Kirsten Keusal, the daughter of Dick and Mary Ann Parish, of Norwalk, died of a brain tumor. She was 43.
Her husband admits it has been difficult.
“All of us have gone through the different stages of grieving,” Keusal said. “The kids are dealing with it appropriate to their ages. The older ones understand better and can cope with the loss by talking through it. The little ones are struggling and really don’t completely understand.”
The youngest of the nine, Bethany, was 10 months old when her mother passed away.
“She sensed that something is different,” her father said. “She cried some in the beginning as all kids would do when their mother was not around. But, she did not struggle as much as the older kids as they had a longer relationship with their mother.
“We talk a lot as a family. We have set aside a daily-time to talk things over and we also use it as a worship time. We read scripture and pray. It is a good time to discuss the past as well as what went on that day. The subject of mommy no longer being with us comes up quite often. Most of the children knew that their mother was very ill and although they never talked about her dying, I could tell they believed that was certainly a possibility.”
Kirsten’s first sign of a problem was a year ago this month. Tests in October showed she had a brain tumor. She underwent surgery on Oct. 26. It was cancerous. Eventually, it affected her right side as well as her ability to speak.
Although it was of the kind of cancer that stays in the brain, it was deemed the most aggressive as far as growth.
The illness interrupted a wonderful family life, one made even closer by the fact that the children were home schooled.
“Kirsten was a wonderful mother who absolutely loved to be in the company of her children,” her husband remembered.
Keusal talked about their plans for a family shortly after their marriage in November of 1999.
“I was 35. She was 26,” he recalled. “We thought one, maybe two children. We didn’t talk a lot about it. I didn’t believe at 35, we would have that many. But, we had three pretty quickly, two girls and a boy. At that point, we decided that was enough. Even then we were over-whelmed. We agreed that was enough so I had a vasectomy.”
A year later, Kirsten made the statement that she thought she was going to have more children.
“I looked at her kind of like “the deer in the headlights” stare,” Keusal remembered. “I thought she was talking adoption. But, she wanted more of her own. We soon agreed on this and sought out a doctor for the reversal. There was not much question the procedure was successful because we had six children after that.
“And let me add, after the fourth child arrived, we had an even greater appreciation for new arrivals,” Keusal said. “We were thankful for the first three and then even more thankful for the second batch of six.”
* * *
From oldest to youngest, this is how the Keusal children arrived:
Corinnee is 14, Hannah is 13. Both play the piano and both are charged with the cooking and the baking, the shopping and the laundry as well as attending to the needs of the ones in diapers.
Matthew is 11 and is learning the guitar.
Mark is nine and starting on the piano.
Luke is 8.
Abigail is 6.
Keziah is 5.
Geneva is 3.
Bethany is 1.
* * *
The word “sadness” comes to mind when Keusal talks about the atmosphere in the home.
“We loved her so much and now there is this huge void,” he explained. “She was so much a part of everyone. Our marriage was so strong. We just did not have the squabbles I hear other people have. I can honestly say we never had a bad day in 18 years of marriage. It was not “up-and-down”. It was “up” all the time. One can only visualize what the absence of a young mother means to any household.”
Keusal has high praise for the older children for the way they have taken over responsibilities that include cooking, house cleaning and other homemaking skills and that includes diaper changing.
“It’s not easy for a 54-year-old with nine children to manipulate through a day,” he admitted. “Fortunately, my two older girls, ages 14 and 13, spent a lot of time with their mother in the kitchen. They cook and bake and do all of the grocery shopping. I drive them to the store but they make out the list and that is a challenge in itself when you are talking 10 people. And we have some families from our church who have been so kind in helping us with one or two meals a week. Breakfast and lunch are fairly easy and left-overs from those meals that are brought in come in handy.”
The family travels in what Keusal calls “a non-stylish” 12-passenger Ford van. It’s about the only vehicle that would work for a family of that size. It’s a 2004 model.
Keusal now has the full responsibility of home schooling, something that has happened since the first one was born.
“We wanted to instill our Christian faith and values in our children and believed the best way to do that was spending as much time as we could with them,” Keusal said. “The Bible assigns a parent to do that and Kirsten and I were in full agreement with that even before we had our first child. It has worked out well.”
Keusal said he has more going for his family than many others.
“My wife was unique and special,” he said. “She loved the Lord and felt called. Early in our marriage she worked as a dance instructor teaching ballet. But, as the children started to fill our home, she believed it was time to put wife and mother first. She poured her life into me and the children because it was her belief that the Lord called her to do this. The dance instructions would take place at home.”
Keusal said there is no sitting at desks in this school. It is not a 9 to 3 day. Rather, the older children get a month-in-advance lesson plan in math, history and other subjects including theology and scripture reading. They work independently and if they have questions, he answers them throughout the day. More important, it is love for learning. More often than not, the children spend an hour studying and then head outside for time on the bikes or on the swings.
Probably the biggest void is in the curriculum is reading. Kirsten spent countless hours teaching the youngsters to read. Now those who can fluently read have to help out those who are just learning.
“There are minimum-standard state laws for home-schooled students so they are tested,” Keusal said. “The children are far ahead of the state minimum and they should be because the 20:1 teacher-to-student ratio in a public school is down to 1:1 in our classroom. Often I spend as much as a half-hour with one of the children on a subject if I see he or she is having a problem.”
Keusal comes by book-learning naturally. After growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and then moving with the family to Indiana, he attended and graduated in 1985 with honors from Notre Dame with a degree in psychology and a minor in math.
He spent 20 years in corporate banking but then started his own business.
“I now am contracted by commercial banks to train their new employees,” Keusal said. “It was Kirsten who encouraged me to strike out on my own on this venture. My original goal was to rise to the top of the banking industry and with 20 years of tenure, I felt I was well on the way. But there were family functions sacrificed that brought on unneeded stress so we decided to try this new venture and what has transpired over the last two years has been a true blessing.
“Although my salary was zero back in 2015, I now have a private business that is well established and one that has me working much of the time from my home with students using and on-line course along with a lesson plan. I have also written a book that bank officials and students have subscribed to. It is a easy-read primer for banking employees who want to learn from the ground up. The book is available on Amazon.
“The book will not be best seller on the New York Times list. But, when I send copies out to banks for a look-see, I see them as better than a business card. It builds relationships that could mean a hire for my services down the road. I sell maybe 50 books a month and have a few thousand copies floating around out there.”
Keusal travels a couple days a month. When that happens, grandmother Parish makes the trip in to watch the grandchildren.
As far as the future for the family, Keusal sees it as “one day at a time.”
“We have yet to figure out the new normal,” Keusal said. “And I was a guy that had a six month plan, a one-year plan, and a five-year plan and so on when all was normal. But, I learned that God had his way of planning, one that turned my plan from concrete to sand. I am now waiting for God to show me our long-range plan.
“Kirsten and my plan were to grow old together but now I look at that empty spot in the bed and realize some plans just do not work out. My focus is now on the children and their immediate needs, taking it one day at a time.
“Certainly this is a sad story but it is one that I agreed to talk about. It is about a young mother who died but one who she believed had fulfilled her calling. I tell it with the hope that it might help a family going through a similar situation. And Kirsten would have loved that.”