81st Tulip Festival in Orange City, Iowa

I have been attending a grief counseling zoom class online for the last few weeks and one thing they talked about last week was self care. You have to do things to try and bring yourself joy…or at least a little break from all the grief. It could be something as easy as getting your nails done, or for me, going on a photoshoot. I signed up with a local travel company to take a bus to Orange City, Iowa this past Friday. There was a tour guide and we were fed a Dutch meal upon our arrival. There was almost 40 of us on the tour bus from Omaha. I went alone…just me and my camera. I was curious to learn about the Dutch Tulip Festival. Having been to the Netherlands a few times and having lived in Norway for 3 years, I thought this would be pretty interesting. I got to take lots of photos of tulips, the Straatfest (like a fashion show of old world native costumes), street scrubbing, and Volksparade. There is a senior who is nominated as the Tulip Queen each year. This year was Queen Naomi’s year. There is only about 6000 people in Orange City and I think all of them were in the parade. After the straatfest, the bergermeister (or mayor of the town) comes through the streets with some other town council folks and inspect the street for cleanliness. The streets have to be cleaned for the Tulip Queen and her court for the parade. The boys throw buckets of water on the street and the girls use scrub brushes to clean. I have to mention at this point that the temperatures did not get out of the 50’s and there was a pretty brisk cold breeze as well. Some of these young boys were SOAKED. I think every kiddo was there dancing or singing. Most of their parents and grandparents were there dancing as well. I also spent some time walking around and taking photos of their late-blooming tulips and replica windmills. I also learned how they make the famous wooden shoes that everyone was wearing. The Orange City Marching Dutchmen, their award winning high school marching band, march in those wooden clogs. I was amazed! The noise was incredible. Anyhow, this was my 12 hours of grief therapy and I captured several photos of families and flowers enjoying a cool May Friday.

Hanging in there…

This is the answer that I give to people who ask how I am doing. I don’t want to give them the flippant “fine” because I am not fine. I haven’t been for awhile. I was just getting used to being able to honestly answer “fine” when we lost Joe. Now I am “hanging in there”. Every morning I quickly scan my Facebook memories to see if Joe’s face will make an appearance. Today was a photo from his graduation from high school from a friend. That was kind of hard. My mind started to think of his 10 year reunion and how he wouldn’t be there to show off his amazing wife and all his tattoos. He wouldn’t be drinking beers with old friends and telling stories of his time at Bellevue West High School that had inflated with a decade of time. Joe was dyslexic…he was moderate to severely dyslexic and school was a struggle for him. What would take an average person an hour would take him 4 times that long. When he set his mind to it, though, he could accomplish anything….like graduating from high school….going to college and graduating from UCM….from going through the OFD academy and then wanting to go to paramedic school. He was enrolled in anatomy and physiology at a local college when he died….in preparation to start paramedic school. He was working so hard with that.

Joe Messina at Bellevue West HS May 2013 with his very proud parents

I had a few other photos of Joe this week I am going to share. One was from high school rugby. He started playing rugby in Norway alongside his brother. The two of them continued to play in the Omaha area throughout high school and then they each played in their respective colleges. Joe loved the game and I became a pretty involved rugby mom. I used to collect and wash all the jerseys for their high school team. I usually washed them twice.

This is why I washed the uniforms twice….they needed it!

The last two I didn’t remember. They were from 7 years ago in 2015 when we were visiting Joe. Lily was so little there. She adored her older brothers and especially had a fondness for climbing on Joe. On her last birthday, he seemed to realize she was growing up and bought her a mace keychain and a book on personal finances. I had talked to him at great length about Lily and her future as an adult, because I wasn’t sure how long I would be around for it…or if I even would. He seemed to take that to heart and was trying to talk to her more and more about her future plans. She is finishing up her last week of her junior year. She won’t have Joe at her graduation from high school next year cheering her on and that just guts me. He was so proud of her and she loved him so much. I look at his instagram page and he has all sorts of posts about missing his “little sis”. Now HE is the person we are missing oh so much.

Today I sent out the last two thank you’s for Joe’s Celebration of Life. I know they are so late, but I just couldn’t put into words how much the Olathe Fire Department and the MO Army National Guard has done for our family in regards to Joe’s passing. They stood up and helped when we were all so grief-stricken that we couldn’t think straight. Countless members of Joe’s unit and OFD friended me on facebook so they could keep up on what was going on with our family and so they could share memories of Joe with us that we might not have seen. They continue to take care of Michelle and are in contact with her all the time….mowing her lawn and making sure everything around the house is okay. These guys have stepped up when they could have stepped back, and I am so proud that Joe was counted in their ranks of both of these awesome organizations. Thank you so very much. Joe would have been so very grateful and proud of the way you are taking care of the love of his life, his wife, Michelle. So I feel that having all the flowers dead and gone….the thank yous all sent out now…that a period of mourning has been checked off in a way. I don’t want to go on without my Joe…he made me smile and laugh like no one else in our family could do. I guess I will leave you with a quote I saw online that sums everything up pretty well: I miss the memories we’ll never have.

Mother’s Day 2022

I had been dreading it for weeks….gone into a pretty bad funk days prior. I did NOT want to go to Branson because not only would I have to grieve my first Mother’s Day without Joe away from the comforts of my own home, but it was a weekend we were supposed to spend with Joe and Michelle in the first place. I am not into touristy places and would rather spend the day outside in nature. Rich finally had to tell me, as I was in danger of digging in my heels and not going at all, that he had planned to surprise me with flying in Tim, my youngest son, to Missouri to spend the weekend with us. There was also the added bonus of being able to spend a few hours with Michelle dangled in front of my nose like a carrot as well. So I sucked it up and went. I did have a nice time but it was hard.

We left on Friday, May 6th, the 2 month anniversary of Joe’s death. The mood in the car riding down to Kansas City to see Michelle was that of a deflated balloon. It was good to see Michelle and take her out to lunch. She, too, was deflated. It was a rough day for all of us. I just wanted to stand in her living room and be next to my son’s ashes. I didn’t want to make things any tougher on her though, so we said we had to head on to Branson. She gave me a gift bag as we were leaving for Mother’s Day. It was so very kind of her. You see, she could easily wash her hands of us if she wanted to. But I love her as my own, and I wish I could do anything to help stop her hurting. I didn’t open the bag until we were in the hotel room. I am glad because I completely fell apart with her most gracious gift to me. You see, I don’t have much of Joe’s. As a grown, married man and owning a house, he had his stuff. I have a lot of photos and some papers. I treasure all of it. Growing up, Joe always had a teddy bear he called Bears. I bought it for him when I was pregnant for him. It is made by Precious Moments and is now considered a “vintage” bear. Joe would get a kick out of that. Actually, Joe and I had talked about this bear a lot over the last couple of years because he wanted to find one to give to his first child someday….but we weren’t having any luck…as they aren’t made anymore. One of the things Michelle gave me was Bears. Joe slept with that thing for a long time….until high school I think. Even as a married man, he had it in his home stashed away somewhere. I was able to hug Bears…to smell Joe….to have one item that summed up his childhood in my possession. It meant the world to me. I stood in my hotel room and ugly cried for a long time. It was just the most precious gift to a grieving mother…her child’s most loved stuffed animal. Bears was LOVED. I had sewn his limbs back on more than once. This past week I found the original “vintage” bear on ebay and had it sent to me. Here are the comparisons….I just want you to know that if you were loved by my Joe Messina, you were loved fiercely. He didn’t do love any other way.

Bears on the left….and what he looked like prior to being loved by Joe on the right.

Michelle also gave me two shirts…one for me and one for Lily…that had been Joe’s. They were the t-shirts Joe wore during his OFD training. What a spectacular gift for us both…to be able to wear something that Joe had worn. I don’t know if Michelle realized what a priceless gift she gave me this first Mother’s Day without Joe. But it was just that, priceless.

On to Lily. Rich didn’t realize it, but Lily had taken one of my photos of a cardinal I had taken recently and painted it during her free time at school. It turned out amazing! I am putting a few of her other paintings on here for you to see as well, because we think she is pretty talented. She was selected to go to an art camp for high school juniors at Hastings College this summer. We are so happy for her! Joe was always amazed at her artistic ability, as am I!

It was so wonderful to see Tim! He lives so far away now. I remember when he lived in Lincoln and we could drive an hour and see him and take him out to lunch. Now he lives in California and he is busy working at Stanford. He is so busy, yet he takes time out to call me when he is driving home from work. He usually texts me during NBA games we are both watching or UFC fighting events. We were able to sit and watch a UFC PPV event while in Branson and that was great. He knows a lot of the histories of the fighters, which makes watching live with him a lot of fun. He and I will be going to a rugby tournament in San Jose in July, and I am really looking forward to it. We all wore our Messina “Family is Everything” Italian shirts on Mother’s Day. As much as I love this photo….two very important people are missing: Joe and Michelle.

Rich, Lily, Cyndi, and Tim Messina at Dogwood Canyon Nature Park – near Branson, Missouri
When I took this photo, I kept thinking that this is how my grief felt….like I was waiting for Joe to join me on a bench to watch a beautiful sunset in Missouri….yet as I waited for him to come join me, my tears of grief over missing him just flowed and flowed, until the bench was being overtaken by them.

I tried very hard to not spend Mother’s Day in tears. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. We went to Mass at a beautiful church called Our Lady of the Lakes. We then went on to go to the zoo and then to Dogwood Canyon Nature Center. We played some board games. I tried to explain to Tim and Lily that my tears for Joe shouldn’t make them feel any less loved….that a part of my heart died with Joe and it was just so very painful. We got home and all the emotions I had tried to stave off during the weekend (because I was never really alone) threatened to rise to the surface as I was finally in my safe place to grieve openly – home. However, Morgan Oslica, whom I have known since she had baby teeth, stopped by with a big arrangement of beautiful flowers and a card that said, “Happy Mother’s Day. We’re all thinking of you this Mother’s Day. Thank you for raising an incredible son, who was an incredible friend to all. From all your kids you’ve helped along the way.” It was the sweetest thing. I thanked Morgan but for those of you who might be reading who helped out with this, thank you. My Joe surrounded himself with the best people. I have always been so thankful for that.

When we first moved to Omaha, Rich dug up a bunch of tulip bulbs around a tree in our front yard. That was almost 7 years ago. This year one pink one managed to come up. It only bloomed for one day before wind and/or rabbits took off the bloom. I told Lily it was Joe giving me a mother’s day gift from heaven.

Dogwood Canyon Nature Park – Lampe, Missouri

We had a Sunday afternoon planned riding a wildlife tram in Dogwood Canyon Nature Park in Lampe, Missouri (about 45 minutes from Branson). However, because of the flooding in the area, the park was closed to all the tram rides. They allowed people to come and walk in the park. It was really beautiful and there were a lot of waterfalls. With the extra water in the area, the waterfalls were full and pretty. There were several stone bridges and a pretty stone chapel called The Hope Wilderness Chapel. This nature park would be the one thing that would bring me back to the Branson area again….especially in the fall. They have trams to visit fields of bison and to peer at bald eagles. Thanks to my good friends, Deb and Todd Banchor for the information on the park. We are so blessed to have a nice long walk there.

Branson – Promised Land Zoo

Promised Land Zoo is an interactive zoo. You can walk through a big section of it and feed the animals as you go…things like camels and goats. Lily loves birds and fell in love with the kookaburra…until I started singing the kookaburra song. There is a parakeet room you can go in and feed the parakeets. Rich and Lily did that. There is a driving section where you can see some of the larger animals and feed them from your car – deer, bison, ostriches, ponies…cattle, giraffes – a plethora of random animals from different continents. We purchased the VIP experience so we could spend some time holding, touching, and feeding animals in very small groups with their zoo staff. We got to hold a python (again, not my favorite but the things you will do for your kids), a baby kangaroo (got to hold a joey on Mother’s Day whilst really missing my own Joe), feed a sloth in its enclosure, Tim got to wrangle a baby spider monkey named Bobo, and Rich and Lily got to hold and feed two Eurasian owls. We also got a driving tour of the zoo in their big van while the driver told us about the various animals. All in all, a very cool visit. Did I think some enclosures were too small? Yes. I am used to the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. However, it was quite evident that the people that worked there loved the animals and they were well cared for. The joey’s name was Reuben. He was so stinkin’ cute! If Joe and Michelle would have been there with us, I can guarantee Joe would have left trying to convince Michelle they needed a baby kangaroo. He loved animals, so being there on Mother’s Day was special…and to be able to see the smiles on Tim, Lily, and Rich’s faces were awesome. For the photographer in me, it was great. I had a bucket list of taking photos of owls. Being able to take photos of sloths and baby kangaroos weren’t even on my radar….but I loved every moment of it.

Branson Weekend – Miscellaneous

We didn’t spend a lot of time in town. As I said, it is very touristy. It was the off season and it still had quite a few people there. We ate in an old-fashioned diner where the waitstaff sang songs between delivering dishes and taking orders. That was the closest thing to a show we came to. There was a lot of good things said about the Brandson scenic railway….we spent a couple of hours on the train and saw mostly trees. That was kind of a bust – either that or we have just become too spoiled by other railroad trips….such as in Switzerland, Japan, and Alaska. There was an aquarium near our hotel and we were fascinated by the huge lighted octopus that enveloped the entrance to the building. They also had a miniature musically led colored water show that was fun to watch. Another item that caught my eye traversing back and forth down the main strip of Branson, were these life-size army soldiers from WWII. The light wasn’t quite right to catch them in their best, but our time was limited and I really wanted to get a few shots of the monument, which was designed and built by a man from Nebraska.

Weekend in Branson – Table Rock Lake

Mother’s Day weekend we went to Branson, Missouri. This was a trip we had planned with Joe and Michelle months ago. We still went…taking Lily with us, and Rich was kind enough to fly Tim in to be with us for the weekend as well. Branson is like Wisconsin Dells….very commercialized and probably good to see about once every 20 years. None of us had been there before. I looked up a lot of places prior to going and we spent most of our time outdoors. Most of what we did see was wonderful. The weather was spectacular. I guess they had been getting lots of rain the weeks prior and most places were flooded. I did take a lot of photos, so I have broken up our trip into sections so it isn’t so overwhelming.

We left Friday morning and drove to Kansas City to see Michelle. She was invited to come with us but wasn’t quite up for the trip, which is understandable. Friday night we walked around Table Rock Lake. It was truly flooded, as you will see. The sunset was pretty on the lake and we got to see a water moccasin. (Not my highlight….I am not a snake person.) Here are some of our views.

Elephants, Lions, Cheetahs, and Cardinals

I needed some camera time yesterday and since it was a cold, dreary day, the Henry Doorly Zoo was my first choice. I hit the jackpot. There were school groups at the zoo, but there were on their way out. I headed toward the African Grasslands area first to look at the baby elephants. They were outside with their moms and learning how to roll in the mud (now that we have finally had some measurable rain!). A mom elephant was rolling in the mud and flinging mud with her trunk at the two babies, Sonny and Eugenia. The calves were born in January and are now weighing around 325 lbs. Sonny is younger by a couple of weeks but he already is bigger and weighs more. He is a momma’s boy and is always getting into mischief. I could watch those calves all day. The babies eventually joined in the fun of getting covered in mud. They had a little issue getting out of the mud pit though, so mom’s trunk wrapped around their bums and helped them out. There were about 20 of us laughing and watching their antics for about 30 minutes. I was just laughing…and my face didn’t even break. It felt good. I also spent some time with the cheetahs and the lions. The cheetahs were once again on high alert because the Canadian geese were making a lot of noise near their enclosure and I am sure they were thinking about goose for dinner. The two male lions were out and lying next to one another. I also have a few photos of cardinals sprinkled through here…as I spotted one in my neighborhood on the way to the zoo and then one at the zoo, watching me photograph the animals. Anyhow, there are a lot of photos, but took my big girl lens today to get close ups. Enjoy!

A Taste of Spring in Northeast Nebraska

No ranting this time, promise. I kinda hit a big funk. I think everyone decided to give us space to grieve….and it felt like we had been kind of forgotten. A few people realized this and came over to chat for awhile with me, which I loved. Nothing feels better than to be able to just talk about my family, especially about Joe. In the last week or so, I have been contacted by several of Joe’s friends. One had a son….and named him Julian Joseph. Another couple got married and in the collage of photos of relatives in Heaven who were missed by the couple on their special day….was a photo of my Joe. And then there was another set of friends who texted me as one of them got Joe’s OFD firefighter badge tattooed on his back…”so that he always knew that Joe had his back.” Those things really touch me. It is going to be a rough weekend and hearing stories about him from his friends and being able to talk about him helps. I did go to a different church this past weekend and it was wonderful. I knew the priest and one other person there. No one else knew Lily or me and we met a lot of very nice people. It was a gospel Catholic church and I loved it. I felt the Holy Spirit just moving through the Church and then in its members. Rich has been out of town for the last week to spend time in Florida with his parents. This weekend we were supposed to go on a trip with Michelle and Joe. The plans had been on our calendar for awhile. We asked Michelle if she wanted to still come, but that is a big ask…and I know it. She won’t be accompanying us but we’ll still be coming to see her on Friday….the 2 month anniversary of Joe’s death. I, again, can’t wait to just be able to put my arms around her and hold her close. So for those of you who felt that I had lost my mind in the last post…I haven’t, I just have a broken heart and that gets tiring to live with…trying to cope with the utter devastation alone. I have found that being able to just go and take photos is like therapy for me. I often feel like Joe is at my side, seeing the sights with me. Joe was such an avid supporter of my photography. He loved the fact that I saw beauty in naked, scraggly trees. He wanted me to get my photos out on instagram and get noticed. I was really looking forward to teaching him some basic photography. He wanted to get a nice camera and learn to use it before he and Michelle had kids. So going out and taking photos makes me feel like he is with me and it helps me a little bit.

Thursday morning of last week, I dropped Lily off at school and headed to Lincoln to the Sunken Gardens. In the early spring, the Sunken Gardens start off with loads of tulips. I love tulips. Last year they had a tons of candy cane tulips with white and red stripes. They were gorgeous. They never do anything the same though, so this year had a different color scheme. I found a section that was all white tulips….except for one tulip, which had a blood red half a petal. It was striking in the sea of white….and there is a message from God in there somewhere. I pointed it out to another photographer and it became the most photographed tulip out there. I drove around a bit and saw some interesting buildings I stopped to photograph. I got a few shots of the Nebraska capitol building and then an interesting church with beautiful trees covered in white blossoms. I followed a cardinal’s call into the white flowered trees in the courtyard and ended up on one of the benches, just having a chat with God under these beautiful trees as the breeze blew and showered me gently with the white petals. As I was leaving, I stopped to take one more photo of the building and I heard this chattering noise. There was a sassy little squirrel in a flowering tree about 10 feet in front of me. I talked to him, he chattered at me, and we had an impromptu photo shoot – and they are some of my favorite photos I have ever taken. They just make me smile. I then headed to Mahoney State Park and climbed the tower to take a few photos. Since it was right around the corner, I also went to the Wildlife Safari. It is a part of the Henry Doorly Zoo….but not anywhere near the zoo…in fact, it is about 30 minutes drive away. They have some eagles that cannot be released into the wild….some elk and buffalo herds…wolves and black bears. I spent the entire day out taking photos….and got back into town just in time to pick up Lily from school and get to my zumba class. That was our last sunny day before 5 days of rain (which we desperately need). So here is a big photo dump of some of the photos I took last Thursday on my “save my sanity day”.