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Three generations under one small roof is an imperfect situation, but after facing down a
life-threatening illness, it’s one the Sherman and Chandler family feels blessed to have.
ELIZABETH HOCK|The Roanoke Times
Katrina holds her daughter, Taryn, on the porch of her family’s home.
ELIZABETH HOCK | The Roanoke Times
Katrina Chandler holds her baby, Tayrn, while Beckie Sherman, the infant's grandmother, looks across the lake from the porch of their Bluewater Bay home.
KYLE GREEN | The Roanoke Times
Four-year-old Trystan Chandler celebrates a winning move at Candyland with a kiss for his dad, Adrian Chandler. Looking on in the family’s Moneta living room are Trystan’s grandmother Beckie Sherman and mother, Katrina Chandler. This photograph was taken in February, when Katrina was pregnant with her daughter.
Photo Courtesy of the Sherman Family
Bob Sherman is pictured with four year old grandson Trystan Chandler at home in Moneta, Virginia.
KYLE GREEN | The Roanoke Times
Beckie fixes a snack for Trystan in the family’s kitchen. “The biggest issue for us — the hardest part — is dealing with generational differences in handling kids,” says Beckie’s daughter, Katrina, Trystan’s mom. “There’s a whole lot of give-and-take,” says Beckie.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
MONETA— “This is Taryn,” said Beckie Sherman as she gently lifted the newborn out of the baby swing and cradled the tiny girl in her arms, beaming as she introduced the newest member of the family.
Beckie leaned down and placed Taryn into the waiting right arm of the infant’s mother — Beckie’s daughter — who was sitting in a recliner. Beckie quickly lifted the mother’s left arm, and in one rote motion, secured it around the 3-week-old.
Without help, Katrina Chandler, 40, could not take her baby into her arms. Neurological damage from a brain tumor has left Katrina physically disabled, without feeling on her left side, and no left-field vision in either of her eyes.
Her condition means that Katrina, her husband, Adrian, also 40, their 4-year-old son, Trystan, and Taryn, live with Katrina’s parents, Beckie, 68, and Bob Sherman, 70.
Their house on a cul-de-sac in the Blue Water Bay subdivision at Smith Mountain Lake is small. The modular ranch was a weekend retreat that was to become the Shermans’ retirement home, big enough to accommodate their two children’s families and potential grandchildren for short periods of time, but never meant to permanently house three generations.
It’s a tight squeeze. The downstairs, with a living area, bathroom and three bedrooms, is designated for the Chandlers. The upstairs is Beckie and Bob’s territory, but, said Beckie and Katrina, both families spend most of their time and eat together in the combination living room/kitchen.
“We live up here,” said Katrina.
It’s apparent that children are the focus of life in their cozy home whose back window reflects the water, still and peaceful on an early spring morning. Photos of Trystan cover the refrigerator, and his toys and Taryn’s baby gear line the living room. A wall plaque that reads “Grandchildren make the world a little softer, a little warmer and a little kinder” greets visitors at the front door.
Multigenerational living arrangements are not uncommon in this post-recession world. According to the 2010 U.S. census, almost 5 million children younger than 18 live in grandparent-headed households. Almost 20 percent of those children have neither parent present in the home.
The physical, financial and emotional challenges that face grandparents who live with their grandchildren, with or without the grandchildren’s parents, are myriad.
But for the Shermans and Chandlers, the challenges are minor inconveniences. They are just life.
And when you’ve faced the possibility of losing your life, your soul mate or your only daughter, they are gifts.
“We know we’re lucky to have this situation, imperfect as it may be,” said Beckie.
Beckie has a no-nonsense demeanor that tends to belie her quick wit. She’s always been one of those mothers — the type who is front and center at every soccer game, who wouldn’t miss a band performance or a dance recital. Her children always have been the priority for her and Bob, she said.
Both Trent Sherman, 44, who lives in Providence Forge, and Katrina were outstanding students and athletes at Cave Spring High School.
Katrina participated in programs for gifted students, was co-captain of her volleyball team, all-regional on the school’s first softball team and a dancer.
“She never let any grass grow under her feet — until cancer brought her to her knees,” said Beckie.
On a Saturday in 1996, two months after graduating cum laude from James Madison University with a master’s of education and weeks before she was to begin work as an audiologist, Katrina had a grand mal seizure. After spending the weekend in the hospital, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Three days later, Katrina underwent surgery at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital to identify and remove the tumor. She was 24.
After it was over, the family let out a collective sign of relief. The neurosurgeon said the tumor was benign.
At a follow-up exam six months later, the same neurosurgeon told the Shermans that he did not remove as much of the tumor as he originally thought. Katrina would need more surgery, he said.
Beckie and Bob then took their daughter to Duke University in Durham, N.C.
“The surgeons disagreed with the benign diagnosis,” Beckie recalled. The tumor was life-threatening after all, and Katrina underwent another surgery, the second of six she would have in the next decade, to remove what was left of it.
After Beckie and Bob got the devastating news, they immediately contacted Katrina’s boyfriend, Adrian, to break it to him.
Adrian had come to the United States from Wales in 1993 for a summer job at Camp Easter Seals in Craig County. Katrina also worked there, teaching sign language to deaf children. Adrian and Katrina fell for each other, and continued working together at the camp for several more years. He would return overseas at summer’s end.
Following surgery, Katrina returned home to begin the long road to recovery that included physical therapy and rounds of radiation, chemotherapy and experimental drugs.
Bob retired from IBM to help tend to their daughter. Beckie made sure Katrina received the best care possible.
“When she was diagnosed, I immediately became her primary advocate and took over coordinating all of her appointments,” said Beckie. “It was a heavy job in the early going. I also took on all the Medicaid/Social Security issues. My willingness to take on this role just gave her one small area of support that not many people could have done.”
About two years after Katrina was diagnosed, Beckie said the family started noticing that Katrina’s walk was shaky and her balance off; she started to lose sensation in her left side.
They were signs of cognitive deficits, the result of injury to the brain either from the surgery or the treatments.
It was Beckie who told Adrian about the deficits in a long-distance call to Wales, warning him of their effects on Katrina. The young Welshman was not deterred. He continued to visit and expressed his desire to marry Katrina. But she was uninsured and on Medicaid, which made it financially unfeasible.
“It puts a different spin on life. Nobody dreams of going through what Katrina gone through,” Adrian said. “I always wanted to be rich and successful. After Trina’s episode, I didn’t care about that anymore. I’m not driven that way anymore.”
Shortly before Christmas 1999, Katrina received a letter telling her that her Medicaid benefits were ending.
“Somebody had decided she was well and could go back to work,” said Beckie, incredulous.
Because Katrina was unable to drive and suffering from deficits and seizures, Beckie doubted that was going to happen, but it looked like a wedding could.
“It had gotten so hard every time he left here,” Beckie recalled. “So, we said, ‘OK, if she’s going to lose Medicaid, let’s go for it.’ ”
That was the first of several life-altering decisions the Shermans and Chandlers would make together.
A healthy delivery
With a promise from Beckie and Bob that “he would not have to bear the burden of the unknown alone,” Adrian began the process of immigrating to the United States, patiently cutting through the red tape.
With neither job nor green card, it was a given that he and Katrina would live with her parents, Beckie said.
Katrina and Adrian were married in July 2000 on the deck at her parents’ lake home.
They moved into the concrete basement that Adrian and Bob had converted into a mini-home. Adrian got a job, working long hours six days a week at FleetwoodGoldcoWyard, a company in Lynchburg that builds electronic controls for conveyer systems.
Katrina’s recovery continued.
She toyed with the idea of getting a job, but without the use of her left arm and hand, it wasn’t viable. With treatment and surgeries behind her, Katrina began to feel the pull of motherhood.
“That was probably 10 years into her ordeal and six years into the marriage, but I have no doubt that it was in her mind much sooner than that,” Beckie said. “Katrina was determined to be a mother, but Adrian had to be convinced.”
Becoming pregnant was a huge risk, doctors warned. A surge of hormones could reawaken the tumor. The treatments Katrina had undergone could damage her and/or the baby.
Adrian wondered if the stress of a delivery would harm Katrina or the baby. Could they manage a child, even with help?
Beckie and Bob had the same reservations and more. How would a baby in the house impact their retirement plans? Well into their 60s, could they physically help take care of a child?
For several years, the Shermans and Chandlers vacillated. They considered a surrogate; they looked into adoption.
Finally, the families decided to proceed.
“We really went out on a limb to do this,” said Beckie.
After an uneventful pregnancy, Katrina delivered a healthy baby boy on July 10, 2008, his grandparents’ 43rd wedding anniversary.
Already primary caretakers for their daughter, Beckie — who decided to retire as a receptionist from Medical Facilities of American in Roanoke — and Bob would now share responsibility for Trystan.
Divide and conquer
There’s a fine line between over-parenting and not doing enough to help your children. For Beckie, walking that line has been particularly difficult. It’s hard to sit by and watch your daughter struggle to do things she once did with ease. Beckie constantly fights the urge to step in to help. When she does, it often brings reproach from Bob, she said.
“In fairness to her, she probably does it about right,” Bob said of Beckie. “Yeah, she might [do too much], but you have to let a little something go.”
Katrina helps around the house; she’s responsible for her family’s laundry.
A health-conscious Katrina also prepares organic food for Trystan and cleans up after him. Adrian helps in the kitchen. Katrina handles all of the banking and insurance paperwork for her family.
Katrina does minimal housekeeping in fear that the chemicals in the cleaning supplies could trigger seizures.
But there are challenges bigger than keeping a clean house and the division of labor.
“I — and my husband — do try to consider what it is like for Katrina and try to give her every opportunity to be useful and experience all that is part of the motherhood she has wanted so badly,” said Beckie.
“The biggest issue for us — the hardest part — is dealing with generational differences in handling kids,” said Katrina. Disciplining Trystan, who has figured out how to play both sides, is the predominant one.
“[Katrina] is very good, but she doesn’t raise Trystan the way we raised her,” said Beckie.
“There’s a whole lot of give-and-take,” she continued. “We have to honor what they want, and at the same time, they have to honor what we say.”
Ultimately, Katrina and Adrian have the last word, said Beckie.
“We are not his parents and we don’t want him to think we are,” she explained. “I could do a lot more for him, but I decided early on I wouldn’t start it, because not only does it rob [Katrina] of that experience, there are days I just can’t give everything to Trystan.”
Beckie said Bob (who jokingly complains about losing his man cave and not having control of the remote) is always willing to pitch in to help — from driving Trystan to preschool to helping Katrina put on her nursing bra — but he has had moments of denial.
Bob was so determined that Katrina would drive again that when he tried to take her off the car insurance policy and found that she would have to go to the DMV and turn in her license, he continued to pay the insurance premium for the next four years until her license expired.
“It was tough to see your daughter struggle; you want it to be a bad dream,” said Bob. “Now, after 15 years, you realize that it’s not going to change.”
Beckie said Katrina giving up driving was “just one of those painful, permanent steps that we didn’t want her to have to take. We did the same thing with getting rid of baby things after Trystan was born. I just had to wait until she was ready. And look what happened!”
Finding support, success
What happened came as a shock to both families.
In mid-summer 2012, Katrina discovered she was pregnant. She was reluctant to tell Adrian and her parents, but got up the courage during a beach trip.
The news sent the families into semi-panic.
Doctors were adamant that Katrina should not tempt fate. Going through a pregnancy and delivery once was stressful enough. Bob and Beckie were older now and not certain they could help as much as they might be needed, said Beckie.
They all were haunted by the same fears — birth defects, the consequences of hormone surges and the possibility that Katrina would stroke out — only more so than the first time around.
What were the chances of Katrina delivering a healthy baby?
For Beckie, the news was devastating.
In addition to support from friends, she turned to the Rev. Philip Bouknight for help. Bouknight offered Beckie counseling and the opportunity to join Parents Again, a support group/ministry at Trinity Ecumenical Parish for grandparents who are parenting their grandchildren.
It’s been a refuge, Beckie said.
“At first, I went to have a little time for me,” she explained. “I wasn’t so much thinking that I would learn or even sure I could contribute, because it was a little different scenario for me.”
What she found was a place she could vent and share concerns honestly; where she could brainstorm with other grandparents; and where she could find valuable information from the guest speakers. She found a group whose members could offer empathy.
A battery of tests to gauge the health of the unborn baby and Beckie’s extensive research helped reassure the families. During times of angst, Beckie remembered the joy Trystan has brought into all their lives. They were elated when Taryn was born via Caesarean section healthy and without complications. As usual, the entire family has pitched in to help. Katrina sleeps during the night, Beckie during the day. Adrian takes weekend duty, and Bob fills in when needed.
In addition to physical therapy and perfecting certain tasks such as diapering the baby, Katrina is assuming a more active role in her recovery.
She now asks questions to doctors herself instead of relying on Beckie, who can reel off medical terms with the authority of a seasoned physician.
While she is not considered “cured,” doctors declared her “stable” in 2004. But she is not stable enough to live without her parents’ help.
Katrina, Beckie and Adrian said they don’t see the living arrangement changing.
“I am so blessed that I can go out and work. I couldn’t leave Trina at home with two kids,” Adrian said.
He realizes the sacrifices that have been made to give his family the best life possible.
“I can never repay them for all they’ve done,” he said of his in-laws. “We’ve all been on this journey together, but we have happy times now.”
“The bottom line is this comes along with life,” he said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
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