I Do New: January edition
I had two New Year’s Resolutions this year. One was to write in my blog twice a month (I’m behind on that. I’ll do three for February to catch up!). The second was to do something new every week. So here is what I did in January!
Traveled solo: while I have done a few travel adventures on my own, they were either really small or a long time ago. You may recall I packed up Stevie Nicks (my doggo) and headed to a cabin shortly after Rich died. That was pretty solo, in that I was in charge of planning and executing all on my lonesome, but it really wasn’t a big deal. The first time I travelled by myself was decades ago. Rich and I had been living together in Ohio, and things just weren’t working out. So we broke up to save our relationship (I know, sounds odd, but it clearly worked). I packed up all my stuff in my Geo Prizm and drove cross country, touristing on my own terms along the way. When I finished that journey, I made myself a promise I would travel solo every year. Yeah that didn’t happen. But a few months ago, there was a sudden miles sale to Hawaii, and it was too gid to pass up. So In January I took myself to Maui for a week. I will blog more about that trip at another date, but I definitely wanted to start my “new” checklist with this one!
Whale watching: that happened on the Maui trip, of course (not too many whales in Minnesota, especially in January). A stunning, moving day full of laughter and a couple tears.
Fancy dinner all by myself: I have been my own dinner date before. Usually I bring a book and the meal is bookended with shopping or a movie. But on the Maui trip, almost every meal was by solo. I made a huge effort to keep the phone in my purse, and just soak in the experience. The first dinner out was the game changer, as I went to the “best restaurant in Hawaii,” according to many forums, the Lahaina Grill. I dressed up, ordered what I wanted and people watched, making up stories about all the other guests in the restaurant. People don’t really notice you when you are a middle aged woman hanging solo, which in this case was a great thing, lol.
Sunrise on a volcano: I have been to Hawaii several times, and have always thought it would be cool to watch the sun rise over the crater of a volcano. But every other trip I had people with me, and no one ever wanted to get up at the butt crack of night (my shuttle picked me up at 230 in the morning!). So this was my chance, and I took it. I am still sifting through all my pictures, trying to find the best ones to share. That will be part of the Maui blog post. For now, though, I’ll just say that between the sparkling white stars in the purple sky, to the firey oranges and yellows of the wakening sun, it was magical.
Make new friends: on a snorkeling adventure, I sat next to two women who I am now friends with. They were on a girls trip celebrating ther 40th birthdays (babies!). Jodi and Kelsey were from the San Francisco Bay Area, which is where I grew up, so we connected immediately. Next thing I knew they invited me to join them at a luau the next night, and we had dinner together again the following night. We are now friends on social media, and I am looking forward to connecting with them again in the future!
Whelping: I have wanted to whelp FOREVER but Rich always put his foot down. Well, here I go! If you follow me on TikTok you have met Millie, the 100 pound Newfoundland mama that birthed 10 puppies at my house January 22nd. Every day with them is new, and exciting. I love it!
I challenge you to do something new, too, and let me know what it was! Even if it’s just once a month — a new food, a new skill, a new location. Whatever it is, do it! We all need to grow!
How To Celebrate a Life
Rich wasn’t a funeral kinda guy. Which is good, because I’m not a funeral kind of gal. But I knew when he was diagnosed that there would only be one outcome, and so I started brainstorming.
How could I celebrate everything I loved about Rich, an everything that everyone else loved about him, and keep it light?
When I think of a funeral, I think sad, somber and all in black. I knew we couldn’t avoid moments of sadness, but the other two I could definitely tackle!
First an interjection: if you attended the event, thank you! This may seem redundant to you — although many people told me later they missed things, so maybe you will learn something new! Plus at the end of this post I have a link to the video tributes, which you might find interesting. A lot of this is geared towards people who may be in a similar planning situation. A lot of people have asked me how I did the party. Hopefully someone can glean some suggestions that might make their own event easier to plan.
My first task was choosing when we would have the party. I needed time to get organized and plan, plus I needed it to be when both the ids could attend, which meant December. We chose the date based on Sailor Boy’s schedule. The Navy allows holiday leave to either start or end on December 28th, so we ether had to do it the week of Christmas or the week after. For many reasons we knew Christmas week was a bad choice. And we had to do the Thursday, because Friday and Saturday were too pricey, and Monday was New Year’s Day, and Singer Girl had to go back to school on the 2nd. So December 29th was the only fit. Mind you, I was more worried about my boy making it on time than anything else: his flights from overseas finally had him arriving mere hours before the party!
Date selected, we moved to the venue. I needed a place that could hold a lot of people, and was easy for people to get to. Ultimately we probably had almost 350 guests, and the venue we chose, the Metropolitan Ballroom, was a great fit. Light and bright, with lots of levels and nooks and crannies to space things out and create pockets of fun. I also liked that it was easily accessible by freeway (and lots of free parking!). We accessorized the very stylish room with our own touches. I’ll talk more about that later. As for sustenance, I tried to keep things like Rich would’ve liked. TBH, when we discussed what he would like to see, he wanted it to be in our front yard with food trucks supplying burgers and brats. Since we were doing this in December, that wasn’t going to work (plus, I really didn’t want 350 people using my bathroom). So there were sliders, and tater tots, and Vegas themed desserts, among other options. Oh and the bar was a cash one, as I knew these people. If I paid for all their liquor, I’d have been washing dishes for weeks. However, we did have a specialty drink feature: the RT G & T: Bombay Sapphire, tonic, and a badly cut lime. If you know, you know.
During the course of Rich’s illness, I learned many things about my husband, even though I had known him for almost 40 years. Primarily, I learned about who he was a work — a mentor, friend, leader, coach, resource. I learned from his coworkers that he was known for “Richisms,” little nuggets of one-liner wisdom on subjects as diverse as work, marriage, life and dogs. I typed them up, and scattered them about the room. They were nuggets of gold, and I will be blogging about them later! When learning these things, it dawned on me that we often only know one or two facets of a person. So I set about revealing the many sides of Rich through “stations” set up around the room.
We had a table dedicated to Rich as a family man, with photos and mementos (people loved the wedding album!). I had Sailor Boy and Singer Girl pick their favorite pictures of them with their dad and displayed those prominently.
Folks who knew Rich only as an adult, needed to know his beginnings, so there was a table featuring Rich as a young guy, with baby pictures and prom photos and certificates from his days as an alter boy and newspaper clippings from high school sporting days.
Folks not knowing who he was at work needed to know his passion and commitment there. So there was a work table, featuring a binder with his certificates and awards and even the resume that got him hired at Cargill.
Folks thinking of him as always cool and collected made me want to show off his fun side. There was a table that was just silly, with various desktop toys and knickknacks that revealed the fun-loving guy I was privileged to love. The running table had all his marathon medals, as well as his favorite running t shirt.
We also decided to have a table honoring his brother Tito, who sadly died 7 weeks after Rich (yeah, 2022 was a real winner.) I was glad we are able to do that. Rich’s family created a beautiful photo montage display for that, which I appreciated.
The main rule for the evening: no funereal clothes. Rich was well known for wearing what Singer Girl called his “pimp shirts”: fun garb that bordered on the outright loud and tacky. I encouraged people to dress like they were in Vegas — or like they were Rich in Vegas. The kids and I, as well as other family members and friends, wore some of his wardrobe. For example, I wore his “dogs playing poker” shirt — a classic. I think people had a lot of fun with it, and it meant there were lots of smiles and laughter as different outfits appeared. The place was sparkly and flashy and cheerful!
One thing I knew I did NOT want: photo boards. We’ve all seen them at funerals: fantastic collections of family photos, meant to initiate walks down memory lane. They are great, but often overwhelming. I get that they are the easiest way to share such memories, but since we had time, I wanted to do something a little more. So, I asked a friend to help me make video slideshows (links to the slideshows are posted at the end of this blog post).
I spent weeks collecting, scanning and organizing photos. We had one main montage, that was just pictures of Rich. That played in the background on large video screens throughout the evening. The second show was more curated. Split into 4 parts, each part introduced a speaker. The first section was photos of Rich at work, and led into the speech by one of his former colleagues. Next up was the family section: first, Rich as a brother, uncle, son, etc., then clips of him as a dad. Sailor Boy spoke after that (thankfully he kept it short and irreverent. I was grateful I didn’t have cause to bawl like a baby!). The third section was Rich as a friend. We divided this section into Rich as a friend to many, then Rich as a member of the Unicorn Squad.
The Unicorns are Mike, Erika, Sandi and Kurt, our closest friends. These are our ride or dies, the ones with whom we travel, party, or just hang out. They got on stage collectively, three lining up behind while the fourth was the spokesperson for the group. I loved the symbolism of that. We are a team at all times.
The last slideshow was mine. It was all pictures of Rich and I in all phases of our relationship — from our days in college to our travels and date nights and up until the last. Then I spoke — very briefly. It was just a thank you for coming thing. But it also served one last purpose.
This party had a lot of goals. Obviously, I wanted to honor Rich. But I also wanted to thank everyone who had been there for us through the long days of a very short year. So it had to be fun — upbeat music, colorful clothes, good food, lots of comradery, etc. Originally when I was planning things I wanted there to be craps tables and make it really something we would have loved, but I guess you cant do even non-gambling craps tables in Minnesota (lame). So I had to do the next best thing: puppies.
At the end of my spiel, I revealed that there was a litter of puppies waiting to be cuddled. Surprise! As the Puppy Party Coordinator for Secondhand Hounds here in Minnesota, I felt it was fitting. People loved it (of course). It gave folks another reason to mingle and smile Rich would have approved.
There was one final goal for the evening: I wanted his family, especially his mom, to feel what I had felt for all those wretched months: the outpouring of love and support. When we moved to the Midwest decades ago I never could have known what an amazing world we would create here. People have literally come out of the woodwork to help in ways big and small, and I still get people reching out, asking how they can help.
I am so lucky.
We were so lucky.
This is the link to the video tribute of just Rich.
A New Chapter
The last time I wrote in this blog, I was married to the love of my life.
Now, I am a widow.
I still wear a ring, but he doesn’t.
My life is a new marriage of sorts. I must weave the before with the after. I sit at his desk, in what was previously his office, dividing my time between reconciling the past and preparing for the future. Simultaneously I must settle his affairs while making sure my own are ready for future days. I spend a little bit of time every day working through legal documents, finagling various types of insurance, and preparing for taxes. I am the chief cook and bottle washer now.
This blog will probably have a haphazard appearance (not that it was very ordered before, TBH), as I strive to cover a varied terrain.
I will write about the last vacation we took before we knew he was sick and talk about my own solo travels. As I write this, I have just arrived from a one week beach vacation where I mourned and healed. In fact, I have several trips coming up this year. Last year we had but one: our last Vegas adventure. I’ll have to write about that, too, I guess. I have a lot of leg stretching to catch up on this year.
I will blog about his celebration of life party, and about the hell of watching someone die by degrees. Of watching the man who used to hold you up become the one you must support. I went from being a friend and a lover to a nursemaid. It sucked, but I am not alone. In fact, I now have 90-some thousand new friends walking my widow journey with me. I decided before he died that I would need a way to keep myself accountable. So I created a TikTok grief journal, and every day I post something. Some days are decidedly more interesting than others. Some posts show me drowning in grief, while others show me making new strokes forward in the ocean of possibilities. I’d love to have you follow me, and help me stay the course!
We’ve all heard that the first year is the hardest, although now I’ve been told it is actually harder in year 2, when the new loss becomes the new normal. But I need to get through year one first, one post at a time.
Grieving is something that takes place on a sliding scale. For me, that process really started October 1, 2021, when we first heard the words “You have ALS.” I can still remember everything about that. I dropped him of at the entry to the University of Minnesota Neurology department, and watched him limp inside, leaning heavily on his late father’s walking stick. I parked the car, then found him. Our roles had already changed. In the waiting room we were both casually terrified, trying not to look outwardly concerned. I think he was more worried than I was, which makes sense. I think he already knew the diagnosis. I was living on edge in the dark, impatiently waiting for someone to tell us he did NOT have that hideous disease, .
Once in the exam room, the doctor had clearly read through the myriad reports from other doctors, and had analyzed the test results. Rich sat on the exam table, while the doctor checked his reflexes. It seemed to take him less than a minute to declare Rich’s death sentence, but I am sure it was longer than that. I was sitting in the spare chair they always have in an exam room. I know it was just maybe 5 feet away, but the doctor’s words sucked all the air out of the room and I felt as unsteady on my feet as Rich had been for months when I lurched up and crossed to the exam table. I put my hand n his shoulder, but that wasn’t enough. I needed more. I pressed up against him, and clutched his leg, trying not to hold too tightly or breathe too loudly. In the few steps it took me to cross that increasingly claustrophobic room, I had a million conversations with myself. I transitioned from panic and sorrow to determination and caring, because that was now my job. I needed to be what he needed, whatever that was, and my own needs had to be put aside.
Now it is time, once again, to tend to my needs.
Slowly, the world we built for two has become a universe of one.
I still make the king sized bed, but only have to wash the pillowcases on one side.
His clothes, now donated, are hopefully bringing someone else a smidge of the confidence he had, and I have started spreading out in the closet, reorganizing my things to suit my new lifestyle.
When Rich was first diagnosed, we had two cars in the garage. Then three, when our daughter came home home for one last summer with her dad. Then two, when we sold his car. Then three again when we bought the wheelchair van. Then two, when she went to school. Then one, when I sold the van. My car now also lives alone.
It seems every week I rearrange a drawer or a closet. I feel like I am marking my territory, by making things work in my new normal. It is also a way of visiting with him on a small scale, as I run across something of his, whether it is a business card or a pair of swim goggles or a tool he never put away in the right place. I fear, and hope, it will be a long time before the last item is discovered. Like an archeologist, I will be unearthing bits of his life for years to come.
And every day, I unearth a bit more of my life. My new life. My widowed life. My rebuilding life. My strong, sad, capable, terrified, hopeful life.
I can do this. With the continued support and help from all of you, I will do this.
Siracusa, not Syracuse
The day after Christmas it was time to unwrap another gift: a new city. So we said arrivederci to the wonderful Mario, and headed south to Siracusa.
Siracusa is another stunning ancient city set on the ocean, founded almost 3,000 years ago by the Greeks. As opposed to the city of Syracuse, named after the Sicilian version, but founded in 1820. While the city was originally named Syracuse by the Greeks, the Italians prefer to call it Siracusa — I mean, they run the place now, and have for a couple thousand years, so they get naming rights, IMO.
We stayed in the historical center, the island of Ortigia, at the stunning Grand Hotel Ortigia. The hotel seemed to have what I felt were art deco touches everywhere (the stained glass elevator is worth a visit alone). HWSNBN and I had a room overlooking the harbor, while the kids had one with a view of the ancient stone streets.
Besides the lovely artistic touches, this one had something I never thought before I would love so much: a lift that helped HWSNBN avoid the many stairs into the hotel. It took us awhile to figure it all out, but we became pretty adept at it by the end!
After settling in, Sailor Boy told us he’d found a Michelin starred restaurant right around the corner for lunch: Ristorante Porta Marina.
TBH, I really just wanted to sit outside in the sun and have cheese and wine, but he was so excited about we made it happen. Unfortunately, almost every restaurant we tried on Ortigia had several stairs to get into it (I think the land and buildings have sifter over the centuries — or maybe they are built above the street to avoid flooding?). We were pretty disruptive getting in, but folks seemed understand. They politely went about their chic lunches in the brick-walled room, quietly supping wine and looking more fashionable at a simple weekday lunch than I ever would with hours of a prep for a gala. As I observed the other patrons, I realized they were all couples about my age and realized that this was their “post houseguest holiday frenzy” reward lunch. Just the two of them, sipping wine while they discussed all the family drama the had just observed.
We, of course, were thankfully still on family time.
After lunch, we met our next tour guide in the hotel lobby. He was a retired professor, and definitely had a different air about him than Mario. Less gregarious, and more studious, the kids didn’t connect with hm right away, and frankly neither did HWSNBN. I enjoyed his history lessons, but then I always dig that stuff. Mario understood Singer Girl’s need for Instagram breaks. Not so much the professor. And the guys in my family had that look of “is the lecture over yet?”
But that doesn’t mean we didn’t find Siracusa stunning and fascinating.
At the end of the tour, we were scheduled to enjoy a glass of wine at a café in the piazza, but HWSNBN as struggling. He needed to get out of his wheelchair; he had had enough. When I politely explained to the professor that we would have to cut the experience short, he was baffled. He simply couldn’t understand why we didn’t wat to get a drink when we were right there in front of the bar. I felt bad, but said we just had to go.
We got HWSNBN back to the room, and he settled in. The kids and I still had energy, so he insisted we got out without him. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but we got him settled and into bed. I made a reservation for a little place that sounded interesting, and the kids and I set off. When we arrived at Osteria il Cantuccio at 8pm, they weren’t even open yet (oops. Dumb Americans). The owners, a darling couple, spoke almost no English, so we used a method HWSNBN would appreciate: Singer Girl spoke Spanish to them. Between the two languages, much sign language, and the Google translate app, we managed to order a great dinner (side note: Sailor Boy’s Sicilian girlfriend was horrified when he told her about the restaurant. She was appalled that we would go to a Roman restaurant! I guess that’s like getting Southern fried chicken in New York, lol).
After we ate, we texted HWSNBN. He was still ok, and urged us to continue the night. So we wandered around in search of a bar for a drink. Places were pretty quiet, but we happened upon a place that was lively and we ordered drinks — Mojitos. Don’t ask me why. But the kids and I had a lot of fun that night, just hanging out and laughing. I think we needed it.
This was a conflicting evening for me. I was thrilled to explore the city without worrying about HWSNBN’s safety and comfort, and to spend time with the kids just by myself. I hadn’t done that yet, and it felt good to check in with them and see how they were doing, and to let loose a bit. But HWSNBN was back at the hotel, alone, uncomfortable, and, I’m sure, sad that he wasn’t able to be with us. It sucked. I didn’t even want to tell him how much we had enjoyed ourselves.
In the morning, we had an amazing brunch at the rooftop terrace restaurant at the hotel. Free Prosecco on the buffet? Yes, please!
Afterwards we hopped into the van and, with a new guide headed to the ancient yet newly trendy town of Noto (Mick Jagger recently joined the ranks of famous homeowners here. Originally, the plan had been a 10 hour day of drives and sight seeing, but this was our last full day in Italy (and with Sailor Boy), and we wanted to have some down time. So Mario and I had whittled the day down to what he thought we would enjoy the most, and thus we visited Noto.
It was a gloriously sunny day to visit a city whose architecture oddly, reminded me very much of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. This was a city fully destroyed by the earthquakes I mentioned in a previous post, and was rebuilt in a very baroque style, in a much “sunnier” color than the lava buildings of Catania. It also had some hilly areas, meaning that we all took turns “feeling the burn” as we squired HWSNBN around in his wheelchair!
Inside the Noto Cathedral, we were charmed by these wooden sculptures. They were made by Africans immigrants, out of the very boats in which they sailed to Sicily.
And I loved this elaborate manger scene in another nearby church!
Our guide recommended Caffe Marpessa for lunch. While we weren’t all thrilled with what we ordered to eat (except for taht soup — yum!), the wine was great, and the setting was perfect. It was probably one of our favorite meals for the atmosphere and mood — even if Singer Girl did get in trouble for feeding the prowling cats.
Next it was time for a little souvenir shopping, where I finally purchased one of the Turkish heads I mentioned in a previous post. (here is a great explanation behind their history and significance!).
When done touring Noto, we headed back to Ortigia where we left the boys at the hotel to rest up. Singer Girl, the guide and I were on a mission: search the charming streets for souvenirs, gifts, and a suitcase to pack all those clothes we had to buy when our luggage had been lost! We also needed some picture taking time, and knew the guys would not be into that.
Dinner that night was our farewell to Sicily — and Sailor Boy. He was driving back after the meal, as he had to be back on duty early the next morning. We went to another place where we were the first in the door, and where the steps were steep. No problem! In typical Sicilian fashion, a few waiters scurried out and carried HWSBNB up the stairs, wheelchair and all, lol. The restaurant, Anima e Cori, was a pizza place — the first pizza we had had on the trip I think. It was fun, it was casual, there were strolling accordion players and, frankly, many out of towners. But it didn’t feel touristy — it had been highly recommended, and we enjoyed it thoroughly. Our only regret was only ordering 2 pizzas, because the menu was amazing! Our fave reminded me of one HWSNBN and I enjoyed in Colorado the previous year, as it included honey as a topping. Still weird to wrap my brain around, but man is it good with the right crust and toppings!
I feel sad typing this, but it was time to say goodbye to my boy. It was a bittersweet moment, as we not only don’t know when we will see him again, but we also don’t know what HWSNBN’s condition will be when that does happen. But it was an amazing trip, and we treasured every moment together.
This time, though, HWSNBN was also not ready to call it a night. Back at the hotel, we headed once again to the rooftop restaurant for cocktails. It sucked that there were only three of us, but we laughed and rehashed the trip’s highlights. The next day we were hitting the airport (after another fantastic brunch, of course), but not to go home. We decided months ago not to rush, and we were headed back to Amsterdam for a night!
So just a quickie about our Christmas celebrations in Sicily. As previously mentioned, we moved to Sailor Boy’s place for the holiday. We didn’t stay with him the whole time in Catania simply because he lives on the third floor, with no elevator, and, well HWSNBN can’t do stairs anymore. It took all three of us to get him up those steps. Singer Girl and Sailor Boy alternated schlepping luggage, steadying Dad from the front, and racing upstairs to turn the motion sensor lights back on (did I mention we moved very slowly?). I stood below, lifting each foot up each stair, left right step. Left right step. So yeah: it was a team effort.
As soon as we got inside, we opened wine. We deserved it.
Sailor Boy had ordered a bunch of food for us to enjoy that night and during the next day. There was pizza, pasta, baked chicken and more. After our dinner, we unveiled the traditional Christmas dessert in Italy: Panettone. Ours was a Ferrero Rocher one — gooey and sweet and naughty. Thanks, girlfriend Lisa, for picking it out!
Christmas day was super chill. In Sicily, Christmas eve is a long night of eating (mostly fish), so the day itself is pretty mellow. So we took a cue. We spent the day doing very un-Christmassy stuff, and generally relaxing. The views outside didn’t hurt.
We listened to odd rap Chirstmas songs (I will not subject you to Sailor Boy’s dance moves).
We had coffee and mimosas.
We played games.
We ate more panettone. We tried to convince Sailor Boy’s rescue kitties that we were nice.
We watched a Rick and Morty marathon.
We watched a movie — Don’t Look Up. Not a typical holiday movie, but we weren’t doing normal Christmas this year, so it worked out.
After the movie it was time to head back to Catania (after descending those dreaded stairs, of course). In the morning, we were changing locations, so we needed to rest and pack. Sailor Boy was a great host, and it was wonderful just chilling family style all day. I don’t knw when we will get another day like that, so I will treasure the memoires– irreverent thought they may be!
When Homer met the Don
We woke that morning without a horse’s head in our beds. But Mario was still about to make us an offer we couldn’t refuse.
Today, we would visit some of the locations for the filming of one of the best movies of all times, The Godfather, perhaps the best sequel of all times, The Godfather Part 2, and one of the most unfortunate series films, The Godfather Part 3. (Coppola really should’ve stopped with number 2, but that’s a discussion for another day).
We met Mario and our driver in front of the hotel and started our journey north. Along the way, we stopped to take pictures at The “Cyclops Riviera.” Sicily is steeped in legend, as are all ancient places. If you remember your Homer, during his journey Odysseus and his crew sought refuge on an island, where they feasted on fresh water and sheep they found. Unfortunately, the “shepherd” was a giant one-eyed dude who didn’t take kindly to the theft. One thing led to another” sailors were eaten, the Cyclops got drunk, Odysseus blinded him, and the remaining crew escaped, only to have the Cyclops furiously hurling rocks after them into the sea.
These, legend has it, are those rocks.
We climbed back into the van and resumed our trek, past the shadow of Mt Etna, winding up the hills to the village of Savoca.
When Francis Ford Coppola was scouting Sicily for locations, he first went to the village of Corleone, where the fictional family originates. But filming was impossible there, and the town was too modern. But a native of Catania suggested Savoca and, upon visiting it, Coppola fell under its spell.
So did we.
The film changed the town’s trajectory: it became famous, but it is so isolated it retains it’s charm. There are a few “modern” buildings, but they mimic the ancient styles so they don’t look like eyesores. Local artist Nino Ucchino did a stunning mirrored sculpture as a tribute to Coppola. Despite it’s clearly modern look, it works, and the symbolism is clear: the town saw itself reflected in his vision, and he saw the film reflected in their town.
When you turn away from the sculpture, you see the Bar Vitelli. This is where Michael sat when he first saw Apollonia, where he asked about her to the bar owner (who happened to be her father), and where he ultimately proposed.
Mario told us of the woman who owned the bar and her lifelong relationship with Coppola and the actors in the film. Inside is a room devoted to memorabilia (and quaint stuff — not some plastic schlock you’d find in a tourist trap).
It was time to sit in the sun and sample some of the amazing granita — just a frozen ice and fruit or nut concoction. While we debated which flavor was best (lemon, almond or pistachio — almond won IMO!), we enjoyed watching the kitties play around us.
Next Singer Girl and I tucked HWSNBN inside the cafe with an espresso, looking rather godfather-esque.
Then Mario guided us up a series of windy streets (NOT wheelchair friendly) to the church where Michael and Apollonia were married.
As you can imagine, this town was very Instagrammable. Patient Mario indulged Singer Girl and I all day. Hopefully you will as well. Here are some of my favorite shots from Savoca.
We had one more stop on our Godfather tour: Forzo d’Agro, and the only location in all three of the movies. This little hillside village with majestic views of the Mediterranean. We didn’t stay long, but wandered a bit and enjoyed the atmosphere.
Then it was time to head back to town to rest up for dinner. Sailor Boy had been busy running errands, as the next day was Christmas Eve. We were joining him at another of his favorite restaurants, Sapio.
Sapio is in some ways similar to Travail, here in the Twin Cities, where food is performance art, and you never quite know what you are getting. It was surprisingly, well, rigid for an Italian restaurant. there were four set menus, and everyone at the table had to agree to the same one. The problem? Most had fish/seafood, which I don’t eat. We finally settled on a menu, even if Sailor Boy and HWSNBN were sad they couldn’t enjoy some of the delights taunting them from their preferred menus. But the wait staff wouldn’t budge. Things were a bit tense for a minute, as this dinner was clearly important to Sailor Boy. But once the menus disappeared an our wine glasses filled up, we relaxed. The menus only mentioned the traditional four Italian courses: an appetizer, a primi (often pasta), a secondi and dessert. But those were just the tip of the ice berg. All told, I think we had about a dozen courses, each one prettier than the next.
Needless to say, we were more than ready for bed when dinner was done. We said goodnight to the kids, who would meet up with us again in the morning as we did our last official day with Mario.
I had heard that Taormina was not to be missed, so when Mario suggested we rearrange our itinerary and visit there, I easily agreed. Today, Sailor Boy joined us, so the whole family enjoyed a day of stunning weather, vistas and, of course: food! On the way, we pulled over to get a great look at Mt Etna.
Next our driver brought us first to a beautiful overlook, where we enjoyed the sparkling Mediterranean views (and took some Insta worthy pics, lol).
Then it was off to the ancient amphitheater, where they still hold concerts amid the crumbling ruins.
Mario’s wife Mara owns a leather goods shop in Taormina (Mara’s Handmade Leather), so we decided to check it out when we got to town. So cute! We purchased a few gifts for friends, then wandered for a bit. It was Christmas Eve, so families were out in full force. Of course, they thought we were nuts: it was 65 and sunny, and most of us has bare arms. The Sicilians were bundled up (it was about 60 degrees warmer than at home for us!). It has been great travelling to places “off season,” as we were practically the only Americans we saw — in fact, there were very few non-Italians in a typically very crowded town. Taormina reminded me a bit of Vail, with its meandering streets full of quaint shops and restaurants.
I loved the jewelry in this shop’s windows!
And look closely: this is NOT what you think it is!
The Christmas tree set up in the main square was a great place to gather and enjoy just being together. As Mario Puzo wrote in The Godfather, “a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
Mario asked us to meet him outside one of the many churches when we were ready for lunch. For years I have been fascinated by old churches and cathedrals, and now Singer Girl seems to find them just as captivating, so we investigated this one while the boys waited outside. By many standards, this church was humble, but to me just as lovely as far richer places of worship.
Lunch that day was one of our favorite meals (even if the locale was NOT wheelchair friendly). Mario set us up to eat outside at Osteria Santa Domenica. Between the sunshine, the service, the food and the wine, it was one of the best moments of the trip. And those fried artichokes…
It was time to head back to the hotel. We were heading to Sailor Boy’s place for the night and the next day — it being Christmas Eve and all! So we packed up for the night, and headed to his place!
Sicily is Not Italy…
If you read my last post, you’ll know that we have some new challenges in our lives. But I’ll be damned if we curl up in a ball and hide from the world.
So, despite HWSNBN’s ALS diagnosis, we set out last month on a long-planned trip to visit Sailor Boy in Italy.
Wait, you say: isn’t Sicily a part of Italy? Well, yes, politically speaking. And yes, they speak Italian and have phenomenal food and fashion sense, and horrific driving. But we learned quickly that when you are a land that has been around for 10,000 years, it takes more than a measly 162 years to make you really a new identity.
But more on the history lesson later. First, we need to get to Europe.
Months ago, before I knew we would have the ALS to consider, I decided to utilize a travel agent for the first time to get this trip planned. Enter the amazing Amanda from Pique Travel. She had everything planned: hotels, cars, tours and guides, even wheelchairs at every step of the way. We used the app Unmapped to keep tabs of all reservations and tickets, and of course utilized What’sApp to communicate with her and our European contacts.
ALS was our unofficial travel partner all the way through, and he made us nervous. He was always there in the back of our minds, slowing us down, causing anxiety as we worried about how he would try to complicate and crash the party. Thankfully, contrary to popular belief, the world is full of amazing, humans willing to go out of the way to smooth things out for us.
The minute we pulled up at MSP airport (driven by the amazing Abdulla, referred to us by friends Christie and Jim. Let me know if you need his number for your driving needs!), a wonderful airport worker jumped into action. Seeing me wrangling multiple suitcases and Rich trudging along with his walker, he declared: “You need a wheelchair!” We didn’t even get inside to ask at the Delta desk for the one reserved for us. The MSP staff took charge, chauffeuring Rich and helping me get everything to the front of the check in line. (FYI: being physically challenged DOES have its perks: we went to the front of every line in every airport in all three countries, from check in to security to boarding to customs. Nice!). After we were checked in, we were escorted through security (thank you Clear — always worth the subscription fee IMO), then had time to enjoy the PGA Lounge (courtesy of Priority Pass, a great perk we got with the Chase card — thanks for the tip, Thrifty Traveler!). We asked our escort what to do when it was time to head tot eh gate, and she assured me someone would meet us at the lounge, and they did. Our escort was going off duty, but came with a coworker to make sure we were cared for correctly. Wow: mad props.
The flight worried us: HWSNBN can’t move easily or quickly anymore. When he needed to get up to stretch or use the restroom, I walked in front of him, facing him, holding his hands to keep him safe. It felt precarious, and probably disruptive to some (it’s hard to walk steadily on a plane during the best of circumstances), but everyone resected our odd journey. Flight attendants cleared the aisles for us, and constantly asked how they could help. They also, before I could even bring it up, let me know that they had confirmed that a wheelchair would be waiting for us at the gate.
Classy, professional, caring. Thank you, Delta!
We arrived in Amsterdam unscathed, but tired. Normally I schedule flights to Europe for late in the evening, but this one was an afternoon flight. There aren’t a ton of flights daily to Catania, and we were also coordinating with Singer Girl, who was flying n from Detroit. Our flight landed a couple hours before hers, and we went to the transfer station to make sure we were all set for the next flight. The lovely woman at the KLM desk realized our luggage was not checked all the way through, so quickly fixed that — and told us to come straight to her desk when our daughter arrived so she could personally make sure hers was set as well. When we di that, the woman immediately recognized me and said “Catania!” I mean, how many travelers had she helped in the past two hours, but she still remembered us and our destination. I know I am pretty memorable, but wow: again we were impressed.
The flight was also uneventful, and we were treated with views of Mount Etna, quietly exhaling her volcanic breath as we approached.
Once again, a wheelchair was waiting for us. Unfortunately, our luggage was not. Somehow all the good efforts of the KLM transfer desk agent were in vain. I felt a bit like Etna as I dealt with the situation as best I could: breathing deeply to let off steam so I didn’t blow my top. I know HWSNBN was frustrated that he couldn’t really help. Singer Girl went out to greet our driver, Stefano, and fill him in on the delay. We had no idea where our nags were or when they would arrive, given the afore-mentioned lack of Catania flights. But we finalized the paperwork, loaded ourselves into the van, and headed, finally, to the hotel.
Sailor Boy was meeting us for dinner, and bringing along his darling Sicilian girlfriend who we had of course not yet met. I informed him of the AWOL luggage, and he assured me our hotel was in a prime shopping district. Once HWSNBN was safely ensconced and napping at the hotel, Singer Girl and I ventured out to get supplies for the next two days. I typically don’t visit any stores or restaurants on vacation that I can visit at home, but desperate times call for desperate measure, and there were an H & M and a Sephora on the same block, so off we went. We purchased some basics for all 3 of us, and headed back to quickly do what we could to tidy up before dinner.
We were staying at the Hotel Una Palace in the heart of historic Catania.
We had a small suite: spacious bedroom, bathroom, large walk through closet and small sitting area with couch. It was just the right size for spreading out and wheeling about a walker and wheelchair. The hotel had an elevator, which theoretically made it accessible for those with mobility issues, but man those European shower/tub combos are a bear when someone is unsteady on their feet and can’t easily bend their legs! But we managed!
We supposedly had reservations at the stunning rooftop restaurant, Etnea. However, when Sailor Boy and the Lovely Lisa checked in for us, the restaurant couldn’t find our reservation. Exasperated, I sent them Sailor Boy the confirmation email. He texted me shortly afterwards.
“HAHAHA. Mom. That’s in Turin. I don’t think we can make that reservation, it’s a good 3 hour flight.”
They were able to fit us in — although an hour later than we planned, because Sicilian restaurants rarely open for dinner before 8pm. So we made do with snacks and the best damn tasting cocktail I have ever freaking had. Dinner was great. We all laughed, and were so happy to finally be together. Lovely Lisa was as charming as Sailor Boy is goofy. She was nervous meeting us, which is silly, but I understood. She hit it off (I think!) with all of us.
After dinner, it was more than time for bed. HWSNBN and I crashed at the hotel, while Singer Girl was staying at her brother’s apartment. We said goodnight, eager to see each other again in the morning to begin our Sicilian experience in earnest (and in newly purchased clothing…but I digress…).
HOtels in Europe do the free breakfast thing waaaay better in the states. I popped down in the AM and brought up a plate for HWSNBN. Here’s a really underwhelming pic of the buffet, which had cakes, pastries, meats, cheeses, fruits, veg and more.
After breakfast, we met Mario, who was to be our guide (and friend) for the next few days. We were doing a walking tour of Catania. We met the kids at a café, where Mario plied them with espresso and arancini, the amazing fried rice balls native to the area, as they had not been privy to the luxurious hotel fare. Fortified, we set off.
So about that history lesson! Sicily has been inhabited for 10,000 years, and, during that time, has been settled or ruled by many dynasties, including the Greeks, Romans and Bourbons. All over you see the influence of these cultures and all the others around the Mediterranean. The Turks were in charge for awhile, and during the Muslim rule of the 9th through 11th centuries, Catania became known as the city of the elephant. Why? There is a black lava stone elephant fountain (topped with an Egyptian obelisk) in the main square. U Liotru, as it is called, is the city’s symbol. Was there an elephant on the island? Maybe!
The island’s buildings and layout are absolutely colored by not only the cultural diversity, but by the geological history. Catania is known as the black city, as the oldest roads and buildings are made from lava stone (thanks, Etna). But thanks to massive earthquakes and WWII, the cities are varied, making them a fascinating architectural study (many buildings were constructed not only on top of old foundations, but from the ruins of the ones that preceded them).
Italians take their Christian holidays pretty seriously. Sicily is famous for its creches, or manger scenes. This one inside Sant ‘Agatha of Sicily, who was born in Catania, was stunning — and about 10 feet long!
There are certain things I always take pictures of on holiday: markets, doorways and side streets. This trip was no different. Mario led us to a stunning food market, where we feasted with all our senses.
Oh: and I also have a thing for funky vehicles…
The fod market was an appetizer course: we had local pistachios and nut brittles, and Sailor Boy had oysters right there on the street.
Then Mario directed us down this charming street…
…then directed us to wait in front of a shop. Singer Girl took the opportunity to make a local feline friend…
…and Mario worked his magic. As we watched, a flurry of people swarmed out of the shop, and set up little tables and chairs for us. They set the tables, and invited us to sit. nest thing we knew we were eating cheeses and meats, hand picked by Mario, and drinking wine, as we watched the world go by. One of my favorite trip moment, as a humble alleyway became OUR personal restaurant.
Then we wandered further through Catania, back through the square and past our hotel. The main street was bustling with shoppers. We looked in windows, but we were so happy to be outside in the sunshine we didn’t want to stop. A running joke began that day: the Sicilians thought we were crazy. While we reveled in temps in the 60s, they bundled up in scarves, coats and gloves. At one point, someone yelled to a tank-top clad Singer Girl “where are you from?!” We enjoyed stressing Mario out by our lack of winter garb!
Our last stop on the tour was at Savia, where Mario treated us to more arancini and pastries — and wine, of course. Mario had “American prosecco”: Coca Cola.
We said goodbye to Mario for the day, the kids headed back to Sailor Boy’s abode, and HWSNBN and I went to the hotel to nap — and see if our luggage had arrived. No such luck. I logged into the website provided me by the Catania airport, but it was all in Italian. I decided to go to Twitter to get answers. I described our plight, mentioning my husband’s medical condition and the fat tat we were in town visiting our military-serving son. KLM responded less than 4 minutes later! Within 30 minutes we learned our luggage had boarded a flight to Rome the previous day by mistake, and would be arriving at our hotel within a few hours! Such great news — and great customer service!
When it arrived, I unpacked and we got to shower and do all the things you take for granted when you have your luggage, lol. We decided to walk to the restaurant for dinner, rather than make the kids try and pick us up (it was tough to do so, as no private cars were allowed on the street front of the hotel). It was drizzly, so my hair was a mess by the time we got there, but it was a riot, navigating cobble stone streets in a wheelchair. I burned off all the days treats for sure, and we joked that it is not a vacation until HWSNBN and I get lost on a “Bataan death march,” as my family likes to call my happy meanderings.
That night we ate at one of Sailor Boy’s favorite Michelin star restaurants, Km0.
We had a dreadful time…
Singer Girl decided to crash on our couch that night, as Sailor Boy and Lisa had plans with her friends, and he wasn’t going on the tour with us the next morning (she also wanted to check out the hotel breakfast buffet!). We said our goodbyes, and went back to crash, and dream about what visual and gustatorial delights awaited us in the morning!
Catching Up Is Bringing Me Down
It has been so long since I have written — here, anyway. More on that in a minute.
This is a quickie, to just touch base and let you know I’m not gone. But 2021 was kind of a shitshow for me, and my new normal is kind of stinky as well.
In June, my dad died. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s for more than a decade, so it was time. The end wasn’t pretty (I’ll never forget the sound of the “death rattle” as the hospice nurse called it). But it’s over. He is no longer disintegrating piece by piece, so we no longer have the internal war of wishing him peace, but not wanting him gone. I have a tribute post in the works, and will hopefully get to that next month.
Last spring, HWSNBN (my husband who abhors social media) finally decided to see someone about some hip pain he was experiencing. The chiropractor helped for awhile. Then he saw an orthopedist, who suspected an arthritic hip from all his years of long distance running. PT was prescribed, but it got worse. During the Boston trip (read that post here), he calmly shared with me that he couldn’t feel his right leg. It “woke up”, but we were shaken.’
He tried a steroidal injection, and that helped for a bit. We managed a Vegas trip in July, and had a ball. But shortly after we returned, the pain was back, and worse. He continued to be unable to run, which was just killing him. The orthopedist was alarmed, and decided it was tie to see a neurologist.
What followed were rounds of tests — blood work, MRIs, EMGs, manual assessments and more. And then they were repeated. On October 1st, we learned that after excluding everything else, they determined he has ALS.
So yeah. Shit.
Since then we have been busy coming to terms with what that means, now and in the future. What future? Who knows. Could be years. Could be, well, not. So far his breathing, speech nd swallowing remain unaffected, an for that we are grateful. But in the just over 3 months since he was diagnosed he has gone from walking painfully to using a walker and now starting to rely on a wheelchair. His right leg is almost useless, and his left isn’t very cooperative either. His hands and arms are weaker, but we don’t know if that’s the disease or the result of overuse from gripping the walker.
Date nights are gone, replaced by home stretching sessions and the never-ending struggle to keep him comfortable. To that end, a lift-assist recliner, swivel tv tray with handle and sleep number adjustable bed are all entering the home in the next week.
Friends, family and coworkers have been phenomenally supportive. “How can I help?” is the phrase I hear mot these days (well, maybe “Donni can I get some help?” is uttered more frequently). From putting air in my tires to bringing meals, to moving things into the attic and running errands, people are amazing. Truly.
I mentioned earlier that I have been writing, just not here. We have a Caring Bridge site that we sue t keep folks updated (check it out here). It’s cathartic for me as well — although, as Singer Girl reminded me, it’s not a therapy session. So I tend to hold back on the feelings there. I will likely be less inhibited here.
But not every future blog post will be about being a CALS to my PALS (caretaker of one with ALS, and person with ALS. All the cool, exhausted people use acronyms). I hope to post tomorrow about our fabulous trip to Sicily to spend Christmas with Sailor Boy. Lots of photos, as usual, so I’ll get at least 3 blog posts about that.
Thanks for listening. I know it’s a downer, but life isn’t all vacations and fashion. Nowadays, I’m thrilled with any me time and clean sweats (is it wrong that I found my filling at the dentist this week a relaxing respite of me time?).