JoEllen Marie Hewitt is my mom, my hero, my best friend. She is a woman loved by many, because she loves so well. Her impact is far reaching because her life isn’t about herself. Everywhere my mom goes she takes the opportunity to lift people up and make them smile. This summer, my mom was diagnosed with a Grade III Anaplastic Astrocytoma. While the prognosis for such a brain tumor isn’t great, my mom continues to be externally-focused, spreading laughter, joy, and hope to those around her, like she always has.
My mom is one of those people who has never met a stranger, and will approach just about anyone to talk about anything. During my adolescent years, this embarrassed me a lot! I remember a time when I was probably in high school and my mom walked up to a guy with tons of tattoos and piercings and a mohawk in the grocery store and asked him, in all sincerity, if getting “all those” tattoos and piercings hurt, and how many he has, and “what does this tattoo here mean?” Instead of being bothered by her inquisition, as I assumed he would be, the guy happily answered her questions, seemingly touched that someone took an interest in him. That’s the general effect my mom has on most people. She has this uncanny ability to make people feel so very cared for and special. Like her “backdoor” 12-year-old neighbor that she has been a pen pal of sorts with for several years. They write one another notes and pass them over the back fence in a tennis ball canister. The neighbor recently wrote to my mom that she hopes she gets better soon because “you’re like a mom to me.” She is one of those people that is so easy to talk to and relatable that she has many “children.” I remember my friends in high school loved coming over and talking with my mom, sometimes more than they seemed to like talking to me! She has been a leader in her church youth group for a number of years, and has developed very close relationships with so many kids there over the years. My mom is also a school teacher. For many years she taught 3rd grade, but now she teaches kindergarten. She genuinely loves her students, and aims to teach them not only the objectives they are supposed to learn, but about LIFE. Every start of the school year she shows her students a video of Nick Vujicic, an Australian man with no arms or legs, who travels around the world speaking about the hope that he has in spite of his life circumstances, and you can’t watch the video without thinking, “Wow – I am so much better off than he is, but I am nowhere near that positive!” She shows the students the video for them to know that no matter what they have going on in their life, there is hope and they are valuable, and if they can learn this at the young age of 5 or 6, they will go far in life.
My mom is funny. A family friend’s four young children know my mom by the name“Funny Jo,” because she is always making everyone laugh. She likes to play this game with my brothers and I when we are cranky where she’ll just make goofy faces or laugh with a Woody Woodpecker laugh until we crack a smile, and eventually are rolling on the floor crying with laughter. Laughter is important, especially in tough times. The day after my mom’s brain tumor was discovered, my mom asked a nurse a question that she had apparently already asked, and she explained her repetition by saying, “Well, I have a brain tumor, you know” with a goofy grin on her face. I thought it was “too soon” for such jokes, because at this point we still didn’t know if it was cancerous or how serious it was, but it wasn’t too soon for my mom. She likes to laugh and to make others laugh.
And this woman is strong – SO strong! When my mom had a brain biopsy and we learned that the brain tumor was a bit more aggressive than originally thought, and that it was inoperable due to its large size and location on the brain, she didn’t break down. She stayed strong and didn’t shy away from learning the facts and the long term prognosis. She wanted to know the best treatment plan for her and how soon she could get started. Her neuro oncologist, Dr. Morris Groves, determined that the best course of action was to do radiation followed by chemotherapy, so that’s the course she started on. She went through 7 weeks of radiation, and experienced the side effects of intense headaches, dizziness, shaking, tenderness to the radiation site, and hairloss. The steroids she was put on to counter those effects had side effects of their own, including weight gain, back pains, a rash, memory loss, and moodiness. Even while going through this, my mom’s focus wasn’t on herself. I told you she makes friends wherever she goes, and the radiation office was no exception. She made friends with all of the nurses, office staff, technicians, and other patients. When it came time for my mom’s last radiation treatment, the whole staff and her patient friends gathered around her as she rang the bell signifying the end of her treatment, and they stayed around to eat cake and talk, happy that my mom’s treatment was over, but sad they wouldn’t be seeing her anymore. It was so special to see the lives she touched in those short 7 weeks!
After a month long break, where she had MRIs and other testing done, my mom started chemotherapy with a drug called Temodar. To date my mom has undergone 4 chemo treatments. Throughout this time she has continued to experience the headaches, dizziness and weakness, and then you can also add to the list nausea, loss of appetite, very low blood counts, extreme tremors, and seizures. To this point, she has had two platelet transfusions, and has been set back a few weeks on her chemo treatments.
My mom has continued to teach full time this whole time. My parents divorced four years ago, so my mom is also a single parent to my 17-year-old brother, Christian. It hasn’t been easy, especially with her blood levels and energy being so low on chemo, but my mom has great support around her. Her principal and staff have been so helpful and understanding during this process, for which we are so thankful. Additionally, she has received so much help from friends and family, both near and far, in the form of trimming the bushes, helping with household repairs, making meals, and sending encouraging letters and cards. Lastly, after finishing up graduate school this summer in California, my brother Jake moved back home. He is an amazing son and helper. He helps my mom with meals, transportation, coordination of all of her appointments and blood work, staying on the phone with the pharmacy when her Temodar isn’t ready when it should be, communicating with my mom’s neuro oncologist and PA, and making sure my mom is getting enough rest, water, etc. After moving back home, Jake got a job as a substitute teacher, working mostly at my mom’s school. He has since gotten a full time job in social work, but continues to plan his schedule around my mom’s. I don’t know what we’d do without Jake!
My mom has gone through all of this while maintaining a positive attitude and staying in great spirits. This has been so inspiring to everyone around her, yet not totally surprising to those who know her well. That is because her hope is not in this world. Yes, we hope and pray that her cancer goes away. We would throw the biggest party known to man if a cure for cancer were found, or if God chose to miraculously lift the tumor out of her head like a hot air balloon (a vision my mom had toward the beginning of radiation that we pray comes true – hot air balloons have become a beautiful symbol of hope for us!), but our hope, my mom’s hope, doesn’t rest in those things. Her hope is in the fact that Jesus Christ died for her and has promised her eternal life. And not just eternal life, but abundant life in the here and now! So, we might not know how long my mom has left on this earth (no one knows that but God), but we do know that He has a purpose for every day she has left. My mom lives her life with that purpose. She always has, and she will continue to – even in the midst of this nasty thing called cancer. She has said that she trusts that God is using her cancer to carry out His plans and that if just one person comes to know the Lord because of her cancer, it would be worth it. That is the kind of faith my mom has, and that is why I am nominating her for the Keeping the Faith Award.
* May 12, 2014 we began to honor the memory of Jo.