Oct 15, 2014

Mighty Mini Monie: My Mom, My Hero

Remembering a mother's birthday

Juanita Kuhn holding onto
my mom, Ramona Aileen,
while sister Shirley stands beside them.


Author's note:
I wrote this essay in the spring of 2012 to serve as the introduction to “My Hero, My Mom,” a book I put together as a Mother’s Day gift. Published by Apple, the book consisted of photographs of my mom, Ramona A. Kuhn Summers, that had been taken throughout her life, from infancy to a few months before her death on June 17, 2012. I used as much of her history as I knew, writing cutlines and sidebars to accompany the photographs.

Little did I know that that book would be my final Mother’s Day gift to her. And in no way could I have predicted this essay would serve as her eulogy a little more than a month later.

Mom was born Tuesday, Oct. 16, 1928, and tomorrow, a Thursday, would have been her 86th birthday.
Prettier than Barbara Stanwyck.

A story of strength, perseverance

Every hero has a story, the kind of story that’s made her who she is, the kind of story that’s filled with substantial obstacles that have been overcome with grace, dignity and humility, the kind of story that creates a person worthy of admiration and emulation.

High levels of energy gave way to sheer exhaustion. Walking up a set of stairs required a long pause between one step and the next. She held tightly to the railing to maintain balance. Once able to clean a split-level home in a day, doing a load of laundry began to fill an afternoon until eventually, all the chores fell to her husband.

Rest breaks came frequently and grew lengthier. In recent months, most days she moved from her upstairs bed to the big leather chair in the family room below where she sat and flipped through catalogs and dozed, read newspapers and magazines and dozed, and watched Fox News or placed orders with QVC. And, she dozed.

She didn’t give up, though. Not until her body did. She wasn’t a quitter. She was a fighter, a survivor. Always had been. She didn’t burrow beneath her bedcovers and retreat into sleep. She didn’t let the mounting struggles to make it through another day defeat her.

For years, before her feet even hit the floor in the morning, she gave her all to do some stretching and a few bicycles in bed because, she said, it made her feel better.

Her journey spanned more than eight decades. But her adventure, according to specialists, wasn’t supposed to have lasted as long as it did. It should’ve ended about 17 years ago. At least that’s what her oncologist and her surgeon thought. With each year that passed, she was considered a medical miracle, a miracle fulfilled each day she drew another breath.

But it was more than a medical miracle.

It had to be.

She was 66 at the time of her diagnosis and already had overcome so much, displaying the characteristics of a fighter and a survivor that would sustain her from an early age.

Whatever difficulties came her way year in and year out, she simply worked through them, never showing signs of anger or bitterness, regret or self-pity.

My hero didn't stand very tall, measuring what seemed a little over four-feet but growing shorter by the day. Her head tilted slightly to the right, and a wig covered what little remained of her fine, unruly hair. Brown make-up from a pencil filled in for eyebrows long gone, and a once radiant smile drooped a tad on the right. One knee and a hip weren’t the ones God gave her. And what was once the roof of her mouth was artificial as well.

Mom and the sister she adored.

A motherless daughter

Her parents had divorced before she was 2. At 2½, she lost her mother, who had been 27 at the time of her death. Her father was an abusive drunk and her stepmother, a monster. She and her big sister were bounced from one relative’s home to another, inevitably returned time and again by the state to a hostile environment.
The love of her mother’s sister, Evie, only 11 years her senior, and that of a kindly woman married to her maternal grandfather were her lifelines. She was 10 when the 15-year-old sister she cherished moved away.

At the age of 19, she was married to the first man who asked. She used to say, “To this day, I’m not certain why I said yes.” Two years older than Mom, he was cocky, arrogant and selfish

Two months into the marriage, she became pregnant with the first of her two children. When she went into labor in 1948, her then-husband was nowhere to be found. A friend sat with her until the birth of her son. Eleven years later, she gave birth to a daughter. This time, a neighbor was by her side, and again, her husband, was nowhere to be found.
After 25 years of physical and emotional abuse and countless public humiliations, she’d finally had enough of the second alcoholic in her life. It was the early 1970s. In her forties, she became the single parent of a daughter with a mental illness. Her oldest child had graduated college, gotten married and moved to South Dakota.

Mom, me and Pooh.

Making her way

Mom always had been a hard worker, starting her first job as a young girl at a five and dime. Later, she’d sold tickets at the Roxy, plugged away as a proofreader, worked as a secretary and became a circuit court deputy clerk. And before retiring, she worked 22 years as a bookkeeper and insurance agent.

Rarely, if ever prideful, she was proud of the fact that she never needed a resume. Potential employers sought her out.

A short time after retiring came the devastating diagnosis in 1995 that melanoma was growing in her sinus cavity. The odds were far from in her favor. But she didn’t give up. She fought, and she fought hard as her second husband consistently stood by her side. They married in June 1980.

She endured months of chemotherapy. Interferon had proven too much for far younger cancer patients, but she stuck it out for every treatment. Radiation treatment came next. Still able to drive, she made almost 20 trips to a hospital 35 minutes from home.

When the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis came and went, her doctors couldn’t believe it. That’s when she became, to them, a medical miracle, but to me, simply a miracle, a miracle that lasted 17 years.

But cancer is a cruel bitch. And the war melanoma declared on Mom forced her to fight one battle after another, year in and year out.

The reason her head tilted to the right was because a surgeon had to remove parts of the muscle on the side of her neck because some of the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.

She had to wear a wig and pencil-in her eyebrows because of the chemotherapy’s side effects.

She wore what’s known as a palatal obturator, a prosthetic device that closed over the hole a surgeon had to make in the roof of her mouth in order to reach the melanoma invading her sinus cavity. Because of the surgery, her mouth drooped a tad on the right. Without the obturator, it was difficult to understand what she was trying to say, and she was unable to eat without it.

The first round of chemo all those years ago zapped her of her strength, and it took a substantial amount of time for her to recover some but never all of her “get up and go.”

Since the initial diagnosis, she had numerous recurrences. More chemotherapy wasn’t an option. The only course of action had been to scrape away the cancer whenever and wherever it showed up — repeatedly in her sinus cavity, some in her throat and most recently in a corner of her mouth.

Through it all, she never let cancer defeat her. She continued to maintain her immaculate home, play bridge, travel, bet on the ponies, go all out decorating for every holiday — not just Christmas — take shopping trips, attend the symphony, entertain friends and much more.

And, she always was dressed to the nines.

Aunt Evie, Mom and me.

Always when; never if

Cancer continued to be a cruel bitch. In the months before her death, the melanoma had become more aggressive than ever before. Beginning in October 2011, she had recurrence after recurrence after recurrence.

In February 2012, she underwent four more rounds of chemo, three weeks apart, and this batch was experimental, unlike the interferon all those years ago. But a second medical miracle wasn’t to be.

Swelling above the melanoma in her sinus cavity bumped against and eventually infiltrated her brain, causing confusion and leading to memory loss.

Most days toward the end were spent bundled up in blankets wearing a favorite robe, a crazy pair of socks, her turban in place, sitting in the comfy leather chair a few feet from the TV, tuned more frequently now to QVC than Fox News.

One night, Bill found her holding the TV remote, confusing it with the phone, trying to call QVC to buy yet another “TSV” – Today’s Special Value.

She told him she couldn’t get through for some reason. He told her QVC must’ve been closed. She would’ve gotten a kick out of the story, laughing easily at herself as she’d done in the past.

Miraculously, though, Mom had been able to rally from time to time, mustering enough energy to make regular visits to see her surgeon, her oncologist and her eye doctor — in addition to cancer, she had macular degeneration in both eyes. But every trip took its toll, leaving her exhausted.

To the amazement of everyone, she continued to play bridge, her favorite card game, and the game she’d played for more than 50 years, up until a few weeks before she died.

The battles started taking more and more out of her. There were fewer and fewer victories. But my hero kept fighting that cruel bitch with the true heart of a warrior.

She had fought the good fight until her small frame finally gave out. She stopped eating. She was falling out of bed. Her spouse had no choice but to have her admitted into a healthcare facility that also served as a hospice.

God was merciful, though, and her stay was a short one.

The day after being admitted into Room 202 at Blair Ridge Healthcare Campus in Peru, IN, was her 32nd wedding anniversary. But she couldn’t keep hold of that fact despite being reminded several times by her husband.

For the next couple of days, Mom was more out of it than in as morphine eased her excruciating headaches. There were a few snippets of meaningless yet cherished conversations between long periods of sleep.

On Friday, she slept deeply. Normally a light sleeper, the depth of unconsciousness would have surprised her because usually the bits of conversations floating into her room from the hallway as a vacuum cleaner worked he dirt in the distance would have awakened her.

I sat by her bed, wondering if we’d ever speak again.

Mom and me.

The love of my life

Then God gave me a gift. A nurse brought me a can of Sprite and a glass of ice. Because she’d been able to sleep through all the racket just outside her door, I never thought the sound of a pop tab and the hiss of carbonation would wake Mom up.

But her eyelids flew open, and we looked into each other’s eyes. I moved closer, stroking her hair with one hand. “Mom,” I said, “I love you more than anything in the world.” And she said, “I love you, too, darlin’.”

No sooner had the words escaped her mouth than her eyes were fluttered closed. She didn’t speak again, and I thought Friday would be the last time I’d see her alive.

But she rallied a bit on Saturday. She said she wanted to go home and sleep in her own bed. In the lunchroom, she looked around and said to me, “Look at all these old people!” Then, always concerned about my health, she added, “You need to take care of yourself so you don’t end up in a place like this.”

As I was leaving Mom’s room early that evening, her partner was standing beside her bed and said for me to give him a holler if I needed anything.

Looking like a baby bird peeking its head out of a nest, Mom’s head popped up  from beneath the blankets ,and she said, “Hoo! Hoo!”

Like Dorothy loved her scarecrow, I always will love my hero most of all.

Happy Birthday, Mom.