Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My Mother's Strength

On Sunday, my family met for incredibly delicious brisket at my brother Rick's house. When we were too stuffed to move, we all sat around reminiscing. My mom's sisters Judy and Mary were visiting from Indiana, along with Mary's husband Dave. The stories we told were familiar, but having my aunts there provided another perspective and filled in a few more details. One story in particular moved me to tears....

My aunts and uncle got to talking about how sweet Rick (Ricky, then) was as a boy. They said he was always talking (and lisping), and he looked so cute with his little glasses. Aunt Mary recalled one thing he said when my dad was late getting home: "Was you in a hole?" Apparently my mom had remarked that she didn't know what was keeping him; he must have fallen in a hole.

Monica, Dolores (Mom), Melody

Monica, Dolores, Ricky, Melody

Mary also related a bittersweet memory about my sister Michele's homecoming. Michele was born with many severe birth defects including microcephaly (a small head and underdeveloped brain), a cleft lip, and a cleft palate. Before my parents brought her home, they tried to prepare Rick and Melody. (I wasn't born yet.) They told them that Michele didn't look like other babies, and I guess Rick took that to mean she wasn't pretty like other babies.

When Mom showed him the baby, Rick (age 6) said, "Oh, Mommy! She has such pretty eyes!" She really did have pretty eyes, and this simple appreciation for the beauty in a difficult situation brought tears to the adults' eyes. My own eyes filled with tears when Mary told the story, and when I saw tears in my dad's eyes, I almost broke into sobs. It's hard to understand how sorrow can seem so fresh after 46 years, and how I can feel grief for a sister I never knew.

Mom shared a bit about the experience. It was hard to listen, but I think even now it helps her to talk about what happened. Here's what happened....

Losing Monica

When my sister Monica Sue was five years old, she fell against a license plate and suffered a severe gash to her skull. She healed from the injury, but she later developed a brain tumor on the scar. By the time the tumor was diagnosed, she was in critical condition. My mom stayed with her at Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis (about three hours from their home) for several weeks.

Monica Sue, Age 5

On her sixth birthday--June 27, 1962--Monica underwent surgery to remove the tumor. Initially, Mom and Dad had wanted to wait until the next day, but they listened to the doctors' urging and allowed the surgery on her birthday. After that, she suffered continually until she finally lapsed into a coma and died on July 18.

Understandably, Mom fell into a profound depression. She was given strong tranquilizers to help her cope with her grief and the demands of raising two other small children. At the time, she told her family doctor that she thought she was pregnant, but he didn't listen. He told her that the delusion of pregnancy is a common reaction to dealing with the loss of a child.

More Heartaches
She really was pregnant, and the medication caused severe defects. Michele Sue was born six months after Monica died, on January 10, 1963. This was, of course, before the days of sonograms, so Michele's condition was a devastating surprise.

The doctor told Mom she shouldn't even hold her baby because she wouldn't be able to keep her. He advised placing her in an institution immediately. Mom started crying and couldn't stop. A nurse later came in and showed her how to feed Michele with a special nipple. She told Mom and Dad to take their baby home if they wanted to.

That's what they did, but life was very difficult. Due to her underdeveloped brain, Michele never slept more than an hour at a time. She also cried incessantly, and feeding was a terrible ordeal because it literally choked her.

After a couple of months, Mom just couldn't manage it any longer. She was unable to sleep, and she had no energy to care for Melody and Rick. She and Dad reluctantly admitted Michele to Riley's Children's Hospital in Indianapolis. The hospital then transferred Michele to a day care home in Noblesville.

They were able to visit her every other Sunday. She never did develop beyond a newborn state, and she was sickly. She finally died of pneumonia at the age of eight months.

A couple of years later, Melody nearly died from a ruptured appendix. Mom begged God not to take another child from her, and Melody recovered. The doctor told her afterward that he hadn't expected her to survive; she had peritonitis, and people didn't usually recover from that.

God's Grace

No matter how many times I hear these stories, I am amazed at my mother's strength. I can't imagine going through what she suffered and surviving. Mom never lost her faith. In fact, her faith grew through these trials.

She and Dad had grown up in church, but they had drifted away during their early marriage. After the loss of Monica, Mom was despondent for months. It was through the love of a friend, Louella, that Mom began to heal. Here is an excerpt from Mom and Dad's autobiography, which I am currently transcribing and editing:
In those days, they didn’t have support groups for people that were grieving. But I had a friend who came over, and she said, “I’m coming over. I’ve been praying and asking the Lord what I could do for you. He impressed on me that I need to come over and get you and take you to my house, and you can’t do anything but talk about your child while we’re there. And if you try to talk about anything else, I’m going to make you talk about your child.”

Then I felt like it was God sending her, and to this day, I know it was God sending her. She did just what she said. If I got off the subject, she’d get me right back on. That helped me heal. That did more for me than what anybody’s prayers did. It was all because she was willing as a Christian to pray and ask the Lord what she could do to help me. So I always felt a warm spot for her because she had five of her own children, but she still had time for me. It helped me to move on, or at least to deal with the grief that was inside, that I didn’t know how to get rid of.

God chose to bless Mom and Dad with three more children: Amy (1964), me (1970), and Emily (1974). At first, she was afraid that she would lose us, too, but eventually she relaxed and enjoyed mothering her five children. She had always wanted to have five children, and she got her wish.

I'm not sure why I wanted to share these stories, but I just felt I needed to. My mother is an amazing woman, and I wanted to share her with my (small) world.


Mindy said...

I'm really glad you shared these stories. I asked about Monica and Michele when I was younger but didn't really understand what had happened and never really thought about asking again. This really shook me up, like I said I had an idea about everything but not specifically, so hearing about grandma and grandpa's strength and the sorrow they dealt with brought me to tears (lots of them). It always makes me sad around the holidays when we're all celebrating thanksgiving and christmas when I think about the missing aunts and uncle I never had the chance to meet who are missing from our families. Thanks for posting this Sarah. I wish I could have been there on Sunday but nobody mentioned anything about it until I called my dad Sunday night when everybody was over there. There will be another time though :-)

Melissa Irwin said...

wow...i'm speechless

Gentle said...

Your mom is an amazing women. A strong and beautiful women. I feel blessed to have her (and your sister) in our bible study group.


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