My mother made sure that all of us kids knew, practically from birth, that our dad was the hero. She was forever signing his praises, "Your dad this…" and "Your dad that..."
My dad was a coal miner, but he wouldn't ever talk about the coal mines, except to say that they were no place to make a living. I knew they were cold because he'd wear winter clothes in the summer. I knew there were rats and water in them from things that I read. I knew the men would work for hours in a bent over position from what I saw on television. And, in Edenborn, Pennsylvania, everyone knew that the wail of the sirens meant there had been an explosion in the mines. But every day, my dad would come home, his clothes filled with soot, a steel bucket in his hands, and a smile on his face.
There were six of us Stoner kids (Stoner was my maiden name), and when we weren't playing music or addressing our schoolwork, we were cleaning the house. We children often joked that our parents had kids just to clean the house and have a band! My dad, Charles Stoner, was a gifted musician who played the organ on weekends. He shared a stage with Ray Charles once, and when musicians would come through Pittsburgh they'd call our house and ask, "Buddy, can you come play a gig?" He was asked to go on a tour once, but there were five kids then and it wasn't steady income, so he said no. I know it broke his heart because music was his passion, but instead of being bitter, he continued to push us to be good students in the classroom and to play music. He often played in our music room, where we had an organ, piano, sax, trombone, clarinet, flute, and even pots and pans. Our family's musical renditions entertained our community. Many times, people would sit on our porch and listen to our family play under my father's direction.
One night on his way home from a show he ran out of gas. As he walked back to the car from the service station, he dropped the gasoline can on his foot. Some time later, while he was playing the organ, he realized that his foot had never properly healed. The doctors were puzzled, and eventually he got gangrene. He was 43 when they had to take off his right toe, then his foot, and then his leg to the knee. Ultimately, both of my father's legs were amputated.
My dad could have been so negative, but from the day his legs came off, he started to rehab. After a year of hard work, my father was back in the coal mines, back to playing the organ, and back to driving a specially modified car. I would often hear my father’s muffled moans from the pain in his legs, but each morning he would go to work to provide for our family, never missing a single day.
My father inspired all of us to be our best. He taught us to take care of one another as brothers and sisters and to appreciate that family was the most important thing we had. He was the one who led our weekly family meeting when we discussed the events of the week, and he made sure that everyone got their two cents in, be it about who wasn’t drying the dishes or who had had to clean the bathroom twice in a row. He was the one who told us that people have to respect you for who you are, and that we should be the best at anything we pursued. My father taught us to be open-minded, taking us to studies with Jehovah’s Witnesses, into a Jewish Temple, and out to a Baptist Church. He was the one who’d come home in all that soot every day and wash it off, meticulously cleaning his nails. He’d put on perfectly starched pants and make sure all of us children knew to carry ourselves a certain way.
When he passed, my dad was 45, and I was 21. We all lost the man who was everything to us, the rock of the family. But then my mom just picked up the weight.
She got a job at a supermarket, she figured out how to support us on one-fourth of the income, and she carried on, never complaining. Seeing my mom so strong made me see why my dad always told me to be independent and to be my own woman. I understood why my dad told me never to marry someone just to be taken care of and to make sure I married someone who loved and respected me on equal ground.
When I met my husband Bill, he was all of those things. He allowed me to be me. We met on a basketball court. We played field hockey and tennis, and rode bikes together. He was so proud of my work as a basketball coach. My husband was brilliant in his own right, attending medical school for three years. I am what I am because of the love and support my husband gave me. Nothing was as important as our life together as a family-- husband, wife, and three happy children.
Due to the circumstances with our daughter's meningitis, which caused her to be a quadriplegic when she was 14 months old, my husband and I had the most unique and unifying relationship that any two people could ever be fortunate enough to have. We were happy to do whatever we needed to do in to keep our family whole and happy. We didn’t have the traditional husband and wife roles. My husband was just as likely to cook a meal or style our daughter's hair as he was to mow the lawn, woodwork in the shop, or play football with our boys.
When I lost my husband suddenly, I appreciated, perhaps for the first time, just how special and courageous my mom really had been. We both lost our husbands, twenty Thanksgivings apart, almost exactly the same age when they passed. It really broke me. I stayed in denial for a really long time. I didn’t even talk about it for 10 years. But I realize now that it was my mom’s example that enabled me to go on.
I had three kids when my husband died. My mom had six. I had basketball to bury myself in. She didn't have anything but us kids. And yet, we never saw her cry, we never saw her break down. My mom just made it her mission to carry on our dad’s lessons--and to work. My mom became the real rock of the family. There have been so many times that I wanted to give up, but then I think about my mom. I think, "How can I break?" My mom's example gives me the strength to know I can make it.
She’s 77 years old now and she's still working. She lives in Atlanta and I’m trying to get her to come live with me, but she's too fiercely independent to take me up on it.
People are always talking about the influence my dad had on us. Just after this last NCAA Tournament, a childhood friend called me and said, "Buddy would’ve been real proud of you." But it's my mom, Thelma Stoner, who's been my living example. It's my mom who inspires me today.
She still says, "your dad was brilliant, your dad this..." and "your dad that..." I finally said to her a little while ago, "Do you know who you are? You’re my hero."
My mom said in a startled voice, "Really?" I saw a smile on her face, and I pray that she knows that I meant it.