Thursday, May 20, 2010
I first met Myrtle nearly 21 years ago at the age of five; she was a co-worker, and a friend of my mother’s. They both worked as nurse’s aids at Americare, a nursing home. I don’t recall meeting her, but for the last fourteen years or so she has been my surrogate mother, grandmother, adviser, confidant, best friend, and my mentor. At the age of seventeen she began taking in children for various reasons to raise, or mentor.
I believe she has eccentric moments, is a dreamer, and most of all I believe she’s a visionary for taking in children. She doesn’t believe she is a visionary though. When I told her I thought she was a visionary she just replied back with, “It’s just me. It’s just something I do.” It is part of her essences. It’s what makes her story worth being told because there aren’t many people around that would take in children to guide them.
I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t have the relationship I have with her. She took me under her wing. She’s always supported me, and encouraged me to live out my dreams. She’s my number one fan.
In August of 2009 Myrtle was diagnosed with stage three pancreatic cancer. I’ll never forget that phone call when she told me she had cancer. It was one of the worst moments in my life. It was my greatest fears come true.
Pancreatic cancer is referred to as a silent killer, because it commonly goes undiagnosed, or it’s often diagnosed too late. It is one of the most aggressive cancers. Most patients are given 3 to 6 months, and some live out a full year, so far Myrtle has been going strong for nearly 10 months.
Her having cancer is one of the reasons why I felt it was important to interview her. Everyone has a story that should be told before they die. Everyone is important to someone.
I interviewed her in her in-closed porch that is overcrowded by enormous house plants. Her home is filled with plants. In fact her whole yard is filled with flowers, various bushes, and small fruit and vegetable gardens. She doesn’t know how many she has though, nor does she know why her plants grow so well. I believe the answer is that she has a special love that allows plants to flourish around her just as she has a special love for children, and they flourish around her.
My name is Myrtle Guseman. I’m sixty-four years old. I was born in West Virginia. Varney, it’s a little town with a gas station, post office, store combination and if you didn’t look real quick, or if you blinked then you’d miss it.
I had a very good, happy time as a child other than my father. He was a womanizer, he was a drunk. My mother had to go work to support herself, me and my sister. If it hadn’t been for my mother I’m sure my sister and I would have ended up in an orphanage. I loved her more than life itself. We were more than mother and daughter, we were friends. There is nothing in this world that I wouldn’t have done for her and vice versa. One of the worst experiences in my life was when I was twelve years old, and we were in
severe car accident. They told me that my mother was going to die and that was it. That was even worse than the doctors telling me I had cancer. That was my mother! I loved her more than anything. I couldn’t live without her. She had a broken hip, her clavicle bone was broken, and her pelvis was broken. I mean she was just smashed from head to toe. They said she probably wouldn’t live the night and she did. Then they said she would never walk again, and she did. Then they said she would never walk again without crutches, and she did. The constitutional love of her two daughters allowed her to overcome those obstacles.
When I was about two years old we moved to Chicago. My dad was a construction worker so he traveled a lot. My mother went to help her sister in Ohio and I wasn’t losing my best friend so I came right behind her…I was twenty-eight when we moved to Ohio, and I’ve been here ever since.
Out of all your accomplishments, which one are you the most proud of?
I have to say four, my four sons because we have such a close connection. When they were smaller they could come to me, and we could talk about anything and everything. They always knew that no matter what they did that I was proud of them. I taught them to always go with family first. You know its okay to argue. Of course you’re going to argue, but when it comes down to it you take care of your brothers.
Would you change any past decisions if you had the opportunity to?
Yes, I don’t think I would have gotten married the second time…He drives me nuts. Just too much togetherness I don’t have any me time. He wants to know what’s in my letters. He wants to know who I am talking to. He wants to know what they said, and he’s having problems with his hearing so you say something, and he think it’s something else, and instead of asking you to repeat it he answers you. Sometimes it’s not the answer you’re looking for. I could just crack him over the head. He needs to get out more often. He really does.
Can you tell me about some of your hobbies?
[Sighs] Growing plants, vegetables, and I like to do crafts. I don’t think you would exactly call it a hobby, but I like to be around small children, because they’re so sweet and innocent. No one has corrupted them yet, and they give their undivided love to you. They are just the essences of innocence. We don’t have that for very long. I like to get in the swimming pool with them, get on the swings with them. We just have a great time together. I’ve shown two of my granddaughters how to plant watermelons, pumpkins, and we had a great time watching them grow.
Why do you think you’ve always taken in children from broken homes to mentor them?
…I love kids and I don’t want to see them hurt or mistreated. I really do love them. It’s something I do; it’s something that not a lot of people know of. I don’t do it for bragging rights. I do it for the kids. I can’t stand to see a child hurt. It’s like when I took care of Elizabeth. She was three years old when I met her and if she would get a fever her mom wouldn’t know what to do so I would keep the child for a week at a time, then it got to be a month at a time. She was so happy here. I just love kids. I don’t think any of them should be hurt, or unhappy. I knew her mother was taking advantage of me, but I wasn’t dreaming about that. I didn’t care. She was only taking advantage, because I let her, but I couldn’t let that little girl be sick and not have anyone to stay up and hold her and so I did. I have grown men now that come, give me a big ‘ol hug, call me mom that I had when they were young…They still come around.
How many children have you taken in?
[Sighs] Oh, probably around fifteen to twenty maybe. Not all of them lived with me but a good ten did [Pauses] maybe more than that.
Was it your life calling?
I think so because I would be willing to go to jail over a child. I wouldn’t think twice about it…[it] all comes from the heart.
How did you get started?
I was seventeen and this is the truth it was through no fault of her own my cousin and my aunt lost their children to the welfare. I couldn’t stand to see them babies go to a foster home and I took three of them. I was seventeen year old and I took in three children. One was a toddler and the other two weren’t even preschool age yet. That’s how it started but I also took care of my sister when my mother had to go to work. I was ten and she was five, so I ended up her part-time mother, then I took in the other three children. It was two girls, and a boy. I just fell in love; I couldn’t stand to see them hurt. I would have taken in all of them had I had the room, and I did not take one penny from the welfare. I said no those are my relatives and I will take care of them. I was only seventeen years old and that’s how it all got started because those children had done nothing. They hadn’t done nothing to be placed in a home with strangers.
Do you think you’ve made a positive impact on the fifteen or so children you have taken in?
I really think so. This one gal, she went to college, she was in the service and I don’t think that would have happened had she not stayed with me.
What’s your biggest fear in life?
You know I really don’t have very many fears. I know I’m dying, but I don’t fear it. I don’t fear it, and I’m not afraid to die. I am a little scared because that’s the only time in your life that you’re going to do something totally all on your own. You are not alone from the time of conception you’re not alone, because you’re with your mother and this continues throughout your whole life. There is always someone there you can talk to, be with. You got your family, your classmates, and your co-worker, you’re with someone or you could be if you wanted to but when [Pause] you die that’s a trip you’re taking all by yourself, and that will be the first time in all of your life and it’s a little scary. You know taking that journey because you don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean you have no idea but hey I’m one that’s always up for a challenge. Come on let’s go. [Laughs] You know if I have to go I hope I can do it with dignity.
Do you think it’s important to be alone to learn about yourself, because in death we are alone like you said?
…Yes I do believe that has helped me not to be so frightened of death…I do very well alone…It’s comforting to me to be alone…You get to know yourself inside and out. You know what you’re capable of when something comes up…
What’s the biggest challenge you have faced and how did you meet that challenge?
Oh, well I’m facing it now and that’s cancer. I’m meeting it everyday head on by staying positive every time there is a set back. I always look for the positive, a positive somewhere in the situation. Ninety-nine and nine-tenths of the time I come up with something positive. It’s actually a miracle that I’m still alive today, because my cancer was found in stage three and there’s only four. Pancreatic cancer is the most, most lethal cancer there is. It doesn’t get any worse and there’s four percent survival rate, and that includes state one, two, three, and four. They lump them all together and you have four percent survival rate so. [Pauses]…It’s positive attitude and doing what has to be done like taking chemo and radiation, and I did that for five days a week, had radiation and chemo together. I’ll tell you something I was so sick I couldn’t get up off the couch, then traveling for two hours a day on top of it, but that’s what I had to do and I did it. I didn’t say I can’t do this, I can’t do this. No, I said well it’s time to go. I’ve done everything the doctors have asked me and I go in there joking and laughing and half the time I think they think it’s Jim [Her son] that has the cancer because he shaved his head. He and I walk in there and he has the bald head and I’m laughing, carrying on, and telling jokes. I even tell jokes to the doctor, but yes positive attitude. It’s not going to save my life, but it’s buying me some time and that’s all I can hope for. You know I never once thought why me. I’m sure it’s there somewhere inside my head, but so far it hasn’t come to the surface. You know it is what it is. And so I deal with it. I’m not real fond of the after effects, but that’s not the cancer that’s the chemo causing the side effects other than the pain.
How long did the doctors give you?
At first he said two to five and then he changed it to six months to a year and that’s where we stand now. You know what? I’m not planning on dying in six months or a year. I try to live everyday as it comes.
You won’t go gently into the night?
No, I want to go with dignity, but I’m going to fight and scream the whole way. They’re going to have to take me the hard way. I’m not going easy because I’m going to be here for Christmas. I’m going to be here next June to see my grandson graduate. I already promised and I keep my promises. I don’t care if they have to put me in a wheelchair, and then put a hat on my bald head.
What do you think happens when we die?
I don’t know, but I’m sure I’ll find out. To be honest I just hope we cease to exist…I’m sort of like my grandfather was I believe we have our heaven and hell right here on earth and it’s what we make of it. I don’t think I would like looking up or down at my loves one and they would be in pain or hurting for some reason. I wouldn’t want that. I wouldn’t want that, so I would rather when I take my last breathe just to cease to exist except in the hearts of my family and friends…I can’t see myself if I were a tortured soul just roaming the house. If there is something else then I just don’t want to see what’s happening on earth. It would be too painful and I don’t think anyone would want to be in heaven, seeing their children, grandchildren, friends in so much pain. I know I wouldn’t want to be in heaven if I had to look at that [Pause] or hell.
I do believe in a higher power and for me that’s god. I do believe in god. I just really don’t think I want an afterlife.
…I think if I thought about it and I think if anyone thought about it, thought about it, and tried to research it, do this and that [they] would go crazy trying to find the answers because there are no answers. Scientist can’t answer it. The bible can’t answer it, so I’m not going crazy. “I’m just going to take this trip all by myself and I’ll find out when I get there. I’m not going to worry about it. I want to live everyday to the best of ability to live…”