It is what it is

I’ve completely fallen off the wagon with this post-a-day 365 Project, but with all the shit hitting the proverbial fan in my life lately, I don’t even feel the need to apologize for my sudden absence. But now that the dust has begun to settle and I feel like maybe I’m breaking above the surface for a breath of air, it’s finally time for me to sit down, sort it out, and write it down.

It’s time to let it in, and let it go.

With every big event in life, the hardest days are the ones that follow, where you’re faced with the seemingly impossible task of trying to find your new normal.

And that’s just it. You have to find a new normal. Because when it comes to the big things like births and deaths and moves and career changes, you can’t ever go back to the way things were before. Not really. Maybe you can get close if you’re lucky, but that certainly isn’t the norm. After the big things, most of us find ourselves hit with a steep learning curve as we try to settle in and right the ship and navigate the new and unfamiliar waters.

When we lost Stevie’s mom, Diane, in 2012, we tried to find our new normal, but I’m not sure that we ever really succeeded. Maybe it was losing her so suddenly, or maybe it was losing a woman we loved with such a big personality–either way, her death threw us quickly and completely off balance. The house on Yale Avenue was always too quiet. The birthday and holiday cards stopped arriving with predictable regularity. And the worried phone calls stopped coming when I would miss a day or two of my blog.

When we learned that Stevie’s dad, Richie, had been taken to the ER in December, we were thrown off balance again. And when the cancer diagnosis came a few days later, our lives were torn apart. Stevie flew to New York. I flew with Henry to San Diego for a work event. And Cadence spent the week at my parents’ apartment while we did our best to try and hold it together.

Stevie and I flew back home on February 12, both of us emotionally and physically exhausted. He’d been surviving on 2 hours of sleep as he and his siblings tried to wade through mountains of paperwork and prepare themselves for what was to come, and he returned to Lincoln completely drained and fighting off a cold and a stomach bug that knocked him on his ass for the next four days. I’d been surviving on 2 hours sleep trying to balance all my work obligations, a teething 6-month-old waking every hour all…night…long, and the nagging guilt of not having enough hours in the day to support my husband or check in on my daughter who was back home trying desperately to hold onto some semblance of a routine while her parents were running from coast to coast like lunatics.

We prayed that we might get a short break, a few days reprieve before we had to face what we knew was coming. We’d planned a family birthday party for Cadence. It was always one of our favorite gatherings of the year with local family and a few friends coming over to the house for some good food, homemade ice cream cake, and time spent making Cadence feel special. We knew we would be planning another trip east after the party, but then Miss C started running a fever, and we watched her energy and her incessant chatter fading as her temperature climbed.

Thursday, February 18 – I was in the rocking chair feeding Henry when we got the call. It was early, still dark. My eyes were half-closed when Stevie came in the room to tell me Richie was gone.

Everything from that moment until this one is a bit of a blur.

Stevie and I hit auto-pilot and started moving. Cadence’s fever was on Day 3, holding steady at 103.9, so we made her an appointment to see the doctor, and made arrangements for her to stay behind with my parents while we headed to New York. I had to lay my body on top of her to hold her down so the nurse could swab her throat for strep, only to have the test come back negative.

We booked a flight, rented a car, and spent the day rotating laundry and re-packing all the clothes we’d just taken out of our suitcases. By 5:45 a.m. Friday morning, we were in the air and heading east.

Stevie’s sister, Michele, already had most of the arrangements made by the time we landed in Westchester. We made the drive to Long Island, our hearts as heavy as the clouds that pressed down on the city skyline.

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The food began to arrive shortly after we did–giant deli sandwiches and sides, trays of pasta and pastries, bottles of wine and Richie’s favorite Budweiser–all sent by the friends and neighbors who love Richie as much as we do, and who know exactly how big of a hole his death left us to fill.

I wasn’t prepared to walk into that wake. I’m not sure there was even anything Stevie could have said that would have made it any easier. All I could think about was how it had only been a few months since our last visit, exactly 133 days since we hugged Richie goodbye after blowing into town for Henry’s jet-set baptism.

Somehow, I kept thinking if I closed my eyes and wished hard enough, I could wake up in my own bed and find that it had all been just one, long, bad dream.

We headed back to the house for a few hours and more food between the wakes. The house was full, and still felt empty. I happened to glance at my phone as we were gathering our things to return to the funeral home for the evening wake. There was one text from my Mom.

Please give me a call.

And my heart dropped straight out of my chest.

I could hear Cadence coughing in the background when Mom answered, a deep cough, unrelenting.

“Honey, if I lose you, it’s because we’re getting in the elevator. I don’t want to alarm you, but Dad and I are taking Cadence to the ER. Her fever went up and she can’t stop coughing. She just doesn’t look right…her eyes…and we’re worried.”

I started to answer, but the line went dead.

I cried all the way back to the funeral home, as Stevie and I talked it out, trying to calm each other’s frazzled nerves and convince ourselves that everything was going to be ok.

It was an hour before a call came through from the hospital, asking for our consent to treat. And then a call from Mom. She didn’t know anything yet. They were waiting for the doctor, and she would call back as soon as she knew anything. It took three nurses to hold our little girl down for a flu test, but somehow the screaming and the crying helped ease her cough long enough for her to talk to her daddy and I on the phone. She told me she was scared and she missed us, but it was ok because they gave her a gown with the Looney Tunes characters on it and promised her a popsicle. The wake was ending and we were gathering our things to head back to the house when we finally got the news.

Swine flu. I didn’t even know that shit was around anymore!

But thankfully no pneumonia, and Miss C was heading back to Grandma and Papa’s house for the night to try and get some sleep.

We managed to get some too, just a little, and then it was time to get up and head to the church and say our goodbyes.

We buried Richie on a Tuesday, in the rain and the cold and the wind that cut straight through to the bone.

And now that Richie is gone, we are facing the same impossible task–trying to find our new normal.

We spent a week talking and reminiscing and sharing our favorite stories about all the things we will miss the most. Like the way Richie always had a white towel tucked in his back pocket to wipe the sweat from his brow, or the old wood-paneled Buick station wagon he drove. Or the way he would always make sure we got all of our favorite foods during our trips back home–egg bagels, sandwiches from Idlehour Deli, chocolate coconut donuts from Dunkin Donuts, and a huge steaming plate of zuppa de pesce from Mamma Lombardi’s. We spent a week in the house, waiting to hear him walking down the hallway, or waking to find him sitting in his swivel chair in the living room, hot cup of coffee in his hand, gazing out the window at the neighborhood below, just as he and Diane did every morning.

That’s the thing about loss and grief, isn’t it? You never really go back to normal. Instead, you spend the rest of your days with this gaping hole in your life. Time can dull the edges, but nothing can ever really fill that void, and so you wake every day working your way toward your new normal, gaining on it, but never really managing to hold it tightly in your hands before it slips away again.

And here we are now. We’re home. Our bags have been unpacked, and the last loads of laundry are spinning in the dryer. We’re slowly cleaning off our DVR. Stevie is back in the office, and I’ve got an undetermined amount of free time and family time ahead of me thanks to my unexpected unemployment.

Looks like we’re being pushed headlong into our new normal with a whole bunch of changes and uncertainty, and yet, somehow, Stevie and I are both okay with it. Somehow, for the first time in a long time, it feels like everything is going to be fine.

It is what it is. That’s what Richie would say. And you know, he was one of those guys who was always right.

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Life, Death, and Disney

It has taken me a year to finally blog our trip to Disneyworld. Okay, a little more than a year. It’s not that I was procrastinating exactly. It’s just that this particular post (and trip, and the events leading up to it) took a lot out of me. Not because I snapped hundreds of photos, and not because life seemed to jump into hyperdrive right before we left with a new job, a new schedule, a bunch of new obligations and the normal chaos that seems to define our lives.

I guess I just needed some time to process it all, to let the trip and what it meant to us really sink in.

Allow me rewind a bit.

My mother-in-law, Diane, first started talking about Disneyworld shortly after Cadence was born. She wanted to do something for the grandkids, something special that they would always remember. Rich and Diane insisted that they would prefer to make the trip sooner than later, before they felt too old and tired to spend a week running around the happiest place on earth with the kiddos.

We agreed on the spring/summer of 2013. Cadence would be both potty trained and old enough to remember the trip, and TJ and Tyler would still be young enough to have a blast and enjoy the experience. Almost immediately after we called and gave her the go ahead, Diane started planning. She enlisted the help of her childhood friend, Cheryl, who had visited Disneyworld so many times that she knows all the ins and outs of planning a trip and getting the most out of a Disney vacation.

On June 10, 2012, we received an email from Diane that the trip was booked, followed shortly by an official confirmation.

You should have received an email from Disney, please forward it to me – I started a file.  180 days from May 19 I can book a food plan.  I’ll talk to you more about Disney when you come!!

Love,

Diane

Steven, Cadence, and I headed to New York shortly after. Steven was a groomsman in our buddy Gary’s wedding, and we planned an extra long trip so we could enjoy some quality time with our friends and family. With my sister Kassie’s wedding just a few short weeks later, we’d damn near drained our bank accounts to fly from one side of the country to another for the trips. We stressed over the expense, but had a great time in spite of it. Looking back now, we’re so very thankful that we did.

On July 27, Diane went into the hospital for surgery on her bladder. It was a routine surgery, supposed to be an in-and-out procedure. Cadence and I had already gone ahead to Arizona to prep for Kassie’s wedding, since I was the wedding photographer. Steven headed to Omaha to catch a red eye flight after work. His brother, Keith, called to tell him that the surgery went well. Steven still remembers the seat he was sitting in when he got the call that Diane was doing well and should be on the road to recovery.

Saturday, July 28 was a blur of wedding activity. We left the reception in Tucson at 11:30 pm, drove to Momma Dawn and Mark’s house in Coolidge to pack our bags and catch a couple hours sleep before heading to the airport to catch the 6:00 a.m. flight home.

Sunday, July 29, sleep-deprived and dragging, we flew back home to Lincoln. Steven called and talked to his Mom. She was feeling pretty good. She was in bed, doctors orders, taking it easy while she recovered from the procedure.

Monday, July 30, Steven talked to his Mom again. We sat on the porch swing after the call, watching Cadence play in the front yard. He said she seemed good, but sounded really tired.

Tuesday, July 31, I’d just dropped Cadence off for her Tuesday morning preschool. At the time she was going two days a week while I still worked from home freelancing. Back at the house, I showered, brewed myself a cup of coffee, and sat down to write for a bit while I had the house to myself. Steven texted…

Come get me.

I texted back.

Sure babe. Is everything okay? Are you sick?

A few moments passed.

COME GET ME NOW.

Something was wrong. I suddenly felt like I needed to puke. Thinking maybe Stevie was sick or experiencing a sudden colitis flare up, I grabbed my shoes and the van keys and headed out the door. I was turning onto Holdrege Street when my phone rang.

“Hey babe. Are you okay? What’s wr—”

On the other end of the line, I could hear him sobbing.

“Oh my god, she’s dead. My mother dead! Jesus Christ, are you coming? Please?!”

“Yes! I’m coming, I’m almost there. Oh my God! What happened?”

“My dad just called. I don’t…I don’t know. Please just come get me.”

“I’ll be there in two minutes.”

I squeezed the steering wheel so tightly that I’m actually surprised I didn’t pull it right off the steering column.

By the time I turned into the parking lot, I was shaking so hard that anyone who saw me would have assumed I was having a seizure. I saw my husband standing next to his car, using it to hold himself upright. I pulled in close, shifted into park, and tumbled out the door. Steven and I stood in the parking lot of Varner Hall, clinging to each other and crying. If it weren’t for Steven squeezing me so tightly, I might have thought that it was just a bad dream.

Two hours later, we had our flights booked. And the next day, we were heading back to New York for a funeral.

The next few days (and weeks) were a blur.

I don’t know when Disney was mentioned again. I have a vague memory of it being brought up in the days following Diane’s funeral, when we were all still relatively numb with pain. Steven’s and my knee-jerk reactions were that we couldn’t possibly make the trip without Diane. It just wouldn’t be the same without her there. But Rich insisted. Diane wouldn’t have wanted us to cancel after all the time she’d spent planning and making arrangements. She would have wanted us to go, to spend time together as a family, and to enjoy every last minute of it.

We agreed to go, but I have to confess that our hearts really weren’t in it.

As the months passed, Cheryl took over our planning. If it weren’t for her, I’m not sure how we would have managed. She made our meal reservations, booking us tables in the restaurants that Diane had chosen before she passed. She took our flight information and made sure we received our bag tags for our luggage. She wrote out long emails filled with tips and tricks to help us navigate from our hotel to the parks and find the attractions that the kids might most like to see.

I wish I could say that I was getting excited as the trip drew nearer, but each email and each automated message from the resort that arrived in my inbox stung because it was just another reminder that Diane would not be there with us.

In April 2013, I started a new job, returning to full-time employment for the first time since Cadence had been born. Call it luck or fate or God reaching down to help me clear my mind and gain a little perspective–one of my first assignments at my new job was to cover an event in a little town called Marceline, Missouri…the boyhood home of none other than Walt Disney.

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I’m not sure I even have the words to adequately explain what happened to me that day in Marceline, so I will leave it at this…whatever magic young Walt Disney discovered there–a magic that inspired him to create what has become known as “the happiest place on earth” complete with a grand entrance that is modeled after the quiet Main Street of this small Midwestern town–I tell you folks, that magic is still alive in every building, street, and human being that calls Marceline home.

I left Marceline that day exhausted, yet energized, and knowing without a shadow of a doubt that something very special was waiting for us at Disneyworld.

At home, Steven and I finally started talking about the trip that was only two weeks away. We even starting to look forward to it a little. We bought a travel guide to look through, and bought a kid’s guide for Cadence, full of pictures and park maps and plenty of autograph pages so she could collect the signatures of her favorite characters during our visit. She was giddy with excitement, and we decided that our only goal on the trip was to make it as magical as possible for our little girl. (Oh, and to go on the Star Wars rides at least once for my Star Wars loving husband).

For the first time since losing Diane, we began to look forward to the trip.

For anyone who has never been to a Disney park, believe me when I tell you, it is truly the trip of a lifetime. It’s expensive, no doubt, but you’re not just paying for a decent room to crash in and a couple days spent wandering around any old theme park. You’re paying for an all-inclusive immersion into the very best parts and most magical moments of your childhood. From the moment you step off the plane in Orlando, the adventure begins.

You follow signs bearing those familiar mouse ears to your very own section of the airport where a bus is waiting. You don’t have to worry about your luggage or finding a cab or renting a car. You sit back, relax, and watch cartoons and videos that introduce you to all the amenities of the parks on the way to your hotel.  Like an exclusive VIP, you are delivered swiftly and comfortably to the front door of your hotel.

We stayed at the Pop Century Resort, just a short bus ride away from all the parks in Disneyworld. We checked in and stopped by our room quickly to freshen up before heading to meet Rich, John, Michele, TJ and Tyler at Epcot for our first family dinner. We noticed the message light blinking and pressed it. Cadence giggled and squealed and clapped her hands together in delight as she heard a message from Mickey and Donald and Goofy welcoming us to our room.

She was hooked. We all were. And we headed out to meet up with the rest of our crew.

For the rest of the week, the rest of the world disappeared. We rode rides, saw shows, walked miles, and loved every minute of it. Our itinerary and dinner reservations took us to restaurants the Romanos had visited when they took a family vacation to Disneyworld back when Steven, Michele, Mike, Greg, and Keith were kids.

At 3, we weren’t sure exactly what Cadence would be most interested in doing while we were at the parks, but it became quickly apparent that she was enthralled with all the larger than life cartoon characters and princes and princesses that she could talk to and hug and get autographs from.

“You sign my book?” she implored, handing her travel guide over after hugging every character we bumped into (and hunted down) in the parks. “You sign my book, pwease?”

And now, a whole year later, I think we’re finally ready to share our trip with all of you. I captured all of our memories and the photos we took into a book. Here’s how it turned out. Enjoy. We sure did.

Thank you to Cheryl for all the hard work you did with the planning.

Thank you to Rich for insisting that we go, and for sharing the magic with us.

Thank you to Michele and John and TJ and Tyler for having an awesome time and making so many great memories with us.

Thank you to Diane for making it all possible and for being there with us, every step of the way.

And to all the Disney family, those amazing people who spend their days in the hot sun, dressed up in costumes and making the world magical for every man, woman, and child who walks through those Disney gates–thank you. Thank you for taking the time to talk to and hug and sign the book of one very excited little girl. Thank you for making the magic real. And thank you for helping us all heal a little from our loss in the process.

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