Tuesday, June 14, 2011


My sister-in-law should host a late night talk show.  I've always said so.

Mary Turner is simply a female version of my husband John - funny, sarcastic, evil.  That's why I love her.  Like her smart-aleck brother, she makes me laugh til my stomach hurts.

"I can't wait to make this trip," she always jokes about traveling from the most scenic part of the Rockies where she and her family reside to the stark hot plains of Nebraska where we live.  "My friends are SO jealous."

Mary drove 14 hours over the mountains and through the plains this last weekend to give me one last hurrah before my surgery on Thursday.  And that's the other thing I love about my sister-in-law.  She's the kindest, most giving person alive.

Mary and her husband Ross live in Montrose, Colorado, where Ross owns a Chevrolet/Toyota dealership.

"WE SCREW THE OTHER GUY AND PASS THE SAVINGS ONTO YOU!" he announces in his cheesiest t.v. voice.  Ross is a smart aleck, too.  In truth, however, he is exactly the opposite of the stereotypical slick car salesman.  Ross is steady and good and as civic minded as they come, and he'd give the shirt off his back to any poor slob who asked.

Mary brought along her youngest daughter Laura this weekend while Ross stayed behind to tend to the car business.  Emily, their oldest daughter, is finishing up nursing school, and David, their 20-year-old, is fighting fires this summer in the Colorado mountains.  Emily and David are bright, fun, exceptional college students who will one day make their marks on the world in a big way.  But little Laura's life has been vastly different.

Seventeen years ago, Laura was born with her meningocele, the membranes that cover the brain and part of the spine, outside her head.  She was life-flighted to Children's Hospital in Denver where doctors performed emergency surgery and gently explained to Ross and Mary that Laura's brain was severely damaged.  "We don't know if she'll ever walk or talk," they delivered the news to my stunned sister and brother-in-law.

Laura was, in fact, so injured that she had to be taught the instinctive urge of every newborn to suck.  For weeks and weeks, her tiny body clung to life, and Mary and Ross worked desperately to help their little daughter sustain nourishment and thrive.  It was a very bleak time, and our hearts ached to think of the road ahead for little Laura and her parents.

But Mary, the best mother I've ever known in my life and certainly the most determined, sought out help from every available resource - doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, Head Start.  From the day Laura was born, Mary and Ross committed the rest of their lives to the happiness and well being of their baby daughter and worked hard to create a cheerful, loving world around her. 

The Turner house is always filled with light, music, precious momentos and the smell of Mary's phenomenal cooking.  She and Ross make parenting a child with special needs look so easy.  The two of them are a team seamlessly dividing Laura's care between them.  Laura's bladder and bowels have to be emptied by catheter tubes five times a day. All her toiletry and basic needs are tended to by her parents and her brother and sister.  And at a time when Mary and Ross should be looking forward to an empty nest with their grown children out on their own, the two of them are still full-time parents and always will be.  They have agonized over Laura's tribulations and been overwhelmed by her medical needs, but never - not once - have they ever complained.

Laura adores her father and giggles uproariously at her mother's antics.  Many times I've laughed at Mary's clowning until disarmingly, Laura twines her slender arms around Mary's neck and nuzzles her face.  "Oh Mommy," she sighs with love, "you're so funny." 

At 17, Laura now walks and talks and is loved by an entire community.  And she was delighted for the opportunity to finally attend high school.

"How'd Laura do in school this quarter?" I called Mary back in October.

"Well," Mary hesitated, "she's having a little problem.  Apparently she irritates the other kids sometimes."

I couldn't believe it.  Our sweet Laura?  Tall and slight, Laura attends special education classes at Montrose High School, and though she seems years younger than other kids her age, she's always been a sociable and loveable child.  How in the world could she irritate other kids?

"She sings their names," Mary informed me.  "Over and over."

The two of us burst out laughing.  I thought of all the times I'd seen Laura silently creep around a corner to sneak up on our boys.  "Oh, TOOOOOOMMMMY!" she'd sing out, smiling from ear to ear.

Of all Mary's kids, Laura alone possesses her mother's evil sense of humor.  When her big brother David pretends to collapse on the floor in pain, solely for Laura's benefit, she explodes into screaming giggles.  "Look at Dave, Mom!" she points, loving the violent pratt falls.

Amazingly, Laura has perfect pitch.  Her voice is crystal clear, and she loves to sing.  She's memorized the lyrics to several Broadway shows including PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL.  One afternoon when she was small, she sang for all of us at our house, including Tommy whom she called "Kim".

"Jesus loves the little children," she gazed upward and warbled in her sweet, soft soprano.  Suddenly, she turned to Tommy abruptly.  "Kim!  Sing!" she ordered him.  Startled, Tommy sang.  When Laura issues a command, you hop right to.

Last Sunday, Mary bought tickets for Laura, herself and me to see the musical WICKED in Omaha.  Laura's been listening to the sound track for the last year, and among her stash of precious belongings which include a Justin Bieber doll, a Rapunzel doll, and a Barbie Princess doll, is also a book picturing the cast members of WICKED.

"It'll be your job to keep Laura from singing along with the performers," Mary instructed me in her best school marm voice.

It was a performance I'll never forget.  In the old majestic Orpheum Theater in Omaha, hundreds of us sat spellbound.  Laura squeezed between Mary and me gazing in rapture at the beautiful Glinda and laughing raucously at any scene that even hinted of violence. 

For three glorious hours, I lost myself in the story of Glinda the Good Witch and Elphie, the surprisingly not-so-wicked witch, and reveled in the music and pageantry.  I forgot to worry about going under the knife on Thursday and waking up with drainage tubes attached to my ribs.  The chance to share that wonderful afternoon with Mary and Laura was a stolen moment and such a treat.

Laura and her family have a way of putting this complicated world into perspective for a lot of us.  For six months, I've had my life on hold until my final surgery the day after tomorrow.  But laying aside my worries for three hours at the Orpheum Theater was a gift, pure and simple. 

Laura, however, always lives in the moment.  She has no regrets about the past and no worries about the future.  Sometimes, she wails in frustration when she is unable to communicate her needs to others, but by and large, Laura looks forward to every new day and trusts her good parents completely.

Her birth seemed a great tragedy.  How could any of us have known how vitally important she would become to all of us?  It is because of Laura that her sweet brother has grown into such a compassionate young man and that her sister will soon earn a nursing degree to save lives. It's because of Laura that her Grandma Howard, at an advanced age, felt compelled to work with the disabled and that her cousin Kenny helps coach a Special Olympic's tennis team.

Laura will always be our little girl - forever and ever.  She won't go to college or marry or raise a family.  But her presence in all our lives has been transforming.  She and her remarkable parents show us that with the love of a good family, there's really nothing to fear.  Not the future, not the past - not even a couple of drainage tubes. 

Some events in our lives, like double mastectomies, can appear to be tragic.  In the end, however, we discover that our tragedies sometimes transform into blessings. They often become the very making of us and of those who love us.

Laura Turner, in her complete innocence, has transformed her family and even an entire town.  She has forced us to grow larger and wider and deeper and to see life for what it is - a marvelous gift. 

And if she can make her big brother collapse onto the floor in pain - well, that's just an added bonus.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure if you remember this or not but I remember babysitting at your house and had the pleasure of meeting Laura. This sure put a smile on my face to hear how well she is getting along.