Last night was a rough night. When I finally went to bed, I snuggled up to Donny and laid my head on his chest. I could hear his heart beating. I could feel his heart beating. It took me back six years. The evening of January 2nd. I sat next to Melissa as she lay sleeping in Hospice. I could physically see her heart pounding in her chest. I remember asking either John or the nurse why her heart was pounding so hard. It was because her heart was working overtime to get the blood to her extremities. It was only a few hours before she passed away. I had a flashback of her last breath. 5:18 a.m. I couldn't stop the tears or the sobs…how in the world could it be six years. It still seems like yesterday.
Anyway, I finally went to sleep. Around 4 a.m. I woke with a start. I don't know if Melissa was in my dreams, but she was definitely communicating again. It was about the blog. And about a Christmas letter.
I remember years ago at Christmas Melissa would love reading the Christmas newsletters we received. A lot of people used to write them. Not so much anymore. But she loved them. And she would laugh and say "we need to write one of these. Only ours needs to be just the opposite. Instead of how wonderful everything is, we need to write things like - we're unemployed, the kids quit school, are on drugs…etc etc." She thought that would be hilarious. I thought it would one more thing to add to my list of things to do. So it never happened.
What I remember last night is her saying "Mom. write the Christmas letter. And make it funny."
If you knew Melissa, you KNOW she loved her reality shows.
So, in honor of Melissa, since this is still HER blog, I am writing a Christmas newsletter. Reality style.
Dear Family and Friends,
This will not be your typical yearly Christmas newsletter. Because we've never done a Christmas newsletter. So I'm going to go back a few years (because I want Melissa to be a part of it too). A Christmas Past/Christmas Present letter.
I always LOVED Christmas. Everything about it. The lights. The music. The food. Specifically the cookies. Donny, Melissa and Nick loved Christmas too. The lights. The music. The food. The decorations. The presents. They loved that mom loved it. Because she made it happen.
In September, I made my TO DO list. (Melissa got that honestly. Her dad does it too). My to do list included a list of people of buy for - of course Donny and the kids, co-workers, my family, his family and Bandit (our dog). The shopping was divided by the paydays. Decorating began the weekend after Thanksgiving.
We always had an artificial tree, but at some point the kids decided they wanted a live tree. And I wanted a perfect Christmas. So we would pile into the minivan and head out to Country Pines to cut down a tree. The perfect tree. Which meant different things to each one of us. The amount of time we spent looking for the perfect tree was completely dependent on the weather. The temperature specifically. If it was 60 degrees, we took an hour. If it was 0 degrees, the first tree we saw was the perfect tree. Donny didn't really care what the tree looked like. He wanted to get home to watch the Bengals. Nick always carried the saw, so whatever tree he liked was the tree he was going to cut. Melissa liked the Charlie Brown trees, because she felt sorry for them. (I usually put a Charlie Brown tree out for her at the cemetery because I know she would love that). We always ended up with a little bit of everything. Nick got to cut the tree down (with Donny's help of course), the tree was never perfect - it always had a good side and a bad side, and I had my whole family together. It's all I ever wanted.
Donny will dispute this story. But it's true. And I'm writing this so I get to tell my version. I can't tell you exactly when this was, but it was the last time we got a live tree. We got a late start to Country Pines, and by the time we found the tree we wanted, it was getting close to kickoff time. We rushed home, Donny got the tree off the car and into the house. He really wanted to watch the game, and I really wanted the tree in the stand. After some begging and pleading and "All you have to do is put it in the stand. I'll put the lights on and decorate it" he got the tree ready. He had to saw some off the bottom of the trunk to make it level. Evidently, the trunk wasn't level, because the tree would not stand in the stand. He tried multiple times. Finally, he picked up the tree and THREW IT OUT THE FRONT door. Now he denies this. But it's true. After the game, he finally got the tree in the stand. And that, folks, was the last time we got a live tree.
Like I said, my family loved Christmas. I just don't think they had any idea how it all happened. All they knew was on Christmas morning, there were lots of presents (all wrapped) under the tree, there was always a big Christmas breakfast. There were lots of decorations, lots of Christmas cookies. I think maybe they believed that we had elves that did all of this.
Needless to say, I was a little overwhelmed. Shopping, cooking, baking, wrapping. Smiling. Working. Cleaning to get ready for the Fortener family Christmas-which they all loved. Lots of people, lots of craziness. And to them, lots of fun.
After several years of this-and I KNOW they knew I was stressed. My yelling probably was a clue. One year I finally talked to my doctor and got on antidepressants. I remember that Christmas Melissa said "Mom. Why aren't you yelling this year?????" then "OHHHHH…you're on drugs, aren't you?" Always the comedian, that Melissa.
I love that I can laugh about that know. Some of my favorite memories.
And some of my other favorite Christmas memories…getting ready to go to church on Christmas Eve, getting the kids in the car and they were ALWAYS fighting. Bickering. Arguing about something. Anything. And I would say "PLEASE. Just today. Can we all be nice????" And on the way home from Grandma and Grandpa Rado's house on Christmas Eve, we would look out the window as we were driving on 75 past downtown Dayton and say "Look! Rudolph is on top of that building" (the red tower lights…although, maybe it WAS Rudolph)…"You need to get to bed as soon as we get home or Santa won't stop at our house. You have to be asleep" It worked every time.
I would give anything for those Christmases again.
Christmases PAST were hurried and busy and overwhelming. But I loved Christmas anyway.
And then Christmas of 2008. Our last Christmas with Melissa. (I'm going to sound like Grinch here) I realized that Christmas wasn't all about the presents and the food and the decorations.
We were able to put up the Christmas tree the weekend after Thanksgiving that year when Melissa was in the hospital because John was with her all weekend. But I didn't have time to shop, bake, or do all the things that I was always rushing to do at Christmas. I was with Melissa at the hospital 24/7, unless John could be there when he could get off work and on the weekends.
When she finally got to come home from Hospice, she came to our house because we were closer to Hospice than her and John's home in Cincinnati. We had a decorated tree up. That was it. No presents yet, no cookies. But we were all home together.
We had lots of Angels that Christmas. Lots of her friends came over to visit. Our Fairmont friends all took turns bringing us dinner. It was love like you've never seen.
And knowing that it was more than likely going to be Melissa's last Christmas, I wanted it to be as normal as possible. She did too. A few days before Christmas, she told us she wanted to go shopping. She had some presents to buy. So on the coldest day of the year, we got her-and her oxygen-into the van to go to her favorite store - "TarZay" as she called it. She was in a wheelchair with a big oxygen tank on the back of the chair and we had her wrapped in a blanket. When we got into the store, I was pushing her in the wheelchair. She told me to get away. (she didn't want me to see what she was getting us). She wheeled herself around that store, with John following with a cart. This was about 10 days before she passed away. It was inspiring. And kind of frustrating for me.
As usual, she couldn't wait until Christmas morning for us to open our gift. Late on Christmas Eve, she wanted me to open our gift. It was a new monitor for our computer. She didn't like the one we had, and this would benefit HER too…she used our computer a lot to write on the blog. She laughed about that too - buying us gifts that would benefit her. I loved it. We still have it.
She bought Andrew the Fisher Price stacking rings. We still have that here too.
And my shopping trip? For the first time ever we didn't have a mound of gifts under the tree. But I needed to have something for everyone. So a couple of nights before Christmas I went to Kohls. No carts were available, so I took one of those shopping bags that they have. I was able to find a few things for everybody. I hated spending time away from Melissa, especially knowing that our time together was limited, so when I got to the checkout and there was a line of about 50 people, I knew I couldn't wait in that line. I just stood there and cried. That's when the next Angel appeared. His name is Mike Schmidt (he's the brother of a good friend of mine, and Nick played on his softball team). He was with his (then) wife, and he asked me what was wrong. He knew about Melissa. I asked him if he was going to wait in that line. I told him that I needed to get home to Melissa and the bag that I was holding had all of our Christmas gifts in it. I asked if he would buy the gifts and bring them to our house (and I would pay him when he got there). His (then) wife said "how are we going to do this, we can't do this…" and Mike said "I'll take care of it Pam". And an hour later he was knocking at our door with the gifts. I was able to wrap them that night and we had presents under the tree on Christmas morning.
Another angel appeared that week…Josh stopped by with some cash for Melissa and John (his, Brent and Doug's Christmas gift from their staff). They were so touched by this gift…I'm sure it helped with their medical bills.
Now I will tell you too that it was very difficult shopping for Melissa. What do you get for someone who is dying? Nick and Mere bought her a movie that she loved. I bought her a sweater. The sweater she wore when we buried her. When she opened it, she said "I HEART this!"
That Christmas Eve it was just Donny, me, Melissa, John, Nick, Mere and Andrew. Nick and Mere also wrote out on a piece of paper "Mere is pregnant", then cut it up like a puzzle for Melissa to put together. She got M-E-R together and she said "is Meredith pregnant?" So she knew about Max too.
Christmas Day, Donny's brother Mike had Christmas for the first time since we couldn't. She wanted to go there too. So we did. Her Christmas was complete.
And she said "This is my best Christmas EVER".
Do I still love Christmas? Not so much. As each day passes, I tend to remember what we did each day that last year. Our best Christmas ever.
But what I DO love about Christmas is the joy that it brings my grandsons. All kids for that matter. I still love the magic that is Christmas too. When my kids were little, it was just "Santa is always watching. " We actually had Santa call a few times.
Now, it's the Elf on the Shelf. It amazes me that my grandkids are in awe of this elf. "Pamma, come in here and see where our elf is today!" And I see people posting things like the elf getting into flour, or pooping hershey kisses onto cookies…and they BELIEVE that.
Each year (in the last six years) I do a little more. The first year, I couldn't get the tree out, the stockings, and the just opening the box of ornaments…I just couldn't do it. I bought a new small pre-lit tree. New stockings.
Two years ago, I sent Christmas cards for the first time (in four years). I put up a few more lights and bought some Christmas cookies. My sister Sue went with me to the Webster Street Market. We bought cookies there. She loved cookies too. I gave her some for Christmas. She spent Christmas with us at Nick & Mere's because Matthew (her son) wasn't home yet. He was moving back from Pittsburg to live in Dayton. She was so happy. A week later she died.
Two steps forward. Three steps back.
So here we are. We are still here. I guess that's a good sign.
Nick and Mere are happy in their new house. They are both working (because these days you have to have two incomes) and her mom helps out with the kids two days a week and I get them two days a week (after school).
GOD BLESS them…they are having the Fortener family Christmas. We took it over several years ago. Nick and Mere have a little more room, so they volunteered to have it! This family isn't getting any smaller! Just in the last month there were three additions to the Fortener family (Donny's brother's and sisters) - a great nephew Noah, and twins Smyth (boy) and Parker (girl)…and one more on the way-another girl.
Andrew is in first grade. I get him off the bus two days a week. Every single time he has gotten off the bus he says "I had a great day today Pamma." When my kids (and grandkids) are happy, I'M HAPPY. Funny story about Andrew. When I was there yesterday, he said was going out to the backyard. It was cold. He had his coat on. And he says "Pamma, can I pee out here?" UMM. NO. The bathroom is closer than the back yard. Go there. (it's my fault…I let the pee in my backyard in the summer. Now they think it's ok anywhere!) Andrew LOVES Legos and Minecraft. He's going to be our builder/Engineer/designer. When he is explaining Minecraft to me it's just like Melissa explaining Rugby to me. I don't get it. (Ok - rugby friends, this is what I understand- a score is a try. the field is called a pitch. the game is a match. I think there are 11 players? Unless you are playing 7s. Then there are 7. A scrum is in rugby. Not football. There is no equipment in rugby. Except tape for your ears. Or a kind of leather helmet. ) I don't understand ANYTHING about Minecraft. I just know that it's like building on a tablet.
Max is in an early 5s program. He loves puzzles. It's actually the one thing that he sits still for. He always has a ball in his hands. Always throwing things in the air and catching them. He loves sports. He loves to pass a ball. All the time. We took him to the Fairmont/Springboro basketball games the other night. (they go to Springboro schools-the Panthers). The girls played first. He agreed to cheer for Fairmont because it's Lindsay's team. But he was cheering for the Panthers in the boys game. Then he asked "Pamma, why don't you like the Panthers?" Someday he'll understand rivalry's and competitiveness. It stays with you forever.
Donny's mom- Rozella - is like a spring chicken. She never stops. Had a hip replacement this year -with a little setback and cataract surgery in both eyes. She still managed to get to some of her grandsons football games (he played for Southeast Louisiana State). She never misses a family function and is always the first person there.
And speaking of Ryan, I KNOW Melissa would give him a shout out - and this is on FB so I know it's public. He signed with an agent yesterday. He's a field goal kicker and several teams are looking at him. He has plans in place if this doesn't pan out, but it's an opportunity he doesn't' want to overlook! We're so excited for him!
Donny and I have had a few health issues, but hanging on. We did a lot of traveling this year - seems like a lot more when we write it down -Chicago for the Compassionate Friends Conference, Ft. Lauderdale, then a cruise to Grand Turk Island, Dominican Republic, Curacao, Aruba. Donny had a conference in California for a week in Anaheim. Visited his friend and my cousin and his wife, Doug and Peggy. Went to San Diego then to Burbank to the Ellen Show.
Back home for a weekend at Hocking Hills with our Portsmouth (cruising) friends Mange and Mary.
Then to Memphis and New Orleans to see Ryan's last home game.
No wonder I'm sick. I need to stop traveling. For now.
We don't have a lot of plans for the winter other than basketball. Still follow the Firebirds (sadly, cousin Lindsay tore her ACL-it's her senior year. She's still hoping to get a few games in if they can fit her with a brace). Also following Notre Dame Women (Kathryn Westbeld-former Firebird) is playing and Ohio State (Makayla Waterman - 3 time B Positive Spirit award winner at Fairmont)plays for the Buckeyes. Sitting out this year due to an injury and PITT (Chelsea Welch, former Firebird, plays).
That's what gets us through the rough spots in the winter. It was the first thing we did after Melissa passed away…went to a Fairmont girls basketball game. Cassie Sant played - she wore #44. Melissa's number. Then went on to play for UD. Followed her there too. Now she's playing in Italy.
I also traveled to Florida multiple times this summer - to be with my dad. He's doing better now. With a little help from Home Instead every morning. I begged and pleaded with him to come home for Christmas, but the winters are too hard on him. So he's staying there for the holidays. I wish he could be here with us. My family just keeps getting smaller.
So that's it…we're keeping busy and we're still here.
Melissa made this as a thank you for someone…can't remember who. But I think it is so appropriate for Christmastime. So many people brought sunshine…and hope... to our lives. May it return to you one hundred fold.
(or Happy Holidays, whatever you are celebrating)
From our house - to yours.