Robert Messina, 65: Finding Joy After Loss

Robert Messina lost his wife of 31 years to cancer and found a way out of the darkness, now with a new love and a renewed excitement for each day. He talks to us about grief, the therapeutic act of skiing, finding love after loss, and keeping your promise to your loved one who has passed.

The one constant we can count on is change. It really pisses me off. The rebel in me cries out: Why can’t I have all of today, all my people forever? Acceptance is not always easy. Today is just for today, not for any other day. One part of all of our journeys involves loss, and then the road after.  It may be a loss of career, a loss of an object, or the loss of a loved one. These will all happen; sometimes we have some influence over them, sometimes not. It is the next part, that next chapter, the next job, city, or relationship — where does that come from, and how do we get there? It is always a process, never simple, as it involves the person we are today, the person we were, and the person we aspire to be. 

I met Robert Messina skiing; he was my instructor. We spent 2 days, just the two of us, going faster than people our age should sensibly ski, having a grand time. Sometime during the many chairlifts we rode, he told me about his loss, and his newfound love — how he navigated out of the darkness and fog of losing his life partner.  Robert is a teacher, and one of the skills of that profession is the ability to articulate to others, to make an impression and a memory for them. This he did for me in ways that far exceeded my skiing. His is a story of loss, and of the magic of renewal when we are open to seeing it. 

Robert, how old are you?
I am 65. And a young 65, I like to believe.

How long were you married?
Helen and I were married in September 1989. So we were married 31 years. Helen passed in the winter of 2020, December, after being sick for a year and a half. It was cancer.

It was identified in her liver, which often is the case with cancers from other parts of the body because the liver is the filter system. And once it was identified as to what other organs it was, where it may have originated in, then they were able to target the therapies, chemotherapies, and such to slow the progress. These were very aggressive cancers. And initially, the prognosis was a few months. The chemotherapies gave her a lot more than just a few months and gave us perhaps, as she noted often, our best spring & summer ever since when we met.

Being involved in the ski industry, I would have to scramble to work in the offseason to make up for the fact that I was working in a seasonal business. Her therapies actually gave us the spring, summer, and fall of 2020 which also coincided with COVID changing the way the world worked. We got to spend all day every day together when all the ski resorts shut down in the middle of March and my working season ended.

“The chemotherapies gave her a lot more than just a few months and gave us perhaps, as she noted often, our best spring & summer ever since when we met”

What was it like for you after she passed?
We had known each other for almost 35 years, which at the time was more than half our lifetimes and certainly most of our adult lifetimes. And you just kind of expect, after a while, that you’re going to have a long lifetime together, which we did. However, we expected maybe to have longer. There is definitely no way to describe the change of waking up the next morning without your partner, without your wife, without the person you’ve promised so much of your life to, without her there. It’s awful. 

How did you cope?
There are steps you simply go through because you’ve been preparing for it a little bit. That was December which, in the ski world, contains a very busy week or two. And by the time Christmas week came, I made the choice to go back to work and be with the new people and the returning people. And it was definitely a good distraction to have people with me and around me and interacting with me. Plus, I had interaction with friends and staff. So the season 2020 – 2021 served as a distraction and a therapy and a support, I guess, and many other things that definitely were helpful. It’s good to not have the thought of the loss in your head, in your mind constantly. All day, every day I worked and that was helpful. Your brain is always processing it, but to have the presence and the interaction with other people, some of whom I’ve worked with, some of the guests I have worked with for 10 years, 10 ski seasons, or more… so to have that interaction, they’re very much like family or extended family. It was a wonderful distraction for the four months after Helen passed. It’s just awful, though, to wake up and there’s no one there, and there has been someone there for over 30 years. It is so very difficult to drag yourself out of bed.

Therapeutic Effects of Skiing

How long have you been teaching skiing?
I started in high school in 1976, so a long time. So this would be 44 years but also a season in Argentina. So that makes 45 seasons. And then a couple of seasons before that I was an apprentice, unpaid, but learning the fun of picking up little children and standing them back up and putting them back in line and that sort of thing. 

What happened after ski season was over?
My working season ends kind of middle of April then my practice is usually to go play for a little bit. We have a great fortune here in Utah having Snowbird resort stay open, as long as they can, as long as the snow allows which, for a lot of years, takes them into June but always into May. So I went and skied for a few weeks after I stopped working, which I enjoy. It’s a beautiful place, and I know a lot of people that work up there. Sometimes we get to ski, sometimes we just get to chat at the end of the day or have coffee in the morning. And again that was pretty much a distraction from the reality of how my life had changed. And that was good. The skiing was okay. It wasn’t the best spring at Snowbird, but it was okay. Then the skiing ends and it’s time to settle into reality a little bit more. 

There’s an uncomfortable amount of responsibility and paperwork and insurance companies and Social Security and taxes and all this stuff that you never think about, you never get schooled in. You never get any kind of training, coaching, anything when your wife or your husband passes away that you have to deal with all this stuff. So that became a month’s worth of work.

Then when I felt like I had done all that I could do, I got in the car and drove to California to visit my family in California and go sailing on the beautiful Pacific Ocean for a week and try to forget everything and just enjoy the company of dolphins and sea lions and whales. Which is a little different from being on the mountain but it has the same therapeutic and relieving effect on your heart and soul and mind and spirit. That particular year, this was so important and valuable to me. I have a family — my brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephews, too. So I have people to visit and interact with. And it’s the kind of thing you seek out. You really realize and accept and seek out interactions and connections and you develop or evolve acquaintances and evolve relationships because of the loss of a relationship or because there’s a need.

“There is light now”

It turns out that someone I have known for eight or nine years, Marcy, has gone through what I had gone through when her husband passed away three years ago.  I knew her husband, I sailed with her husband, I broke bread, as the expression goes, ate and drank with her husband, met one of his sons from a previous marriage, and spent time with both of them. They, in fact, visited Helen and me in Salt Lake. So it was interesting to sort of reconnect with Marcy when her husband passed away; it was very important to me to see her when I went to California and show my support and my sadness for her, with her. This time, when I returned to California, it was a little bit of her turn, or of our turn to share that we had gone through this similar process, this similar event, this incredibly sad time. 

We sat and looked at the stars and talked, and we watched the sunset in California and drank wine and shared, and she helped me see beyond the sadness that she described as the fog, which is a wonderful way to describe it because it’s exactly what it is. You don’t see light, you don’t see color, you don’t feel the excitement from day to day that you used to. 

As it turns out, we giggle when we say this, we very much enjoy each other’s company after we shared and hugged and cried together. Sharing an interaction into a new relationship. We are best friends, we are significant others for each other. There is light now. 

This past fall, we were both very brave. I asked if she would be interested in moving to Utah and she said yes. So we now get to wake up in the morning and share each other’s smiles and look forward to a new day. With light and color and new activities.

“My Helen thought Marcy was positively wonderful”

It’s still a surprise. Many days we laugh about it because it is something that neither one of us imagined would happen, or possibly could happen. When you are that sad, and when you are that comfortable living in the fog, you don’t see a way out of it, you don’t see that there is a new life, a new life experience, a new life path that is available, or that could be available. We both feel incredibly lucky that somehow we crossed paths at the right time years ago, just meeting each other, becoming friendly, sharing some interests, and so forth. 

Sharing time together both in California and here in Utah, Helen met Marcy. My Helen thought Marcy was positively wonderful. She enjoyed every minute of the conversation that we had through a long dinner. So when I think about that, sometimes I just have to smile and say, “Well, somehow, there is a universal energy or something that pointed us back towards each other at a time when we had something to offer. Some support, and comfort and sharing.” And we now wake up, looking forward to a new day, new experiences together. 

We smile, we really enjoy each other’s company. We’re hoping we can do that for 10,000 days, and then we’ll look at an option for four more days after that. It’s a lot of days, and then we smile and giggle because we’re trying to decide on when we should start counting. Ah, right, one of these days, we probably should start counting. And the suggestion was maybe on the new year but, you know, that’s passed now. So we just smile and we giggle and we say 10,000 days. So, one of these days, we’ll start counting, maybe.

A Promise to Keep

So wonderful. Tell us, what are three non-negotiables in your life today?
I will not accept anything less than 10,000 days of love with Marcy. That’s non-negotiable. I will never surrender my gas-powered BMW two-seat convertible for an electric anything. And I will never give up skiing.

To the people out there who’ve lost someone, with COVID there has been a lot of losing, what would you say to them?
During the process, if it happens slowly, we make promises. Keep them. One of the promises that the person you lost asks of you is that you will go forward and live. Keep that promise; the most important way you can honor your life together with that person is to respect and promise and honor their request that your life will continue. Because in the blink of an eye, you will be back together. And you’ll have to answer for that.

Robert Messina is a ski instructor at Park City in Utah. He can be reached at avjet2@gmail.com.


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David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.


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