Submitted by: Grant L. Keehn

Category: Stories

The Commander

Born February 6th 1925 on the family’s kitchen table in Chicago, Jean Mohr Keehn was the second girl of two children for my late grandmother. As a child she would have more than her fair share of childhood illnesses. One of these illnesses I remember my mother sharing with me was an inner ear illness which required the doctors to drill a second canal into her inner ear. I can still recall when she would show it to my sister, brother and myself. It looked very odd to see another canal leading to the right inner ear. Despite all these health distractions she persevered. Life for my mother had no restrictions, no limitations. Early in her childhood her stepfather moved the family to Lake Zurich for a more tranquil lifestyle. It was during these years my mother made many of her lifetime friends. Unfortunately, though as the war effort took hold the family was forced to move back to the city in the early forties due to the rationing of gasoline. The tranquil lifestyle of Lake Zurich was forever gone. My mother graduated from Senn High School located on the north side of the city in 1942.

After graduation she went to work for a short time in the private sector before duty called and enlisted in the United States Coast Guard while my aunt enlisted in the Navy. My mother and aunt spent most of their time stationed on the east coast, primarily Virginia. To this day I can still recall her telling me about the Russian ships that came to port and being fully integrated with the women working right alongside of the men, something not yet known in this country. After being honorably discharged in the spring of 1946, my mother returned to the city and within a few years would marry my father. My sister Gail was born in 1949, my brother Guy in 1952 and myself in 1954. It was also during this time in late 1952 my mother contracted Polio and would spent the most part of 1953 in an Iron Lung. When she was finally able to breathe on her own and recovered from the disease she emerged from the Iron Lung with her usual outlook on life. She was a fighter and just like her childhood which was marred with more than the usual amount of illness nothing could keep her down. My mother was told by her doctors that the atrophied right leg muscles would never return to normal and she would need leg braces and crutches to be able to walk again. She tried that for a few weeks and then said no more. Despite a permanent limp my mother started walking again on her own. No walking aids were needed. She gave birth to me in October of 1954. It was during this time we moved to Libertyville and my sister, brother and I would spend our childhood days growing up on Newberry Avenue. It was also during these years in which my mother’s and father’s marriage would falter. The divorce was finalized on May 1st 1964. Despite the divorcé decree calling for child support my father chose to ignore it. His money was spent on other things not his children. In mid 1964 my mother returned to the work force to bring money in for her family. She did bookkeeping at the now defunct Libertyville Lumber, and Onsrud Cutter before finally becoming the bookkeeper at Cook Memorial Library for 25 years before her retirement in 1991. During this time I never heard her once complain about life being unfair and unjust. My mom was a fighter, pure and simple. I am proud to say she gave passed that trait to me as well. Additionally, she tried to make our lives as much as normal as possible. Granted there were times when money was quite scarce, my mother always tried to make life as normal as could be expected. That included rare treats to McDonalds for dinner. During my teen years and early twenties I still recall my mother working part time several nights a week to help me pay for my expenses at Western Illinois University. She was determined to see her youngest graduate from college regardless of the cost or lack of sleep she experienced. I did not let her down.

Upon her retirement from Cook Memorial Library my mother took an even more active role in the American Legion. With her new found freedom she was able to do more of what she enjoyed doing the most, helping other veterans who were down on their luck be it thru alcohol or drugs. It was also during this time she served as Men’s Commander for the northern district of Illinois. She was the first woman to do such in the district. It from this term in office that on occasion I would refer to her as the Commander To this day, I occasionally still refer to her as The Commander. In the mid 1990’s despite her medical impairments and medication usage starting to get bigger she was offered the non paying position of American Legion Hospital Representative at the North Chicago Veterans Administration Hospital. It was a position suited for her and her ongoing desire to help veterans down on their luck. What was only to be a part time position a few hours a day a couple of days a week soon grew into a full time role for my mother. Nothing could keep her from the hospital in this new role. Before long she had American Legion posts from all sectors in Illinois calling her and saying Jean what do you need? My mother would tell them what she needed for “her Boys.” A check would be in the mail the following day. Whether it was her annual Christmas party for the hospitalized veterans in which they could pick out presents for their families and have then wrapped and sent free or bingo parties in the evening or Sunday afternoons my mother lived for making the lives of “her boys” that much better. I cannot even begin to recall the number of times we would go to Sam’s Club and purchase fifty pound bags of popcorn, vegetable oil, salt and butter for the veterans. Whatever was needed by the veterans be it basics like shaving crème or a tooth brush and tooth paste, they would go see my mother. I cannot even begin to recall how many of the vets called my mother mom. And although she has now been deceased a year and a half many still refer to her as mom. It was also during this long run as hospital representative she was honored several times by various institutions and government bodies for her work at the hospital. This included recognition in the late 1990’s by North Shore Magazine as one of the region’s top volunteers, multiple honors by the United states Veterans Administration to February 2009 when she was honored by the State as Illinois Veteran of the month.

Unfortunately, as the aging process took hold on my mother’s body she began to slow down as the multiple medical impairments took hold. Soon a few pills a day became several and medical impairments such as Diabetes, Atrial Fibrillation, Cerebrovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease and Post Polio Syndrome along with many others took its toll. Over time a few pills a day became as many as eighteen to sustain her. By early 2010, she was force to give up her role at the V. A. As I look back over the years, I can now see how this played a huge role in her decline. She lived for the V. A. and her boys. All of sudden it had been taken from her. By spring of 2011 we moved her into my brother’s home on Diamond Lake. At that point I was already laying out 18 medications for her daily usage and my brother’s care for her was becoming fulltime. Her medication was laid out for two weeks at a time. As her health deteriorated further my sister Gail asked for me to move her down to Florida. This would afford Gail the opportunity to spend time with our mom. Additionally, she would be able to spend time with not only her grandchildren but great grandchildren as well. In keeping with her fighting spirit my mother objected fiercely but after long and intense conversations she reluctantly agreed to “give it a try.” I now believe in her heart she realized she needed full time medical care and a nursing home was the right place for her to get this attention as well as daily physical therapy. On May 30, 2012 we flew to my sisters in Orlando. As we landed, I can still recall my niece meeting us and looking at me and saying “Thank you Uncle Grant.” Having full Power of Attorney and Power of Health, the next day I signed the necessary papers needed to admit her to the nursing home. I then headed back to back to say my goodbye to my mother at Gail’s home. It was the most difficult decision I had ever made in my lifetime and the most difficult goodbye I had ever experienced. Tears continued to flow even as my brother in law drove me to the airport.

As summer progressed, The Commander made tremendous inroads with her ongoing physical therapy and continued health monitoring. We were all impressed by her continued improvement. Her fighting spirit was back. Unfortunately, it was in September when she began to call it quits physically and mentally. The rally had only lasted a short time and the natural dying process we all experience was taking hold even further. My mother was shutting down, we knew it and she knew it also. She suffered several falls as well as what appeared to be mini strokes though her Cat Scans only showed age related changes of the brain. It was during this time I experienced my first toe amputation when my mother was hospitalized. A week after my surgery my brother and I flew down to Florida to see her. During this hospitalization my sister later told me my mother would constantly keep asking “Where’s Grant? Yes, I was her baby and she had raised all of us without the help of a husband or father for her children, especially myself the youngest. I was in Florida for two days as my mother continued to rally. The day I was to leave I went to spend more time with her before my departure. I can vividly recall her asking me why I had to leave. As I said my final farewell I went back into her room to make sure she heard me say I love you mom. Those were words I did not use often but needed to make sure she heard. As we left the hospital I somehow knew that would be the last time we would see each other in person. She was discharged from the hospital the next day but by then the aging process had taken permanent hold on her tired and aged body. It was October 15th when the ambulances took her to the hospital again after losing consciousness while my niece was visiting her. At the hospital she was stabilized with multiple tests performed. She continued to come in and out of consciousness. It was during that time she was hooked up to a ventilator to sustain her. My brother flew down to Florida to be with her as the end neared. I did not go as I chose not to see my mother in that state. Additionally, there is no doubt in my mind had I walked into the room The Commander would have sat up in her bed and said G- – Da – - – it what are you doing here? She was never at a loss for words and had no problem expressing her thoughts. She was a fighter with good intentions. It is another trait I proudly say she passed on to me.

In the early morning hours of October 17th 2012 while my brother, sister and niece were by her side, they arranged for me to talk to the doctor in charge. It was a phone call I had known would be coming but was very reluctant to take. As the doctor introduced himself I played all the scenarios out in my mind wondering how I could stop her from leaving this earth and what steps the doctor could take to reverse my mother’s inevitable death. The doctor advised me there were none. After I regained my composure, I asked him to treat the WWII Veteran with the utmost respect as death approached. He assured me she was comfortable as she lie unconscious in her bed. As tear began to flow again I advised him it was time to turn everything off and allow my mom to pass with dignity and in accordance with her wishes. She had always made it clear to me she wanted no machines to sustain her and I had included that when she signed her Power of Health over to me. It was the toughest decision I had ever made in my life and no amounts of justification could stop my tears from flowing. I immediately got Gail and Guy back on the phone and asked them to never hold my decision against me. As they both cried they said they would not. At 8: 45 A. M. morphine was injected into my mother’s arm for pain and the respirator was disconnected. My mother died quietly 15 minutes later. She had left this earth to join her mother and her sister. It was over. Additionally, in accordance with my mom’s wishes she was cremated and her ashes dispersed in the town she always thought of as home, Libertyville.

As I now look back on the life my mother faced I can see much of her in me. The Commander passed along her ongoing desire to remain firm and tough when needed but to never once pass on the opportunity to help someone when they needed help. Additionally, I cannot help but feel my love for nature and the appreciation of the small things in life I have from her. Though I have faltered many times I try to live as my mother would have wanted me to live. As Mothers Day 2014 approaches, I am forever grateful for the loving, understanding but firm mother I had in my life. Happy Mother’s day mom, I miss you and love you. You will always be in my soul, my blood, my body and my spirit. Nothing can nor will ever take that away.

About the author:

I am the youngest of three children my late morther had. This story is my latest and can be found on my site I would appreciate it if you could print this in memory of my mother. Thank you, Grant Cell phone 847 293 5275

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