By Holly Kohler
I remember being asked as I grew up, “Who is your hero?” I was always quick to name my dad, James “Jim” Rooney. I gave many reasons, including the fact he valiantly served three tours of duty on the front lines in Vietnam beginning at the young age of 19. I would talk about the way he supported us four children at school and sporting events with his quiet words of wisdom. Most important was the way he not only loved all of us, but also our mother, with every fiber of his being.
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “inspire” as “to fill with courage or strength of purpose” or “to draw out.” I had really never been asked “Who INSPIRES you?” until recently. The answer was obvious; the woman of my hero’s affection, my mother.
Sharon Rooney met my father when she was 16. She figured out quickly he would be the man she would spend the rest of her life loving, and they married one month after she graduated from high school. One year later, she began the role she was born to play, being a mother. Heidi is their first born, I am second, Heather, third, and the family was rounded out with my brother TJ.
Having four children in six years made for a hectic schedule of diapers, bottles, and bedtime stories, but Mom did it with grace and the utmost love. At our home in Dolliver, Iowa, Mom also cared for one of her friend’s four children on a daily basis and became like another mother to them. I learned then my mom’s heart seemed to be built for loving without limits, and I admired her for that ability. She seemed to be able to not only love her own children and my father, but her extended family, friends, and every person she encountered.
Changes marked our lives as we moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Mom went to work outside of the home, and Dad went back to college. After Mom got us off to school each morning and completed the household tasks, she headed to her evening shift at Raven and Company where she was an industrial seamstress. She was soon promoted to shift supervisor. She would get home after 11 pm, sneak in and kiss each of us good night, finish a few chores, then sleep a few hours herself.
I remember occasions when Dad would ask us if we wanted to take dinner to Mom. He would make his famous hamburgers, wrap one in aluminum foil and write “McJimbo’s” on it. We would pile into the station wagon and head to Raven. Mom loved seeing us come, and she would show us off to her co-workers as she enjoyed her “homemade takeout.”
You could see the pride in her eyes as she spoke about us to her friends. Despite the challenges of that year, one thing remained constant for us kids -the knowledge Mom loved us beyond measure. It was apparent in every hug we received, every piece of clothing she sewed for us, and every kiss goodnight when she thought we were sleeping.
Dad finished his technical degree in less than a year and found a job in Bismarck. We moved to Mandan in 1984. Not long after we arrived, Mom found a job working for the Mandan Public School Transportation Department as an aide on one of the buses for intellectually and physically handicapped children.
Aside from her amazing roles as wife and mother, she found the job God put her on this earth to do – helping those children get to and from school safely. She was an aide for a few years before becoming a bus driver. She has been driving for more than 25 years, so has seen many children start school and graduate.
She tells everyone she feels “at home” on her bus and doesn’t think she could work anywhere else as these kids become like family. Again, finding a way to love without limits. All the years she has been helping her bus kids, she and Dad raised the four of us, watched us compete in sporting events, attended our musical performances, high school and college graduations, and walked us down the aisle.
After each wedding, one of the first things Mom said after the vows were spoken was, “I cannot wait for grandkids, lots and lots of grandkids!” She always told people she wanted a dozen of them. As each of her grandchildren was born, I heard her whisper to them, “You are my favorite.”
Her wish came to fruition on October 16, 2011, when her 12th grandchild was born. Six girls and six boys, and she couldn’t be happier, except the love of her life is no longer here to share her joy.
Life changed in an instant for our family on July 28, 2010, when my sister Heidi suffered a massive brain stem stroke at the age of 37. Specialists on the case told us she would not survive. One of the first things my mom told each doctor was, “You don’t know my Heidi.”
After the first week, Heidi’s treating neurologist told us he had been researching her condition, and there was, in fact, a possibility she could survive, but she would probably have “Locked In Syndrome.” Further tests confirmed the syndrome. Since the day of her stroke, Heidi is mentally aware and capable but cannot move any part of her body purposefully, except her eyes to communicate with us. She is trapped inside her own body.
Despite this, the love and care she shares with Mom is phenomenal. Again, Mom shows love without limits by spending her free time at Heidi’s side. When she is not driving her bus, she is reading Heidi a book, watching a movie with her, giving her a manicure or pedicure, or telling jokes to make her laugh. It is beautiful to see the love that radiates from Mom when she is with Heidi, like watching two best friends enjoy each other’s company, without limits.
Shortly after Heidi’s diagnosis, Dad fell into a deep depression and nothing could bring him out of it, not the love of his life, not the love of his children and grandchildren, not even his unwavering faith. He couldn’t enjoy things he used to take great pleasure in, such as a few rounds of golf, fishing, going on a date with Mom, or playing with his grandkids. On January 10, 2011, he ended his own life. Mom lost her best friend that day, the only man she ever truly loved.
I didn’t know how she would go on. In the days following Dad’s death, I don’t think she knew how she would live without him either, until she said, “I know he would want me to live my life and be as happy as I can be.” She has done just that. She puts one foot in front of the other, smiles a lot, and tells everyone, “I am pretty darned good today,” even when we know how brokenhearted she must be.
She inspires each person she encounters by her ability to not only love without limits, but to hold her head up and survive insurmountable events with a smile. Her inner beauty radiates even on the days when her heart must hurt beyond measure.
I once saw a plaque that read “For a mother is the only person on earth who can divide her love among her children, and each child can still have all her love.” My mom is the epitome of this. I have overheard her say she doesn’t have four children, she has eight, and she treats our spouses as if she had given birth to them herself – she loves them without limits. Her twelve grandchildren feel as if each one is indeed her favorite and that she loves them with her whole heart, because she does, without limits.
Who inspires me to be a better wife, mother, sister and aunt, a better friend and person in general? That is easy – the woman who gave me life; the woman who loves without limits, my mom.
Holly Kohler lives in Kenmare with her husband, Allan and children Haley and Abbey. She is a part time receptionist and aide, plus likes to make jewelry on the side. Holly would like to thank her sister, Heather and friend, Caroline for their help in editing this story.