A Few Catch Up Christmas Photos

I know this is out of order, but I just got around to processing these photos. The day before I had my surgery, the sun was actually out, and I could use the natural light in my house to take a few photos of things that really defined my feelings of this first Christmas without my Joe. It was snowing outside and so I thought I would start out with the easy stuff…. easy on my heart anyhow. I wanted to take some photos of Tallinn outside with the snow gently falling. Well, that nut of a dog decided that he wanted to try and catch the snowflakes in the air. He just couldn’t help himself. He is a fruitcake, but I love him. Then I decided to test my dog lover’s patience even further and see if I could get a santa hat on him and take a picture of him in front of our Christmas tree. That is a two-person job. I am only one person. He enjoyed carrying around the Santa hat, but definitely not wearing it. I did manage to get some reindeer antlers on him that we have tortured many family dogs over the years with. He was not happy. So, I gave up on cute Tallinn Christmas photos and went to take some photos that were more for me…and how I was feeling without my Joe this year. I set everything up and Tallinn, who had unrequited love for Joe, just curled up around my items I had laid out and wouldn’t move. Joe wasn’t really fond of Tallinn, although I think when he was able to spend time with him when his two dogs weren’t there, he realized Tallinn was tolerable. But Tallinn really liked Joe…and he absolutely loves Tim. We joke that it is because he recognizes the ginger hair on them as being one of “his people”. Anyhow, I am guessing some of you will be thinking these photos are weird. They come from my heart though. I have been journaling letters to my Joe since right after his Celebration of Life. It allows me to talk to him and it is also a record or how far I have come in this grief journey….and how much further I have yet to go. This is my blog…so it is a no judgement area. This was me using my form of art to grieve my son this first Christmas. I was only going to keep these for myself but decided last minute to share them.

Happy 18th Birthday Lily!

I wanted to hop on here real quick and give a happy birthday shout out to Lily Su Grace! Happy 18th birthday! It is amazing how much she has grown since we adopted her in China 16 years ago. She was so shy and afraid of everything…even a slide at the park terrified her….momentarily. She always seems to conquer her fears and just go into life headlong. Her dad and her brothers are always egging her on, but she has learned to give as good as she gets. Her quick wit is amazing and she makes me laugh every day. I don’t know if she understands what a gift that is to give to someone….to make them smile and get them to belly laugh. In every state but Nebraska, today she is the age of majority…an adult. She has less than 6 months left here, so she’ll be a legal adult somewhere soon! Speaking of somewhere….she is supposed to announce where she wants to go to college to us tonight. I am excited to hear where she wants to go so we can start helping her move in that direction. But for today, we are just giving thanks for this bright light that was added to our family a little over 16 years ago. Our family would be so much less lively without her. So heres to my beautiful, witty, snarky, clever daughter, Lily! Happy Birthday, Honey. We love you so very much! Here are 18 photos from across your life with us….taken all over the world.


I type this as the last few minutes of 2022 come to a close. Rich is out of town and spending tonight with good friends from high school in New England. Tim is back in California and Lily is staying the night with her best friend. Just Tallinn and me tonight. I had a nice chat with Michelle this afternoon. I verified that I am not crazy…. entering a new year is harder than Thanksgiving or Christmas without Joe; going into a new year without him is just hard. I have mixed emotions about 2022. It was the hardest year of my life. There is a quote going around social media that says the following, “May the tears you cried in 2022 water the seed you planted for 2023.” Sounds like a wonderful platitude, doesn’t it? If it were true, we would have no issues with global warming because I would single handedly be growing a huge tropical rain forest from the tears I have shed. Although it was a hard year…I at least started it with my Joe. His physical life stopped in 2022 and therefore, I feel like I am being dragged into 2023 kicking and screaming because I want to stay in 2022…where he still is. Sounds kinda crazy, doesn’t it? I have been talking to several grieving moms and it seems to be a common thread. But onward I must go…. carrying my memories of Joe with me to continue to share with the world.

2023 will be a year of changes for our family. I was contemplating trying to start up another photo 52 challenge. The group I feel most comfortable being a part of for this challenge says you have to have a word to concentrate on and reflect in your photos. Whenever I think of 2023, the only word that comes to my mind is CHANGE. All four of us will be moving this year to different states. Tim will be changing jobs. Lily will graduate and go to college. Rich will retire (again). I will work on starting a photography business and writing more. I am going to allow myself to set boundaries and say goodbyes to those people in my life who are not allowing me grace in my life. I am going to just let go and concentrate more on the tight tribe who support me. I am going to spend more time doing things that fill my cup, that I enjoy. I am going back to the basics: faith, family, fun.

As the last minutes are ticking by, I wish you all the best in 2023. I hope it brings us all good health, more laughter than tears, and lessons learned which can employ to allow life to be a little easier. We all need that grace. Love to you all. Have a blessed 2023.

A Blessed Christmas Season to You

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas! As a Catholic, we have the Christmas season…so we are still celebrating. When I last posted, I was pretty bummed. We weren’t sure Tim was going to make it home at all. He was one of the casualties of the great Southwest Airlines breakdown. Luckily, Rich found another flight a day later from another airport on another airline. Tim ended up taking off at midnight from San Francisco and landed here in Omaha at 5 a.m. on Christmas Day. Rich picked him up and brought him home where they both went back to bed until about 10:30. We are so very thankful he was able to come home. We have a lot of friends whose children did not get to make it home at all between the bad roads, the frigid temperatures, and the airline craziness this year. My heart goes out to you all especially. Starting at noon on Christmas Day, the doorbell kept ringing as friends of Joe’s came by to say hello and spend some time with us during our first Christmas without Joe. His best friend, Zac, was up here with his family and they all came by to smile and laugh, and talk about the crazy adventures Zac and Joe had in high school and college. James, another good friend of Joe’s from Bellevue West High School, was also in town on break from med school. It was so nice to spend some time with him as well, as he lives on the east coast now. Tanner and his wife, Megan, and 5 month old daughter, Sugar Donuts (Charlie), also stopped by. It is always so fun to watch them parent….as I know Joe and Michelle would have been top notch parents as well, so I live vicariously through watching them. So the whole day was spent standing in the kitchen eating goodies, catching up, and also remembering Joe. What wasn’t there was Joe’s laugh….he would have been laughing the whole time and had everyone else laughing alongside him. He sure is missed. This is our last Christmas in this house…with memories of Christmases with Joe and Michelle and their dogs in the mix. It is kind of an end of a chapter in my life’s book. That reality is kind of hard but I am trying to look forward to making new memories wherever we end up.

I wanted to share a few photos. We went to Christmas Eve Mass at 4 p.m. and I was a lector for the first time in over 3 years. It was nice to participate in Mass again. I am also on the schedule for Eucharistic Minister of Holy Communion as well. That has been good, too. We always take a family photo on Christmas Eve after Mass, so this is the 2022 version. We’ll have to take a photo of us with Tim before he leaves. I honestly haven’t taken one photo…phone or otherwise over the last several days. I also wanted to share with you what one of my best friends sent me for Christmas. I made a cairn (rock pile) to represent our family when I was walking the cliffs of Moher in Ireland in August. She took that photo I took and put scripture to it and had it printed on a ceramic tile. It was just such a very thoughtful gesture and I appreciate it so very much.

I am still supposed to be taking it easy for the next week to insure my stitches don’t tear, pull or anything else that sounds awful. I am going stir crazy though, so it has finally managed to hit freezing here today (32 fun filled degrees) so we are going for a walk. I know Tallinn will appreciate it as well. Thinking about a trip to the zoo tomorrow with the kids and Rich. I would really love that. Other than that, I have been losing spectacularly in all board games as is my M.O. I actually bought some new board games this year in the hopes that I will have a fighting chance. We shall see. Sending love and warm thoughts to you all this season.

Surgery is Over!

I promised myself I would just rest yesterday, but I wanted everyone to know that my port is out and all is good. I had to be at the surgical suites at 0630 yesterday morning for surgery at 0800. I was a tad concerned because of the awful weather that was predicted overnight Wednesday into Thursday. It was snowing and the wind was blowing really hard when we left at 0600, but we did not have any issues getting to the hospital or getting home. We did stop at a red light (because I was in the car…anyone who knows me, knows that if I am in the car or on the phone with someone driving, you will hit every red light – it is an uncanny gift) We sat at the light and the winds just rocked the care back and forth, buffeting it as we waited to move again. The hospital staff had arrived early, and so did we. I check in and called back quickly and had an IV in and was ready to go by 0700. I went into the radiology OR suite at 0800 and was back in recovery by around 0900. We were out of there around 10-ish. I came home and just bundled up on the couch and watched TV with Rich and Tallinn for the rest of the day. I was awake during the procedure…they put me under “twlight” anesthesia via IV. Since Christmas is just a few days away, there weren’t any students practicing on me, which was great. It was quick and easy and there were no complications. The doctor showed me the split in the tubing of my port that was in my neck. It was about a half an inch long. Definitely not good. So the port is out. I am sewn up and just trying to remember to take it easy and heal. I had an ice bag on my incision site which helped tremendously with the pain when the local wore off. I have taken Tylenol a couple of times, but it seems to be fine now.

Thank you to those who sent messages of support during this unexpected medical mishap. I am happy that it is over and happy to not have had any complications. I am not without extra parts for the first time in three years, (besides the alien tumors in my body). I am not sorry to say goodbye to broken foreign objects in my chest and neck.

Today I overdid it a bit and will most likely sleep well tonight. I wanted to get some sweets done for Christmas, since Tim was going to be coming. He was supposed to arrive at midnight tonight. I am now hoping he will make it at all. All the self help kiosks are not working in the San Jose airport, so he jumped in line to check his bag. His flight has taken off while he was in this very long line….over 2 hours. Rich has been on hold with Southwest Airlines customer service for 1 hour and 45 minutes. It is a hot mess. He was going to miss his flight in Denver anyhow. At least he is stranded at home, I guess. I am hoping he will be able to be re booked for tomorrow. Fingers crossed and a prayer lifted. I would really like to have him here for Christmas.

Surgery Set

Well the last couple of days I have been busy getting a bunch of appointments set. Although the radiologist that I saw on Tuesday said I could do activities, I don’t think she realizes the amount of activity I am used to doing. With a broken piece of plastic in my neck, I am not willing to take crazy chances. I have a couple of adult dance group performances in the next few days and I will do those, but am not going to be doing the big, fast, and furious dancefit and group fight classes until I have healed from surgery, so at the beginning of the new year, I think. Pushing snow off the driveway was my exercise today. I would have taken Tallinn for a walk but it was SLICK in my neighborhood today and pretty windy and cold. Tomorrow afternoon I have an appointment with an oncology nurse practitioner, who will make sure I am healthy enough for the surgery. No one has listened to my heart or lungs for over 2 years thanks to COVID and my local doctor, who prefers to just do a zoom call or a phone call every 4 months. As long as nothing remarkable shows up during that physical, I will be first case next Thursday morning, Dec 22nd. My local doctor does not feel that I need another port at this point, so they will just be removing it. It should be an easy enough procedure, but they did warn me that because I have had this port for 3 years, that there may be a lot of scar tissue adhered to the port, so just to be aware of that. I should be home by noon that day to recover and lounge around the day. Tim will arrive late the next night, so I should be feeling a bit better by then. I will be sore over Christmas, but we will be having a quiet, at home affair, which will do just fine. I also got my CT scans set up for January 30th…then my zoom appointment with my Mayo Clinic sarcoma specialist to follow in early February. So I am set for now! Thanks for all of your prayers !


I guess it has been a while since I have updated this blog. I don’t have a really good excuse for that. Thanksgiving was hard without Joe, but it was so absolutely wonderful to have Tim home, even if it was for just a few days. A lot of board games were played, good food eaten, and basketball watched. Thankfully, he is able to come home again for Christmas. I am so very happy about that! I realize that our years of all being together for the holidays are coming to an end…with Joe and Michelle and their dogs not present, it is so quiet. Tim is looking to be hired this spring as a head strength and conditioning coach for basketball at the university level. The holidays happen to fall in the middle of their season, and they are typically celebrating Thanksgiving at fun locations playing in tournaments. We may just take a trip to wherever his team is and take in the festivities there. So, Thanksgiving will most likely look very different from now on.

Lily has been accepted to the three universities she applied to: Montana State University, the University of Central Missouri, and the Kansas City Art Institute. All of these schools are excellent and very different. She has a large school, a medium-sized school, and a school half the size of her high school in the mix. She hasn’t said which one she is leaning toward. She would be closer to us if she went to MSU…but still 5 hours away. If she goes to school in KC or UCM, she will have her sister-in-law close by and Joe’s circle of friends, whom I would think would help her out if need be. They have all watched her grow up. She was reflecting on that last night. All of Joe’s friends are about the same age 10 years ago as she is now. She said that she is her own person now, not just Joe’s “durpy little sister.” I look forward to seeing where she decides to go. Her best friend was also accepted to KCAI, so I am sure that will hold a little clout as well. Both of them got significant scholarships and there is an art scholarship from her high school available as well if she decides to go to KCAI.

Rich is down in Florida right now helping his sister and parents move into their new house. His mom suffers from dementia, so it has been a bit of a struggle as today is moving day. I am glad he was able to go down and help because it sounds like they needed the extra help. Plus, it has been gray, raining, and blustery since he left here. I hope he is getting to enjoy the weather a little bit. He will be home on Friday, just in time for our first snow fall of the year, if the weatherman has it right.

I have had a few health issues. Actually, it isn’t my health, it is the extra pieces in me thanks to cancer treatment that are going awry. Three years ago TODAY, I had my port put in. It has worked beautifully for me…until Thursday morning’s treatment. They went to flush it and it felt like lightning flashed up my neck. It was horribly painful. She was able to draw blood just fine, but then went to flush it again, the lightning pain started again…and then the port tubing in my neck started bulging. She stopped immediately and then started an IV in my arm to do my infusion. She contacted my oncologist and let him know my port needed to be checked. My neck was bruised all weekend and it was so sore. I was taking photos at a church event on Friday night and just the feeling of the camera strap on my neck was incredibly painful. By Monday morning, my neck was feeling better, but it was pretty concerning. Fast forward to today. I went in first thing this morning for a port study or venogram. They lay you on a special table and you have an x-ray machine with a plate hanging over you to isolate my chest and neck. They took still photos first but could not see anything obviously wrong with my port. This was my biggest fear, because I knew what was coming next. They accessed my port and then slowly started pushing dye through the tubing. Sure enough, that lighting effect started. I told the doctor that I was hurting and that the tubing was again, bulging in my neck. She, of course, decided to keep going to just make sure and get good pictures of THE LEAK THAT I SAID WAS THERE. She showed me the scans and it is obvious that my tubing is fractured in my neck. The doctor decided to take out the needle to my port. I am not sure if she had done that before (it’s a nurse thing). When she finally realized how to take it out without hurting me further, she popped the needle out and I started bleeding from my port site. I am on blood thinners. I don’t bruise easily…. even on blood thinners, but I do tend to bleed when poked. She is standing there, looking horrified (at least through her eyes) as she placed a gloved finger on the site and asked for a band aid….and then a gauze pad to “clean up my skin”. One of the main lessons you learn in nursing school is to have all your supplies with you before you start a procedure. Sigh. Anyhow, I received an email from my oncologist’s nurse saying that my port is fractured, and they choose to just remove it at this time and not replace it. I need port access 7 times a year, so I will just get IVs started rather than having a port put in. So, she sent me a number to call to schedule my port removal. My oncologist has not seen me in person for maybe two years. A requirement of the surgery is having a physical of some sort. I haven’t’ seen my doctor at the base for over 5 years. I go to the cancer center every month. Trying to get into the clinic for a physical could take months. I told the lady on the phone this. It is a teaching hospital for goodness’ sake, I am sure my oncologist has a resident that can do this. So, she was going to call him and get back to me. That was a couple of hours ago. Hopefully we can get this taken care of very soon. I have a trip planned to Florida with Michelle in early January to swim with the manatees and I want my incisions healed before getting in the ocean water! I will keep you posted on surgery dates.

Happy 28th Birthday, Joe Messina

Yesterday was my oldest son’s birthday. He was born 28 years ago. This was another one of those “firsts” that are awful. His first birthday in Heaven. This was my first birthday not getting to talk with my son. Even when he was deployed to the Middle East, we still found a way to communicate on this special day. Yesterday was a pretty busy day for us, so I didn’t have time to really digest the day. I left that for today, when I could take off my mask and cry into my dog’s furry face, because he never lets me be alone if I am unset. He’ll throw himself at a closed door to get to me. For Joe’s 27th birthday, he and Michelle were attending one of her best friend’s wedding here in Omaha. I got to see my son for his last birthday on earth. What a blessing. For those of you who have grown children who no longer live in your state, you know how getting together gets further and further apart. They have their own families, jobs, and lives to live. So what a blessing. I took him out for brunch. He had one of the biggest breakfast burritos I have ever seen and I think he managed to finish it…and regretted it. Joe was also present at my last birthday. He came up and surprised me in February. My birthday will forever be known to me as the last day I hugged my oldest son in person.

Yesterday, we had Joe remembered at Mass at 0800 at our church. His best friend, Zac,….well, his parents are like siblings to us. They are closer than friends. Another blessing is Joe’s friends, and their families became our extended family since we lived so far away from our relatives. Ed and Wanda came to Mass with us and sat with us during the service. We then changed and headed to Kansas City. That is a little over a 3 hour drive for us. We went to see Michelle, Joe’s wife. It was a hard day for her as well. We got to see their dogs, Moose and Jenna. I miss not seeing all three of them. We then took off to Olathe, Kansas, another 30 minutes away. We made our way around to all 8 of the OFD fire stations and dropped off a dozen cupcakes at each station. We met a lot of wonderful firefighters on our rounds and since this will be our last year in the region, we felt this was a wonderful way to celebrate Joe’s birthday. The cupcakes had red and yellow swirled frosting on top…to honor the firefighters and the KC Chiefs, who Joe loved to cheer for. Luckily, they managed a win yesterday! We ended the day at Joe’s best friend, Zac’s, house. Michelle was there along with other close friends of Joe’s. We had cupcakes and talked for an hour or so before leaving to head back home. It was a long day, but by the time we left the 2nd of 8 fire stations, I knew we had done the right thing to honor Joe’s birthday this year.

I don’t know what subsequent birthdays for Joe will look like, but I hope that we will do something that would have made Joe proud. To say that I was missing him yesterday is a very big understatement. I helped to make that man…I grew him inside my body, labored and gave birth to him through the night. I nursed him….I raised him. I travelled the world with him. I helped him when he struggled with dyslexia through elementary, middle and high school. I hugged him and talked to him when his heart was broken for the first time when he was 15. I took him to get his driver’s license and made sure he got his 2 minutes prior to Zac. This was a big deal at the time. I listened to him as he told me about meeting and pursuing Michelle as a freshman in college. I loved the man he had become and I couldn’t wait to see the things he would accomplish as a firefighter, as a soldier….as a husband. That man with the huge smile that I love so much because he is a part of me, had his earthly body reduced to ashes in an urn. That is really hard for me to wrap my brain and heart around. His spirit lives on, and I so hope he could feel the outpouring of love for him yesterday…today…and everyday, really. All that love that is poured so unconditionally towards a person just can’t be turned off when they die. That is where grief comes in. It is a place for all the love to go. I walk hand in hand with grief these days. Grief is forever attached to me, holding my hand. Somedays I feel like grief wins out and tackles me and knocks the wind right out of me. Other days, we walk through the day calmly….me still feeling grief’s presence, but I can still manage a smile perhaps. One thing I do know, I will never stop loving my Joe….or missing him. Happy 1st birthday in heaven, my beautiful boy. I miss you so very much.

A Photo Shoot with my Favorite Girl

Okay, so I admit it. I totally ambushed my daughter on Wednesday afternoon. The temperature was a balmy 75 degrees, and there was a cold front due to blow in the next day, bringing winter temperatures along with it for the next few weeks. I had ordered a traditional Chinese Hanfu dress for her a few weeks ago to take some photos in. I got the idea after my portrait class at the zoo ended up in a high fashion Asian shoot with models at the beginning of October. So with a nod to her heritage, I ordered two dresses: one very traditional and the other more modern. One has yet to arrive, but I received the hanfu dress a week or so ago. I casually mentioned it to her over dinner one night. I am not sure she thought I was actually serious about the whole thing. However, with the last day of warm weather upon us, I had to take the bull by the horns and be ready to move fast when she came home from school. This involved getting props…a Chinese fan and a lantern with fairy lights. It also involved getting makeup for Lily. We obviously don’t have the same color palette, and she has worn make up maybe a handful of times. She walked in the door and I asked told her we were taking these pictures today and we had to hurry because with the time change last weekend, we had less than an hour and a half to get ready and get these done. There may have been a few “Whoa, what are you doing exactly?” comments coming from Lily as I started tying up her hair and putting in the jade pins. Then came the make up and jade earrings and necklace that are mine from when we lived in Asia. Then I said a small internal prayer that the dress would fit and started wrapping her up in it and then tying the waistband of the skirt. Luckily, she knew quite a bit about the dress itself and was pretty helpful. Then we sped off to a small wooden bridge that Tallinn and I walk over all the time about two miles from our house. We ended up having fun. There are several that turned out pretty good. I am taking a “dark and moody” photography class online right now…it is based out of my women’s photography classes I took from a group in Australia…but is being taught by a woman from Scotland. My homework this week was inside photos, so I took a few shots of Lily in her room as the last of the light started fading outside. She was a good sport about it all, even though most of the time she was complaining, she still had a smile on her face. Portrait photography is not my thing, so she was really nice to let me just practice a lot with her. By the way…it is currently 28 degrees here.

Veterans Day 2022

This has been a hard week. We started off with the 8th month anniversary of Joe’s death….then I had treatment at the cancer center here yesterday….today is Veterans Day and I am missing Joe something fierce today….then Sunday is his birthday. He would have been 28. So a hard week and I haven’t really done a stellar job of keeping it together. I did do one really on-the-fly photoshoot with my favorite daughter…but that is for a later post. That is the one thing that kept me sane this week.

For those of you who know me well, you know I come from a family of military service members. Rich’s family, too, has quite a lot of service members. In fact, all of our siblings on Rich’s side of the family and their significant others have served in the military. Many of our uncles served as well, either in Vietnam or as a career. Both my grandma and grandpa Neitzke served during WWII in the Navy and WAVS. Let’s just say there are a LOT of military in our family. Today, Joe would have called me and told his dad and me Happy Veterans Day. We would have said the same to him. Every year on this date, I would tell him how incredibly proud I was of him….that he decided to serve his country. He loved the guys he served with. Whether they were in Ft. Chaffee, Ft. Polk, deployed to Qatar, or assigned to St. Louis, MO during the riots (the most scared this mom has been for her soldier son…and it was right in our own country)….he loved the guys he was serving with and always made friends wherever he went. He was the one who would sit next to the O6 in the chow hall because “he puts on his pants just like me…one leg at a time, and I might learn something.” He would do crazy things while he was deployed like order this nasty fermented fish in a can and have a betting pool on who could stomach the smell and eat it. (he split the winnings by the way). The video of that whole incident is hysterical to watch. So many of his soldier friends have reached out to me over the past 8 months…and I appreciate it so much. I love to hear stories about Joe. He loved to push the envelope with military hair regulations. His hair was short on the sides and the back, but he used some kind of hair product to take that huge mop of curly ginger hair to flatten it down so it looked short. In reality, he looked like an alpaca and his bangs went down past his nose. Then there was that moustache. I hated that moustache and so did his CO. However, that added fuel to the fire to keep said moustache. So many of his buddies wore a Messina ‘stache for the first weekend drill after Joe’s death and for Joe’s Celebration of Life…including his dad. Through it all…through “all the suck” of the military, he still had that smile on his face. Through cold, wet nights and no showers for days,…when he decided to hunker down and sleep in a hole that was lined with poison ivy one night at drill….he was still smiling. When he got to shoot the biggest gun…and therefore had to carry it around everywhere…he still smiled,and told me it made the coolest sound. All fo this pride I have for Joe didn’t die with him; it is still here. I am still so very proud of him and I am missing him so very much. Here are a few Veterans Day photos for my Joe.