Rising to the challenge

4 Harford mothers discover their strength in the face of adversity and become models for their children

May 13, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

They are mothers just like so many other women, but these Harford County moms have faced uncommon challenges and hardships.

A Bel Air mother who learned that her 9-year-old son had a rare bone cancer; an Edgewood woman who was left to raise nine children alone after her husband was shot and killed by a would-be gang member; the mom from Abingdon who endured her husband's deployment to Afghanistan; and a Fallston woman who faced providing long-term care for her husband, who was stricken with Parkinson's disease.

Yet each has met her tribulations head-on. And how they handled adversity has served to inspire not only family members, but other women and mothers around them.

Heidi Henkel

When her husband received orders to go to Afghanistan, Heidi Henkel was scared. She and her 2-year-old son, Connor, would be on their own for the first time, and for more than a year.

But instead of withdrawing, the Abingdon resident began helping other moms, said her friend Kim Kelly.

Through connections made in a community mothers group, she reached out to others, baby-sitting and cooking, as well as calling and spending time with other mothers. Some were wives of deployed soldiers; others were moms who needed help after having had a baby.

"Many moms lost loved ones and had tough times when their husbands were gone, and Heidi was always there for them, cooking meals, calling and e-mailing," Kelly said.

Henkel, 31, learned about reaching out to others from her mother long ago. Sharon Heidenreich, 61, took Henkel and her brother to shelters and other locations where they fed homeless people, Henkel said.

"She gave everything she could to help people who had nothing," Henkel said.

Michelle Guess

Nothing could have prepared Michelle Guess for the news that her husband, Derald, a minister, had been killed by a teenager who was being initiated into a gang. When police came to her Edgewood home to tell her, she repeatedly told them that her husband didn't leave her to raise her children alone.

"I paced the floor," Guess said. "I didn't believe it until I went down and identified his body."

She didn't know what to do. But her children, ranging in age from 5 to 22, told her that they had to forgive the teenager who shot their father, she said.

Guess made herself keep going for her children.

"I spent a lot of time in prayer," she said. "I crawled around in my bed and prayed. I asked God what to do, because my husband was the strength of my family."

What impresses her eldest daughter, Michelle, 21, most about her mother is her strength, she said.

"She is strong for us and she makes it look easy," she said. "It was never about what she lost with her - it was about what we lost."

The daughter is most impressed by her mother's compassion for young people, adding that she talks with gang members and invites them into the family's home.

"She is like my father was before he was killed," Michelle said. "She tells us that my dad would want her to do that. The gang members in the gang who shot my father came here and apologized to her, and they don't hang around the park by our house out of respect to my mom."

Nancy Gardner

About 30 years ago Nancy Gardner learned that her husband, Albert, had Parkinson's disease. She cared for him in their Fallston home.

Her long-term efforts to take care of her husband became a valuable lesson for her children.

"My mother taught us what it meant to be a true life partner," said daughter Karen Honecker.

During that time, although she didn't have as much time as she wanted to spend with her four daughters, she tried to teach them to be the best people that they could be, she said.

Eventually her husband, who was an attorney and an accountant, could no longer be cared for at home and was placed in a nursing home. That's when her daughters demonstrated what they had learned from their mother.

"The girls made a schedule and every night one of them was there to feed their father," said Gardner, who also has 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. "I was very proud to be their mother."

Susan Lanman

Susan Lanman said she always wanted to be a mother. However, she never imagined the challenges she would face when she learned in January 2006 that her 9-year-old son, Benjamin, had Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer.

The Bel Air mother of two decided that perspective was everything when it came to facing the difficulties of her son's illness. And in some cases Benjamin led the way.

After losing his hair during chemotherapy, Benjamin turned it into a source of levity by staging skits with his sister, Olivia, where they pretended she was pulling his hair out. Benjamin laughed about it, and so did the rest of the family, Lanman said.

"We did whatever we could to make his hair loss normal. We kissed his little bald head at night and rubbed it for good luck," she said. "Then when his hair grew back we mourned the loss of his baldness. Perception is everything."

Said Benjamin: "My mom always knows how to make me feel better."

Lanman made sure that Olivia, 11, did not feel neglected. She signed her daughter up in a program that provides support the siblings of children with cancer.

"It is a program where you don't have to feel like you are alone, and that someone cares about you," said Olivia, a sixth-grader at Southhampton Middle School. "She did it secretly and I thought it was an awesome thing for her to do."

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