Loving memories inspire great new features at Blendon Woods for the Wild Child in all of us

Maris Zugaro negotiates the log steps on one of the new features of the natural play area at Blendon Woods. (Dan Bissonette)

We hear it all the time: “Life is short.” And the rest are memories of that life. This is the backstory of the redesigned natural play area at Blendon Woods Metro Park—also known in my life as “Daddy and Maris’ park.”

This morning when I woke up, my social media memories delivered the day my husband Tim and I announced that we were pregnant. After five long years of fighting infertility, we were finally going to have our baby. Yet within hours of seeing this joyful reminder, I was emailed copies of the invitation to the natural play area my daughter and I are helping to reopen, in memory of my husband and her daddy. In six short years, our lives have been forever changed, leaving memories lying at our feet.

On the morning of February 5, 2016, I was standing in front of the bathroom sink, talking to Tim about his weekend trip home with his friends, his cousins, his boys. I was laughing with him, and I encouraged him to stay the whole weekend in the small town of Powhatan Point where they all were raised. It was Super Bowl weekend, and even though the Steelers didn’t make it, I knew he would be watching.

I left the house after I kissed him and our daughter, Maris, good-bye. It was the last time I would see him alive. It was the last moment we would even have as a family.

While I was at work, teaching third grade in Whitehall, I remembered I had forgotten the chocolate covered pretzels for my school’s movie night. I texted Tim, and he said that he’d drop them off on his way out of town. He didn’t come in to say hi, but he texted me to say they were there. I know all of this for certain because those messages sit on my phone today. All of our final messages sit there, staring at me… on a white screen with blue letters.

At the end of the day, I called him and we talked. He was in the Ohio Valley, and they were about to begin their weekend of fun, doing the crazy things they had been doing their entire lives.

Later, we Face-Timed with our daughter, and Maris told him she loved him. It would be the last time she would hear his voice. He called me later, and I was distracted talking to him because I was trying to get Maris to bed. There were some silly text messages, and then his last one came when I was asleep, “how u.” That is likely the last time I truly slept, the night of February 5, 2016.

The next morning, I was up with Maris. We called, we texted, we Face-Timed. He responded to nothing. I did this over and over, thinking he was asleep from being out late riding the hills of the valley, along Route 7. We had tickets to Disney on Ice with my friend and her daughters. By the time the show began at 11am, I had alerted many people wondering where Tim was. I was trying not to panic. No one had a clue.

Within a few hours, I was frantically driving 80 miles per hour with another friend who rode with me. I knew something was wrong. Using my phone tracker, we were able to find them. It was an accident. In his final moments, Tim was with his close friends, doing what he loved. Living life.

When I arrived in Powhatan, they were gone. And that is when life became short. Painfully short.

Life divided itself into two spheres: before February 6 and after February 6.

Within a mere two days, I had drifted into this new hemisphere of life, from hearing the words, “He’s gone,” to planning a funeral, to arranging for child care for Maris, to fielding questions about a charity.

And that is how the Natural Play Area at Blendon Woods began to grow.

Maris with her father Tim at Blendon Woods. (Michelle Zugaro)

My friend suggested the Metro Parks. Tim and Maris had loved going to parks. In recent days, Maris has shared with me that the time they spent together at the park is her favorite memory of daddy.

I spoke with the funeral home, and a charity was set to go to the Columbus & Franklin County Metropolitan Parks. The account raised $10,000 in 30 days.

In the months that followed Tim’s death, I walked a path that I barely recall. Trauma does that. It stops your brain from anything past the moment you’re in—no future thoughts and no memory. The check was sitting in my den drawer for a long time. I wasn’t ready to do anything with the fund, and I was already feeling like a walking mess, and I didn’t want that to find its way into this incredible gift.

Right after our wedding anniversary in September, I reached out to Tim Moloney, the director of the parks. It was no coincidence that Tim knew my Tim, and they had even spent time together. Tim and I talked about how important this was to Maris and I. I didn’t just want a water fountain or a bench. I wanted something that represented who Tim was as a person and what being a daddy was to him. I wanted something that others could share with their families. I wanted something, but I wasn’t sure what.

As Tim and I talked, words like “wild child,” “Maris movement,” and “daddies and daughters” crossed back and forth over the table. Then, we started talking about which parks might be a good fit for the nature of this project that was just beginning to reveal itself.

Let me pause here and say that throughout the past eight months, the staff at Metro Parks has been nothing short of incredibly kind and passionate. It is because of their commitment to their passions that this project grew into this majestic imaginative place.

Maris and Michelle Zugaro having fun on the teeter-totter, one of the great new features of the redesigned natural play area at Blendon Woods. (Dan Bissonette)

As we continued to meet, Tim enlisted his staff to dream, to play, to imagine. I took Maris to Blendon Woods, and we discussed several options based on where she was the most engaged. The existing Natural Play Area was the spot that Maris was drawn to, as she climbed, crossed logs, ran through the leaves and explored.

This is what we wanted—a place that would invite the inner “wild child” of kids and their families. The next step was to figure out the “what.”

In the following months, Tim showed me drafting plans and a physical model of the concept, an outrageously creative plan for additions and extensions to the natural play area. REI came on board, and they added to the funding to allow us even more dreaming. We went over details and brainstormed other ideas. I engaged in lengthy connected conversations with several incredible staff members about the longevity of this project, how it was more than a park area, how it welcomes a shift in thinking and perspective that reflects the way Tim lived his life.

Once the ground was broken, the park came together more rapidly than I could have imagined. The drive that the crew possessed was beyond inspiring to me, and my daughter was squealing with delight. Her joy upon seeing everything the first time is simply indescribable. They were so proud to share this with Maris and I.

After we took a tour, and they explained the many ideas they still had, I walked to the side fence, looked out across this slice of nature, the trees, the fallen logs, the squirrels running to and fro, all gently brushed with the sun that was peeking through, and I took a moment to tell my Tim how much I missed him and how I prayed he was proud of what we did in his memory. Quiet tears fell, and I wiped them before I walked over to thank the crew. Each time I am there, I speak to Tim, knowing he is listening and smiling.

In the following months, the final pieces were put into place, and Maris and I visited many times. As we watched the progress and the beauty come together, I couldn’t help but long for Tim to be here to play with her. This new path of my life is filled with faith and belief that he is playing with her… in some way… all the time.

Kids help to build a fort in the natural play area at Blendon Woods. (Dan Bissonette)

Maris and I have been lucky enough to watch people discover this secret hidden area of the park already, ahead of the official opening. We have watched the children and adults run, climb, explore, hop, cross and skip. We have seen mommies and daddies tuck their cell phones into their pockets, so they can board the teeter totter. We have seen mommies ride the zip line, laughing and smiling. We have seen kids cross the logs while pretending there is hot lava below, instead of a bumbling brook. We have seen what we miss in daddy so very much… his love of life, his love of his family, and most of all his love of his little girl.

We miss daddy everyday. Maris was only four when he left. Yet, when we are here, at the natural play area, we are a family again because Tim is hiding behind the trees, the fallen logs, and is in the beams of sunlight. Through all of the sorrow and grief lies this gift that he gave us to share with you.

Life is short. Memories are made in those short moments every day. Let your inner wild child come alive. Cancel your “busy,” and begin “doing life.” Play, laugh and love in what has now become, for us, Imagination Island.

Guest Author: Michelle Zugaro is a 45-year-old teacher and mother to Maris.


(The natural play area at Blendon Woods opened officially at a grand event on Sunday May 21, 2017.)