Lunch with Marjorie: Turning loss into helping others with life's challenges

Rhonda Fluegel and I shared parenting experiences with our daughters back in the mid-1990s. Our daughters were classmates from middle school through high school. My first autumn in Roscoe, Rhonda invited me to her home for coffee to introduce me to other new residents. She has always been a hospitable, giving person.

“Inviting you over was…I was taking it upon myself, with the school’s help, to get people together,” Fluegel said.

I wanted to catch up with what she is doing now, about her public speaking and workshops, which I knew had evolved from her own great loss. We lunched at Backyard Grill in Roscoe. I enjoyed their barbecued pork. Rhonda ordered strawberry cheesecake.

“My public speaking topic is: ‘Life’s Challenges…being prepared, coping with and rebuilding from.’ It’s most definitely self-help and encouragement—support and how to support other people. If you learn and take action to be prepared for these things…wills and trusts, knowing if you want to be an organ donor, being sure that the people who will be responsible for you know, then there’s no question (what to do) if something should happen to you,” she explained. “Having all of these things in place when the tragedies happen, (you) don’t have to worry…because all of the technical stuff is done. You can focus on the real issues of calling family and friends, or being there for whoever it is in the hospital. You can be in the moment, because you’re not being partially distracted with, ‘Oh, my gosh, where’s the will? Oh, my gosh, who do I notify?’”

Rebuilding, for Rhonda, is reaching out to help somebody who’s going through those tragedies, or reaching out to them even before the crisis hits. She learned the importance of preparing, coping, and rebuilding from experience. In 1998, she lost her husband, Gary, 15 months after he had been diagnosed with leukemia.

“Actually, my grieving process started earlier. When I was 20, my dad had had cancer for two years. I walked the walk with him through that. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back now, that whole experience changed my opinion about everything: Don’t live for retirement. Make sure that you’re enjoying life now, too. Be a good example to your children so that no matter what happens, they know you love them; they know you’ve done the best for them that you possibly can.”

She told her husband, “We don’t have retirement; we have today.”

Through the months of Gary’s illness, the tests, the treatments, hundreds of decisions had to be made.

“These are things people probably don’t realize—these multitude of technical decisions.”

“So now you help people think about these things—ahead of time,” I said.

“People that have experienced loss are just kind of drawn to me. Like when I was working at the bank…this lady came up to the window, and she had lost her husband a week before that, unexpectedly. They’d had a long marriage, but she was so upset…she started to cry. I just reached my hand across the window, and said, it’s OK, I’ve been there. We stood there…talking. I still bump into her.”

On one of these occasions, she said to Rhonda: “Honey, you don’t know how many times I’ve used you as a role model. If you can get through it and still have the attitude you have, I can get through this, too.”

“I decided to get up and do something about it,” Rhonda said. “When they talk to me and open up on such a personal level, I think I must have some real compassion.”

She considers her workshops to be like the tornado drills in school.

“If you’re prepared for it, you kind of have an idea what to do during the crisis. If you take care of some of this stuff, then you’re freed up, because they’re checked off the list and taken care of, so you can really focus on what needs to be done.”

She is also concerned about people learning to cope with crisis—especially the issues regarding death and dying.

“Death. We still depict it as a terrible thing in our society. To me, it’s one of the things still left in the closet, because nobody wants to deal with it. We think birth is so beautiful, and it is. But death and dying are just as beautiful. The grace that these people face every day. You talk about heroes. They get up every day, look at themselves in the mirror with no hair, and know that they’re going to have to go through this stuff again.

“And yet they walk on, they take that step, and they keep going, with courage. There’s so much courage that they have.”

Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years.

From the Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2005, issue

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