Tony Orlando, A Plane, And A Stubborn Widow
Eleven years after my husband died, Tony Orlando helped me realize what had taken me so long to find peace.
It took me much longer than I’d hoped it would to find solid footing in life after my husband was murdered by a fellow soldier. I told myself I was doing better than many people would, given the circumstances. After all, not only was I a young widow with four very young children to raise by myself, I was repeatedly traumatized throughout the three and a half years we spent attending court proceedings against the being who’d killed my husband Louis Allen and his friend, Captain Phillip Esposito. And who wouldn’t be bitter after seeing the military judicial system let the confessed killer walk away from a free man- with access to VA benefits? It was not my fault I was stuck in so much misery, I told myself – I was working as hard as I could to push through, but my situation was simply impossible to navigate any faster than I was.
Sure I made plenty of mistakes over the years. Some of those mistakes exacted a steep price from me and also from my children, who were helplessly attached to my decisions. But I told myself it wasn’t my fault for trusting in people who preyed upon my naive belief that no one would do what they wound up doing to me. The more people told me not to trust a person, the more I dug in, dedicated to proving my independent ability to chart my destiny without my husband at the helm. I thought my persistence was what would see me through the mayhem that continued to plague me.
It’s not like I hadn’t put a lot of myself back together in the few years since tragedy struck. I was pursuing a Masters, writing a book, throwing myself into my kids, and grabbing every opportunity to laugh instead of cry. I thought I had everyone fooled into thinking I was doing just great. I believed I was doing everything in my power to overcome the series of tragedies that continued to plague me in varying degrees of severity. But I was wrong…
Tony Orlando spent just a few hours next to me on a plane and saw right through me.
One early year into the existence of Snowball Express I found myself on the American Airlines charter flight packed with families of fallen soldiers as we flew across the country to spend time together. My four boys were still very young – between 5-10 years old. I sat in my seat as my kids bounced around visiting with other kids and playing with the all-volunteer flight crew. I was tired from the pre-dawn drive with the kids and thought about a quick nap when suddenly a robust voice and blazing smile announced the presence of Tony Orlando in the seat beside me.
Our families are so grateful to those who do so much for us. And tired or not, I always make it a point to thank them, and return a smile or hug. I did the same then, smiling and chatting with the man who’d left the comfort of his home and family to spend time with us, and offer his support. I knew even then that Snowball could not survive without the help of people like him and did my best to ensure he felt appreciated and welcome at this special event. I thought I’d done a fine job and even found myself enjoying the chat with this man with a huge personality. It wasn’t until a chance meeting several years later that I realized how wrong I was.
Fast forward about 8 years. My kids are now teenagers. I have slowly, excruciatingly, made it through a gauntlet of organic and self-inflicted blows in life. I am finally at the top of my game. My kids are happy and life is full again. I know I owe a great deal of this to the people at Snowball Express who have become family to us, from volunteers to the other moms.
Snowball Express has been one of the very few consistently positive presences for my kids and I.
From a seemingly little thing like re-experiencing the feeling of looking forward to something again, to the steady emails, phone calls, letters, and check-ins from them. They ask how we are, they offer support, they make the kids laugh. They gave the kids their mom back, and they gave me opportunities to escape life and simply be with my children. They helped us create lasting friendships with other families like ours, and those friendships sustain us.
They have physically nursed my kids through ill-timed illnesses at events, tracked down a bus I’d dropped my husband’s dog tags in, ridden roller coasters even though they get sick on them, stood in the pouring rain to salute as dozens of our busses roll by, and so on. Just because they care. Now I had the opportunity to meet many of their sponsors in person and address thousands of supporters at the biggest fundraiser of the year. And on the first night of that three-day event, I ran into Tony Orlando moments before he received the Bob Hope Award from Congressional Medal of Honor recipients for his work entertaining and supporting the military.
“I met you years ago on a flight,” I told him. His laugh was the same as it was that day on the plane as he grabbed my hands and told me he remembered me. To my surprise, he then asked his wife and daughter if they remember him telling them about the mom with the four kids. “Yes,” they responded, curious smiles on their faces turning into surprised ones like mine when he said, “This is her!”
For the first time, I heard Tony Orlando’s version of our plane ride.
I heard how one of my sons tackled his leg and clung on as Tony dragged him through the aisle, both of them cracking up. I saw emotion hit him as he told me he would finally share with me what my son had said to him; My son, who’d never get to tackle his own dad and wrestle with him again, looked up at the man he’d just met and proclaimed that Tony, “would make a great dad!”
Though the room was packed with people and music, silence descended for a split second as Tony shared that with me, and the meaning hit. That was the moment, he said when he’d realized what this event meant. But he wasn’t done yet. He had more.
“I remember you,” he said. “You were still very angry, and not ready to let anyone in yet.”
This came as a shock to me – hadn’t I smiled and laughed and joked with him? Hadn’t I spent time telling him about the way Snowball Express helps our families? Thanked him for being there?
“Yes,” he assured me. “But you were still very guarded.”
I stammered out an apology to him, thinking my memory was so skewed that not only had I not been nice to him- I’d actually been rude. But he smiled even larger and again assured me I had simply not managed to conceal the hurt and anger I still carried with me, no matter how hard I tried to smile.
At that moment I was struck by a bolt of clarity.
I knew then why I’d achieved the shift in life from bleak to bright. I knew what I’d perceived as persistence was in fact just plain stubbornness. That rather than persistently attacking life’s troubles I’d been stubbornly clinging to the notion that I could only expect to restore some of my life, and that each way my experiences changed me would be for the worse. I realized, even more, the difference between trying to control life and controlling how I adapt to my life. I’d somehow shifted my behavior to reflect those lessons without realizing what those lessons were – until Tony made it clear.
It was an honor to be present the night he received his award at Sky Ball. Hearing him speak about what the military means to him and why he is such an ardent supporter was inspiring. His story about Bob Hope and the Yellow Ribbon song was hysterical. And the lesson he taught me is priceless.