There’s a lot of reconstruction of iconic landmarks going on from where Cindy Dalecki sits in her new digs, a corner office with broad views on Flagler Beach’s A1A, the pier, the beach and that unmeasurable horizon.
A bit to the north she can see the work on the pier, now approaching its end. The structure keeps taking a beating every decade or so and keeps coming back, its resilience as symbolic of Flagler Beach as are its motley pylons and lanky jut into the ocean. A little bit to the south there’s the reconstructed segment of A1A that before long will become a major construction site again as the state transportation department rebuilds the road wrecked by Hurricane Matthew. From where Cindy sits at her ocean-facing desk, she can see the dunes and rock revetments that have become so crucial to protecting the barrier island, structures that will get their own makeover soon.
And of course in the office there’s Cindy, herself in full reconstruction mode.
When she sat down for 90 minutes to speak about the way her life had been upended—and the way she was piecing it back together with a resilience that will surprise no one who’s known her radiance even from a distance—it had been 57 days since she’d lost David, her husband and companion of 28 years, the father to her two sons, Tyler and Dalton.
Coincidentally it had been a few weeks since she’d moved into her new office after three years in the Chiumento building in Town Center. One event didn’t provoke the other. Her former office was part of a larger remodeling. It was just as well to move. It got her closer to home in Ormond by the Sea. It got her closer to the ocean, which had been a second home to Dave: the Monday before he died—the cause will be determined by next month, but Cindy suspects some kind of heart issue or aneurysm, as with his dad, who died at 62—Dave had gone surfing, as he did whenever he could. At the crash site his surfboard had been catapulted over the guardrail on I-95 where his truck came to rest at the end of whatever issue had caused Dave to wreck that afternoon. A paint can had somehow managed to fall on top of the surfboard, and stay there.
Cindy and Dave Dalecki together were among Flagler County’s most visible and envied and engaged couples, their presence a form of tonic against pessimism, an injection of selflessness wherever they went. For Cindy, that eternal effervescence became as much part of her brand as the busy bee of her Marketing 2 Go’s logo. She projected that enthusiasm for life onto the innumerable companies and non-profits that seek out her company for exposure and a little bright buzz in the community, a job she’s been doing with growing success for seven years.
It’s never been an act. More like an inheritance from her still-living 79-year-old father, Ron Giampietro, a retired Air Force colonel who runs 5K’s with her boys and plays racquetball with Embry Riddle students, welts be damned. Grimness had no chance wherever the Daleckis were present, and their private lives together (their very last date is evidence) seemed as life-embracing as their public lives: you didn’t have to tell them to seize the day. They’d been doing so for 28 years together.
So when Dave died the afternoon of March 22, the shock reverberated. Cindy had lost a husband, her sons had lost a father, and the community had lost a friend, and likely just as automatically feared that Cindy’s splendid suns had set, or at least would be clouded over for good.
Fear not. It’s not for nothing that Cindy and her partner Kim Fitzgerald are hosting a ribbon cutting at their new office at Ripple Coworking on South Ocean Shore Boulevard Wednesday afternoon. The business, thanks to its five staffers, who stepped in and ran the show since March 22, hasn’t skipped a beat. It’ll be as good as an official reemergence for Cindy, though she’s been reemerging for two or three weeks now, the smile intact even if the eyes are still scaled in pain, and the hunch of grief—when no one is watching, if no one ever is—almost imperceptible now. The breakdowns will happen and will continue to happen. But the emotional rollercoaster is beginning to level a bit. It’s all part of what she repeatedly calls “the journey,” even if what she’s describing is really more like a hijacking: more trauma than Travelocity.
“It’s interesting. Your mind gets mushy,” Cindy said. “My phone rang, I was sitting here, like this, and there was a piece of paper here. I swiped my phone on, and I answered the piece of paper.” She did it twice. It was Meredith Rodriguez on the phone, one of her colleagues, who was quick to tell her: “You’ll be OK.” But so it was, so it’s still been on occasion. The distortions of loss don’t let up that easily. “So your mind, you can’t taste food, you just eat to live. I eat because my Mom is making me eat. But that took time to get back in the swing of things.”
The remarkable thing is that she is back in the swing of things this fast. There’s been a lot of therapy—grief counseling, teen counseling for her sons, something called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, designed especially for dealing with trauma, there’s been a lot of church, yoga, horseback riding, beach therapy. “We just kind of leaned into, for lack of a better word, suckiness of the situation, I’m reading Cheryl Sandberg’s new book, Option B, interesting to hear her journey and the similarities with her husband dying are eerily similar to Dave. Her husband’s name was Dave, same age, heart condition, they had two kids.”
The afternoon of the car crash Cindy had an appointment at a financial institution. Her sons Tyler, 15, and Dalton, 18, wanted to have dinner with their parents. Cindy called Dave, got his voice mail. Nothing unusual there. She remembers the message she left: “Hey, the boys want me to take them to dinner, we’re going to go to Metro Diner if you’re still in Palm Coast and want to meet us there.” Then she gets a text from Carolyn Casper, wife of Chris Casper, owners of the Flagler Fish Company in Flagler Beach and long-time close friends of the Daleckis. She tells Cindy that Chris was on I-95 and saw a truck in a wreck that looked like Dave’s.
Throughout dinner Cindy and the boys are trying to reach Dave, but they’re not overly worried. He’s not a tech guy. He doesn’t always answer his phone. He could be surfing. After dinner the boys take I-95 home to check on the truck sighting and Cindy drives home on A1A. The boys call her to tell her they’re stuck in I-95 traffic: they didn’t know it, but it was the back-up caused by the collision involving their father. But by then the worry lines are growing, though the worst is not imagined because it’s unimaginable. Calls are placed to local hospitals (maybe he got hurt in some sort of accident), to law enforcement (they must know what was up with that wreck on 95). But still no word.
“By the time I get a little past my street,” Cindy says, “I get a call from one of the troopers. ‘Mrs. Dalecki, are you somewhere where I can meet you?’”
The military has a name for officers assigned to giving the news of soldiers who’ve died to their family: “Casualty assistance calls officer.” The Florida Highway Patrol, which handles all traffic homicides, does not. It’s often whoever is available, and it’s not always the smoothest process: there’s been occasions when young recruits have done the job, and poorly so. Not this time. Trooper Ray is a 15-year veteran, though by then all Cindy has heard is his voice and the request to meet.
Cindy turns around on A1A where Dave usually surfs and calls her father, asking him to meet her at the house. Her parents had been looking for Dave, too. She calls Tyler (Dalton was driving). “You guys can come home,” she tells him. “Why?” he asks her. She repeats that they should just come home. Tyler says OK. By then she’s reached her home.
The Florida Highway Patrol’s car is in the driveway. She gets out, she introduces herself to Trooper Ray. She’s “rattling,” mixing small talk with meaningless details about the afternoon, as if her brain was holding on for a few more moments to the semblance of normalcy even as she knows at a less willingly conscious level what the trooper’s presence means. If she can’t read it in the cop cruiser parked in her driveway, she can read it on his face. She can read it in her bones.
They sit down.
“I said, Officer Ray, this isn’t good news, is it? He said, ‘No, ma’am. Your husband is deceased.’”
David, whom she’d met when she was a 19-year-old teller at a bank in DeBary, when he’d come in every Friday to cash his paycheck, when he was too shy to ask her out until he finally did, for a first date in Daytona Beach, probably not far from their very last date the night before, not even 24 hours ago—David was 47.
She asked a couple of questions, not believing the certainty of it, wondering if they had his wallet to be sure. But the news doesn’t change. And Cindy finally loses it.
It’s not long before the house begins to fill up, starting with a couple more law enforcement vehicles, then her parents, then the boys, who were in tears coming up the steps. (Tyler had lost a friend of his to a disease at the beginning of the school year.) She hugged them and told them she was sorry, repeating the words again and again. “You don’t want your kids to go through this pain.” She remembers. “Yes, you’re going through the pain, but you’ll do anything to protect your children, you know, and through this my dad has said to me, I just hate for you to go through this.”
That night the house was overflowing with friends, neighbors, several pastors from Salty Church, the boys’ many friends, several of whom had seen Dave as a father figure—to such a point that the trooper remarked on the effusion of support and told Cindy how often he had to deliver news to people who are utterly alone, and who remain alone. The outpouring had moved the trooper. (Cindy would call him a few weeks later and invite him over whenever he chose to share meals and talk, another first for him.) The flood of people would not ebb for a long time.
And Cindy, in what can be termed a form of psychological jujitsu, embraced the outpouring as a way to cope with her grief head on. Her sorrow needed the outlet. But she also wanted to hear every story of how her friends dealt with loss, seeking out their journey and other people’s. That business about not giving feelings the room they may need was not for her or her sons. “I don’t want my boys to have to repress anything,” she says. “I want them to get it all out now, talk to the professionals, talk to their friends, talk to me or whoever, and just work through the grief now. I tell people, it’s super sucky, right? You talk about the worst-case scenario. You never wish this on anybody. But I think talking about it helps. Going through the bad feelings, the hurt, all the stages of grief. It really helps now. Sure, you’re always going to hurt, it never goes away. People tell you that. But I think listening to everybody’s journey, what they did to help, what they didn’t do and wished they would have done, signs to look for,” all that, she says, is what has helped. That’s what has eased her way back, what’s making the days bearable. At least outwardly, which is a victory in itself.
And that word, sucky, which she used twice in those 90 minutes? That’s as salty as she got. Don’t be fooled. She has her moments of anger. She speaks of it: “It’s just not fair. I just went through all that. I wasn’t so much mad at God. I know Tyler was, which is fine, God can take it, he understands. But I feel cheated. I had the plan in my head, the boys were going to get married, they were going to have kids and Dave was going to help watch those kids, his grandkids, right? Since he’s so good with kids. But so now…” Her thought trails off. “I definitely feel cheated of the rest of our life together.”
Then, like the trapeze artist zooming through air without a net, she ends the freefall: “They do say God has a plan and I know Dave fulfilled his purpose here. He’s in a better place. He’s with his parents.” She believes what her son Dalton said recently: “Everybody on this planet has their purpose, and Dad, he said, Dave, he served his purpose, and we feel—and Dave knew this—the boys would be his legacy. That’s really powerful, and I think a big thing for them to look up to, and I think they’re not going to take anything in this life for granted, and make the most of it.”
Dalton, incidentally, graduates Friday from Seabreeze High School. Cindy is ensuring that her sons’ memories of her father will not go stale, though it’s a silly worry in the Dalecki world. She won’t lack for pictures and videos to fill her sons’ memories. Her life has been a sunnier version of the Truman Show, digitized to the last moment. It’s a story that will tell itself in the future, its three principal narrators poised to keep it alive, primarily for their own sake.
Cindy is not much for not knowing what she had until she lost it. She knew what she had when she had it, when she had him. “I know what I had and it’s fabulous.” So did Dave. “I feel so blessed that I had him for 28 years. I feel blessed that the boys had him for the time they had. There’s so many things I’m grateful for. I’m glad he didn’t die at the house. I’m glad the boys weren’t with him when he had the accident. I’m just glad we had him in our lives and he was such an amazing man and dad and husband. I think the boys will see that and know how to put together their families.”
She’s had her boys to look out for, but she also has herself and her business to look out for. And so she began that other part of her journey. The return to that prosaic world of the living. Just two weeks earlier she’d gone back to her first Rotary Club meeting (she is president of the Flagler Beach Rotary), at least to attend: Amanda Bailey, the incoming president, ran the meeting. She went to a Chamber of Commerce board meeting. She called on her first customer. She was at the county’s centennial celebration.
Along the way there are those inevitable wormholes. She went to a Power Rangers movie with her sons and their friends, and her mind wandered. It’s all pretend, she told herself as she looked at the screen. “Maybe what happened to me is pretend, maybe it’s fake,” she recalls thinking in the middle of the movie. “So your mind messes with you, and you don’t know what you’re going to think when you do the things you’ve always done. It’s every little thing you do and you don’t know if you go back to a place that you’ve been with that person a lot.”
She went back to the Flagler Fish Company for lunch, an important step since it had been one of those places as if inseparably framed by Dave’s presence. Same thing with church, where she could not hold it in. And not least, she sat down with a reporter crossdressing as Barbara Walters and managed to re-tell her most harrowing weeks with grace and poise enough to inspire a battalion of mourners.
“I joke that I’ve given probably 2,000 hugs in the last two weeks,” Cindy said. “So all the love and the support has just been amazing.”
There haven’t been changes at the house. There won’t be for about a year. All of Dave’s tools are still there, his clothes, his bags of cement and circular saws from his Got Tools remodeling and construction business still cluttering their usual and unusual spaces. (He had been returning from Home Depot with a circular saw when the wreck took place.) She’s had trouble passing by his closet (or even getting her teeth cleaned) without breaking down, but she’s found ways to make it through the most difficult moments of the days and nights. Her sons have helped a great deal. So has her faith.
“Like my dad, I think I have a naturally positive personality and it would take more energy to suppress that than it would to be myself,” Cindy says. “There is no bitterness. I truly have faith in the Lord that he knows what he’s doing. We might not always agree with his plans, but I do feel like I’m getting back to normal, and it’s on this journey, it’s always going to be with me, I’m always going to miss Dave. But I know he would want us to enjoy life and continue to help people.”
Memories are no substitute for the real thing. But they’re not a narcotic either, especially when they reaffirm a lifelong truth no death can take away. The Monday before he died Dave went to work. Then he went surfing. Then he went back to work. Then he went surfing again. Tuesday night, what would prove to be his final hours, he and Cindy had date night. They went to Tanger Outlet Mall in Daytona Beach, which he’d become especially fond of. Then they went to Cheddar’s, the restaurant in Daytona Beach. It was his first time there. He had two enormous Texas margaritas and swooned over the honey butter croissants. Cindy drove home as he reclined in the Lincoln, pushing the seat all the way back and propping his feet on the dashboard. “This is amazing,” he told his wife of 23 years, reveling in the comfort and letting the margaritas do the rest: “I’ve got my stinky socks on your windshield,” he told her.
“And we laid down that night,” Cindy recalled, “and he said, ‘I had a really great time tonight.’ And I said, ‘I did too, honey. I love you.’”