A Lifetime of Perseverance

by Sandra Taylor-Marshall

Expect success. No excuses. No exceptions.

I am. . .

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Perfect life. . . changes in an instant. August 1978

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Reflecting on Wilm's tumor cancer diagnosis. . .

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As a child, perseverance grows within you as you:

. . . find out at age 5 you have cancer, and realize, even though people aren't saying it, you may not live to see your next birthday.

. . . send your mom to read to the lonely little girl three hospital beds over who no one ever visits, knowing that little girl needs a mom too.

. . . ride your bike off a retaining wall, then pick yourself up, get back on, and ride again.

. . . read a whole book from cover to cover, then proudly announce for all to hear, "I just read Morris the Moose Goes To School all by myself!"

. . . pretend not to hear and hold back the tears while others snicker and make jokes about your bald chemotherapy head and your hard plastic scoliosis brace.

As an adolescent, perseverance embeds itself into your soul as you:

. . . move away from the only home you've ever known because your dad changed jobs, determined to make a new name for yourself at a new and bigger high school.

. . . make the decision to continue on after the loss of loved ones, inspired by their forever presence as guardian angels.

As an adult, perseverance becomes a part of your being as you:

. . . figure out how to move forward after miscarriage, feelings of pure elation one moment followed by complete devastation just hours later.

. . . fight for the lives of your babies: one born six weeks premature with pneumonia and the other diagnosed with Juvenile Dermatomyositis, a rare autoimmune disease, at age 5.

. . . give your child weekly Methotrexate shots, knowing the alternative is unspeakable.

. . . walk 60 miles in 3 days to “save the tatas,” hoping that research and funding to fight one dreadful cancer will someday bring knowledge to combat all the others.

. . . return to grad school at the age of 36 to pursue a master's degree while working and raising a family, only to discover your true passion while on the journey.

. . . choose to make the most of each day, having the sense that someday the cancer will return or the side effects of the treatments may just become too much to bear.

My ultimate dream? Becoming a mommy!

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A Letter to My Children: What It Means To Be Your Mom

Dear Taylor and Brandt,

Years ago, there was a little girl who cared for her baby dolls, reading to them, rocking them, feeding them, changing them, and carrying them with her wherever she went. She imagined what it would someday be like to be a real mom, dreaming and wondering, making lists of baby names, planning for when that day would someday arrive.

As a teen, she spent hours babysitting for neighborhood children, playing at the park, riding bikes, watching movies, preparing snacks, and doing crafts. In college, she pursued a degree in elementary education and spent summers running a summer daycare program, making the decision early on to devote her life to children.

That girl was me. And for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a mom more than anything else in my life. So each time your dad and I learned we were going to be parents, I was overwhelmed with pure joy. You were both truly miracles right from the very beginning.

So what does it mean to be your mom? It’s hard to verbalize. Being a mom truly began long before either of you were born. From the anticipation I felt the moment I learned of your new lives inside me to the intense fear at the reality I would forever feel responsible for lives other than my own to worrying about day-to-day decisions I’d be making for others besides myself to pure elation at first moments too numerous to name to frustration for all the times you would dig in your heels to show your independence ~ these were my earliest thoughts as a mom.

Now, the proud mother of two teenage boys, ages 16 and 13, I can say without hesitation it has been the hardest job I have ever had. The emotions are too numerous to name. I have watched each of you grow into young men, the qualities of your character developing over time. Your independence, stubbornness, and resiliency have, at times over the years, made me want to pull my hair out, yet these qualities will certainly take you far as adults. But far greater is the pride and admiration I feel for all you’ve accomplished and for all you have yet to achieve. As we travel this journey called life together, mother and sons, the learning continues each and every day.

Being your mom has come to define much of who I am as a person, as a woman. I have always tried to lead by example, emphasizing the quality of one's character and the importance of treating others the way one wishes to be treated. So there is no greater reward than listening to you play the piano, Taylor, after years of hard work, feeling the music emanate from deep down in your soul, or watching you, Brandt, reach out to an isolated middle school student in need of a friend, so truly alone. So sometimes I wonder: what values did I model as a woman and your mom that may have helped to shape the young men you are becoming and the future husbands and fathers I hope you will someday be? These are my thoughts as I ponder a potential answer to that question. . .

As your mom, I have always tried to model the importance of relationships. As a child, I grew up next door to the most amazing family in the entire world: Ruth, Clarence, and Jane Legler. This was not your ordinary family, but one I believe God planted there for a very special purpose. Ruth and Clarence cared for their daughter, Jane, who was confined to a bed because of cerebral palsy. Although Jane was very limited in how much she could move on her own, she communicated very clearly and loved to spend time with our family. We spent hours day after day at the Legler home, thinking nothing of Jane's limitations. She, Ruth and Clarence all became our family. And since my brother and I rarely saw our grandparents, Ruth and Clarence easily filled that gap with Jane stepping in as the sister I never had. We played cards and Barbie dolls, read books by the hour, celebrated birthdays and holidays, and shared all the ups and downs of our daily lives together. Unfortunately, Jane and Clarence passed away before you both were born, but I couldn't wait for you to meet Ruth, one of the most important people in my life. Ruth was weary, the effects of a long, hard life evident, but her twinkle, the same spark I remembered from my childhood, returned each time the two of you visited. We took her homemade cookies and meals, art projects, and special treats and then captured each happy moment with pictures and videos, sharing them with her during every visit. Her feelings of isolation and loneliness instantly turned to bright spots we hoped would carry her through to our next visit. I hope you will always remember these routine visits and the special times we shared with Ruth until she passed in 2011. More than anything else, I hope it taught you that relationships and family, by blood or by choice, matter.

As your mom, I have always tried to model strength. When you were born six weeks premature with pneumonia, Taylor, I thought I might lose you before I ever had a chance to get to know you. And Brandt, when you were diagnosed at 5 with a very rare autoimmune disease called Juvenile Dermatomyositis, I just couldn't understand why these things always happened to our family. Over time, the shower became my safe haven, to be alone, to cry, to pray. I found myself repeating these same words over and over: "Thank you, God, for all the blessings in my life, but please take care of my babies!" Using the shower to pull myself together, to give me strength, to help me face whatever challenges might be in store that day, I'd come out of the shower feeling rejuvenated and stronger, ready to face yet another day and the two of you with the strength only a mommy needs ~ and everyone else thinks she has.

As your mom, I have always tried to model determination. As you know, I have not always been a PK-5 Literacy Coordinator. Before you were born until you were two, Taylor, I taught 6th grade at Northfield Middle School in Northfield, Minnesota. At that point, your dad and I made the decision to move back to Wisconsin, and I had the opportunity to be a stay-at-home mom. It was the best decision we ever made! Don't get me wrong; it wasn't easy. To avoid daycare, I worked evenings doing medical billing, and continued this till after you were born, Brandt. When I finally made the decision to go back to teaching in 2008, I struggled. I made up my mind I wanted to teach in McFarland, so I applied for various positions. Yet on more than one occasion, I didn't make the cut. True to my nature, I persevered, continued to apply, and worked my way into the system, first as an academic support teacher, then as a Title 1 teacher, then as a 5th grade teacher, and finally to my current position as the PK-5 Literacy Coordinator. Looking back, I now believe things happened that way for a reason. I have truly found my passion. Along the way, I learned determination doesn't mean you'll always get what you want, whether it's a job, a position on a soccer team, Brandt, or a spot in the State Honors Band, Taylor. Determination means making mistakes, learning from them, and making changes, sometimes to be more prepared for the next opportunity that comes along rather than throwing in the towel and saying there will be no next time.

As your mom, I have always tried to model courage. Facing surgery is incredibly frightening, but going into it not knowing if you'll come out alive is even more terrifying, especially when you are considering all the lives you may be leaving behind. In January 2004, I underwent spinal fusion for severe scoliosis. Doctors put rods in my back and replaced six discs. Then in June 2014, I had a bowel resection where doctors removed about six inches of my small bowel. Each time, recovery was cruel, but as your mom, I tried to practice what I preach: Remember there are others out there who have it much worse. Repeating this mantra in my head helped me move forward and push through the pity parties and tough times.

As your mom, I have always tried to model the importance of family. When Grandma Marshall was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer, at the age of 54, I frequently drove the 150 miles back and forth to Marshfield. I acted as liaison among her and Grandpa Marshall and the doctors, explaining procedures, treatments, and medicines. I asked important questions, advocated for the best treatments available, and assisted with her care. As family, that's what we do. We laugh and celebrate together, but we also pick each other up when we just don't feel like we can make it through another day.

As your mom, I have always tried to model the importance of hard work and the value of education. In 2010, I went back for my master's degree at the age of 36. This was no easy task. I had already returned to teaching, at first part-time as an academic support teacher and then full-time as a 5th grade teacher. But more importantly, I was the mom of two busy boys and the wife of a successful full-time architect. Taking classes one night each week and studying for hours on end the other nights, I worked to maintain balance, sometimes successfully, other times not so much. I studied in the bleachers during basketball games, on the sidelines of soccer games, and late at night after everyone else went to bed. When I started to feel guilty, I thought about the example I was setting for each of you: anything is possible if you want it badly enough, and you are willing to work hard to achieve it. Walking across the stage and accepting that degree was truly one of the highlights of my life. Having the two of you there to share it with me -- priceless!

As your mom, I have always tried to model patience and understanding, like the time I found you sitting in the middle of the kitchen table at age 4, Brandt, cutting apart your professional 4-year-old pictures. Or the time just after you turned 16, Taylor, when you came home to tell us you'd backed into someone else's truck. . . a couple nights earlier. Being patient and understanding are not always easy, and I'm not always successful. But as I remind you both, I will always listen, help you problem solve, and love you unconditionally, no matter what!

Reflecting on all these memories makes me wonder. . . Will you look back someday, frustrated that I was so involved, that I struggled to say no to others, that I always pushed myself so hard? Will you ever feel like you were slighted in some way because of what I valued? Will you ever feel like you were somehow pushed aside or lost in the shuffle? Or will you look back and say thank you instead? Thank you. . . for the opportunity to grow and become independent, for the space and the freedom to become individuals, for having faith. I guess only time will tell. . .

In the meantime, I look forward to the future ahead, to watching you both grow into men, excited to see where this journey called life will lead you. Just know the moments I have described for you here are moments I will treasure forever. I love you both to the moon and back!

All My Love,

Your Mom