Jenny Graf has learned many lessons, some through diligent study and hard work and others through life experience.
Her mother, LaWanna Graf, was the best teacher anyone could have and left her with a legacy of wisdom and life lessons. LaWanna shared that rich legacy with her daughter – one Jenny treasures every day.
Jenny and her brother Chris always loved and appreciated their mom. She was, in their eyes, the “perfect mom.” LaWanna never failed to attend any of their school functions. In fact, she lovingly took on the role of team mom and cheerleader for the athletics they participated in. She loved her children so much that she worked the night shift in the emergency room at Baylor Medical Center at Waxahachie as a nurse so that she would not miss any of the things that were important to she and her kids.
“My mom was the best mom anyone could be blessed with,” Jenny said.
“I cannot remember any time she was not there for Chris or me. She was there no matter how tired she was or how busy she was with her job. We knew we could count on her for anything we needed. ”
LaWanna loved life with her family and friends. She had an amazing sense of humor and taught her children to laugh during adversity. Jenny remembers several times her mom would joke with her about different situations. She also remembers each Christmas that her mom made so special.
“She put love into every gift she gave. Many of them were hand made for special people. Giving gifts made her truly happy. She loved to make someone smile.”
As a nurse, LaWanna knew cancer was a devastating disease. She was dedicated to finding a cure for cancer by participating in Relay For Life. She was a member of the Baylor hospital Relay team that raised money for the American Cancer Society for several years, not knowing how important that fight would personally become to her.
In February 2004, LaWanna’s life and plans changed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a mastectomy, with little down time and a lot of determination, she resumed her normal activities. She was subsequently diagnosed with lung cancer. Then on Aug. 10, 2006, she was diagnosed with stage III sarcoma of her left pelvic bone. The following day she had a pathological fracture in her pelvis at the cancer site. On that day, LaWanna’s and Jenny’s life forever changed.
“In December of the previous year, I was a 23-year-old that had attained one of my life goals,” Jenny said. “I graduated from UTA with a bachelor’s degree in history. My mom was so proud of me because I had seen a dream become a reality and made the dean’s list every semester and graduated with honors. When I realized my mom needed me, I made the decision to take care of her instead of getting a job. I have never regretted that decision.”
Jenny had looked for a teaching job, but her mom realized that God, in all his wisdom, had other plans when Jenny had not been offered a teaching position. Instead of teaching, Jenny became her mother’s full-time driver, cook, housekeeper, nurse and cheerleader. LaWanna called Jenny her “Lifeline to Living.”
Jenny knew the only place she wanted to be was with her mom. She knows now that she made the right decision because she has memories she will keep with her forever and no regrets of that time she spent with her mom. She also knows she learned things during that time she could not have learned anywhere else.
“I spent my 24th birthday at the hospital with my mom. She was in surgery for six hours while they amputated her left leg and pelvic bone. That was one of the longest days of my life because I did not know if she would live or die.”
In 2004, Jenny gave her mother a journal for Mother’s Day not knowing how important it would become to her. It has turned out to be one of Jenny’s treasures because she can read the thoughts and legacy her mother left for her.
“We are here to help others,” LaWanna wrote in the journal. “I believe we do not have the right to hurt others and there are many times in life when our desires are not as important as those of other people. Life is too short and is so fragile, so live every day to the fullest. ”
In the journal, Jenny’s mom left her with a legacy of seven things she had learned and wanted to pass on to her. They were the last thoughts LaWanna wrote in the journal.
1. Read the poem “Footprints.” This is a period in my life where God carries me so there are only one set of footprints.
2. Don’t ever blame God for things that happen to you – we are human and our bodies become ill and fail – that is not God’s fault.
3. Boredom is a terrible thing. Being bored makes a person feel useless and angry inside and makes them feel sorry for themselves. It is OK to feel sorry for yourself for just a little while then “get over it.”
4. It is very hard to go from taking care of yourself to having to depend on others to take care of you. This makes you feel worthless but that is normal. Just don’t give up.
5. I know that people need a purpose in life and I know mine was nursing – helping people feel good about themselves as well as feeling better physically. I hope you find your purpose in life that you will always love.
6. Live each day as if it is your last because it could be. Live each day to the best of your ability.
7. Forgive others – don’t hold grudges or anger toward someone – it really just hurts you.
The 2007 Relay For Life was the last one LaWanna would attend because she lost her battle with cancer July 21, 2007. That year Jenny walked in the survivors’ lap beside her mom in the wheelchair. That year LaWanna nominated Jenny for the 2007 Caregiver of the Year.
“I want to honor the person who has taken every step with me and who is responsible for my current well-being and survival – my daughter Jennifer. I’ve learned how wonderful my family, friends, co-workers and community are,” LaWanna wrote. “They have been there for me in so many ways, but it is Jenny who has been there daily and has taken every step with me. She truly has had her share of adversity this past year and through it all has maintained her faith and trust in God. I have never heard her blame God or voice anger at him and I know she talks to him daily. I know he has made Jen a stronger, braver, more caring, more compassionate and blessed person. As my primary caregiver, she knows there are good days, bad days, angry days, depressed days and OK days. Jenny has gone through them all with me. She has encouraged me when I felt down, pointed out reasons to continue when I didn’t see any, cried with me when I needed her to and laughed with me and at me whenever we could. She is truly more than a caregiver – she is my lifeline to living.”
Relay For Life of Central Ellis County will be held May 20-21 at the Waxahachie Sports Complex on U.S. Highway 287 and Broadhead Road. The survivors’ lap kicks off the activities at 7 p.m.
Everyone in the community is invited and encouraged to attend. This year the participants will celebrate all survivors, remember those like LaWanna Graff that have lost their battle and fight back to find a cure for cancer.