Nitro’s Check Mark

I took my teenage niece, nephew, and their friend to Six Flags Great Adventure yesterday (August 10, 2018). My husband and I have given Niece and Nephew season passes to Six Flags Great Adventure for Christmas every year since 2015.

What I love most about our gift is that I also get a season pass, which allows me to spend time with them at the park several times a year. Each visit is special to me because it’s our thing, and it’s a great way to help provide a break for my sister-in-law and brother-in-law. If I had a nickel for how many times we laughed together or for each memory we made or silly story we told, I’d be a millionaire by now.

Nephew knows more about Six Flags rides and parks than anyone I’ve ever met. He can tell you when a ride made its park debut, who built it, who designed it, and what park received the ride it might have replaced. He understands the physics and design elements that goes into building a ride and if you ask him what park in the United States had the first looping roller coaster, he will know the answer.

When it comes to actually going on the rides, Niece is fearless and she will go on anything.  Meanwhile, Nephew and I have a similar sense of moderate adventure and we tend to stick to the middle-of-the-road rides and coasters, then when we are ready, we’ll attempt riding a more extreme one.

Our favorite ride is Skull Mountain, which is a fun, little inside coaster that operates in the dark. Two summers ago, Nephew and I set a personal record for going on Skull Mountain 22 times in a row, which took a little over two hours. We only stayed on the ride when the ride queue was empty five times; the rest of the time we got out and walked around. It probably wasn’t my best decision, in hindsight, since I flew to Dublin the following day with a splitting headache.

Our last ride conquests were Superman: Ultimate Flight and Green Lantern at the end of last summer. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the Superman experience, considering riders are face down to simulate Superman’s flight. We conquered Bizarro in April of 2017. Man, that one is fast! It’s like the Batman coaster after it had three energy drinks and a shot of super-charged espresso. Batman: The Ride has always been one of my favorites, and we conquered that one together in 2015 at Six Flags Great Adventure’s Holidays in the Park.

The coasters Nephew and I haven’t found the courage to ride yet are notoriously extreme, and we weren’t sure which coaster we’d be brave enough to conquer this year.

Enter Nitro.

Nitro, from the Six Flags Great Adventure website

When Nitro opened in 2001, it was the tallest and fastest roller coaster in New Jersey (Kingda Ka stole those honors from Nitro a few years later). While Nitro does not have any inversions, it is 230 feet high at its peak (which takes almost 60 seconds to climb) and reaches speeds up to 80 miles per hour in its two minute, twenty second mile-long course.

I went on Nitro once while chaperoning a school trip in 2005, thinking it would be like either Rolling Thunder and Scream Machine, two classic, now long-gone, coasters I loved.

I was completely wrong.

Nitro nearly killed me.

Well, maybe not killed, but the experience scared me tremendously.

I ended up uncontrollably shaking and trembling when I walked off the ride, my legs like jelly and my arm muscles sore for several days later due to how much I strained them as I held onto the restraint as tight as I could.

I vowed I was forever done with the infernal contraption known as Nitro.

I shared my Nitro story with Nephew on several occasions, including yesterday when we safely sat and waited for Niece and Friend to return from Friend’s first time riding the steel beast.

Nephew is older now, and I could see the curiosity twinkling in his eye as he told me what he knew about Nitro while he watched a car roaring along its track. “It was designed by B and M,” he said, “and they have a great safety record.”

There was no doubt about it. He was ready to take the Nitro leap and I wasn’t about to let my fear hold him back.

Niece and Friend returned rather quickly since the wait time was a few minutes at best, and Friend absolutely loved the Nitro experience.

Nephew said that if Friend could do it, he could too.

All three looked at me with pleading eyes but I stubbornly shook my head. “You guys have a great time!” I said as I bid them farewell, then I walked over to where people on the ground could see Nitro’s ride cars leave the loading area. Nephew was safely seated between Niece and Friend as their car passed by, their arms flailing in enthusiastic waves.

“Bye!” they yelled in unison.

They returned 140 seconds later with Nephew wearing the widest smile I’ve ever seen on his face. He gave me a thumbs up from up on high as he jubilantly shrieked, “It was awesome!”

Dammit.

I knew what I had to do.

A minute later, they surrounded me as they jumped around in sheer excitement and joy. A chorus of “please?”s rose up.  Nephew looked me right in my eyes and said, “You can do it. I did it, and so can you.”

I remembered a story told by a colleague who was in a similar situation. Her grandson wanted her to go on a thrill ride with him, and her outlook was, “I can do anything for two minutes.”

Realizing that I could too, I sighed then nodded my head as I said, “Okay.”

A whoop emanated from all three as Niece took my hand to lead me to certain death.

“You’re lucky I love you,” I grumbled as we walked through the air gate to the seats in Row 4.

My pulse raced as I sat down between Niece and Nephew, with Friend to Nephew’s left. The yellow restraints locked and were subsequently checked by the ride attendants. It’s a good thing mine was secure because at the last second, I cried, “I don’t want to do this!” and I honestly would have ran if I could.

However, it was zero hour and flight was not an option.

After the “visual scan” and “all clear” over the loudspeaker by what I was sure was the Grim Reaper disguised as Nitro’s head supervisor, our car was set free.

Nitro, from the Six Flags Great Adventure website

I closed my eyes and leaned my head as far back into my seat as possible. With each upward click, I squeezed Niece’s hand a little tighter. She, along with Nephew and Friend, found my reaction highly amusing. I think they were all laughing, but I can’t exactly remember because I was concentrating so hard on praying for redemption.

“Here we go, Aunt Jill!” Niece shouted as we reached Nitro’s summit.

This is it.

I. Am. Going. To. Die.

Within seconds, we were traveling down the 215-feet drop at the advertised eighty miles-per-hour.  I’m pretty sure my heart rate matched the number of expletives I let fly.

“I’m going to die! My eyes are closed! My eyes are open! No, they’re not! I’m going to die!”

Towards the end of the journey to my undeniable demise, Niece yelled, “Bunny hops!!”

I opened my eyes to see the blue and yellow hilly path we were on as we smoothly rode over each bump. It was surprisingly much smoother than the Runaway Mine Train bunny hops at the end of its path, that was for sure.

“Hold on!”

The car suddenly came to a halting stop.

And I was alive.

Sure, my legs were once again like jelly as we walked off the ride, and I felt a surge of electricity pulsing through my entire body.

But it was a good energy, and I did not die.

The sleek, wicked-fast roller coaster was one of the smoothest rides I’ve ever experienced, and the sensation of weightlessness was exhilarating.

I looked at Nephew, who threw his arms around me and exclaimed, “I’m so proud of you!” Niece and friend hugged me too. “You did it, Aunt Jill!”

Somewhere along the ride route, a remote camera snaps a photograph which is then displayed for about a minute or so on the monitors at the Nitro photo kiosk near the ride’s exit. The picture of our row featured three gleeful faces with arms up in the air and one red face screaming for mercy as she gripped onto the restraint for dear life.

We didn’t buy the photograph, but I’ll be able to picture it perfectly in my mind’s eye for the rest of my life.

The unspoken question hovered in the air around us as we regrouped outside the ride.

It was answered by all four of us walking together once again through Nitro’s entrance.

Three minutes later, a photograph with four delighted smiles in our row flashed upon the photo kiosk’s screen.

2018 Roller Coaster: Nitro. Check mark achieved.

 

Nitro’s Check Mark“: Copyright 2018 – Jill Ocone. This post originally appeared on both the Soulseaker blog (www.soulseaker.com) and the personal blog of Jill Ocone (www.jillocone.com) on August 11, 2018. Views and opinions contained in this post are solely those of the author, who was not compensated in any way by any entity, including Six Flags Great Adventure, the Six Flags corporation, or their affiliates. All rights reserved.

Back to the Drawing Board

July 5, 2018

Dear friends,

After a long period of soul-searching, reflection, and tears, I have decided that Chapter One-A Novel needs a major overhaul. As such, my manuscript is currently in revision and will not be available. Should you have received a copy, please delete/destroy it as all versions that existed prior to July 5, 2018 will no longer be correct. I am also withdrawing all queries and submissions effective today.

I had to make a choice: either give up and walk away, or to coin a phrase from my childhood, I needed a”do over.”

I chose a “do over” because I am not a quitter. I will not give in to the rejection-dejection demons who have been chattering in my brain as I’ve invested too much to walk away. Kelly’s story deserves to be told, and I accept the challenge of making it more dimensional and interesting while simultaneously making it less personal.

I will announce when the new and improved Chapter One-A Novel is available to peruse.

My eternal gratitude for your understanding and continued support.

Thank you,

Jill Ocone

Note: this post also appears on jillocone.com. 

A Manifesto for 2018

We are once again standing on the cusp of a new year.

It’s a time every year when my failures each ring their own bell and demand my attention. “Look at me,” they each scream. “Look at me! Don’t forget the detour I created! You suck and are teeming with regret at the sight of me!”

Frigging bastards.

When looking ahead to a new calendar, I’ve tended to play the victim and blame my failures and shortcomings on my self-perceived inadequacies, half of which are undoubtedly formed by unrealistic societal expectations.

I’ve also blamed time: there’s not enough, or there’s too much.

Either way, I’m continually thrown off the path that I believed would lead me to attaining my goals, yet while I paved it with good intentions, I also paved it with excuses chock full of my own bullshit.

The cycle of getting nowhere very quickly happens every year because I allow it to.

That stops now.

There’s no resolutions for me this year.

No, sir.

Instead, my goal from today forward is to live the hell out of every minute of this extraordinary life and truly cherish the miracle that is the present moment.

Whether I am writing, swimming, driving, exploring, laughing with family and friends, teaching…whatever I am doing, I will give myself fully to that miraculous moment.

The fact that I’m sitting here all snug and warm, with a cup of hot coffee to my left and quiet music playing as snowflakes delicately dance down from the clouds to the ground…there’s so tiny miracles right here in this present moment, miracles that I always took for granted or overlooked.

What matters, I mean what truly matters, is this moment.

I am alive.

And so are you.

This is a time of rebirth, a time to take those lessons from past failures and regret, be thankful for them, and apply their wisdom while moving forward.

No more bowing down to society’s expectations or to feeding the trolls of self-deprecation. I am not inadequate and I do matter, if only to myself.

It’s time to live the hell out of this one and precious life I’ve been given, because I am not promised a tomorrow. Wasting time is no longer an option, either.

I will live with those who are alongside me in real life and for those who are alongside me in spirit.

I will be a beacon of kindness and empathy as I look to stand alongside my fellow humans with understanding and compassion.

I will be grateful for everything I experience and for everyone I interact with.

Most importantly, I will embrace and celebrate the moments extraordinary that fill my days with joy and with purpose as I pursue my passions with conviction.

Let’s do this, 2018!

With gratitude and joy,

Jill

Note: This was also posted on jillocone.com. 

Runnin’ Down A Dream…

It was two months ago today that my feet touched ground in Dublin for the third time.

It feels like a hazy illusion and so long ago that I almost question whether or not it really happened.

Since returning, life has thrown continuous curve balls at me, and many more have hit me than I’ve hit. I’m zero for 1278 and counting.

Teaching has become a tornadic whirlwind this school year, and twice now fighting whatever two-week long -itis that’s set up shop here at the Jersey Shore combined with some Lupus-related health issues and the change of the seasons has left me completely spent.

At the end of every school day, I seriously feel like I just came up for air after almost drowning. There’s nothing surrounding me but a thousand papers all over the place, and as I look around my classroom figuring out how to hell make sense of the day that just passed, I feel like Patrick Star. Nothing computes, nothing registers, and even when I write things down, it’s a struggle to even remember to look at that list during the school day because it’s GO GO GO GO GO with no down time. I’m often left so spent that I need to isolate myself in my car and listen to nothing but silence for a while before heading home. Once I am home, I physically and mentally crash, then I wake up the following day in a panicked frenzy over what I wasn’t able to complete and how the hell I’m going to prepare for my class that begins in less than two hours.

That cycle repeats every single day.

I am professionally and personally going nowhere fast because I am simply sinking like I’ve got cinder blocks tied to my feet.

And damn, my bones hurt, and I am exhausted.

Add the lack of empathy and compassion in our awful state of affairs as a society and that I constantly receive news alerts about someone calling someone else a moron or about a sicko killing fellow humans for no reason whatsoever…that’s the proverbial knife twisting further and deeper into my heart.

As a result of this whirlwind, my life and my words have been forced to take a back seat to chaos and disheartened disillusionment.

That stops now.

I’m waving my white flag of reality and surrendering to the fact that there’s no way I will ever be able to complete every single one of my professional responsibilities as an educator this year.

I accept it.

The list is far too long, and there are only so many hours in a day. The bold truth is that if I cannot meet all of my expectations, so be it. If something is left undone, it is not because I’ve intentionally refused to do it or that I’m irresponsible, it’s because time has run out. At the end of the day, I know in my heart that I’ve done my absolute best.

It’s almost immediate…I honestly feel a little relieved right now, but I’m not stopping there…

The people who make my heart happy and my words will be my two most important priorities moving forward, no matter what.

There’s a lot of memories to be made with the people I love, and I can no longer afford to put paper before these people. Life is too short, and I refuse to miss out on spending time laughing and playing with those who fill my heart and soul with joy.

As for my words, I have a dream that has been pushed aside and left stagnant for far too long now. That dream matters to me. It’s a part of my heart, my soul, and my entire being. It’s led me to understanding, to locations literal and symbolic, to old and new friendships, to inspiration and healing, and to finding myself. It’s something I must pursue and nurture. I must move forward and make progress, now, before it’s too late.

In the immortal words of Tom Petty, one of my favorite musicians,

“…There’s something good

waitin’ down this road,

I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine.

Yeah, runnin’ down a dream

that never would come to me,

workin’ on a mystery,

goin’ wherever it leads,

runnin’ down a dream…”

It’s wake up time. It’s time to move on. I am runnin’ down my dream and I won’t back down.

It will happen,

No

Matter

What.

Post Script 1: I cried when I heard that Tom Petty died. I’m grateful for the memory of seeing him perform in one of the best concerts I ever attended, and for the gift of his music that provided much of the soundtrack of my life, most importantly the songs that got me through a particularly difficult time. Thank you, Tom Petty.

Post Script 2: I just did something that’s very difficult for a journalism educator. I’ve disabled all of my news alerts on my phone because my peace of mind is more valuable to me than “being in the know.”

Growing Pains

Last week, I watched Inside Out for probably the tenth time. I’ll be honest and admit that I am 46 years old, yet I tear up at a few of the scenes in the film. Spoiler alert here…if you plan on seeing the movie someday and don’t want to know anything about the plot, I’d suggest you stop reading here and move along…

OK, since you’re still reading, I’ve either peaked your interest, you’ve already seen the movie, or you didn’t pay attention…if that’s the case, SNAP OUT OF IT BEFORE I RUIN THE FILM FOR YOU! 😊

Anyway, especially at the end of Inside Out, when Joy realizes she needs Sadness…man, I’m a blubbering idiot watching Riley cry because she’s been trying to put a positive face on for her parents but is really sad about moving. It’s in that moment that Joy realizes that her favorite core memory from Riley’s life is also Sadness’ but for different reasons. Joy and Sadness need each other to work, as do Anger, Disgust, and Fear.

There’s another part in Inside Out that absolutely kills me. It’s when Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend from her childhood, and Joy are trying to escape the “memory” dump to get back to Sadness and the control center. They sing the ‘Bing Bong’ song to power his rocket:

Who’s your friend who likes to play?

Bing Bong, Bing Bong

His rocket makes you yell “Hooray!”

Bing Bong, Bing Bong

Who’s the best in every way, and wants to sing this song to say

Bing Bong, Bing Bong!

Bing Bong realizes they are too heavy to make it to the top of the cavern, and on the last attempt, he jumps off and Joy soars forward in the rocket. Joy looks back as she clears the dump, and Bing Bong waves as he slowly disappears, which symbolizes Riley maturing to a point where she’ll forget her childhood imaginary friend.

Cue the crying. Holy crap, I’m a mess.

I remember that time in my life, teetering between childhood and young personhood but not quite ready to leap forward, with one particular memory crystal clear in my mind’s eye. I was swinging on the swing set in my back yard, somewhere around 9 or 10 years old, and I knew I wasn’t a kid anymore but I didn’t want to grow up just yet. I cried so hard in that moment, and even though it was so long ago, it feels like it was yesterday.

Without children of my own, it’s harder for me to relate to such a lesson as a parent. I imagine the parents reading this can recall not only a similar moment in their own lives when they were faced with having to forge ahead into young personhood from childhood, but the moments when their children made that leap as well.

I did, however, experience a small episode of a disappearing Bing Bong last week. While at the boardwalk with my two nephews, the six-year-old H wanted to go on the ride with the boats. As he walked up to hand his ticket card, the ride attendant pointed at the sign indicating the maximum height of riders, and H was a smidge too tall to go on the ride. This was the first time he was too big for any of the rides. He looked at me with a quivering lip and tear-filled eyes, then ran over to me and hugged me tight as he let those tears out. And I let him cry it out while I held him tight, crying inside myself but trying to keep a strong exterior so that I didn’t further upset him or his brother. Within a minute, he regrouped and we moved on to ride the balloon Ferris wheel ride, where all three of us were the acceptable height.

This two-minute long experience made me realize that it’s got to be so much harder for parents watching their own children cross that threshold from childhood to young personhood. My sympathies are truly with you.

Watching Bing Bong dissolve a day later brought that look of sadness on H’s face flooding back to memory. I cried a little harder at this part in the movie this time because I thought of H and how his own personal Bing Bong was a tad less clear than it had been earlier in the month.

That’s the sucky part about maturing and growing up. Life has its stages and it’s all part of our plan, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier. H is growing up, as we all do, and it’s not easy. What I can do for H is to be there ready with hugs and understanding whenever he needs me. That goes for all of my nieces and nephews.

I get it.

Yesterday, I took my very own pinwheel out of my shed and let it blow in the breeze. Then I bounced my purple ball on the sidewalk a few times. I blew some bubbles into the air and spun around. I hugged my Mickey Mouse, Pusheen cat, Boba Fett, dinosaur, and tiger stuffed toys, then stacked a few of my Tsum Tsum figures in new formations.

Earlier today, I received a text from my sister-in-law with a picture of a rare, new Tsum Tsum figure the boys got in a blind bag. They were both excited to show it to me.

And I was even more excited to know they finally got their three peas in a pod.

My own, personal Bing Bong is as clear and as bright and as alive as he ever was.

Saying YES to LIFE this Summer

Summer 2017, Day 25: July 15

It’s summertime, and the living is fine, for sure. Morning walks along the boardwalk and the beach, sitting in the shade and writing, watching the hundreds of birds at the feeders, enjoying an ice cream cone or a treat from the ice cream man, lunches and dinners with friends, picking green beans from the garden, wandering downtown, fishing with my husband, laughing with my nieces and nephews…life has been simply beautiful. It helps that I’m feeling extraordinarily better than last year at this time. I am once again an active participant in life with an awareness of my limits. I’m doing my best to savor each of my experiences and celebrate the ordinary moments in my days. Feeling better physically has led to a more positive mental and emotional outlook as well, and I can’t remember a time when I ever felt this content.

I said yes to an opportunity on a Facebook status months ago, and it turned out to be a fantastic time with friends and classmates as we saw the Violent Femmes in Asbury Park. Random, spontaneous fun for sure as the gents of the Femmes rocked the house. What a great time with even greater people!

But isn’t that the point of life? Shouldn’t we be doing all we can to enjoy every moment of our time here on Earth?

Yes. Definitely YES. And I will be saying YES to life from this point on.

In other news, my novel is taking shape. I can see the storyline now, and what helped me get to this point was creating two large plot boards. I color coded events, themes, and symbols and arranged them in the order I want to include them on large, styrofoam-type poster board. It’s easier for me to look at it all at once, versus paging through a notebook to find the right note. Now everything is right there in front of me. The novel is going to be in three parts, and I’m almost done with Part One. My goal is to finish Part Two before I go to Dublin in the middle of August, then write most of Part Three after I return because that part takes place in Dublin. While there, I plan to visit some locations and look through the eyes of the main character so I can accurately write about it. I’ve been writing every day and am plugging along as I tell the story of Kelly Lynch and how her friend, Shannon, led her to her true purpose in life.

I’m also going to be setting up an author webpage with it’s own blog that will track my progress. Once that’s set up, I’ll be promoting it here and then you can follow me on that avenue if you’d like.

If you are looking for a great book to read this summer, consider Liz Nugent’s Unraveling Oliver. I had the opportunity of briefly meeting Liz at BookCon in June, where I received an advance copy. Set in Dublin, the novel develops the story of Oliver Ryan and is full of suspense. Talk about signs…when I started reading it, I had no idea it was set in Dublin, or that Liz Nugent hails from Ireland. I couldn’t put it down! It’s going to be released later this summer here in the USA. I highly recommend Unraveling Oliver.

Have a splendid day, and thanks for being a part of my journey.

Until Next Time,

Jill

 

PART THREE OF “THE UNIVERSE IS AT IT AGAIN!”: Welcome to Family!

This is Part Three in a series of posts titled “The Universe Is At It Again!” To read Part One, please click here. To read Part Two, please click here.

The other interesting feature on my report is that Ancestry matches my DNA up with others who have already had their DNA tested, and then provides links to possible family members with percentage probabilities that they are, indeed, a relative of some kind.

For instance, Ancestry was “extremely confident” the name on the top of my list was a second cousin. They were right. It is my mom’s cousin DM.

I have a very small family, so the large number of names on my list of potential “relatives” intrigued me.  I was going to wait until the end of the month to begin poking around, but last week, I showed a fellow teacher my report because he was interested in getting his own DNA analyzed and wanted to see what it was all about.

The second name on my list of potential relatives or matches, one that Ancestry had labeled “extremely high” that this person was my second cousin, is a gentleman, AT, from Minnesota. I clicked on his profile as I showed my friend how cool it was that this information was available, even though I had no idea who AT was. We didn’t have family in Minnesota, so who could this guy be?

I read the first few sentences of the AT’s profile out loud, then paused mid-sentence. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I then yelled, “Holy shit!” My friend looked at me, as did the others who were around us, as my mouth gaped wide open and my eyes became as big as saucers.

The man in the profile, AT, wrote that his mother, K, was adopted, and he listed her birth parents’ names and her original last name.

Her birth parents’ names were the same as my Grandpa C.’s, the one who I thought was Irish, and he and K shared the same last name.

Holy shit, indeed.

Grandpa had a sister I never knew about.

Mind blown. Literally.

I never would have expected this in a million years. Finding missing family members only happens in the movies or in books, or to other people who lead much more interesting lives. It doesn’t happen to little old me.

But here it was, right in front of me. K is my Grandpa C.’s sister, my Uncle G and my father’s aunt, my great aunt. The DNA confirms it.

I couldn’t contain my excitement and raced home after dismissal to write AT a message. “I think my grandfather was your mother’s brother,” I typed, along with some other details and my email address, then hit send with a ridiculous grin on my face.

I anxiously checked for a reply all day Tuesday, but none came. No worries, though, as I had an afternoon date with my nephew, I, for our annual early summer boardwalk excursion. We had a lot of fun on the rides, at the aquarium, and enjoying pizza and ice cream. By the time I got home, I was exhausted!

I drifted off to sleep rather quickly, slept right through the night, and hit snooze as soon as my alarm went off on Wednesday morning. On the alarm’s second ring, I hit snooze again, but something was nagging at me to check my email. I put on my glasses, opened my mailbox, and there it was.

A reply from AT’s sister.

Scratch that.

A reply from my first cousin once removed, KT.

KT is one of seven children born to my great Aunt K (including AT). That’s at least seven new first cousins for my Uncle G. KT said that her sisters and brother all live in various parts of the country, and that they have been looking for her mother’s brother’s family for a long time.

Man, my father would have loved all of this!

Grandpa C.

KT included three photographs with her email, one being her mother’s favorite photo of her brother from when Grandpa C. was very young. Aunt K kept it all this time.

At work, I held up that picture of Grandpa C. alongside my face, and almost everyone remarked at the resemblance between the two of us.

Before writing KT back, I knew I had to tell my Uncle G about this amazing discovery, so I headed over to his house after school. As I began to read KT’s email to him, I handed him the three pictures that accompanied the email.

Uncle G got up as I was reading and handed me a framed picture from his table.

It was the same picture of Grandpa that KT emailed to me, her mother’s favorite picture of her brother.

Uncle G and I talked about what he could remember Grandpa’s family.  He thought all along that Grandpa might have had a sister that was put up for adoption, but he was never sure if that was true or not. He knew Grandpa’s father wasn’t in the picture at all but doesn’t know anything at all about him, and that Grandpa had an older brother but he never met him (nobody knows where he ended up either; apparently my father was named after him). Uncle G told me what could recall about his grandmother, S, who was Grandpa’s and Aunt K’s mother, but it wasn’t very much.

I brought the picture book he gave me last summer with me.  We slowly paged through it and found two old black and white pictures of a light-haired little girl, each with Aunt K’s name written in pencil on it.

Grandpa had kept his sister’s pictures all along, too.

Uncle G couldn’t believe all of this and loved learning he had cousins. He hates technology and has never used a computer or a smart phone at all, so seeing my Ancestry report on my phone and how I could click on the links blew his mind.

Me Holding Grandpa C.’s Picture

I took a picture of Uncle G and of me holding that framed picture of Grandpa that KT had emailed to me, as well as some other pictures of Grandpa from his life. When I got home, I wrote KT back and emailed her all of the photos I had, including the two pictures of her mom.

On Friday, AT sent me an email, so I am now in contact with two new cousins. Of course, both sides have a lot of questions, and we all wish that Grandpa and Aunt K could have connected with each other before they passed on. Underneath all of our excitement, there are some threads of sadness interweaving with this miraculous story. Consider that Aunt K and Grandpa lived two towns away from each other in the early 1940s but never knew it.

This is the stuff novels are made of, and I’m living it!

I’m looking forward to staying in touch with my new cousins and to learning more about my family heritage. One of the first places I am going once school is finished is to the library to continue researching my background.

If it weren’t for my spirit guide, I’d never be on this path in my journey in the first place. Thanks, TG, for leading me to family. And thanks to the Universe. You never cease to amaze me.

All I wanted to know is if I was truly Irish.

With the payoff from that originally disappointing less-than-1%-Irish being a whole new lot of cousins that I never knew existed, I’ll gladly take it.

Welcome to Family.

A Letter to Two Heroes, Revisited On This Memorial Day

I have always remembered the reason for Memorial Day and Memorial Day weekend and have honored it by remembering those lost, going to a ceremony or two, putting flags in my yard, wearing red, white, and blue, or raising awareness through my writing. For me, the true meaning hit home twice, in 2010 and 2011, when two very special young men who spent time in my classroom paid the ultimate sacrifice, each with immense courage and bravery.

One is Sergeant Ronald A. Kubik, Army Ranger, and the other is Lance Corporal Nicholas S. Ott, United States Marine Corps.

Both are forever heroes.

On Friday, I taught my current journalism and English 11 students about these two heroes who sat in the same seats as them at some point in their lives. It’s important to me to keep Ron and Nick’s legacies alive with the hope that today’s generation can learn from them and possibly emulate something from each of their examples in their own lives. I am now toying with the idea of writing a curriculum unit for other teachers to use in their classrooms, not just necessarily focusing on Nick and Ron but on other New Jersey heroes lost in all conflicts.

Below is a letter to Ron and Nick that I originally wrote and posted in 2015. I updated it for 2017 as my thanks and tribute to both of them on this Memorial Day.

May 29, 2017

Dear Ron and Nick,

It’s been 15 and 13 years, respectively, that you were students in my English class.  You both sat at a desk for 180 days, Ron during 9th grade and Nick during 11th grade, and spent 50 minutes every day writing, reading, learning vocabulary, completing assignments, and earning your grade.  And during those 180 days, each of you made a lasting impact and taught lessons to someone who was supposed to be teaching you.

Ron, I will never forget how you read “Of Mice and Men” aloud in your best British accent, yet you read your part in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” with a thick, southern accent.  Laughter, that’s what I remember.  Pure laughter.  I remember you enjoyed writing, but as a freshman, you didn’t want to admit it.  How I wish I kept some of your essays and reflections, for they were good…much better than a typical 9th grader’s writing.  I remember your pride in your hometown, your blue mohawk, and your incredible effort on the football field, playing each game like it was the super bowl.  It wasn’t the same when you moved away, and there was a huge hole of missing spirit that couldn’t be filled by anyone else.  I am aware of the legacy you left at Manasquan High School and how you are still an inspiration in that building. Through the magic of social media, we caught up after you graduated and I enjoyed seeing the pictures of you in your band, and then as an Army Ranger.  I am sure the United States Army immediately knew that they were getting one of the best of the best. I know that you absolutely loved it when some of my students called you a badass merely from my verbal description of you. Then when they saw your pictures? Yeah. You loved every minute of their reactions and are still basking in that glow.

Nick, your smile and your work ethic are what I most remember about you.  No matter what it was you were doing, you always your best…in the classroom, on the field, on the stage…and you never, ever complained.  More often than not, you surprised even yourself by doing better than you ever expected, even though at times you weren’t a fan of what we were studying.  And that smile…that big, wonderful smile, with that impish spirit behind it…there’s no other smile like it.  I fondly remember your part in The Varsity Lettermen’s TWO acts for Hawkapalooza, working hard to perfect each routine, and selecting that perfect dress for your costume, the powder blue shift with the rhinestone broach.  That moment of greatness and sheer joy has never been matched on the Hawkapalooza stage since, except maybe the secret, surprise return of The Varsity Letterman the following year.  One of the best days in my life was the last time I saw you, when you were home on leave and stopped by the school for a visit after classes let out.  I was having an extremely bad day and wanted nothing more than to go home, and I got a call from the main office that someone was here to see me. That was the last thing I wanted, but my anguish was quickly replaced with excitement and happiness as I saw you round the corner of the hallway with that smile beaming as you walked down to my classroom.  We spent about 90 minutes catching up and talking, and those are the best 90 minutes I ever spent in my life.  While I don’t have a photograph of that moment, the picture in my mind’s eye is crystal clear, like it happened yesterday.

Words cannot express the extreme heartache and sadness that I, along with so many others, felt upon hearing the news that each of you had passed away.  In fact, I remember exactly where I was standing when I got the news about each of you.  Yet, upon learning that so many others were saved because of each of your actions, I had two new heroes to look up to for the rest of my life.

Not a day goes by when I do not think of both of you.  Several times every year, but especially on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, I share your stories with my students who sit in the same desks that you did…stories of heroism, of bravery, and of courage.

I am forever grateful for the lessons you, the students, taught me, the teacher:

  • Actions, not words, matter.
  • Make your dreams a reality.
  • Put others before yourself.
  • Have an amazing life.

Thank you, Nick and Ron, for your lessons, for your sacrifice, and for leaving footprints along my life’s journey that can never be erased.  I will do my best to continue sharing your legacies and your stories for as long as I can.

With my utmost admiration, gratitude, honor, and respect.

Not everyone has a connection to someone to honor on Memorial Day. If you don’t, please visit my links below so you can learn more about Sgt. Ronald A. Kubik and Cpl. Nicholas S. Ott. You can also pick someone to learn about by visiting the NJ Run for the Fallen Honor Wall and the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial & Museum Wall of Faces.

Regardless of your politics, I urge you to take a moment this weekend to honor what the day means and stands for. Educate the young people in your life about the true meaning of Memorial Day and about real heroes like Nick and Ron and the thousands of others who gave their lives for the United States of America. Attend a local ceremony or service for an hour, and/or join in the National Moment of Silence at 3 PM Tomorrow.

Thank you to all the men and women who gave their lives while serving our country. I am grateful for your sacrifice and I honor your memory.

Until next time,

Jill

Image from NJ Run for the Fallen
Image from NJ Run for the Fallen
Image from Her Beautiful Monster - Mandi Bean
Image from Her Beautiful Monster – Mandi Bean