The Pieniazek kids will celebrate two men Sunday. They still mix up which one they call “Dad” and which they call “Daddy.”
The man they see every day, Jake Cassinari, is dad. Their daddy, Jordan Pieniazek, was a Cincinnati firefighter who died in a motorcycle crash on his way to work three years ago.
Jake’s first Father’s Day won’t be typical. Part of it will probably be spent at the gravesite of the man he knew from church and still misses.
Liz Cassinari – formerly Pieniazek – said the plans for the holiday were up in the air leading up to this weekend, but she knows her family’s faith in God will be their map and compass, as it has always been.
It was faith that led Liz to bring her own kitchen table to her husband’s funeral inviting the hundreds of people in attendance to join her family’s journey with God.
That same faith guided her as she kept Jordan’s memory alive for her three children, now 10, 6 and 4.
And she says it was God who brought her together with Jake allowing them to start a new chapter in their lives.
“Many don’t see how he has surrendered his dream of a ‘normal family and how it is formed,’” Liz wrote of Jake on Facebook. “As I have watched him kneel down in the dirt and clean the stone of his friend, his children’s Daddy and his wife’s first love, I can’t help but cry and give thanks to God for who this man is.”
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A quiver of strength
Liz said the last conversation she had with Jordan before he died was about Jake. They were all at the same get-together with friends from church.
In the midst of the party, she said she felt a calling to look at Jake. On the car ride home, she told Jordan and they decided they might try to spend more time with him. Maybe God was telling them he needed support.
The next morning, Jordan left for work and never came home. It was the day after the first birthday of his son, Ever. It fell on Liz to break the news to him and his two older sisters: Zoe and LillyMae.
Liz kept going to her church. She kept her family moving forward. But she said that call to look at Jake never left her mind.
After the one-year anniversary of Jordan’s death, Liz went on a trip to Colorado. A few last-minute scheduling issues with a friend meant Jake would be the one picking her up from the airport.
“Once you’re married and you're around another man alone, it feels like you’re cheating, but you’re not,” Liz joked.
After an awkward car ride, Jake dropped her off at home, but then he called her and wanted to come back.
Liz recalled that he said: “You can completely just say no. I respect Jordan so much, I respect the kids and I respect you so much, but I was wondering if you would ever want to go on a date.”
Liz responded with a warning.
“You don’t want this,” Liz told him. “This does not look pretty all the time. This can be really ugly.”
He assured her that he knew what he was getting into.
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“You need to know that I will always love another man,” Liz told him. “I don’t know if that’s ever going to go away.”
But Jake said he too missed Jordan. He said, he too didn’t want to waste time on a casual relationship. He said if Liz needed time, he would wait.
“I just cried a lot,” she said. “I still battle with that. You really wanted to take all this on? You didn’t want to dive into a little relationship? You wanted to dive into a marriage and having three children?”
The wedding was Aug. 4, 2018. Jordan’s father and brother walked her down the aisle.
At the altar, she gave to Jake a quiver with three arrows in it; each one had one of the kids' names on it.
“Jordan and I had always viewed the kids as something that makes us strong and is a blessing,” Liz said. “That was now his quiver and he was now three arrows stronger.”
Not taking daddy's place
LillyMae is the oldest. Losing Jordan hit her hard.
Liz recalls her saying: “Now mom, if something happens to you, I don’t know if I can get Ever out of his crib to get him his bottle.”
“She thought that if something happened to me that she’d have to take care of everything,” Liz said. “She was 6.”
Jake allowed LillyMae to rest, Liz said.
But with a new dad, what happens to the old one?
“We can’t just block that part of the kids’ lives out,” Liz said. “If we try to cover that up, it’s not going to allow them to heal.”
She said she made sure the kids knew Jordan would want them to be protected and that Jake wants them to keep loving their daddy.
Jake often ask the kids to tell stories about Jordan. He tells them he’s not a replacement, but an addition.
“Physically, I am taking his spot,” Jake tells them. “But in their hearts, I am not trying to take your daddy’s spot.”
Like the rest of their lives, his parenting is built around his faith.
“Jake without Jesus, on my own, wouldn’t be able to do it,” he said. “There’s a lot that I don’t know and that I’m still finding out and figuring out.”
Liz added: “Tack on and learning how to be a husband too. Not just to a woman, but to a widow."
She says he’s a natural and no one would ever guess he’s not their biological father though he is the only one in the family with brown eyes.
“He has blown me away with how he communicates with the kids,” Liz said. “He loves them so much, but its filled with truth and grace.”
A 100-pound box of donuts
After the wedding, Jake and Liz bought a house on five acres of a run-down Christmas tree farm in Springboro. They want to use the land to help others.
The plans are nebulous, but Liz notes, “my heart is with the widow.” She says she’d love to build a retreat of sorts.
The house is full of light, but still a work in progress. There’s a hearth, but no mantle yet.
A huge map fills one wall where the children practice naming continents. There’s are touches all around that would be at home on any Pinterest board.
The calendar is packed with appointments. May 1 was marked “Jordan’s Jesus Day.”
It’s here at a wooden dining room table that Liz home-schools the kids. LillyMae works on PowerPoint presentations for her online curriculum. Zoey and Ever work on letters. Everyone jumps in to help with animal sounds.
“I can do a good elephant,” Zoe says. “Dad… Daddy could, too.”
For Liz, moving to a quite piece of land has proven to be a break for all of them.
“We just needed rest. We get to be the five of us and just rebuild what was broken,” she said of the move, but noted rehabbing a home can be tough. “It’s making us work together even more. It’s creating memories for the five us… It’s actually restoring us.”
Meanwhile, Jake is tackling fatherhood with an added layer of difficulty. He said Ever recently asked him why Jordan's motorcycle couldn’t jump.
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The slow breeze through the pines accompanies him while he takes a knee and tries to explain things to a 4-year-old. It's a pose he strikes often.
He takes the responsibility seriously.
“You can’t step back,” he said. “Passivity is a trait of mine that’s really hard to battle against."
But he smiles when he looks at Liz.
“It’s really awesome to have a team,” he says.
Back when they were dating, she explained her life to him this way: “I’m like a box of donuts, a hundred-pound box of donuts. It’s the sweetest kind of heavy.”
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Moving past tragedy, family celebrates two dads on Father's Day