Portrait Photography Class

In early October, I signed up on a whim for a portrait class at the zoo. I thought it would help me figure out how to pose Lily for some of her senior photos. I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew they would have models there for us to work with. We were taken to the Asian Grasslands area of the zoo, where we met the zoo photographer, whom I had worked with before. He and his wife had decided to have more of a high fashion model shoot instead. I was not happy in the beginning because this was not what I signed up for. However, we got into the shoot and I had a good time. Thanks to Katie, Amy, and Rebecca for posing for us during class. Some of the poses were a little over-the-top for me and my purposes, but I stole Rebecca for a few moments and just practiced with the natural lighting and her face. Afterwards I wondered around and took photos of the animals…which I will post separately. Here are the portrait model photos from class:

All Soul’s Day

Today we celebrated the friends and family who have died…especially those who died this past year. We were very honored to have our son, Joe Messina, recognized at our parish tonight at the All Soul’s Day Mass. Each family was called up to light their loved one’s candle. It was a beautiful, if not difficult Mass to attend. I was in Mass when Joe was killed, so being there is sometimes hard… and sometimes comforting. It depends on the day. We also were able to honor a dear friend of mine, who was so wonderful to comfort me when Joe died. She was diagnosed with brain cancer when we were in Alaska this summer and Becky went to be with the Lord on Oct 1st. It is still so strange to go to church and not see her there. I promised her I would check in on her husband, Joe, here on earth, if she would hug my son, Joe, when she saw him in heaven. The lights kept flickering during the service and Fr. Mark said it was our loved ones letting us know they were here with us. It went on all during the service…and all the lights went out for a second or two at one point. Rich whispered in my ear, “That is totally something Joe would do.” Talking with Becky’s husband, Joe, after the service, I told him what Rich said. I told him that Becky was nudging Joe off to the side and turning the lights back on…totally being a mom and ultimate control freak that she was. We got a good laugh out of that. My dear friend, Emily, was one of the many women who made desserts for a reception after the service. She told us she had planned on making Rice Krispy treats but something nudged her to make scotcheroos. We had to laugh at that because that nudge was from Joe. Scotcheroos are his favorite. Emily said she had no idea. We ate our dessert first then headed to Village Inn for dinner. We were greeted by our waitress who told us it was free pie Wednesday. That immediately brought our thoughts back to Joe and Zac and their high school friends who would make sure they went to Village Inn on free pie night. I still am shaking my head and smiling at the fact those two knew when all the free food was given out at the different places. The memories make us smile, but my goodness, Joe is so very missed.

This was the end of our day. The middle of it wasn’t so great. The weather was windy but warm for this time of year. By warm, I mean 75 degrees! Of course, they are predicting snow for the weekend….welcome to fall in the Midwest. We decided to go to Standing Bear Lake for a walk with the dog. The loop around the lake is a little over 3 miles. About 25 minutes into our walk, Rich started to get texts and calls from our bank, saying that our cards had been compromised. Of course we were on foot, and halfway around the lake. By the time we got back, we were welcomed to a smashed in passenger window and my purse, which was tucked under my seat, gone. This was not how I wanted to spend my afternoon….chasing after some loser who stole my purse because the police wouldn’t. Honestly, we were just hoping that he dumped my purse somewhere he had been. I had things in my purse that were irreplaceable to me. Let’s just say that some people really are awful and I just don’t know how much more I can take at this point. So now we are down a car, I have no identification or access to my money. I am now counting the days until we can leave here. Bring me the wide open country, please.

I am glad we had Mass tonight where I could quiet my soul and concentrate on something other than this unfortunate incident.

End of October Catch up Post

I wanted to give you all a bit of a catch up on what has been going on with our family over the last couple of weeks. First of all, thank you to the 3 or 4 friends who reached out to ask about how my scans went. I am part of the CHI medical system here in Omaha. They (meaning the hospitals in that health system in Omaha and many nationwide) were hacked recently. They realized they had been compromised and immediately shut down their systems to protect their patients’ privacy. Well, I thought it would be a couple of days tops. It turned out to be a few weeks. I was a nurse back in the day where we had to sit down and chart on paper…in ink. Well, this seems to be a lost art these days and this hack just crippled this health care system. I was told I would be receiving the results of my CT scans on Friday, Oct 14th at 11:45 a.m. with a call from my local oncologist. I happened to be out of town that day….and I planned my day around that call…which came 4 hours late after I called the cancer center a number of times and finally Rich called when I was given the royal runaround. My doctor, who never once apologized for making me wait 4 hours for the results, said that I am still stable and may even have some shrinkage in one of my major tumors. I cannot verify his call with the radiologist’s report yet because they have still not uploaded all the treatments and scans from the time the system was down. (It just came back up). In fact, I will have to call and have them make an appointment for my injection next week, as that has also fallen through the cracks. I have often…and I mean OFTEN found myself wondering that if I didn’t have a nursing degree and had some competence on a computer, if I wouldn’t have been killed, maimed or forgotten by this doctor by now. I find myself lifting up those less knowledgeable than me who are also fighting cancer in prayer…that someone is hopefully following them carefully. So, I am doing okay…. still stage IV and on palliative care…. but hanging in there, fighting the good fight. Next scans are in February.

We were out of town because we decided last minute to make a trip to Montana. Lily had a few days off of school, so she came with us. That Friday we were waiting for the call from the oncologist, we were touring Montana State University. It was an all-day affair. Lily was able to talk to students from there, try the food, tour a dorm hall, and walk through the art department. Rich and I were very impressed. Lily was non-plussed, as she is about anything that is seemingly important in her life. I thought she would really like it. She has already been accepted there. However, last night she told me she wanted to apply to UCM in Warrensburg, MO, where her brother, Joe, and sister-in-law, Michelle, went to undergrad. So there you have it. She doesn’t know what she wants to study yet. Rich is convinced it will all shake out in the end and she will have a place to go to when she graduates from high school….not to push her. However, the mom in me sees all these dates and deadlines coming and going. I so want her to find a place she can call her own…and figure out something she really enjoys doing that allows her to also make a living. Typical mom stuff.

We left Bozeman (where MSU is) and drove 5 hours north to where our property is. They were supposed to start building on our house this week in Columbia Falls. Unfortunately, our builder fell through at the last minute. To get another builder in place would be about a 3 year wait. I am not willing to do that. We thought we had the perfect option….the 10 acres with a newer house on it that was connected to our 10 acres was on the market. We contacted them and spent 2 hours with them at their house, and even put in an offer. However, they pulled their house off the market 48 hours after we made our offer. So here we are…back to square one. We own 10 acres we can’t build on in the near future. We were there to sign a construction loan and a contract with our builder. Now we will be waiting until March to look for a house and some acreage for sale in the Flathead River Valley. We won’t have kids in school, so we aren’t locked into certain areas for schools. I probably need to be within 30 minutes of a major hospital, but that is doable. Tim is hoping to relocate to another part of the country in May….so we hope to also move soon after Lily graduates from high school on May 21st. Now there will be no wait for construction. We can up and move and get up there. I am devastated that neither our plan A or plan B worked out. Now we have to just wait and wing it. That is not my style. I am a planner. However, it seems like not much seems to be going my way right now, so I will have to just let go and let God.

All this extra time allowed us to spend some time in Glacier National Park. We have been there several times and every time we are there the Going to the Sun Road is closed. This is the major road that goes from the west entrance to the east entrance. It is about 45 miles long and goes up into the mountain passes with stunning views. It also gets on average 80 FEET of snow each winter. It didn’t open until mid-July this year, because that is when they finally got it cleared for travel. This time there wasn’t snow. We were there the last day it was open for traffic, but the west side was closed due to construction they had planned this fall. Again, I am kind of like a bad luck penny….we still couldn’t go through. However, we did go to the east entrance and was able to make it as far as Logan Pass. That was all new to us, and the weather was beautiful, and the leaves were colorful. We stayed a few days in the Whitefish area and then headed back to Bozeman to catch our flight home. We were able to meet up with some friends whom we had been stationed with at Whiteman AFB, MO over 30 years ago. As we are not friends on Facebook and obviously, they don’t read by blog, they had no idea that Joe had died. Tell them about it in a restaurant was awful. It was already a harder day because it was also Joe and Michelle’s 2nd wedding anniversary. I felt so bad for them, as they were just mortified when we told them.

It seems so utterly unfair that Joe is no longer here when these special days pop up. Unfortunately there are a lot of them coming up in the next couple of months. Joe and Michelle were supposed to be married on September 12th, 2020. They both came down with COVID the week before the wedding and had to postpone it. They were able to have their wedding on October 17th, 2020. Because of Joe’s first responder job and the fact I was on chemo at the time, I had not seen Joe in the 8 months prior to his wedding. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I had a meeting with all my doctors at the time and I told them that was my goal. I wanted to be able to make it to my son’s wedding and hopefully be well enough to dance with him. Well, that all came to fruition. Their wedding day was a top five day in my life. I had such a good time just watching Michelle and her girls get ready…and Joe and his posse get suited up. The love that Michelle and Joe have for one another is one for the ages….they supported each other, respected each other, and loved without abandon. I was so blessed to be able to witness their marriage….to see the absolute joy on their faces. To see Tim and Lily standing up with their brother and new sister on their wedding day….it is just such a fabulous memory that I will cherish forever. It seems mighty unfair that although they spent years together as a couple, they had less than 2 years together as man and wife. Joe died being so very loved by the woman of his dreams. What can you say to your daughter-in-law on her wedding anniversary when Joe is no longer here on earth to celebrate with her? Let’s just say it was a hard day for me, as well as for Michelle. God bless her, I can’t begin to imagine how hard that day was for her.

Other things to catch you up on….oh! I have two photos in the Omaha Zoo calendar for 2023. Yep, I am Miss June (actually Eugenia and Sonny, the baby elephants are) along with a smaller photo of a cheetah. It was a really big honor to be selected. I took two photography classes in person in October. One was at the zoo. It was actually supposed to be a portrait class but they changed it (unbeknownst to me) to a fashion photography class. I was looking to find some ideas and guidance on posing Lily for her senior photos, so this was not exactly what I was looking for. However, I did get a few good shots of the models and then I spent another two hours taking photos of the animals. I will post those photos in another post.

I want to wish a Happy Halloween to those of you who celebrate it. Joe loved Halloween. I have fond memories of him as a kid trick or treating with Tim and coming home and dumping all their candy on the family room floor and trading each other for their favorites. I also remember the time in when we lived in Okinawa, that Rich, Tim, and Joe went out trick-or-treating, leaving me home to hand out candy. Rich came back less than an hour later with a Weimaraner puppy and no sons. It is by far our best Halloween story…how we ended up with our Aiko on Halloween night. Later, Joe and Tim would take Lily out trick or treating when we moved back to the States. Norway was not a big Halloween celebrating country. Joe got into more elaborate costumes as an adult. He and his wife and friends would often dress up as a group, which I always enjoyed seeing pictures of. He told me last year that he was handing out candy at his house and there was a kiddo dressed up as a fireman. When Joe told the little boy that he was a real fireman, the kiddo thought it was really cool. Joe called me and told me all about it. This is one of those days that I miss him just a little bit more.

Crapaversary #3

This is a photo I took from a neighbor’s yard a few years ago. This will be the 3rd time I have used it to mark today….my 3rd crapaversary of having stage IV cancer. There were a lot of people who didn’t think I would be here today. I was one of them, to be quite honest. I would love to give you an update as to how things are going, but I honestly don’t know. Thus far, the cancer has not caused me any signs or symptoms….just the side effects of the drugs I have been and am on currently. I am staying very active…going to anywhere from 10-13 YMCA classes per week. I am also back to 5 miles walks with Tallinn (and he is loving that!) My medications I am on make me tired and moody, give me very realistic dreams EVERY NIGHT, and make my joints hurt…especially my feet by nighttime. All in all, very tolerable. I have scans on Thursday morning and hope to hear the results soon afterwards. If all is good, I can feel free to plan out my life for the next four months. Interestingly enough, I had a chronic cancer meeting today at A Time to Heal. I had been meeting with these other stage IV folks throughout the last 2.5 years during COVID on zoom. This was the first time I had met many of them in person. I am the youngster of the group, but I have such a wonderful time with them all. It was a wonderful 90 minutes of time together.

When I came home, I had a package waiting for me from one of Joe’s fireman brothers….someone he went through the Olathe Firefighting Academy with. A couple of months ago (June 11th) some of the OFD firefighters did a Flight for Air Climb there in Kansas City to benefit cancer. A few of Joe’s classmates and coworkers did this climb…wearing Joe’s memorial t-shirts and their full bunker gear. This is NOT easy. They sent me a message and a photo before they started and then after they finished. I know that Joe would have been there with them if he had been alive…doing his small part to raise money for cancer because of me. They were doing this for me in his stead. Today, I received some photos from that day….along with some other OFD photos, one with Joe in it. Gold in the form of photos…I treasure them. James also sent me his bib, bracelet, and medal for the climb, because he felt Joe would have given me his. The back of the bib was signed by all the OFD firefighters who were there along with their badge numbers. All of this was explained in a wonderful letter from Joe’s classmate and firefighting friend, James. It was one of the most thoughtful things I have ever received. My heart is full. My Joe surrounded himself with the best people….and they are missing him still. Thanks, OFD….and James, especially, for making this momma’s heart a little less broken on this yucky crapaversary.

In Case You Missed the Harvest Moon….

I am the defacto scorekeeper for the company softball team….perhaps because I actually know how to do box scores. (Thanks to Pastor Braband who showed me how at Detroit Tigers games when I was in the 7th grade…..back when they were a great team!) The game was at 7:30 p.m., so it was perfect timing for me to get out right before the game started and take some photos of the harvest moon in an open field. Isn’t God’s creation magnificent?

Lily in the Fall

I have been trying to find some times and places within the Omaha area to take some photos of Lily for her senior photos. I usually hijack her on the afternoons she gets home from school early. This time we went to a bridge Tallinn and I walk over almost every day. The colors are starting to change and the weather cooled down (for our false fall….we still have 80 degree weather coming back before fall settles in for real here). Lily does NOT wear sweaters. She also does not wear turtlenecks. So a turtleneck sweater? Yeah, she was thrilled. However, it was chilly, so between bouts of complaining how itchy the sweater was, she was happy she wasn’t cold. We also stopped by the OPPD Arboretum. Lily loves to collect buckeye nuts from the Ohio Buckeye tree they have there. This was another bribe…I would help her look for buckeyes if she would let me take a few photos of her there as well. Lily was nearly 17 before she got her ears pierced. She never wore jewelry until she finally got earrings. However, her sister-in-law, Michelle, in a really touching and thoughtful gesture, gave Lily her big brother Joe’s senior class ring when she started her senior year. I found a longer silver chain for her to put it on. Joe would be cheering her on this year, so this was her nod to him that he is still by her side.

Photoshoot in an Iowa Orchard

Lily and I made a quick trip (it is about a two hour drive one-way) to Jefferson, Iowa to Deal’s Orchard. I saw that they had sunflowers and also zinnia fields. They have a lot of fun things for young kids to do, but we wanted to see the flowers. It was so pretty! Because of the dry, hot weather, they had apples, pumpkins, zinnias, corn, and sunflowers….all blooming pretty much as once…which is pretty unusual. Lily and I had a wonderful time wondering around for about an hour or so before we headed back home. Our first person we chatted with was the farmer of the orchard. He was really nice and was impressed that we drove all the way from Omaha. He wanted to know if we had ever heard of Vala’s….well, you would have to live under a rock in the Omaha Metro area to not have heard of Vala’s. We may have to go one last time before we move. It is a fall amazement park. Anyhow, the farmer realized we were only here to see the fields so only had them charge us for half price. We had such a great time walking around and taking pictures of the zinnias. Here are a few photos from our excursion.

Jesus Wept

This is not only the shortest verse in the Bible (John 11:35) but was also the name of the all-day retreat I attended today in Elkhorn, Nebraska. Jesus, in His humanity, grieved the loss of His friend, Lazarus, even though He knew He would raise him from the dead. The whole idea was that Jesus is by our side through our grief journey. We started at 8 a.m. and ended a bit after 6 p.m. I think one of my table mates said it for all of us…”I think I could just sleep for 3 days now!” Grief is exhausting! In the “real world”, I am constantly putting on a mask that doesn’t show the sorrow I feel all the time. I used to be a pretty smiley person but now I actually notice it and feel it in my face when I smile…which shows it doesn’t happen often enough anymore. Wearing that mask is tiring. Trying to find an acceptable public answer to “how are you?” is exhausting. But today there were no masks necessary. Truth trumped all, even if it was ugly and uncomfortable. Everyone was coming from the same tragic event of losing a child….some (and I cannot even imagine) losing more than one child. There were about thirty people present and I swear we all could have filled a pool with the tears that flowed freely all day. There was no holding back as men and women shared their stories – we were all intimately touched because we knew what they were going through. Anyhow, I wanted to share with you some of the insights I learned today…in general and personally.

We started the morning with breakfast. They had tall, white pillar candles in glass containers with our child’s name and photo on them. We were each called up to the front to bring our lighted candle to put on the front table for the day. It was like there was a spot for our children to brightly glow on our talks and gatherings throughout the day. As we placed our child’s candle on the table, we were each given a small wooden cross that fits perfectly in your hand to hold and pray with. We had speakers throughout the day and small groups where we could tell the stories of our child…and our loss and how we feel we are coping at this point. Some of the takeaways I got was there are really two stages of grief: the person you were before your child’s death and the person you are now, after your child’s death. Yes!! A statement that really resonated with me was “it’s okay if you put your cross down and rest sometimes.” That is huge. You don’t have to carry it ALL….all the time. Also…the four C’s: you did not CAUSE this, you could not CHANGE this, you could not CURE it, and you could not CONTROL it. Let all that “what if” stuff go and just grieve. We were charged to do the following: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”….then dare to be quiet. Twice….once at the beginning of the day, and then once at the end of the day during the Mass, they sang the litany of our children. A slide show was shown of our kids as we asked each of them to pray for us from heaven. I have to admit it is still startling to see Joe’s photo on a big screen with someone singing his name and asking him to pray for us….how did I get here? It still seems so surreal sometimes. How can he really be gone?

While we had our lunch break, we not only ate wonderful homecooked food from the parishioners volunteering in the kitchen, but we also did a craft project. We were given a small clear plastic Christmas ornament and we added colored sand to it. It is obviously too heavy to put on a tree, but it had colors in it that reminded me of Joe. I chose neon green (his favorite color for a long time growing up), dark green (for the army), blue (because Michelle feels blue reminds her of Joe in a comforting sort of way), orange (he was a ginger after all), red and gold (both for his firefighting….his yellow bunker gear and red…well, for fire and the fire engine he rode on). These started out as interesting layers of sand, but as they got handled more and more, the sand started to mix together…making it unique and more my Joe. We had an opportunity to spend time writing letters to our child….but I do that several times a week already. They suggested we also write a letter to God. I thought that might be a better use of my mental and spiritual energy. I went up to the sanctuary to be in a quiet place and think on what I wanted to say to God. It was then I realized I was really angry with God. I hadn’t been able to put a pin in it before. I was the one with stage IV cancer. I was the one who was sick and living on borrowed time. Why would God take Joe and leave me? Joe had a beautiful wife, a wonderful job, and was just starting to hit the “sweet spot” of his young adult life. Gone. I had prepared for my impending death. I had my funeral written, letters to my kids, my obituary….it was all done. Now, we were helping Michelle and Joe’s friends go through the painful task of selecting songs and poems, pictures and mementos to share at his Celebration of Life. When I stripped away the absolute despair for the loss of my Joe, I was mad. I am not so sure it is too healthy spiritually to be mad at God, but if anyone can handle my wrath, it is God. So I went to confession. I was a weeping, snotty mess talking to the priest about this anger I was carrying. He suggested I had hardened my heart….you read about that so much in the Bible…how the people hardened their hearts against God. I was in shock that I might have become one of them. I remembered back to a homily last weekend at my church given by Deacon Wayne Reed, someone I helped teach confirmation class with for two years….a person I admire and consider a friend. He mentioned that a mustard seed is so small but grows into such a large bush…we have all heard the parable of the mustard seed. However, he went even further to say that the mustard seed has a very hard outer shell. In order for it to grow, that shell must crack open. So after my confession, I was kneeling in the sanctuary…praying for the softening of my heart, the cracking of my shell….and I felt the top of my left shoulder get warm….as if someone had put their hand there. I knew there was no one physically. However, I had a strong feeling my Joe was there, trying his best to let me know he was with me and always would be. And….I lost it….for the umpteenth time today. Hopefully that was a small crack in my armor. As we sat down in small groups today I mentioned several times that I am just a “hot mess.” What today showed me was I am not alone in the messiness of life after the death of a child. I met some really wonderful people today. I hate that I met them because they also lost a child. However, I walked away with some goals for my struggling faith life (I am in a desert right now) and with some newfound people that share such an intimate bond with me.

I came home to a package from the oncology social worker at the hospital I receive my cancer treatment and care from. I had finally reached out to them and told them I was struggling. They didn’t know about Joe’s death and immediately jumped into action, getting me websites, addresses, phone numbers, etc for local and national resources. Why didn’t I do this sooner? The package also included a couple of small books on grief, and then one on surviving the holidays. That has kind of been the elephant in the room the last few weeks. This is the time of year I start addressing my Christmas cards and start working on my annual family Christmas letter. Ugh. Where do I start? How do I not make it sound as awful as it feels? How can I do justice to Joe and his life? I am already changing how I sign cards to family….I used to write out all our names…but it just seems to be too hard to not sign Joe’s name with ours, so now everything is “The Messina Family” or “Rich, Cyndi and Kids.” Tiny little things like that will have me in a puddle of tears. So Christmas. Yeah. That will be tough. As much as I detest the idea of reading this book on making it through the holidays, I know it is something I really needed. Today was exhausting. I am heading to bed with the hopes, as I do every night, that Joe will grace my dreams and let me know as is well with his soul. Then I will get up tomorrow morning and once again hop onto Facebook and check to see if there are any “memories” having to do with Joe. I know people may get tired of me sharing these “memories” of Joe, but memories are all that I have right now, and I treasure all of them. Today was a very heavy day…emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I know this was kind of a heavy post as well. I have been taking lots of photos of beautiful things…one of which happens to be my daughter. I will be working on those photos to post soon. I leave you with a photo of the things I received today that were physical. The emotional and spiritual gives were much bigger.

Sunflowers in Kansas

Well, due to all the traveling, I missed the sunflower fields that I have been going to for the last several years here in Nebraska. But fear not! I knew of another field….a HUGE field down in Kansas that was open to the public. I drove 3 hours down there last year on my own and it just blew me away. I literally was driving on a dirt road, turned a corner and there were thousands of sunflowers waving in the breeze….a whole field of bright yellow just glowing from the earth. This time I took Lily. I have been taking photos of her in the sunflower fields every year for the last several years. This being her last year at home, possibly, and me needing a chance to try and get some senior photos done for her, I thought we could make the road trip. We arrived about 45 minutes before the sun began to set. I have to insert here that I was really really proud of Lily. She does not like bugs. She can spot one a country mile away. There were A LOT of bugs. She was really pretty good about getting into the middle of the field and letting me take photos. I am ALMOST disappointed that I didn’t get a photo of her wigging out over a bug being too close to her. Anyhow, I took a lot of photos and as we were leaving, we turned around and saw a full moon rising over the foggy field across the street. It was very striking and I couldn’t do it justice. It was a really pretty end to our excursion.

Sunsets and Clouds in September

Due to wildfires in the western part of the United States, we had a lot of smoke that blew over the Midwest. This allowed us to have spectacular sunrises and sunsets…with brilliant red colors reflecting through the smoke from the sun. Although we pray for the people affected by these wildfires and those fighting them, I wanted to share God’s beauty that gave us this amazing sunset a couple of weeks ago.