PINEVILLE, La. – Three days after his wife died from an aggressive brain cancer, Robert Anderson stood before a packed room and thanked those responsible for granting her last wish – seeing her son graduate from high school.
Drawing a breath to steady himself, he described how one phone call to Karl Carpenter, principal at Pineville High School in Louisiana, made that a reality. Within a day, son Landon Anderson stood in his red cap and gown before his bedridden mother, Monica Anderson, in their living room for the mock ceremony.
“Monica’s dream has been fulfilled,” Anderson said Tuesday. “At 4:40 on Saturday morning, Monica passed away at home, peacefully, knowing that her son Landon … she got to see her son Landon graduate from high school.”
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Monica was a nurse at Rapides Regional Medical Center in Alexandria, Louisiana, starting as a registered nurse in 1995 and later working as a trauma nurse and intensive care charge nurse. She also assisted with education efforts at the hospital.
It was there that she first experienced symptoms in 2012. Robert remembers the exact date – Jan. 27, 2012.
While in a patient’s room, she grabbed a coworker and said she had a bad taste in her mouth, he said. Soon, she had trouble speaking.
She was rushed to the emergency room.
Seeing her, members of a stroke assessment team thought it must be part of a mock training drill. They soon realized it was real.
Monica was suffering from focal seizures, which disrupt electrical signals in a certain part of the brain.
“That was the beginning, that day,” said Robert, sitting on the couch Friday at their home.
She had a series of seizures before she underwent a craniotomy at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Doctors diagnosed her with a grade 3 astrocytoma.
Monica was discharged, but soon was readmitted to MD Anderson because of her seizures. She eventually came home, where she began five weeks of radiation, five days a week, and 17 months of chemotherapy.
“It took a toll on her,” said Robert.
Her health improved, but a routine MRI in late 2015 showed a spot on her brain. Another craniotomy in Houston, just before Christmas, revealed a cyst in the same spot as the tumor.
Robert and a network of family and friends helped him care for his wife as he shuttled back and forth because he had just started a new job. She came home around Christmas.
“She was clear, all the way up until her visit in February of last year, when they noticed a real pin-head spot,” he said.
Doctors decided to scan her again in a month.
“We went back in March, and it had grown considerably,” he said.
A biopsy confirmed the worst, a grade 4 glioblastoma. It’s the most aggressive form of brain cancer with a low survival rate.
Doctors told the couple the hard facts, and Monica committed herself to another four weeks of daily radiation. They stayed at an apartment in Houston, and the family’s care network sprung into action again.
Her final chemo treatment was on May 17, 2019. She was weak, and it took them two days to make the trip home. Hospice care soon followed, but she never lost her focus of that goal to see Landon graduate.
“She never blamed anybody … She was always upbeat about it,” said Robert. “You could see it. Strongest person … God, she was so strong. God, she was strong.”
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‘Always a go-getter’
It was part of her overall attitude, said Robert, and Monica’s sister agreed.
“Monica was always a go-getter,” said Nicole Freres. “Put something in her mind, and she would go do it.”
She always had to be busy, she said. Nobody was going to tell her no, said Freres.
Her sister had the will to fight, and she credits the MD Anderson physicians and staff for prolonging her life.
“She was so strong,” said Robert. “She did not want to give up.”
“And her positive mind,” said Freres. “Because even before the surgery, I can remember being with her and I said, ‘Why are you not mad at God?’ Because I was.”
Monica answered she had to be positive for Landon, who then was 11. Robert says he knows Landon experienced things most children don’t, and the 19-year-old agreed.
“Yeah, because most people don’t understand what’s going on,” said Landon. “It’s just me and dad that knows what’s going on, more than anybody else.”
After her death, people flocked to Monica’s Facebook page to remember her and leave messages for the family. It’s been turned into a memorial page now. Photos of Monica – alone, with friends, with Robert and with him and Landon – dot the page.
The couple met while on a New Year’s Eve blind date arranged by a mutual friend. They found out they shared a lot of quirky similarities, like both having aunts named Beverly and grandfathers named Chester, sharing September birthdays and graduating from colleges on the same day.
“I guess it was meant to be,” he said. They were married for 22 years.
Monica loved cooking and Food Network shows. Seafood was a favorite. A few days before she died, she asked for yeast rolls “with real butter,” said Carolyn Wilson, her caretaker of a year who laughingly teased Robert because he bought margarine.
She was a band mom, working hard to make sure kids always had meals while on long trips.
A Louisiana College graduate and former Student Government president, she loved watching the baseball team. She wore a team shirt for her first chemo treatment, said Robert. The affection was mutual, he said.
He played a video on his cellphone from Konner James, a former player now pursuing a music career who penned a song for Monica called “As Long As My Heart’s Beating.”
As the video played, friends and relatives chatted in the kitchen. The smell of food dropped off earlier hung in the air.
She loved her perfume, said Robert.
“She had the best laugh of anybody,” he said. “You just couldn’t help but watch her. It’s the laugh that was just unbelievable.”
Landon, who was leaning forward in a nearby recliner with his aunt squeezed close to him, smiled and shook his head.
Robert said Monica was eager to tackle treatment after her initial diagnosis. She itched to return to work, but the couple soon realized that wouldn’t be possible.
It was then that she voiced her hope of seeing Landon graduate.
“And that was the target date, of him graduating,” said Robert. “We thought we were gonna make it.”
Pineville High steps up
But Monica’s health began failing faster about a month ago. The family didn’t think she’d make it to May.
“She was tired,” said Freres. “And she was trying to hold on, and we just knew that she couldn’t. And we didn’t want her to.”
On Feb. 26, Robert called Carpenter with his request. The principal said they’d do it at noon the next day.
Carpenter called back later, asking if there was room for eight people. Robert said yes, not thinking much about it.
He started to wonder a bit when Peggy Berry, the wife of District B board member Steve Berry, dropped off a graduation cake the next morning.
Then the guests began arriving – Steve Berry, Carpenter, dressed in his cap and gown, Superintendent Jeff Powell and Executive Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Jonathan Garrett, Director of Secondary Education Dana Nolan, Pineville High Assistant Principal John Neal and more.
“I was just blown away by all of them being there. But what such a good, awesome job that was. All I did was make the phone call, and Dr. Carpenter and the staff at Pineville High School – they did the rest.”
Someone brought another graduation cake. Cafeteria workers baked brownies to share. Band director Rachel Morgan played “Pomp and Circumstance” on her clarinet.
“She got her wish,” said Freres.
Robert repeated that, calling it a blessing to live in such a great community.
“She was loved by all,” said Robert. “She was one of the greatest nurses that ever walked through those doors at Rapides. We were proud that we were able to fulfill her wish. It happened, and it was just such a big sigh of relief for her after it took place. I can rest easy now. It’s done.”
Carpenter said they “kicked it into high gear” after the call. He rounded up people to attend and wrote a script for the ceremony.
“The whole idea is that momma eased off into eternity having witnessed her son graduate, and her son will carry the memory with him for the rest of his life.”
Powell told him that he didn’t have to stand up at the meeting to thank anyone. But Robert insisted, saying what the school and staff did could not go unnoticed.
“It just can’t. I’m so proud of Pineville High School. I’m so proud of the community. I’m so proud of the Rapides Parish School Board for looking after one of theirs, which means Landon. And fulfilling his mother’s wish.”
The gesture made an impact on all those who attended.
“Believe me, I’ve been on this board 16, 17 years, and this is the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done,” said Berry.
Robert said he and Landon talked to Monica, telling her she could go and that they’d be OK. She was buried Saturday next to the couple’s infant son Garrett, who died just after his birth in 1999.
Robert said both he and Landon plan to volunteer at MD Anderson, helping or offering support to patients at its Brain and Spine Center.
Perhaps by that time, Landon will have his tattoo to match the one on his father’s left forearm, a gray ribbon for brain cancer awareness with Monica’s name. Robert hopes people will ask about it when they see it.
“And then we can say, hey, this was Monica. And then we can start telling stories on how great of a person (she was) and how much she meant and how much she was loved,” he said.
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