By Fred Dickey Originally published October 8, 2012
Toni Miller was interested in seeing a photo of my wife, so I opened my cellphone and showed her. She looked at the photo approvingly, then looked at me with a mischievous smile that barely curled her lip. “You must have hidden attributes.”
That’s the moment I fell in love with Toni Miller.
I certainly understand journalists are not supposed to do that, but this isn’t some weaselly politician or strip-club owner, but a 74-year-old woman whose life purpose has been taking care of her paralyzed daughter for 41 years, and fighting back against … against anything that gets in her way. If “unsinkable” weren’t already taken by Molly Brown, that’s what I’d call her.
Toni lives with her daughter, Sheree, a pleasant woman of 57, in a triple-wide mobile home off Sweetwater Road in Bonita. It’s a neat dwelling in a well-maintained neighborhood. Toni meets me out front, where she has finished supervising the trimming of a ficus tree outside her door. She leads the way inside to rooms so clean and neat they could pass for your mother’s spiffed-up house on Thanksgiving morning.
She takes me into Sheree’s bedroom, which is organized for the needs of a quadriplegic who has only limited use of her arms. Toni proudly points out the water bed that helps prevent pressure sores on her daughter, a bed she designed and had made. Also, special devices for using the telephone, turning on the TV, DVR and stereo, all of which Toni thought up, discovered or created. She shows me the storage area where medical supplies are stacked as neatly as on a hospital shelf.
The kitchen has not a dish out of the cupboard and has gleaming appliances that Toni says she bought at great savings from the Habitat for Humanity retail store.
This woman is resourceful as well as disciplined. As I was about to learn, she had to be.
She was born in Ohio — she thinks — but doesn’t know where or when because she has no birth certificate. I ask her to explain the mystery of her early life.
“You don’t want to get into that,” she says.
“Yeah, I do, Toni.”
“Well, my growing up was hell on wheels. I was burned. I was starved. Domestic violence … things my kids don’t know about. I don’t tell to anybody. My parents — supposedly, but I don’t think they were, according to Social Security … I tried three times to get a birth certificate — those people were not my parents.”
A confusing paragraph, but how could it be otherwise?
And if they weren’t your parents, who were?
“I’ve never been able to find out. Social Security says there’s no record of any.”
“What happened to the man who passed as your father?” I ask.
“He killed himself.”
I ask about the woman who was her mother, or maybe her mother.
“The only clear recollection I have is of her kicking me down the stairs, and I had to be taken to the hospital. I look at my body and see scars that I don’t know where they came from. I have a large scar on my side; a doctor asked me about it once, ‘When did you get such a bad burn?’ I told him I didn’t remember.”
“When you left that home, where did you go?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I must have gone somewhere.”
She has a flash memory of standing on a box and washing dishes in an Italian restaurant around age 14.
“The past is like a shadow,” she says.
(The American Journal of Psychiatry says, “Childhood abuse, particularly chronic abuse beginning at early ages, is related to the development of high levels of dissociative symptoms, including amnesia.”)
“You know, there’s something I don’t understand about people who have been abused,” she says. “They cry and they whine and all this, but the point is, you have to be responsible for yourself. You have to go inside yourself and find the guts to go on.”
As have so many cast-out young women before and since, Toni found refuge in marriage, but it was not a lucky choice, which is also part of the pattern. She was married to a truck driver for 12 years and gave birth to five children before it ended in divorce. The father didn’t stay a father, at least not to her children. He went on to marry five more times. Along the way, he forgot child support just as he forgot Toni.
“I guess he liked to chase,” she says with a shrug.
“I was married only once. Five kids probably prevented me from doing it twice. A lot of guys will run from that.”
Toni found work as a bartender in the Chicago area and reassembled the pieces of her life. But it all came apart again when Sheree, at age 15, dived into a shallow pool and suffered a broken neck.
Toni swore that her daughter would never be sent to a nursing home so long as Toni lived. While Sheree spent time in a rehabilitation hospital, Toni enrolled in a demanding, months-long course conducted through the University of Illinois to enable her to care for her daughter at home.
As she completed the course, doctors advised her to take Sheree to a more moderate climate that might prolong her life. She got busy with maps and climate charts.
Hence, San Diego.
In the meantime, Toni suffered an attack of ovarian cancer, and, years later, a heart attack, both of which she survived without breaking stride.
Settled into her new home in San Diego, she resumed her work. “I bartended for the military at night so I could afford to stay home with Sheree during the day. I did everything that needed to be done for her before I left for work. Every supervisor knew that if I got a call from home that said I was needed, I was gone. I’d go home, take care of things, then return to work.”
Sitting at her table listening to her story, I happen to mention her five children.
“Four,” she says.
But, I thought …”
“One was murdered.”
Seventeen years ago, her daughter Robin was fleeing from an abusive husband who caught up with her in Arizona. The 31-year-old mother of two, on the verge of getting her pharmacist’s license, was murdered in the apartment where she had been hiding.
I ask what happened to the husband, and Toni says, “He’s in the place of four letters. He killed himself just afterward.”
I listen to this story of horror from a woman who has absorbed the punch of it and recovered her friendliness and sardonic humor. Is she happy? She seems to be, but intuitively I think it’s keyed to Sheree’s well-being and fulfilling her self-assigned duties.
Sheree is sitting nearby in her wheelchair, listening. I ask her what her mother has meant to her.
“If she weren’t taking care of me, I’d be in a nursing home or dead. Twice, three times I stopped breathing, and I would have died if she hadn’t been there. She challenged me to graduate high school, and when I did, my mom was right there, pushing me up there. And I’ve never been in a nursing home.”
Is Toni Miller a throwback to a disappeared past of rugged individualism? No. She’s a modern woman living in our midst along with many other indomitable people to whom tough and kind are synonyms, and a tragedy is to overcome, or at least survive.
They can be found in a mobile home park in Bonita or in a secluded estate in Rancho Santa Fe. They are often invisible, until we care to look.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected].
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