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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back cover

Project Life 365 – Day 71 – Roam

I’m a sucker for road trips. There’s nothing that makes me feel quite as connected to the Universe as seeing the open road stretch before me and imagining the possibilities…

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Happy Birthday to Me

I’m back. Yeah, I know, I’ve said that before, but this time it’s for real. The craziness of the summer is finally over. No more vacations. No more flights. No more weddings. No more funerals (we hope). It’s time to get back to some sort of routine around here. It’s time, and boy are we ready!

Tomorrow Cadence starts preschool. We’ve been talking to her about it for weeks now, trying to prepare her to begin this new chapter in her life. We can tell she’s excited. She talks about all the things she’s going to do in school–numbers, ABC’s, playing with kids, etc.–but I can also see her trepidation. Every time we mention school, her little brow furrows for a moment and she says, “I no cry” before going on to talk about all the fun things she’ll do there. Maybe she’s trying to reassure us. But I think maybe she’s trying to talk herself into being brave. Pretty mature thinking for a two-and-a-half year old if you ask me. But then again, I think we’ve all done some growing up this summer. It’s been a hard one around here.

So today, we spent celebrating my 32nd birthday, and enjoying a quiet day together as a family. It’s been waaaaaaay too long since we’ve had one of those, and boy did we have fun! My amazing husband surprised me with a sweet card and two tickets to see Chicago in October. A date night. I can’t wait! 🙂 Then, we spend our day together, enjoying the late summer sunshine at Martin’s Hillside Orchard picking apples. We had dinner at Lazlo’s in the Haymarket, then back home to spend a lazy evening watching movies while I baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

All in all, I’d say it was a perfect day. 🙂

NY Trip Photo Bomb (part 4)

After spending most of the week on Long Island, having fun and cooling off in the pool, it was time to head back to Westchester for Gary and Liz’s wedding. We loaded up in Pop-Pop’s “Shaggin’ Wagon”, as Steven calls it (which is straight out of National Lampoon’s Vacation with the wood paneling on the sides). Cadence loved hollering out the colors of cars and trucks passing on the expressway, and screeched with delight every time she spotted an airplane in the sky.

In the 10 years I lived in New York, I must have traveled these roads a hundred times, and I have to admit, I got a little sentimental as we drove.

We crossed the Whitestone, laughing about the road construction that seemed to have taken up exactly where it left off the last time we visited three years ago. And, as always, I couldn’t help but to stare at the New York City skyline, rising up out of the heat and smog, as we passed. Yeah, I saw the sign about cameras being strictly prohibited, but it was worth the risk to get just a couple quick shots of my favorite city in the world.

As we crossed into the Bronx, we passed Co-op City, where I taught high school English for two years at Truman High School. Ah, the memories! I was hoping I’d have time to see a few of my old colleagues, but our whirlwind trip went by too fast. Next time for sure.

And then, we were making the last familiar turns, taking us back to a place that, even after all these years, feels like my second home…

It’s safe to say that Cadence felt immediately comfortable. We’d barely been there an hour and she was trying to take over the reception desk in Feth Hall and answer incoming calls.

Then, she tried knocking when I pointed out Dr. Nakhai’s office door. Unfortunately, we had to miss her on this trip, since she was spending the summer with her family in Iran.

But, we did manage to break and enter and snap a few photos in Dr. Nakhai’s office to surprise her with when she returns. I don’t know about you, but I think Cadence looks right at home.

By that time, we were starving, and decided to take another short roadtrip to our favorite restaurant in Westchester County–the Candlelight Inn in Scarsdale. I’m telling you folks, I’ve eaten a lot of hot wings in my day, but the Candlelight’s are, without a doubt, the best wings in the world. Yes, the world. I know that’s a bold statement, but I’ll stand by it. If you think you’ve got better wings, feel free to send me a sample for comparison, and until I find better hot wings, I’ll remain a staunch endorser of the Candlelight.

This little land yacht was parked in the lot when we arrived, and I had to snap a picture because I love it, and I want one.

Just one quick pic, and then we headed inside. It had been three years since our last order of Candlelight wings, and that was two years and 364 days too long!

Mmmm…

Please excuse me while I lick my computer screen.

Later that evening, we met up with the Kennedy’s and the Palkewick’s back on campus. We ate our fill of New York pizza in the air-conditioned bliss of Joan and Mike’s apartment, before strolling across the street with the kiddos so they could play a bit before bedtime. And tell me, is it just me, or do these pics look like they could be on the movie poster for “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”?

The kids gave the playground equipment some half-hearted attention before ditching it altogether in favor of the water hose Joan found behind the building. It was after 6 pm, still in the 90’s, and huuuuuumid! Little Josh tore off his shirt and Cadence immediately followed suit. Katie tried, but Joan put a stop to it before she could lose her sundress. We all had a blast watching our kiddos play and thinking that it didn’t seem all that long ago that we were the ones “playing” on campus. Time sure flies when you’re having fun!

And I was super excited that we were able to find some time for a late evening playdate with my old friend Anette, her hubby Alex, and beautiful daughter Ella. Miss Ella is just a month older than Cadence, and the two of them are peas in a pod. They both love singing and dancing, especially to Karmin. They enjoy cartoons like American Dad. And they can both work an Ipad better and faster than 97% of adults. After so many years, it was great to catch up with an old friend and finally meet the amazing little girl I’d heard so much about!

The next morning, we headed over to the Meyers’ house for breakfast. Aaron and Alissa made us waffles and the kiddos had a blast playing. Even having a playdate earlier in the week and then having breakfast, I only managed a handful of photos and completely missed getting pictures of Alissa and beautiful baby Elle, since she was down for a nap. I’m bad about forgetting my camera when I’m having fun. I gotta work on that!

After dropping Steven at the campus so he could meet up with Gary and the groomsmen to get ready for the wedding, Cat, Nathan, and I headed over to the Filippelli house for some good old-fashioned fun. We only managed to get slightly lost on the way, but made it there in plenty of time for the kiddos to play and have a blast in their very own self-made bounce house, right in Christin’s living room. All you need is a well-inflated air mattress and an end table capable of holding the weight of three young children. Instant fun!

After thoroughly exhausting herself playing the the Meyers, the Fillipellis and the Grayboschs, I was shocked that Cadence actually made it through the wedding without some sort of meltdown. But she held on like a champ and didn’t fall asleep until I strapped her in her carseat after the ceremony. I told Foerth to hang on for a long ride. The reception didn’t start for almost an hour and a half, and I planned to drive around as long as Cadence kept sleeping. We cruised through the familiar streets of Bronxville, Tuckahoe, Eastchester, Mount Vernon and Yonkers, reminiscing about our college and after-college days as we drove through our old stomping grounds. We drove past old apartments, past the Cross County Mall, which had received a major (and much-needed) facelift, past the old bars and restaurants and movie theaters and grocery stores we used to frequent. Somehow, things had changed, and yet, remained very much the same.

Cadence woke just as we were arriving at the Bronxville Field Club for the reception. The short sleep revived her, and she was off and running with sweet little Ella almost as soon as we let her out of the car. The two ran non-stop during the entire outdoor cocktail hour, chasing each other up and down the hill, showering each other with grass, and having races. It was adorable.

And Ella managed to sneak over and get a quick hug or two from the groom as he mingled. Aww! We love Gary!

And here’s my hubby the groomsman, looking so very handsome.

Please try to disregard the fact that his fly is hanging wide open. He’s not sure how long it was hanging open. I guess the professional wedding photos will tell.

And here’s a GQ shot with our buddy Papsin…

Of course, Cadence and Ella had to take a spin around the dance floor with Christin the minute we headed in for the reception. And the kept dancing and dancing and dancing…right up until they were so exhausted that they just laid down in the middle of the dance floor. At that point, we decided it was time to take our leave, wish the newlyweds congratulations, and head back to the hotel room for the night.

Before heading back to Long Island to spend the final day of our vacation, we made one last stop at the Candlelight to pick up an order of wings to go, and met up with my former roomie Katie and her husband Brian for a little picnic lunch and hanging out time at the campus. Cadence and Katie became fast friends…sort of like her Momma did. 🙂

The hubbies, chilllin’.

Cadence taking Katie for a walk.

Aww! I love these crazy kids!

And of course, Steven had to snap a picture of Cadence hiding behind the tree and doing her “business” before we left.

And that’s all folks. My camera was officially retired for the trip after this shot because Cadence ended up being sick and feverish our last day there. I’m glad to say though that in spite of a CRAAAAAAZY security line at the airport, we made it home, safe and sound, without any trouble.

Now, it’s time to start planning next year’s trip, because we all agreed that three years between visits is way too long to wait!

Until then, we’ll miss you New York!

NY Photo Bomb (part 3)

We spent the rest of our days on Long Island hanging out with Gamma and Pop-Pop, and even had some of Gamma’s famous homemade pasta sauce. Mmmm…

Seriously folks, it doesn’t get better than Gamma’s sauce.

And you better believe Cadence was deliriously excited to finally meet her cousins TJ and Tyler in person. After all the months looking at their pictures, learning to say their names, flying on two airplanes to New York, and waiting for them to get home from their vacation in Montauk, she couldn’t wait to play with them!

Of course, they all immediately wanted to jump in the pool…

Of course Cadence couldn’t stay in the shallow end once she saw her cousins going down the big slide and jumping off the diving board. I handed my camera over to Michele and chased after my child, trying to catch her before she climbed all the way to the top of the slide by herself. I could barely hang onto her long enough for Steven to swim over to catch her. Crazy girl!

And after that, she decided it was time to try the diving board. This time, she had a little help from Aunt Michele…

And then she decided to go back to jumping to Daddy from the side…

We did manage to get the kids dried off and inside to play for a bit. Cadence and Tyler had a blast playing with toy cars and coloring pictures together while TJ headed out to Best Buy with Steven to return a cell phone charger. Seriously, how cute are these two??

And then it was back outside to enjoy the rest of the afternoon…

And a few friends even dropped by to visit…

The kids played ball…

…gave Ninja lessons…

…explored the yard…

…searched the sky for airplanes…

…gave spy lessons…

…and danced with favorite stuffed animals…

All in all, we had some serious Long Island fun!

NY Trip Photo Bomb (part 2)

We spent our first few days on Long Island spending some quality time with “Uncle” Foerth and “Uncle” Mike.

Cadence and Foerth had several serious conversations about baseball. Let’s go Mets!

And we ate our fill of Italian Ice from the Ice Hut near Stevie’s old house. Mmmm…watermelon.

Steven managed to eat about 5 gallons of bubblegum ice while we were there…

And Cadence looooooooooved the chocolate…

We tried to get a nice family photo by the big Italian Ice statue, but Cadence ended up having a minor meltdown when she found out we didn’t get to take the statue home with us…

Then, Stevie’s folks took us to the Cull House for some seafood. Mmmmm…we’ve missed the good East Coast seafood! Of course, Stevie couldn’t pass up a lobster…

Cadence wasn’t quite sure what to think…

And, as always, Foerth helped us all clean our plates. I would seriously kill for that boy’s metabolism.

Back at Gamma and Pop-Pop’s house, Mike introduced Cadence to the Talking Tom app on his phone…

And Cadence introduced Mike to the new Despicable Me 2 trailer on Steven’s Ipad…

Cadence loved playing in the backyard by Gamma and Pop-Pop’s pool. Unfortunately, that first day it was just warm enough to put our feet in, but that was enough for Cadence. She had a blast splashing with her Daddy.

And then, when Cadence finally want down for a nap, Mike busted out his newest obsession–rollerblades–and he managed to talk Steven into a few laps of the neighborhood.

Foerth and I were content to watch.

And just so I could be sure he was being safe rollerblading at night, Mike pulled out his headlight for a demonstration…

And Foerth entertained himself with a spiderman bat.

We had a little trouble trying to explain to Cadence why she didn’t get to see her cousins TJ and Tyler right away. She’d been talking about flying on the airplane to see TJ and Tyler for a solid week before our trip, and expected the boys to be there the moment we landed. Unfortunately, they were on vacation, and still had a couple days left at school. But, she did get to talk to them on Gamma and Pop-Pop’s phone when they called to let us know they were on their way over…

Oh no! They’re not here yet?