Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Quiet Ones are Always the Fiercest

I'm going to keep going with the theme of family strength (Strength through the Generations).  I've focused on my "blood" family and their individual shows of strength.  But we can't forget those who have married into our brood. We are attracted to the strong.  And it shows itself in the most incredible and heartbreaking ways.

My Kerkhoffs can be a bit overwhelming.  I admit it.  There's no reason to hide from it.  We can't escape it.  But I think we tend to forget that not everyone is like us--loud and opinionated.  I think our "ways" are fabulous, but it did take me some years to realize that not all people share my views on this particular subject. 

I loved Joni right away, but she was quiet.  And we weren't used to that.  We were used to Joe and Henry, and I think we scared her a bit (ok, A LOT!).  Thinking back, I can't imagine walking into our family.  I often wonder how Eric "prepped" her for meeting us.

I always appreciated how much Joni welcomed me.  I visited them in Houston for a week, and one of the things that struck me was how much she actually seemed glad to have me invade her home for that long!  And what great memories I have of that trip--watching "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" and drinking cheap Mexican beer with Eric.  My brother literally having to escort Joni and me out to the car after one too many excellent margaritas at a fantastic local Mexican restaurant, Spanish Village.  Cold Stone Creamery (before they were everywhere).  Fabulous dinners out every night.  This was before I started my glamorous job in the airline business, so I loved the excitement of traveling to their home.

Sarah.  I'll never forget when Mom told me.  For some reason, I had stopped over at Mom and Dad's, and Mom was crying.  She said that Eric had called and told them that Sarah had died.  Joni was just about at her due date and went in for her last scheduled checkup.  Just as at every prenatal visit, the doctor used that little gadget to listen for Sarah's heartbeat.  I can't imagine the silence in that room.  The suffering of Joni as she waited for the sound of Sarah.  Then the doctor performed an ultrasound and confirmed the unthinkable.

She had a knot in her cord, and when she "dropped" in preparation to be born, the knot was pulled too tight.  How on earth could a knot form?  When Sarah was just a wee little one, she "swam the wrong way" and tied a knot in her own cord.  Up until the end of the pregnancy, the knot was loose enough to not impact Sarah's growth and nutrition.  It wasn't until the end that it was too tight to be able to sustain her.

True Knot Complications

I remember being very shocked when Mom told me that they were inducing Joni's labor.  WHAT???!!!  I couldn't understand why they didn't just give her a C-section.  Why make Joni go through all of that?  Why "punish" her that way?  When Joni and I talked about Sarah after that, she told me that she was so glad that she was able to give birth to Sarah without having to have a C-section.  I must've given her a strange look because I'll never forget her looking at me and saying, "It was the last 'motherly' thing I was able to do for Sarah.'"  Oh my God!  Twenty one years later, I am still brought to tears by her "simple" statement.

However, after Mom told me the news about Sarah, I simply couldn't process the news.  I had just had Nick 6 weeks before.  We were all numb.  At some point that day (after Eric told us but before Sarah was born), I walked past Mom and Dad's bedroom door, and I heard Dad praying.  "Please God, I've had a long life.  Take me.  Please don't take Sarah.  Take me."   He kept repeating this prayer, over and over, as he was sobbing.

In the years that have passed since Sarah, I have always marveled at Eric and Joni.  Sarah was and will always be an important part of our family.  But I think I was most amazed at the fact that Eric and Joni were never bitter.  Grieving parents?  Yes.  Bitter?  No.  Strong?  Yes.  And amazing.

And then they had Hope.  What a fantastic story her life is!  But that's for another blog entry.

I don't even know how to write about Joni's battle with Stage 4 ovarian cancer.  Because words can't do it justice.  Anything I write will seem trite, and I will never be able to convey Joni's fierceness.

Eric, Joni, and Hope came to "my" Joe's First Communion Party in May, 2004.  It was only a few days after the party that Eric told Mom and Dad that doctors had found cancer cells in the fluid they had drained from around Joni's lungs (I think I have these details correct, but I may be mistaken about the diagnosis and timing).  When I asked Mom why Eric or Joni hadn't said anything when they were at the party, Mom said that Eric told her that Joni didn't want to ruin Joe's day.  That's Joni, thinking of others even in the midst of the storm.

I will simply tell you that I never remember Joni complaining about anything concerning her treatment and/or diagnosis.  As a matter of fact, Eric called me one time to ask me if I could get Joni to the ER because she was getting dehydrated after her chemo (this is when they lived in Mason), and he would meet us at the ER (he was at work, and I could get her to Bethesda North quicker).  I rushed over to their house and got her in the car.  And during our drive to the ER, she kept apologizing that I "had" to come and get her and how sorry she was that she was "inconveniencing" me.  I finally told her to stop it!

She kept fighting and was declared in remission, against incredible odds.  Her "numbers" went up a little bit after a few years, she had chemo, and they came back down.  But that remission didn't last long.  Then she began her last fight.

For me, her last battle was a bit of a blur.  We all deal with things in our lives and get caught up in our own stuff.  And at this time, Eric and Joni were living up in a Chicago suburb.  Eric always kept us updated with how Joni was doing with chemo and things.  And then he e-mailed us on New Year's Day, 2012.  He had rushed her to the ER and after being in the hospital for a few days, they found and removed tumors that were totally blocking her intestines.  They also found that the cancer had "seeded" itself in numerous places on her abdominal wall.

I was driving up to Chicago while she was in surgery.  About half way into my drive, my sister Betsy called me to tell me the news of what they discovered.  By the time I got to the hospital, she had just been taken from Recovery and settled into her regular hospital room.  Eric told me that she hadn't been told yet, so I quickly said hello to her, gave her a kiss and left the room so the doctor and Eric could tell her.

Eric got in touch with me a while later and met me in the hospital cafeteria.  He said that she wasn't surprised by what they had found.  She had suspected.  No screaming.  No tantrums.  Just calm.  And strong.  Again.

One of the clearest memories of that day was when a nurse came in and asked her about her nausea level.  Joni was very nauseous due to the chemo and pain meds, and the nurse explained to both Joni and Eric that she couldn't receive the anti-nausea medication again for a certain number of hours.  But she could find out if the doctor could prescribe something else that could be given to her more quickly.  She asked Joni about what her nausea level was (I think she gave Joni a scale of 1-10).  For me, it would've been a TEN (I'm the type who wants laughing gas to get my teeth cleaned, so that tells you a little bit about my tolerance level), but Joni told the nurse that it was maybe a 3 or 4 (I think those were the numbers she said).  The nurse told Joni and Eric that she'd ask the doctor about changing the medication.  And Joni said, "Whenever you have time."

For me, her response to the nurse was and is very telling about Joni.  She was not self centered.  She always thought of others, even as she was going through something like this.  She knew that she wasn't the nurse's only patient and knew that the nurse was busy.  How many of us could say that we'd respond the way that Joni did?  I can't.  I'd be screaming to get me the freaking medication!  Again, it's that "quiet" strength of hers.  Just another example in a long litany of them.

It was amazing to talk to her during those days.  She told me that she kept a journal with her always.  Very close so that she could write in it whenever she felt the desire.  She kept a bag next to her with things she needed.  After a dream, she asked me to order some red maracas for her so she could SHAKE them at cancer when she got mad.  She also told me that when she was given units of blood, she always prayed for the people who had donated it.  Please think about that for a moment.  Because that "simple" act says so much about who she was and is.  She didn't pray for herself while getting the blood.  No.  She prayed for those who had taken the time to donate it.

And her fight continued on for a little over 12 months.  More surgeries, "permanent" g-tube to drain her stomach, numerous CT scans, infections, fevers, antibiotics, chemo, blood clots, low blood pressure......

According to her doctors, Joni was "off the charts" in terms of the length of her survival.  She had cleared so many hurdles that she had approached while running her race.

However, eventually the chemo stopped providing any clinical benefit to her.  Joni was told that she was approaching "end of life."  I still can't wrap my brain around it.  Although it didn't seem to make sense (to my non medical brain), the fluids and liquid nutrition she was receiving started causing more harm than good.  The fluids and liquid nutrition had to be stopped.  Joni then made the decision to receive hospice care.

Our family rushed up to Chicago.  I was in LA and immediately flew there to be with them.   During the days that my sisters, parents, and I were up there (our brother Jim had visited the weekend before), we talked to each other a lot about how Joni walked through this trial of hers.  I remember one conversation with my sister Kathy about how different Joni was compared to how we suspected we'd be.  As Kathy told me, "It would all be about ME!"  And we laughed (there were many times that if we didn't laugh, we'd cry--and we cried a lot) because Joni wasn't like that.  Not when she was first diagnosed, not as she was going through years of chemo, and not during this time.

Joni experienced incredible dreams during her last days.  My eldest sister Karen, who shares a horrific bond with Eric (And the Strength Continues....), asked if she had seen anyone who had passed away.  And this is the answer Karen received:  We Lost--But We Won.

The hospice nurse had told us that, when we walked into Joni's room, we should always tell her who we were so she'd know who was in the room with her.  We'd also tell her if we had to leave the room.  But the nurse also told us to tell her that it was ok "to go."  There was always someone with her, and when we were in the room we'd talk to her, pray for/with her, and/or just be silent with her.

I remember asking her who else was in the room with us (when I was alone with her).  One of my favorite Scriptural passages is Heb 12.1, We Are Surrounded By a Great Cloud of Witnesses.  And I would ask Joni, "Who is here with us?  Who's in the Cloud that is surrounding you?"  This actually became a main topic of discussion for us.  She couldn't answer me with words, but a little while later, I was given the answer.

A few of our sisters and our parents had to get back, so they drove home on Saturday morning.  I was able to stay up there, so that Saturday, it was Eric, Hope, Karen and me.  Eric asked Karen and me if we could take 3 hour "shifts" through Saturday night.  Eric would take the 11pm-2am shift, I'd take the 2am-5am shift, and Karen would take the last one.

On January 27, 2013, at 2 am, I went upstairs to be with Joni.  Eric told me that her breathing hadn't changed.  He also told her that he was going to go downstairs and try to get some sleep, and I told her that she was stuck with me for a few hours.  I talked to her for a few minutes, and then Hope came in to say goodnight to her mommy.  After her "goodnight," Joni and I were alone and we "talked" again for a minute or two.  I had brought my laptop upstairs with me so that I could concentrate on something through the night, and I started surfing the web.  I was sitting on their bed, which was next to the hospital bed Joni was in.

At about 2:20-2:25 am, I noticed that the wifi signal was very weak (not at all usual for Eric's excellent wifi service).  And then the wifi connection dropped completely.  I moved my cursor over the wifi signal on the top of my screen, and I don't remember seeing their network listed as one that my computer could pick up.  But I waited for the connection to reestablish itself (as it always had in the past), but it didn't.  The wifi connection was completely gone.

During all of this, Joni's breathing was exactly the same as it had been.  After realizing that the wifi was gone, I closed my laptop and put it to the side of me.  A second later, a minute later, 2 minutes later......I'm not sure how long the pause lasted.  But then Joni's breathing changed.  I remember sitting up straight and waiting.  She breathed again, and then......nothing.  I quickly jumped up and told her that I knew that we had all been telling her that it was ok to go, but would she please hold on for just a minute until I could get everyone in the room.  Eric didn't hear me call for him the first time (I didn't yell down the stairs), so I quickly ran into the guest bedroom where Karen was sleeping to tell her to get up.  Hope was across the hall in her room and heard me.  She and I both ran into her parents' room, and when Hope got into the room, Joni took another breath.  I ran down the stairs to get Eric.  When the four of us were all with her, she took one more breath.  And then...........

I can never articulate how privileged I felt and feel to be allowed to be in that room with them.  I was given an incredible blessing.

At some point, I walked downstairs to make the phone calls to our sisters and brother.  After that was taken care of, I sat down on their family room couch and opened up my laptop.  And when the wifi connection was quickly established, I remembered what had happened in her room right before she began her "transition."  I use that word because I can't think of another one in the English language that adequately describes what was happening to Joni during those moments.

Was the spiritual energy so incredible in the room at that moment that wifi simply could not NOT be interrupted?  Was it at that moment that Joni's entire "cloud of witnesses" came to be with her and escort her Home?

When I told Eric about it, he knew what had happened.  It was when Sarah came to take her Mommy Home.  The wifi password for their home has Sarah's name in it because in my brother's words, "She is everywhere but can't be seen; like wifi."

Hope gave me a bit of another "angle" for it, too.  I told her that perhaps the wifi dropped, in part, because I needed to be fully present for what was about to happen (not that I wouldn't have noticed the change in Joni's breathing, but that I needed to not be distracted in any way when it started).  Hope smiled and told me that her mom would always tell her, "Put the computer down and be PRESENT."  I've also heard that Joni would give "grief" to Hope if she were texting while they were eating.

A couple of days after Joni passed from this earthly life to her Heavenly home, my brother created this for her:

Joni's funeral was held at The Holy Spirit Center in Norwood, Ohio, a place she loved and felt an immediate connection to.

Holy Spirit Center

My brother told me that when he went to speak to the managing director to thank them for allowing Joni's funeral to be held there, he was told that the employees were curious about Joni.  This was the first funeral ever allowed to be held there, and they had to receive special permission from the Archbishop of Cincinnati.  Because the Archbishop gave permission, the priest who said the mass is the President and Rector of Mount St. Mary's Seminary (the Archbishop didn't assign the mass to him--he was given the mass "out of luck"), and the organist and singer who agreed to do the music for Joni's mass used to be at St. Peter in Chains (obviously, all of those involved are rather "big" in the Archdiocese) the employees asked, "Who is this Joni Kerkhoff?  She must be someone important."

Yes, she was and is someone important.

She was a warrior.


Joni Sue Veale Kerkhoff
15 March 1959 - 27 January 2013


  1. Beautiful post - beautiful tribute! Love you, K

  2. Very moving and beautifully written. Thank you for sharing that.

    When you first mentioned the WiFi drop, my first thought -- before I even read the next sentence -- was of what my husband told me when his beloved paternal grandmother died (she died at home, suddenly). It was 17 years ago, my hubby and I weren't yet married. He was on-line at the time, but was on dial-up (only option available then -- indeed, it was the only option available to us for years), and he only had the one phone line in the house. His Internet connection went wonky, as did his phone line -- his dad, I think it was, had to drive up to the house to tell my husband in person about his grandmother (we only live a 1/4 mile or so, if that, from my in-laws, and my father-in-law's parents lived next to them, on their acreage).

    Hubby believes it was her energy and spirit reaching out to him through the Internet/phone line connection -- reaching out to him and saying goodbye.

    1. Missie, that's amazing! Again, that incredible Cloud of Witnesses! Thank you so much for sharing your husband's beautiful experience.