May 4, 2024

Annie the Adventurer

Annie the Adventurer

The backstory

"I think I had a stroke." It was at a Disney family vacation when my mom said her left leg was not working correctly. She was 87. These six words changed our world. After a year and a half of medical specialist visits, back surgery, physical therapy and other neurological tests, we learned that what she was experiencing was not due to a stroke. Her final diagnosis was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). For those not familiar, the ALS Association defines the disease as a "progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord." This leads to motor neuron death, which means in turn that the "ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. When voluntary muscle action is progressively affected, people may lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe." 

With this diagnosis, we knew that it was only a matter of time before my mom would be unable to function normally. We planned for the inevitable, but we also used the time wisely to learn more about her exploits.

My mom was not famous or influential in the big scheme of things, but she was, even until the end, a badass. At the age of 22, and before it was common, she traveled from Canada to California with her nurse girlfriends on Route 66, then proceeded throughout her life to have adventures around the world.

My mom’s name was Annie. She liked a good gin and tonic. 

Annie had a joy for life — at 80, skydiving; at 85, white-water rafting; treating each day as a gift and experiencing each challenge, good or bad, with the same ability to test her limits. She traveled with my dad and volunteered as a nurse in India, South America, and Africa. Even after her diagnosis, she learned to get around on that electric wheelchair. She got pretty good at it, and then her abilities gradually faded. Although it was hard to watch the decline, my mom embraced her fate, and she died at age 90. 

The now story

Several years after she died, my eldest daughter, Morgan, decided that my mom had lessons to teach to the world; so she set about writing them down. This was a new endeavor for her, a new adventure of her own. Morgan wrote a children's book chronicling Annie's life, and as the story took shape over time Morgan found that she needed illustrations to make her story come to life. So she enlisted the help of my granddaughter (her younger sister’s daughter), who was four at the time, to create the artwork. Morgan thought "how wonderful" it was for a four-year-old to contribute in a meaningful way, which could give other children the confidence to be able to say, “If she can do this, so can I.”

Coordination! Morgan lives in Texas, and Aspen — the artist — lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Given that Aspen was four and unable to read the story, it also took a concerted effort to manage this process with Aspen's mom to read, provide guidance, and find the time to have Aspen create the illustrations as only a four-year-old can interpret them. It was a family event, so to speak, when Morgan finally self-published the book last year. I could see my daughter’s and granddaughter's joy and pride as the final version was printed and bound.

The cover image of Morgan’s book, illustrated by Aspen.
The cover image of Morgan’s book, illustrated by Aspen.

The final story was not only about my mom's many adventures and travels, but also about life and death, moving forward, and persevering. So what started as a children's book eventually became one that children and adults can relate to. I have seen parents read the book to their children, with tears and laughter, together. Another family event.

Was my mom perfect? Heck no! But she always instilled in us the importance of being good and kind people, helping others in need, and seeking the adventures that life has to offer. On the anniversary of her death we sometimes send each other photos of ourselves with a gin and tonic and say: Here's to you mom/g-ma, and thanks for everything.

Life is made of those little moments that we often forget, and then a big moment gives an opportunity to reflect, cherish, and hold close.  

Robyn Woidtke lives in Nor-Cal, married, with a blended family of five girls and nine grandkids. She has worked in the field of sleep medicine for four decades. Robyn is passionate about careful and kind medical care and tries to enjoy life like Annie.

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