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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