Author Archives: DonniT
On a trip, planning for my next trop!
Not Enough Candles
I know a lot of people don’t like birthdays, mainly because they don’t like to think about getting older. My comeback was always “it’s better than the alternative.”
Well, this year, I got older, while Rich did not.
And yes: we have (had?) the same birthday. April 14, two years apart. And, since we met in 1986, my first year of college, this year was the first year I didn’t have him as my birthday twin.
Our first shared birthday was humbling for me. In my family, birthdays were always a big deal. The birthday person was feted with presents, cake, and a dinner at a restaurant of their choosing (I pretty much always picked fancy places. I was into all the new stuff even as a teenager.). I had a party for my birthday every year until I arrived at college.
My parents and brother drove to see me at school, and I felt as special as I always did — until they dropped me off and headed back home. You see, I turned 19. But Rich was turning 21.
Let’s just say 21 trumps 19 in college, and I was basically unnoticed. I was most displeased, but tried to suck it up. Rich’s roommates had a plan: they took him around to every apartment in our off campus housing complex, knocking on the door and playing a sort of college trick or treat: they asked the resident of each apartment to “donate” a shot of something alcoholic. Since most of us were under age, pickings were slim, varied, and, ultimately, not pleasant. To make things worse, they refused to let Rich walk at all, carrying him from one boozy pit stop to the next.
Flash forward a few hours, when Rich is passed out in his bedroom. We had the smarts to keep an eye on him, and I volunteered for my shift of sitting with him, making sure he didn’t well, die in his sleep. For me this was more than a babysitting gig, though. It was my chance.
I had been dating someone else for several years at this point, but I was totally crushing on Rich. But of course I could never admit it! But, when he was fast asleep? I fessed up, letting him know that I was into him, and kissed him.
The next morning, we were all gathered in the dining commons, laughing about the night before. In the middle of breakfast, in strolls Rich, more chipper than the rest of us. In fact, he had just come back from a run. While he professed to feeling fine, he didn’t seem to remember everything about the night before, much to my relief, and so my secret was safe.
A few years later, when the other guy was out of my life and Rich and I finally got together, I revealed what I had done on his birthday. He grinned, and from then on always insisted “that mut have been why I slept so well.” I mean, we both new it was more likely demon alcohol, but the story became a part of our lore.
So, our first birthday together was our first kiss.
We shared a lot of special birthday celebrations over the years. On my 21st, he took me out at 1201am for my first legal drink (a vodka martini. A very poor choice). We celebrated in California before he moved to the midwest, graduating a year before me.
Over the years we celebrated in Ohio, back in California, in Minnesota, and back to Ohio, and back to Minnesota again.
For his 40th, I hosted a surprise party, which stressed him out completely, as I had invited both work colleagues and social friends. He remarked that he didn’t like seeing his worlds collide. It was fun though for folks to see different sides of him — the coworkers learning that his neighborhood buddies thought he was the life of the party. The neighborhood friends were shocked to know of Rich’s serious side. I delighted in his feigned discomfort.
For my 40th, he tried to surprise me with a trip to Vegas with our friends. It was the first of many for what would become known as the Unicorn Squad. I say he tried to surprise me because I actually figured it out in advance, but I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want to spoil his fun! He worked so hard — arranged child care, hotels, flights, dinners, shows. This time, I was the star (I even got to wear a crown!).
Because we had the same bday, I realized we could actually have a 100th birthday party the year I turned 49 and he became 51. We booked a venue, hired a caterer, and invited everyone. Frankie and her friends provided the music, and we danced and laughed and partied our butts off.
A few months later, on our anniversary, he handed me a card with a special message in it: we were going to Pars for my 50th. He knew I had always had a silly fantasy of dancing on the Champs Elysee on my birthday, and he wanted it to come true. He also knew that for me planning a trip was half the fun, so he decided he was better off letting me handle that. I agreed, but said he was in charge of planning our actual birthday celebration.
We did so much, and had such a magical time.
On our actual birthday, he booked us a table at one of the most famous restaurants in Paris, with a view of Notre Dame (I blogged about this trip. The one that talks about our actual birthday and dinner can be found here.)
Little did we know that the cathedral would catch fire a year and one day later. We watched it burn on tv, crying, holding hands. I thanked him so much for the trip, and for having the chance to be there with him.
That was 2019.
In 2020, we were in quarantine.
In 2021, we went to dinner at the restaurant that had replaced the one we went to when he handed me the Paris card. The next month, his leg went numb.
In 2022, our friend Erika brought us cakes, and he blew out the candles while laying in bed, surrounded my me, Erika and his brother Frank. He died 6 months and 8 days later.
People used to say they thought it was s cute that we had the same birthday. It’s so easy they said, you’ll never forget! Early on in the relationship Rich offered to let me have all the rest of the birthdays, as he knew I was sometimes sour about sharing the spotlight.
I’d give anything to share it now.
So this year was hard. I knew it would be, and I wasn’t wrong. The week leading up to the 14th was probably the hardest I’ve had since he died. I cried every day. But now it is over, and I survived. I made sure I did fun thigs, and spoiled myself a bit. Not sure what I will do next year. Maybe I will travel somewhere new, or maybe I’ll host a party. But whatever I do, I know that Rich will approve — as long as I get to be the star!
A Hui Hou Kakou
Thanks for all the kind comments about my last blog. I am touched that many of you were moved, and I appreciate your continued support.
My trip was not even halfway through after my whale watching and goodbye ceremony. The next morning I was picked up again by a shuttle bus, and headed to a beach for a snorkeling trip with Kai Kanani charters. Whenever Rich and I traveled to an ocean destination, we always snorkeled, and usually went scuba diving. I knew I wasn’t ready to solo scuba, but snorkeling? Piece of cake. Well, a day or so before I borrowed snorkeling equipment at the hotel and waded out into the ocean. Within minutes I found myself winded, and couldn’t quite settle my breathing. I could feel a little panic coming on, and clearly I did not want to have freak out all alone in the ocean. So I swam back to shore, and dejectedly returned my gear. As I trudged back to the safety of my pool chair, I worried: would I panic on the snorkeling trip? I knew intellectually I just had to regulate my breathing, and I practiced good old yoga breaths over and over, giving myself the only “support” I could.
So when I boarded that shuttle bus, my excitement was tempered. Luckily, I right away met two amazing women, Jodi and Kelsey. They were on a girls’ trip for a big birthday (I won’t tell which one, ladies!). We quickly realized that we had something in common: they lived in the Bay Area, not far from where I grew up. We chatted a bit, and hit it off, but I didn’t want to intrude. I wanted to hang with them, but I held back a bit so as not to seem pushy. We had to board the catamaran from shore, wading quickly through the surf to the boat. It was an exhilarating start, as the waves were a bit boisterous. But once we all scrambled up the ladder and settled in, the boat took off and we enjoyed a beautiful trip to Molokini crater, spying whales again as we went.
I sat next to Jodi and Kelsey, but again, I tried to give them space in case they didn’t need some sad sack old widowed woman harshing their mellow. They were having none of it. They included me in conversations, and, when it was tine to get in the water, they made it clear that I could swim with them.
I had confided that I was feeling a bit trepidatious about snorkeling. They confidently declared that I would be fine, but if I wasn’t, just to let them know. So, so kind.
As I climber down the ladder to the water, fixing my mask and fins, I had a matter of fact conversation with myself, and remembered my breathing rehearsals. I plunged in, and floated for a sec, before reflexively sticking out my right hand for Rich.
We aways held hands diving or snorkeling, making sure that neither missed a thing. But he wasn’t there this time. Regardless, I spoke to him, asking him to help me, and he did. I was instantly calmed, and whenever I felt tired or had a frisson of doubt, I just reached out that hand for him.
After Molokini, we headed over to snorkel with turtles, and then it was back to the beach (after a less than graceful departure from the catamaran and back through the swells. Quite a crowd watched as we disembarked, many with cameras at the ready. Somewhere out there is video footage of Jodi losing her suit in the process, lol). I parted ways with my new friends, but not before they invited me to join them and another friend at a luau the next night. Happily, I agreed.
But first it was back to the hotel to get glammed up for dinner. I took the delightful beach path yet again, this time to the Four Season’s where I had an amazing meal at Ferraro’s.
The next day I was lazy. I just felt like hanging in my hotel room, and I barely got out of bed, except to partake of the macarons and champagne left in my room on night one. To be fair I mixed the bubbles with my new fave juice, POG (passionfruit, oj and guava juices). Girl, this stuff takes your mimosa to a whole new level! I read a book, played on my computer, and just hung out for awhile, then finally got prettied up and headed back down my fave path to the luau at the Grand Wailea.
As much as I enjoyed all my alone time, it was awfully fun to share my table with some friendly faces! I’ve been to luaus before, and they are always fun.
The next day the ladies were hitting the same spa I had already enjoyed, and I had another very special adventure ahead of me.
As I have mentioned, I love doing research for trips. I want to know the best restaurants, can’t miss attractions, and special niche experiences not everyone knows about. My last full day in Maui was all about that.
I hopped in my car and drove north, where I met up with my guide. We were headed farther north, to Kapalua, for what was billed as a Spiritual Adventure. Along the way, we discussed my goals, and what led me to book this excursion. There is a stunning rocky outcropping at Kapalua known as the Dragons Teeth, and, at the top of the cliff, there is a labyrinth. This was a place to pause and process, and as one walked the labyrinth, to gain insight.
I had already let Rich go a little on this trip. Now, it was time to take a step forward for me.
I set my intention at the beginning of the path. On my way through the maze, I wanted to reflect on everything that had transpired since Rich first became ill. By the time I reached the center, I wanted to be ready to leave the ugly behind. I started crying almost instantly, and tears just fell as I wandered through. My guide kept her distance, just letting me be in myself. No other visitors approached until I was almost at the middle, and they all respected my grief. I paused in the center, hand to heart, and took a deep breath. I smiled, and cried, thinking of all I had lost and all the pain and fear and stress that had dominated the last 20 months or so. I exhaled, and stepped forward. As I traced my way back out, I tried to expel the bad of the past to make space for the good to come.
I silently left the labyrinth, and headed towards the jagged rocks ringing the bluff, and marveled at the power of the water to carve such stunning formations. Once again, the symbolism was not lost on me. I was tough, but the waves of grief and change were creating something new, and more beautiful. It will take a long time for me to figure out who the new me is, but I am working on it.
We left the bluff and headed to the beach. We rubbed our skin with a Kona coffee scrub and she guided me through some meditations. When we were ready, we plunged in to the sea for one last transformative moment — washing away yet another layer of the past year.
When we parted ways, I weirdly felt stronger, and more clear headed. The trip was fulfilling its purpose, and now I was ready for a little more fun before I had to go home the next day.
I headed up country in my little rental car, passing yet more stunning scenery on my way up to Ocean Organic Vodka Distillery. I don’t know what was better — the spirits we tasted, or the epic surroundings.
If I had had more time, I would have enjoyed lunch at this super cool venue, but I had a date with goats.
Just down the road was Surfing Goat Dairy, a working farm. I toured the place, met all sorts of fun and funky critters, and gave milking a try. I was not a natural (a suburban girl at heart, I’m afraid). Then it was tasting time (cheese, not the goats)!
Now it was time to head back to the hotel. For my last night in town, I was meeting my new friends again. We swapped stories of our every different days, and promised to keep in touch. They had a few more days, but I was headed home the next evening.
In the morning I packed, once again hit the fantastic breakfast buffet, then enjoyed some sun by the pool and walked along the beach, remembering all the things I had done and seen.
As I mentioned previously, this was more than a vacation. It was a renewal, and I did feel ready to take on my next phase, whatever that looked like.
On the ocean walk trail that I enjoyed every day, there had been scattered sacred spots. One such place had a sign that explained a Hawaiian funeral ritual. Of course this intrigued me, since my life had been so much about grief and loss lately. I liked the phrase they used during funereal rites — a phrase they still use in modern tongue: a hui hou kakou, which mean “until we meet again.”
A hui hou kakou, Maui.
A hui hou kakou, Rich.
Aloha Means Goodbye and Hello
Many years ago, I took my first solo trip.
Rich and I had broken up, and I was leaving Ohio to return back to California. I planned that trip with enthusiasm: I wanted to see the country, and refused to drive once the sun went down, as I didn’t want to miss anything. I wanted to see route 66, a corner in Winslow Arizona, Carhenge at the Cadillac Ranch, and Las Vegas. By the end of the trip, I declared “every year I will take a trip all by myself!”
Well, it took me 30 years, but I finally took another one.
In January I took what I called my “widow trip.” This was to be my first adventure without Rich, a journey of rest and relaxation, reflection and rejuvenation, renewal and resolution and refocus. I had been to Hawaii many times, but this was the first return trip to Maui since our honeymoon more than 28 years ago. I was determined to make the most of it. When you trave with others, you often skip things you want to do , as you balance each other’s choices. But as a solo traveler, I was determined to do what I wanted, when I wanted. And I did.
As I mentioned, Rich and I honeymooned on Maui. But I didn’t want to retrace our steps. While I planned to honor us, I also needed to make new memories. So my first choice was where to stay, and I chose the Wailea Beach Beach Resort. I had never spent time in this part of the island, so there were no memories there. My first full day I wandered along the beach walk (I did that daily, and would recommend it highly), and hung by the pool before an early dinner at the Lahaina Grill, reportedly the best restaurant in Maui. Dinner did not disappoint. In fact, I was a little leery before I arrived, as the website really didn’t lead with the best picture. But it was a beautiful restaurant, and the staff was as warm and welcoming as the food was delicious!
I mentioned an early dinner, and there was a reason for that (besides jet lag). At 230am the next morning, I boarded a shuttle to the top of Haleakala to watch the sunrise over the volcano.
The bus ride to the summit was pretty quiet, given the early hour, and uneventful because, well, it was dark. And at the top it was quite cold, so we were bundled up for our long wait. I think we were there a good 2 hours before there was a hint of sun, but it was okay because the night sky was stunning. This was an experience I had always asked others to try with me, but I was actually glad to be doing it alone. No need for chit chat: I could be alone with my thoughts. Granted, I was hardly alone on the volcano, as there were hundreds of folks up there…
… but I secured a spot on a rock with a clear view, and hunkered down.
Watching the horizon for glimmers of light was easy fodder for this symbolism-hungry former English major. It’s easy to see the story in this scene. The more I stared, the more I was sure I had seen some light, but then I wasn’t really sure if I had. Had I just been hoping for the sun? Or was it really coming? It reminded me so much of my current journey. I mean, I knew that of course the sun would come, and I would be warm and comforted by the colors and light. But sometimes, you doubt whether things will really get better. But as sure as the sun went down the night before, it rose that morning.
We headed back to the bus, tired and exhilarated. I know I was not the only one who whispered messages or prayers up on that volcano. In fact, the Hawaiians sang a song of prayer as the sun came up, You can hear an example of it here. It really was magical, and a reminder to the tourists that we were privileged to be there. The last bit of the journey that morning wasn’t spiritual, but it was fulfilling: breakfast! The folks at Valley Isle Excursions hooked us up: macadamia nut pancakes at the Maui Tropical Plantation!
I knew I’d be pretty wiped, so when I returned to the hotel I changed then headed back down the beach walk to the Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont. I spent several blissful hours there, followed by a cocktail at the bar. After wandering back down the magical beach path, I had an early dinner at the poolside bar back at the Marriott, then crashed, content with a day filled with nourishment for my body and soul. But this was just the beginning of my magical trip.
My next day was also destined to be memorable, for very different reasons. I started with whale watching, which is something every Hawaiian visitor should have on their bucket list,. January is prime whale season, as the mamas and babies are all over. I had already been blessed with sightings. The night before, while wandering around at sunset, I gleefully cried out when I saw one breach ff shore (breaching is when they do that awesome full body leap and crash out of the water). I laughed at myself and sheepishly glanced around, only to find that everyone else was either freaking the same way, or wistfully wishing they had seen it. I thought that would be my highlight, and I felt fulfilled. When I boarded the charter the next morning, I was cautiously optimistic, but figured if I even saw one or two I’d be sated.
When I boarded the boat at Ultimate Whale Watch and Snorkel, I met Captain Emma and First Mate Lexie. These dynamic women were part of a trend for this trip: strong, powerful women helping me realize my own strength. They filled us in on the plan, and told us to be patient. We did not need to be. It took very little time for us to come upon whales — but Emma kept saying “that’s not our whale.” No one knew quite what she meant, until we met Shania.
Shania Twain was playing on the radio when we spotted her all white fluke, so rare that Emma and Lexie were excited. You now you are experiencing something special when the “experts” are giddy. Shania flirted a bit, then breached! We were so tickled! She would roll and wave her fins, then dive down, then, she breached again!
Emma told us, as she picked her jaw up off the floor, that the human equivalent of a whale breach, in terms of caloric expenditure, is like running a marathon. So for a whale to do it that many times in succession was really wild. But it got wilder. We wondered if she would go for double digits. She did. Twice. By the time we had to go back to shore, she had breached about 24 times! She was so predictable, that we had time to even plan for “whalefies,” pics with her breaching in the background!
At one point I cried a little, just from the sheer beauty of it all.
I also was thinking about Rich, and how much he would have loved this. When we docked, I made sure I was the last to leave the boat, so I could thank Emma and Lexie. I told them about my widow trip, and that I was doing new things on my own to prove to myself that I could, and that I would be okay. I also told them about Rich, and how he had been a marathon runner, and that I thought of him with every breach. I swear he sent us that whale. He sent me Sania to tell me over and over that he knew I could do it. That I would be ok, and that he would send me whatever help I needed. We all wept a little at that, as hokey as it sounded.
But I walked away feeling so incredibly full of heart, ready to take on the rest of the day.
I wandered around a bit before heading off to find a place for lunch. I had something big on my schedule for the end of the day, an I needed sustenance — and a cocktail. I found a spot at the bar at Monkeypod, a well-known local chain.
After another walk about, I pointed my Turo rental north (first time trying Turo — great experience!). My destination was the Hyatt Regncy in Ka’anapali, where Rich and I stayed on our honeymoon. This was going to be challenging, I knew.
Walking into the lobby it all flooded back — the exhaustion and giddiness upon arrival, taking in the soaring indoor/outdoor lobby, and my eyes wandered upwards, trying to remember which room had been ours. I remember that lobby was were Rich would sneak down every morning to check for faxes from work (remember those, pre-cell phone?), and every morning I pretended I didn’t know. I wandered the grounds to try and find some of the places we had taken pictures, and even reenacted a few. I watched the penguins, the swans, and all the other birds. The hubbub around the pool seemed like it was happening in another world. I was in a grief bubble, for sure, and I knew it was going to be harder still.
I wandered down to the beach, and flashed back on watching him slowly swimming back and forth off shore. He loved doing that. He so loved the ocean. And since I wanted him to be forever in the places that brought us both joy, I had brought some of his ashes.
I found a remarkably empty little beach, and sat down. When I was cleaning out his things back home, I found shell necklaces that we received on our honeymoon, and I put those on. I wrapped myself in the sarong I somehow still had from that trip, and I cried. I remembered everything wonderful about that trip — even his inevitable sunburn when he refused sunscreen. I laughed a little, and smiled. I waded out into the water, and let him go. I could immediately feel some peace, knowing that at east a part of him would forever be in that beautiful place.
I dried my eyes and made my way back to my car. Windows down, music blasting, the Hawaiian wind drying my tears. And then, offshore, a whale breached.
Thank you, Rich. I love you.
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!