What can I say about Duane?

It’s been a week since my dad’s funeral. No, it hasn’t really sunk in yet that he’s gone. How could it? Duane was always larger than life, one of those people you just can’t talk or think about without smiling–maybe because you’re remembering one of the racy jokes he used to tell.

It’s hard to write about Duane…there’s just too much to say. Every thought of him leads to a story that leads to another memory that leads to another person that leads to another story. It makes it hard to figure out where to start (and it feels impossible to share it all). And Duane was a guy who loved a good story.

Duane knew everyone and everyone’s stories. He collected them, catalogued them, filed them away. He knew everyone and their stories because he cared. He knew people’s stories because people mattered to him. And the funny thing about Duane is that it didn’t make a difference whether he knew you for 30 seconds or 30 years, no matter how/when/why you found your way into his orbit, the result was always the same–he would CARE about you. You’d start out sharing a drink or an elevator ride and then the next thing you know you’re borrowing his truck to move into your apartment or watching him adjust your son’s training wheels because he noticed they were a little wobbly when he rode by on the sidewalk.

Duane was a person who left everything better than he found it. Every house or apartment we ever lived in was cleaner when we left than when we moved in. Every person Duane met or talked to always walked away in a better mood, with a better outlook, or with a funny (and slightly inappropriate) story to share. This world is a better place because Duane was in it, and that was made clear in his final days, as I watched friends and family and near-strangers flock to his side to say goodbye.

It makes you think a lot about life, to see your father there bravely facing the end of it–watching the aides and nurses and therapists and doctors staying late and coming in on their days off, telling him that they loved him, squeezing his hands, kissing him on the forehead.

It makes you think about what is most important in this life as you sit with someone you love through their last days. And while I’ve often said that the thing I value most in this life is connection (and that I truly believe the one purpose we all share here as humans is to find ways to connect with each other), I think the power of human connection has never been so clear and powerful for me than what I’ve witnessed in these last days, weeks, months since Duane went to the hospital for the last time.

Duane loved life. He LOVED life. No matter how beautiful or brutal or complicated or challenging, Duane was down for the ride. And even after the cancer diagnoses and the difficult surgeries, he didn’t really slow down much at all. He was determined to squeeze every last drop out of this life and move onto the next on his own terms–and I’ll be damned if that’s not exactly what he did. I always knew my dad was strong–working as hard as he always did, raising Lindy and I, dealing with his own obstacles and life lessons and losses, graduating to grandparenthood, navigating all the health challenges, etc.–but somehow everything he endured before now seems so small compared to the things he faced these last few months.

For almost three months, we watched Duane get sick, recover, relapse, keep fighting, go on hospice, go off hospice, go on a ventilator, go to rehab, refuse to give up, and then finally surrender. He tried everything, exhausted every opportunity, never gave up, right up to the moment when he told us it was time to go. And I think, out of everything, I am most thankful for that extra time, because it gave us a chance to make his last day his best day, so we could come together and let him go.

We prayed and took communion. He shared a cold 6-pack of Busch Light and Dot’s honey mustard pretzels with Harry and Stevie and Thorin. He dictated all his wishes for a simple graveside service and luncheon to Mom, with a handful of other instructions for after he was gone. Lindy and Richard and Odin and Henry came after school. Cadence said her goodbye to Papa the day before. Jim and Cindy arrived, and Jim mixed Duane his first Windsor & 7 in months. Then the four friends settled in to watch the Husker women’s volleyball team take down Indiana. We all laughed a bit and cried some too. One by one, we all said our goodbyes.

One of the things I find most remarkable about my dad is that for all the genuine care and love he put out into this world, he never really said it: “I love you.” If I’m being totally honest here, I don’t know if I never heard my dad say those words. I would joke with him about it sometimes, trying to illicit some reaction or make some sense out of why those words always seemed elusive.

Duane never said “I love you” but he showed it in a million ways, and anyone who ever knew him can probably tell a story about how my dad showed up, helped out, or just listened or gave advice when they needed it most. He always wanted everyone to leave a little better than they came in. He made sure everyone was taken care of, no matter what. He never said, “I love you.” It was always a finger wave and a “Yep, I’ll see ya.” But somehow, even if he never came right out and said it, he always had a way of making everybody feel like they were the most important people in the world. And we saw so much of that love come back to him as so many gathered last week to pay their respects and welcome him home. (Smartest decision Mom and I made was to upgrade to the big room at the Bertrand Community Building…I just had a feeling there might be a few people who needed to tell my dad goodbye).

That last night, I needed him to know that I loved him. I needed him to know that I knew he loved me too. So I waited until we had a quiet moment in the room together before I left. I knelt down beside the bed and touched his arm.

“I love you, Dad” I said. “We all love you. You know that right?”

He nodded and reached for his electro-larnyx. Then he said, “I wasn’t ever much good at saying it.”

I nodded.

“Maybe you never said it, but you showed it in a million ways. Remember when I would drive home from college? I’d always wake up the next morning and my car would be in the shop for an oil change and a tune-up, and the tank was always miraculously full of gas.” He smirked and nodded. I went on. “And remember the chairs you bought me after I had Cadence and Henry? You were worried about me being able to get up off the couch after my surgeries, you insisted I have the right chairs to recuperate.”

We were both crying then, and it was time to go. I told him I loved him and I kissed him on the forehead. He waved a finger at me and smiled.

“Yep, I’ll see ya.”

I’m not a religious person. It’s not for lack of trying. I just can’t seem to find one that holds sacred everything I do…no exceptions or exclusions. So, I always settle for just saying I’m spiritual and that I believe in something so much bigger than me and all of us that includes and embraces and IS all of us (and then at that point even I start getting kinda dizzy, so I just leave it at that and move on). But ask me right now, this moment, how I KNOW that there is something so much bigger than this and that death is not something to fear because it’s not really an “end.” Ask me how I know death is just a temporary interruption, a small glitch, a thin veiled passage between this place to something else. I know this, because when I said goodbye to Duane that night (and we both knew it was the last time we were saying goodbye in this place), when I told him I loved him and said good night, he smiled and waved a finger and said with absolute certainty, “Yep, I’ll see ya.”

Yep, I’ll see ya, Duane. And until it’s my time to join that epic party I have no doubts you’re now busy orchestrating in the place we all graduate to after this, all I hope is that I can spend my precious time here making this life and this world better than I found it and taking good care of the people around me…just like you showed me how to do.

CLICK HERE to watch Duane’s graveside service. And if you have a memory you’d like to share, feel free to leave it in the comments or email it to lori.romano07@gmail.com.

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!!



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.


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.




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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