of Joe, told them about our story, and then included a thumb drive of the photos I had taken at their zoo/aquarium. I gave them my permission to use them if they would like, just to give me credit for the photo. I don’t know that anything will come of it, but it is a gift to honor my Joe at the anniversary of his death. He really supported and loved my photography and Tim really likes my zoo photography as well. So this is a gift for them. I hope they at least look at them and perhaps share them with their zookeepers. I really thought this was a nice way to honor Joe.

Open House in Joe’s Memory – Never Forgotten

Well, the one-year anniversary is closing in on us. Two weeks. They say the days leading up to the anniversary are worse than the actual anniversary itself. We shall see. All I can say is I have been doing a LOT of grief work over the last few weeks. I still have moments EVERYDAY that I just can’t believe that it is all real. Where there is such great love, there is great loss.

We have been thinking for weeks about what we were going to do for this first anniversary of Joe’s death. March 6th falls on a Monday and we are planning to spend that day together as a family and go to a Mass offered in his name at our church. We wanted to get together with Joe’s friends and their families one last time to honor Joe before we move to Montana. We didn’t want to miss this opportunity to get together with the people we have loved for years, who were a part of Joe’s tribe. We are asking his classmates, rugby teammates, friends from college, firefighter friends, Delta Chi brothers, anyone who loved our Joe, to join us for food, drinks, cookies, and scotcheroos on Sunday, March 5th, from 1-5 p.m. at our home in Omaha. Please bring stories to share and pictures if you have them. They both would be a blessing to our family. Our Joe came with a big tribe, and we’d love to get together with you all one last time to honor Joe’s memory and say our goodbyes. If you need our address, please send me a message. Bellevue peeps….we moved to Omaha several years ago, so don’t head to our old house in Tregaron! If you plan on attending, please let me know so I can make sure you are fed properly!

My Trip to the Sedgwick County Zoo

This has taken a few weeks to get ready, but when I was on my way home to Omaha from Houston, I stopped in Wichita, Kansas for the night. They say that they have the best zoo in Kansas there – the Sedgwick County Zoo. I got up early in the morning in late January on a weekday. It was 32 degrees and I had the zoo to myself for the most part. I spent about 6 hours walking around and really had a nice time. I got a few photos that surprised me…like a rhinoceros sticking out her tongue. There was also a cardinal…I think I have mentioned that I often see cardinals at the zoo….making me feel like Joe is with me. This cardinal flew right into a coati enclosure to get my attention. He followed me around and so I got a lot of photos of him too. New fun fact: flamingoes actually don’t mind cold water. They were really noisy but splashing and having fun in the cold water. You could hear the lioness roaring at the lion from all over the zoo. You could see her breath in the cold air and that was pretty cool. Just hearing her give him a hard time about I don’t know what, but she was the epitome of “I am woman; hear me roar!” I was also chased by a wood duck, which was comical I am sure, but somewhat terrifying. The black swan also tried to approach me, but I don’t mess with swans – learned that the hard way as a kid. There must have been something strange going on in that aviary area because I heard several screams of people come from there. Either the ducks were chasing them, the swans, or maybe one of the free-roaming wallabies in the area snuck up and scared them. There were also these African Painted Dogs that were interesting. I don’t think I had seen them before. The buffalo here, Boomer, died this past week. He was so patient and let me take lots of photos of him. Their zookeepers are heartbroken at his loss, according to their FB page. Anyhow, I wanted to share some of my happy place times with you. The one random sunset shot is from my drive home that night to Omaha. I was in northern Kansas and just had to pull over and catch the beautiful colors.

Thank you

I wanted to thank every one of you who sent me warm wishes yesterday. It was a hard day on so many levels, but I was kept busy. I did my normal Barre and Dancefit classes in the morning at the gym. Then I came home to a weekly photography zoom meeting….took a shower and was ready to meet Rich for lunch at 1230. The doorbell rang and Zac Oslica (Joe’s best friend) and his mom, Wanda, were at the door. They came with yummy carbs and an invitation to lunch. Zac had gotten off of shift at the fire department that morning and drove up from Kansas City to get to Omaha for lunch. I may have cried a little – it meant so much to me. He had lunch with us and then was going back down to Kansas City to try and beat the winter storm we were expecting. Plus, today is Zac’s birthday, as well as his girlfriend’s, Megan. So happy birthday to them. Grief zoom meeting number one ensued. I then got some laundry done and talked with my mom for awhile. Then grief zoom meeting number two…my local one that is monthly for grieving moms. By 8:20 I was finally done with my day and sat down with Rich and Lily to open cards and packages. I wanted to share with you what Lily gave me. I asked her last May if she would paint a portrait of Joe from a photo I had of him. I wanted her to change the helmet he was wearing to reflect that he wasn’t a recruit but a firefighter in the painting. I even went with her to Michaels on the last day of her junior year to buy her all the supplies she would need to paint it. I asked her a few times over the summer but she just put it off and I thought she had blown off the whole thing, However, she surprised me with this painting last night. I may have ugly cried when I saw it. I can’t tell you how realistic it is….the shading of his jacket…the detail of his gloves and wrinkles of his pocket. It blew me away. Today I spent a few hours making sure that she had everything she needed to get her spot verified for the Kansas City Art Institute. I have no question in my mind that is where she is meant to be.

Today is….

Today is complicated. Today is my birthday. I am 52 glorious years old today. I remember 3 years ago that I wanted to make it to my 50th birthday. It was my second goal after making it to Joe and Michelle’s wedding. I remember being so out of breath on my 49th birthday that I couldn’t blow out the three candles on the cake. That was due to a rare reaction to the chemo that I was on. Joe, a year or two later, told me that it was a hard birthday for him. I was bald and couldn’t breathe and had been at the hospital for 7.5 hours the day before, trying to avoid a hospital stay and get some help with the crazy reactions I was having. He said he realized at that moment how sick I really was. So, every subsequent birthday is a blessing.

Last year, Joe came up to Omaha to surprise me on Valentine’s Day and stay for my birthday. He had been trying to get me to be a Chiefs fan for years, and told me, “Since you have finally drank the Chief’s Kool-Aid, I thought you needed some swag to wear.” It was a throwback Chief’s sweatshirt, which I absolutely love. He went out to dinner with us and then drove home after my birthday dinner. It was the last time I ever saw him…. on my birthday. I often look at the spot in my living room where he gave me one of his big bear hugs as he got ready to head out the door and drive back to Kansas City. I had no idea that he would be gone three weeks later. So today I am sad as it has been a year today since I have seen him. I am also blessed because the last day I saw him, he was spoiling me with a visit and my last hug from him was on my birthday.

This past Saturday, I did something very special for myself. I didn’t let anyone know I was doing it…. but it was something I had been wanting to do for about 10 months. I put on my Joe Messina memorial t-shirt, my dark gray and neon green socks (Joe’s favorite color in high school), jumped into the car that all of our kids have owned and driven, but was originally Joe’s, and headed to the tattoo parlor with a letter from Joe from when he was in boot camp. They created a stencil of his handwriting and now I have a message tattooed on my inner left forearm from Joe that I see all the time. My tattoo artist was super nice, and she was from Montana. She thanked me more than once for letting her do this work on me in his honor. She thought it was really cool. It didn’t take long, but I was near a window and watched two firetrucks go by during my time in her chair. That was my cue that Joe was with me and approved of my choice. Joe had A LOT of tattoos. He is probably laughing hysterically that his mom and dad now both have tattoos….to honor him and his memory. Below are photos I took with Joe at my birthday dinner last year, one of his hair on my birthday (I compared him to an alpaca) and then of the tattoo I got. I absolutely love it. The tattoo says, “Hey Mama! I love and miss you! Love, Joe”

Meeting with my Sarcoma Specialist from the Mayo Clinic

I wanted to share with you what was discussed with my sarcoma specialist this morning. My local oncologist told me that I was stable. My sarcoma specialist agreed that to the naked eye, there has been little to no change in my tumors. However, his radiologist did find some minimal growth in my tumors in my pelvis. The tumors in my lungs and in my spine are stable according to him. I have three main tumors in my pelvis. One, the midline mass is stable at 5.8 cm. The big one in the left side of my pelvis is now 10 x 8.5 x 7.9 cm. Four months ago, it measured 10 x 8.2 x 7.4 cm. The tumor on the right side of pelvis sidewall is 3.8 cm up from 3.6 cm. My Mayo doctor and I had talked at length about how we would proceed if things started to grow a couple of years ago. Both he and I consider this stability. Once my tumors have grown 20% (that was the number we agreed on), we would look at a different treatment. Because I am not curable and on palliative care, my treatment is to extend my life but also to give me the greatest quality of life I can have for the longest possible time. So, we will continue with the same treatment I am on now. I will be decreasing my dosage of blood thinners by half the next time my script is filled which won’t be for another 3 months or so. He gave me permission to use the sauna, which I will start doing. I couldn’t do that with the other chemo I had been on because it caused my body to react to both excess sunlight and heat. We both agreed it may help with the stiffness and soreness in my joints. I will probably go physically up to the Mayo Clinic to visit with my sarcoma specialist the next time…in late May or early June prior to moving to Montana, as he has only met me in person once….in March of 2020. He is aware that we are moving, and he looks forward to working with my new oncologist. Anyhow, even though there was minor growth in two of my main tumors, he considers this to be stable and I should keep doing what I am doing. Just wanted to share the nuts and bolts of our meeting this morning with you. Love to you all!

The Fort Worth Zoo

I have mentioned that I was on the road most of January I decided that on my drive down to Houston to see my brother and his family, and my parents, that I would take a few hours to do something just for me. I really enjoy going to the zoo, so I thought I would go to one in Fort Worth. That had me driving a little over 10 hours the first day and then an additional four hours after I spent 6 hours walking the zoo. We had been there before….maybe 25 years ago when the boys were really little. It was around May that time and all I remember was how hot it was. My little ginger boys had red hot faces the same color as their hair. I remember thinking that many of the animals were not out because of the extreme heat that day. This day in January of 2023 was different. I went on a weekday where my only competition was from young moms with strollers and wagons and a few retired couples enjoying the 77 degree day. Unlike the zoo in Omaha, many of the animals are outside in the winter due to the mild climate, so I really had a good time walking around and meeting a lot of the animal babies. One I fell in love with immediately was Bruno, a male gorilla baby born in November 2022. He is still only with mom and she won’t let anyone, including the zookeepers, near him. She is a good mom and I had a really fun time taking pictures of Bruno and his mom, Gracie. They also had a baby Asian elephant and a baby giraffe. Enjoy!

Scan Results are in

I have a zoom appointment with my local oncologist to go over the results of my CT scans of my chest, abdomen, and pelvis. However, this afternoon, the results were released for me to look at on my online patient chart. The news is good – everything is unchanged after four months. I am stable. I don’t think I realized how heavy these results were weighing on my heart. Ever since Joe died, I have lost all fear of dying – I know he is waiting for me when it is my time. I also know that he would want me to live a full and happy life for as long as I am able, and I have made that a priority. One of the side effects of the medications I am on are incredibly vivid dreams. I am talking EVERY. SINGLE. NIGHT. It can be exhausting because I feel like I never get to a deep, calming sleep. I have to be careful with what I am thinking about prior to going to bed because they will morph into dreams. Some of the dreams are good…some are hysterically crazy…some are very sad and disturbing, and some are terrifying. When I took psychology in high school, the teacher took weeks with us to teach us how to stop a dream midway and realize it was a dream. That skill has stayed with me. I can tell myself that this dream is not real and is funny…and to remember it for the morning to share with Rich and Lily. I have had some really vivid scary dreams that I had to really tell myself over and over that it wasn’t real. I have had dreams about Joe that I have kicked myself over and over again for all of a sudden becoming aware that I am getting the gift of spending time with him in a dream and when I realize that…. the dream is over…he is gone, and I can’t get the dream back. I had a whole night of dreaming that my cancer had started growing again and I was on a new cancer regimen that really decreased my quality of life. It was an awful dream…. but one I know will one day become reality. So, I was more worried about these scans than I let myself realize. My inner dreaming self doesn’t hold back. So, I am relieved to say I should be good to go for another four months…. when I get to do this all over again. It will be the last set of scans in Nebraska. It will be towards the end of May or beginning of June. After that, I will have a new team in Montana to work with. I will also be having a zoom meeting with my sarcoma specialist from the Mayo Clinic next Thursday morning. I haven’t met with him for 8 months, so I am looking forward to talking with him again. I really like him. So, for today, and every day I live with this cancer in my body, I give thanks. Thanks for your continued prayers. I truly appreciate them.