Everybody’s had one of those days they wish would have never happened. For me, it was April 13th, 2015. One year later, the pain of her death still stings. While part of me wishes I could just sleep through the anniversary of this sorrowful day, I wouldn’t trade a single moment I have to reflect on her life and the memories.
Leona “Lonie” Klein was born on September 16th, 1932 in Liebenthal, Kansas. The daughter of Stephen and Anna (Kreutzer) Herrman and the great-granddaughter of Jacob Herrman Sr. (one of the founding fathers of Liebenthal).
In 1961, she and my grandfather, Irvin, moved to Ellinwood, Kansas, where they ran the C.O. Mammels Grocery. After the store was sold in the mid 1980’s, grandma worked for 27 years in the day care business.
She loved her faith and her community. Grandma was a member of the Daughters of Isabella, the Altar Society, and she was the first female elected to St. Joseph’s Catholic School Board. She was a member of the Chamber of Commerce and shopped local.
Grandma was a child care provider for more than 100 children over her career. Lonie loved caring for children and did so up to age 82 when she was diagnosed with Stage 3 Lung Cancer. It was a dark day that I’ll never forget.
Cancer was a disease she knew all too well. Her sister, Ruby, who lived with her and grandpa, passed from the disease on away January 15th, 1995. I remember the final days leading up to her passing. Grandma stayed up day and night by Ruby’s bedside. You could see the immense sadness in her eyes as she watched helplessly as her sister suffered. She hoped she would not witness the horrible affects of cancer again.
Then only about a year or so later, my grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer. Recent memories of Ruby’s battle flooded her mind. She was once again filled with sadness as cancer came back to haunt their household.
In 1997, while most people were getting ready for the holiday season, grandma was diagnosed with breast cancer.
On December 10th, 1997, just a couple of days after her surgery, my Grandfather passed away after a battle with lung cancer.
Grandma was not going to let cancer defeat her in the same way it claimed her beloved husband. Only a few days after grandpa’s funeral, she was back to work, determined that she would not allow the disease to do any more harm. By the summer of 1998 grandma had indeed defeated cancer.
Life was good. She was a spunky, straight-forward, lover of life. Her favorite holiday was Christmas and dessert was her favorite food group. More than anything she loved her family and her “extended family” of daycare children.
Life changed in an instant. In December of 2014, Grandma went to the doctor for bronchitis. Some tests revealed that perhaps there was more to be concerned about than simply bronchitis. It didn’t seem possible. She was perfectly healthy. She spent most of the summer accompanying me on the campaign trail, at 81 years old, she was still working as a child care provider, she still went out to dinner every Saturday night with her friends.
I’ll not soon forget pacing the hallways of the University of Kansas Medical Center as we waited for the tests to be complete. When the nurse informed my mother and me that grandma’s lung had collapsed during the procedure we too collapsed in shock and sadness. But Lonie was a strong-willed, often times bullheaded Volga German. She pulled out of the procedure wanting nothing more than a chocolate malt and to return home so she could start cooking in preparation for Christmas.
Then it happened. A cloud, filled with grim memories of a holiday season filled with sadness, once again returned. On December 17th, 2014, Grandma was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer.
We went back for another round of tests on December 24th, Christmas Eve, the day before her favorite holiday. I remember the trip home. It will remain the best road trip I’ve ever taken. Grandma and I sang every possible Christmas carol we knew, enjoying desserts and laughs.
The diagnosis scared her. She shared with me that when nobody was around she prayed her rosary, cried, talked to God, talked to my late grandfather. Though she was shaken, she was determined to fight the disease once more. She had people who needed her.
Just before Holy Week, grandma was feeling down. Year after year, she always filled the coffee table with easter grass, eggs, and goodies, creating an enormous easter basket. She didn’t have the strength. So, while she was resting, I went to the store and returned with the supplies to recreate grandma’s signature easter table. When she woke up from her nap, she was thrilled. We sat there, eating goodies and singing, “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.” For a wrinkle in time, it felt like everything was going to be okay.
On April 2nd, 2015, I was having lunch with the Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court when I received a text that grandma requested to be admitted to the hospital. I knew something was seriously wrong. Grandma hated hospitals.
When I arrived at the hospital, I found grandma watching Holy Thursday Mass on television. She cried in front of me. That never happened. I knew something was wrong. But it was too soon. After that, I didn’t sleep much for nearly two weeks.
Stage 3 Lung Cancer is a serious disease. For a woman in her 80’s she gave it one hell of a fight quite literally to her last breath.
I’ll never forget that moment. With her family surrounding her, praying the Litany of the Saints, grandma took her last breath.
At 10:45am on Monday, April 13th, 2015, cancer took the greatest person I’ve ever known, my grandmother.
We completed the prayer. Then we all just stood there in silence. The moment none of us were ready for had arrived. Our matriarch was gone.
Her birthday came and went with no cake, no ice cream, no joy.
Christmas came and went with no caroling, no celebration, no cheer.
By Easter, I found myself clinging to the hope of the Resurrection. Singing “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” alone. Wishing she was here.
A year has passed. A day hasn’t gone by that I haven’t thought of her.
Somebody asked me, “If you could bring her back, would you?”
While I would love more than anything to have my grandmother here again, by my side, I would never want to take her from the splendor of eternal life, where there is no pain, no sickness, no suffering.
When I was a child, she was, as one of her sweaters read, “World’s Greatest Grandma.” As an adult, she walked parade routes with me on the campaign trail, she attended every event I ever hosted, she was my biggest supporter, my most loyal friend.
Everybody’s had one of those days they wish would have never happened.
I refuse to let April 13th be one of those days. While it brought me unspeakable sorrow, it was the day my grandma entered into eternal joy. Today isn’t about me, it’s about her. For that reason, I give thanks for this day.
“Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)
I love you, Lonie.