When I was asked by Shannon to talk about being a caregiver; I couldn’t have been more humbled and honored because I know her story and I know the high standard set by her husband being a caregiver during her journey. So on that note, I’m all too happy to share with you my experience and perspective on being a caregiver for my wife, Tracy Riazzi, or as I call her my beautiful smiling bride. The nickname is something that I always thought of in my heart from the beginning but it wasn’t until her diagnosis that I began using the nickname for her as another expression of love! Since I don’t really know where to begin, I’ll start with “Our Story” and let that lead us into “His Story”. Our story is told often to our friends new and old, and family and my beautiful smiling bride loves hearing me tell it; which is exactly why I’m including it here today. Back in 1991, I was a Washington DC Transit Police Officer, fresh outta the United States Marine Corps. My best friend and roommate was also a cop buddy, just outta the Marines and it just so happened that we both vacation time coming to us. My plan was simple. I was single and had another single buddy living in Ft. Lauderdale, Fl. It was the start of summer and like I said, I was single...so I was going to Fl to visit my buddy with the plan of most single young guys; I was gonna drink a lot of beer and meet girls on the beach, or at a club, or convenient store, or anywhere. So my buddy, who also was interested in my plan, couldn’t go to Florida. He has a big Italian family who originated in NY, but was living in NC. They were having a big celebration for his nephew’s graduation. Since NC was on my way to FL, I knew there’d be good food and good times to be had. So I accepted his invite to stay with his family for a day or two and join the celebration before making my way down to the sunshine state. And so our vacation began with a day’s drive from DC down to a little town called Boonville NC. The best way I can describe Boonville for those who have never been is just to say it's literally a 'one stop light' little town in the middle of a very, very 'heart of the south country' in the middle of NC. The folks there just aren’t used to seeing new people. Add to that, it was a “dry county” back then. I had never even heard of such, and if you haven’t either, it means alcohol wasn’t sold in the county. So part one of my master vacation plan to drink a lot of beer wasn’t gonna happen in Boonville. But I was still up for the second and best part of my vacation plan and that was to meet girls and Boonville was just as good as anywhere as far as I was concerned. So shortly after I got into town with my buddy, I met his sister who told me all about this beautiful girl she worked with who was recently separated and raising two sweet daughters. His sister had a great idea and wanted to set us up on a blind date of sorts. We’d meet and greet the next afternoon and if we both were interested, we’d go out later that evening. Now, if you’re old enough to remember, the late 80’s and early 90’s were all about the “Miami Vice” style; or at least everywhere else in the world other than Yadkin County, which is where Boonville calls home. But I didn’t know that because when we got in the night before, it was after dark and no one was out. So the next day, I got all slicked up..rocking my “Don Johnson-Miami Vice” look..and I was pretty confident about the start of this meet and greet with the potential for a date. I was feeling really good with my white pants, leather penny loafers with no socks, open collared pink shirt, gold chain and of course I was wearing a Kangol cap. As we made it to the center of town, reality hit as I realized I was clearly the only person in the entire town (and probably county) who saw the Miami Vice show and thought Don Johnson had a cool look. Blue Jeans, cowboy boots, cowboy hat and having a toothpick in your mouth was much more the style in this little (middle of nowhere) town. There I was, looking and feeling like I clearly was outta place. But there wasn’t much I could do since my luggage was only packed for the the beach and the Miami Vice look. I, like all good Marines, kept to the mission of the meet and greet. Although in the back of my mind, I was pretty sure once this beautiful local girl saw me dressed as I was, the date would be off for sure. After I got to her workplace, all I can say is it was love at first sight. She was beautiful, sweet, friendly, kind and most importantly at the time, not scared off by my lack of local style and flare. Immediately after I left, I went back to my buddy’s sister’s house and anxiously waited to hear from his sister if this beautiful girl was still interested in going out with me that night. Now remember, back then there weren’t cell phones, text messages, facebook, etc… so there was no instant response like there is nowadays. I just had to wait for his sister to get a call on the landline phone and what was probably 30 minutes or so, seemed like forever. I was really really interested in this southern country girl. As luck would have it, the phone finally rang. His sister gave me the good news...this beautiful girl was equally interested in me, still wanted to go out that night and get to know me more. We made arrangements. I picked her up and we headed off to the nearest dance club...in Wilkesboro NC. I was still rocking my Miami Vice look and still the only person there rocking the look.
Now, I had been on many dates in my life and been to many dance clubs but I might as well have been a martian as far as the locals were concerned. I wanted to get out of the night club, away from the loud music and noise and really spend some time getting to know this beautiful girl. So after about 20 minutes at the club, we headed off to a quiet spot that has become one of the most special places on earth for us visit. We went to “low water bridge” in the town of Rockford NC. It’s appropriately named low water bridge because it was a one lane bridge that was barely above the water's surface of the Yadkin River. I remember the night like it was yesterday. We sat on the banks of the river, under the moonlit sky, with the sound of the running water and just talked. That’s all we did was just talk, and the more we talked, the more I fell in love.
I knew right away that this girl was special and I had honestly never felt the way I was feeling about her. Eventually the sun came up and we were both exhausted but as we walked across the bridge to get to back my car, I made my “move” and nervously, wishfully asked her if it’d be ok to kiss her. And her response was “I’d be disappointed if you didn’t”. And that was it; we had our first kiss on that bridge and I knew right away she was the girl for me. I spent the rest of my week’s vacation right there in Boonville, NC and never made it to Ft. Lauderdale. I didn’t want to go anywhere... I just wanted to be wherever this beautiful girl was. I ended up spending the next year driving back and forth between DC and Boonville once a week. Even if I only got to spend one day with her and the “crew”, as I initially referred to her daughters who were only 8 and 5 yrs old at the time. It didn’t matter, as long as we were together.
As time went on, we racked up $400 a month phone bills because we had to pay long distance charges back then. I can remember talking on the phone until midnight, then hanging up and calling her back just because the long distance rates dropped after midnight. Some of you may remember those days! I eventually proposed and she accepted. So I packed up my stuff, packed away my Miami Vice clothes and moved on down to Winston Salem where I picked up a job with local law enforcement. We have spent the past 25+/- years building on our love and growing our family. We went on to have another daughter adding to the crew and now have 5 beautiful grand daughters. If you noticed, I said grand daughters. I’m not sure what’s in the water here, but it seems like only girls are born in our family.
If you’ve read this far, you’d probably think that sounds like a corny made up story, or at least embellished. But I assure you that it’s as real and true as my Kangol hat.
And as we’ve built our family, my love for my beautiful smiling bride and ever growing family has only grown. I often tell folks when I’m describing her that we all know and can remember first dates and how everyone puts on the best impression they can, but really they're not the person they present themselves to be. Honestly that’s not the case with my wife. She is the same, beautiful, kind, compassionate loving person I fell in love with on that bridge. I, on the other hand, and maybe to her disappointment, I was not Don Johnson. But I am a loving husband nonetheless. That’s the lead up to what this is really about, which is being a caregiver and how “Our Story” later became “His Story”...and actually it was “His Story” all along; we just didn’t understand it as we do now. As perfect as “Our Story” is, it was rocked in 2012 when my beautiful smiling bride was diagnosed with Stage 3c Ovarian Cancer. The news, as anyone knows, was devastating. And our world was forever changed. My beautiful smiling bride went from being the motherly caregiver to me, our kids and grandchildren, to being the patient and tackling the reality of our new and uncertain normal.
I remember what amazed me the most was her fearless faith and trust in God and His plan. She never got angry, or questioned “why me” or “why us”. Just one example of her faith is seen when she’s addressing a crowd on God’s Grace at Athena’s Run, which is an annual charity event for GYN cancer patients in the local area.
That’s not to say there weren’t many tears since her initial diagnosis. She’s had 5 recurrences, 104 chemo infusions, chemo port, pic lines, some surgeries, and hospitalizations. We even had to suffer the tragic loss of our oldest daughter just over a year ago to brain cancer. That’s something we’ll never get over on this earth! But all along the way, her faith has maintained and because of her faith, my faith, our family’s faith, and our friend’s faith have grown as we seek to glorify God in our actions, thoughts and words. Along with the tears of sadness and disappointment at times, there’s also been many tears and laughter filled with joy and happiness. We’ve been blessed to get many good medical reports along the way, met new friends and truly focus now on what’s really important in life...which is as simple as loving one another and showing it through actions; and that’s what being a caregiver really is to me- showing love for someone through actions. For caregivers new to the game-both believers and non believers, I would still offer that same advice. But I’d probably have to slip in a little scripture to back me up, 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NIV) "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” But hey, that’s just me! And being a caregiver doesn’t have to be to your spouse, it could be a family member or friend. It doesn’t even mean that you have to be a caregiver to someone going through cancer. We all have the need to be the patient and caregiver at times in life. But showing love through actions allows us to be the giver and receiver of such! When I first became her caregiver and she was adjusting to me cooking, cleaning, giving her meds, shots, flushing pic lines, going to chemo, fighting with insurance companies, etc...she was upset mostly because that’s what came naturally to her...taking care of others. But as I explained to her and she eventually understood (and even sometimes I think has gotten a little too used to, just kidding), when I’m doing those things, I’m not only honoring our vows, but I’m serving God. So to me, that’s what being a caregiver means- Serving God by loving each other through actions and trusting His Will even when it’s not our want at times. Our love for each other was and will always be there but our demonstration of love for God was missing from the perfect story of how we met and fell in love. That’s not to say we didn’t have faith or trust and love in God...we did...but it was more of a thing where He was in the back seat and along for the ride. Now He’s got the wheel (of course he had it all along) and we’re the ones along for the ride.
That’s why “Our Story” is really “His Story”.