‘My Church of Christ Mother Teresa,’ daughter calls caregiver
SYLACAUGA, Ala. — As Rhonda Fernandez tried to arrange the…
SYLACAUGA, Ala. — The little girl tugged at her father’s leg.
“Don’t go, Daddy,” she begged. “Don’t go.”
Jack Zorn — known to generations in Churches of Christ as “The Man in the Red Jacket” who founded the Lads to Leaders program — was leaving to speak at a church in another state. His daughter Rhonda wanted him to stay home and play.
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“Dad sat in the floor and explained his commitment to the church and supporting his family,” Rhonda Fernandez recalled. “He said, ‘Rhonda, you don’t want me to disappoint all those people expecting me and not do my work, do you?’”
Decades later, Fernandez, now 53, found her role reversed as she explained to her parents — who entered hospice care a year ago — that she had to go home to Orlando, Fla., after six weeks at their central Alabama home.
Jack Zorn, 81, is mostly blind, has hearing difficulties, battles regular strokes and sleeps between 20 and 21 hours a day. Besides that, he has an arthritic hip that causes severe pain.
Rhonda FernandezFrances Zorn, 79, suffers from heart problems and dementia. The extent of her memory loss fluctuates from day to day.
Both Zorns were in a serious car wreck in 2009 that exacerbated their health concerns.
“I needed to go home to my job, my dog, my own kitchen, my church family and, most of all, my precious husband, Halo,” said Fernandez, a member of the Concord Street Church of Christ.
But when Fernandez broke the news that she was flying home the next day, her mother wept and said she couldn’t sleep if Rhonda weren’t there. Her father assured her Halo would understand if she stayed just a little longer. Get him on the phone, Jack Zorn urged.
“My heart just hurt,” Fernandez said. “My dear husband knows this is a season of life and is supportive, but he is sacrificing deeply. It seems I live in two states. That same Jack and Frances two years ago would have said, ‘We enjoyed your visit, Blondie, but you need to get home to your husband.’”
Jack and Frances Zorn hold hands while wearing matching red coats during last year’s Lads to Leaders annual convention in Nashville, Tenn. (PHOTO BY HALO FERNANDEZ)
Gut-wrenching. Sobering. Scary. All-consuming.
Fernandez uses all of those adjectives to describe the role she has assumed overseeing her parents’ around-the-clock care.
But she’s quick to point out that she’s just one piece of the puzzle.
Others include the caregivers who change her parents’ undergarments, the nurses and doctors who make house calls, the homecare beautician who fixes her mother’s hair, the neighbors who help with yard work, the police chief who changes the batteries in her parents’ GPS bracelets and the Broadway Church of Christ members — led by Mike Perry — who deliver the Lord’s Supper each Sunday.
“She keeps saying, ‘It’s not about me,’” said Resa Byrd, Fernandez’s older sister, whose husband, Herbert Byrd III, serves as an elder of the Maryville Church of Christ in Tennessee. “However, I will tell you that I think she’ll have a special place in heaven for what she has done and is doing for my parents. It consumes her life, and she loves them the way Christ loved us.”
Said Fernandez: “It seems common for one sibling to be most involved, and the support of the other siblings is so helpful. I cannot imagine how conflicted I would be if I did not know my sister Resa was always there for support when needed. She is my prayer warrior and is encouraging me habitually.”
Helen Mulaparthi, a member of the Broadway Church of Christ in Sylacauga, Ala., enjoys a laugh with Rhonda Fernandez, as Frances Zorn watches. Read our sidebar on how Mulaparthi stepped up when Fernandez needed someone to help care for her parents. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
As Rhonda Fernandez welcomes a visitor to Jack and Frances Zorn’s home, the husband and wife sit in the living room — surrounded by family photos and other mementos of 58 years of marriage.
Prized picture frames show political heroes such as Ronald Reagan and a Christian Chronicle clipping featuring “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson, whom the couple enjoy watching on television.
“What if I fall?” asks a wall hanging. “Oh, my darling, what if you fly?”
Jack and Frances sport matching, long-sleeved T-shirts with a photo of themselves emblazoned on front. In the picture, both are in wheelchairs, holding hands and wearing red jackets at a Lads to Leaders event.
“If I am lost find Jack,” says the message on Frances’ shirt.
“I am Jack,” says the note on his.
Cameras help daughter Rhonda Fernandez monitor her parents. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)Look closer, and a camera — one of eight that Fernandez had installed in every room except the bathroom — shines on the couple.
Whether in the next room or 500 miles away in Florida, the Zorns’ daughter can keep an eye on her parents — and their caregivers — via her smartphone and her tablet computer.
“Technology is fantastic,” Fernandez said. “At night — if they are having a bad night — I can put in an earpiece. Then I sleep sort of light, and I can hear them toss and turn and an occasional faint snore.
“But then if there is a weird noise, it wakes me up. Then I can text the caretaker in the next room, you know what I’m saying. I know it’s a little compulsive.”
Her husband, Halo Fernandez, teases her about that compulsiveness, even as he tracks the Zorns’ movements himself.
One night, Rhonda Fernandez was in bed at her parents’ house when Halo called from Orlando.
“Your dad’s doing his leg like he does when his hip’s hurting,” Halo said. “He needs a pain pill.”
“Oh, thank you, honey,” Rhonda said, grabbing a pill and water for her father.
About 30 minutes later, her phone rang again.
“I think your father’s throat is parched,” Halo joked. “He might like some lemonade.”
“Stop watching my parents,” she replied with a chuckle, “and go to bed.”
A decade ago, the Zorns retired and moved to Frances’ hometown of Sylacauga, a Bible Belt community of 13,000 about 50 miles southeast of Birmingham.
The daughters’ earliest memories involve their dad behind the pulpit on Sunday mornings.
Saturday nights were filled with “baths, hair-curling sessions, ironing of clothes and early bedtimes,” Resa Byrd said, “because we all knew that Sunday was the day we honored God by looking our very best.”
Jack Zorn was raised on a sharecropper’s farm in Geneva County, Ala. His father suffered from alcoholism, and his mother struggled to instill Christian values in the family. At age 17, Jack Zorn was baptized at a gospel meeting. He later attended Alabama Christian College (now Faulkner University) in Montgomery, where he met fellow student Frances.
Jack and Frances Zorn, with daughters Resa, Rhonda and Sonya. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY RHONDA FERNANDEZ)Zorn was preaching in Warner Robins, Ga., in 1968 when the elders asked him to develop a leadership training program for the congregation’s young people.
That Sunday class for eight boys grew into Lads to Leaders, which annually draws a combined 20,000 boys and girls to a half-dozen convention sites across the nation. Frances Zorn’s younger brother, Roy Johnson, now serves as executive director.
In the summers, the entire Zorn family hit the road in a Dodge camper to promote Lads to Leaders.
By Fernandez’s count, those trips took her to at least 27 states. Her father encouraged her to make impromptu speeches in as many states as possible. She reckons that contributed to her interest in politics — including later serving on Reagan’s advance team.
The Zorns timed their driving so they could be sure to attend worship services — wherever they were — on Sunday and Wednesday.
“We’d be in that camper, and we’d have that ‘Where the Saints Meet’ book, and we’d flip through and see where we were going to be and what time,” Fernandez said.
Now, she is the person who must tell her parents that — unless they’ve had an exceptional week healthwise — they can’t go to church.
Helen Mulaparthi hugs Jack Zorn during a visit to the couple’s home in Sylacauga, Ala. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)“Neither of us can drive, so we have to depend on other people driving us or carrying us,” Jack Zorn said. “And we go as often as we have a way. When we don’t, somebody brings us the Lord’s Supper.”
“It’s not just the driving part,” his daughter interjected. “They’re a fall risk.”
It’s just too risky — particularly when Fernandez is in Florida — to attempt taking Jack and Frances to worship, she said. The daughter wouldn’t want a caregiver or church member feeling responsible if her parents left and got hurt.
“It makes me sad,” Jack Zorn said of not being able to attend.
“And that breaks my heart,” his daughter said.
Her dad, she pointed out, is a big man and can become wobbly.
“Daddy, what are you — 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4?” she asked.
“Six-foot-two,” he responded.
“I’m sorry,” Fernandez said. “He seems like a giant to me.”
In her eyes, he will always be a giant in faith — and she counts it a blessing that their only real argument concerns his desire to worship God.
Frances Zorn smiled and listened to the conversation but spoke little. Her daughter gently rested her left palm on her mother’s right hand.
“I’ve become the annoying ‘no’ child,” Fernandez said. “No, Dad, you have to use your walker. No, Dad, you cannot leave the house without your wheelchair because remember what happened last time. No, Mom, you cannot shower alone because it’s not safe.
“Mom, the church called and notified me your driving had become unsafe, and I need your keys.”
Puppeteers from the Bellevue Church of Christ in Nashville, Tenn., celebrate their team winning first place at a Lads to Leaders competition in 2012. Read “Training to lead: Lads vs. LTC” from our archives. (PHOTO BY DIANE BOONE)
But an expert at Alabama’s Helen Keller School for the blind and deaf cautioned against taking her father away from his familiar surroundings, where he already knew the floor plan and felt comfortable.
Jack and Frances Zorn pose at an annual convention of Lads to Leaders in Atlanta. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY RHONDA FERNANDEZ)Well-meaning friends and fellow Christians tell Fernandez she should put her parents in a nursing home.
“Those decisions are so incredibly personal, and each family has its own set of unique circumstances,” she said. “I am not judging others for their choices, but I want to keep my parents in their own home as long as humanly possible.”
Resa Byrd said it’s important for those who don’t assume the brunt of the load to support and encourage the one who does.
“Other family members simply must support that sibling with unconditional love, patience and trust,” Byrd wrote in an email. “Unless you are the one who handles the doctors’ visits, the financial decisions, the schedules, the phone calls, the emotional needs, then you don’t need to ‘gift’ your sibling with advice (unless solicited) or criticism for their decisions.”
Moreover, she said, “Every family member should contribute, love, visit and engage in their parents’ lives. Being nothing more than a ‘visitor’ is the easy way out. Every family member can roll up their sleeves, wash some dishes, mop a floor, throw laundry in the washer, rake some leaves, pay a bill or do something more than drop by.”
A note on a glass door overlooking the Zorns’ back deck reminds Frances that she can’t go outside without a relative or caregiver accompanying her. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
A few times, Frances Zorn turned on the oven and — because of her dementia — forgot about it.
So her daughter removed all the knobs for everyone’s safety.
Frances Zorn also has been known to dig into medicine cabinets and empty out closets for no reason.
To counter those concerns, Fernandez sealed off most rooms — except for her parents’ bedroom and bathroom — with digital padlocks.
“Yes, Mom, you are correct: God is with you,” says a handwritten sign with yellow trim posted on a glass door overlooking the back deck. “However, you still CANNOT go outside without a relative or caregiver.” Little hearts decorate the sign.
Rhonda Fernandez shows names on a “memory list” of folks who love Frances. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)Nearby, a long list of names — part of a memory game that Fernandez plays with her mother — shows all the people who love Frances Zorn: “Dad. Resa. Rhonda. Halo. Herb.” And more.
“We try to get her to remember that God loves you most,” Fernandez said. “And we keep adding names to the list.”
At one time, Fernandez thought hospice care was reserved for those with only a few months to live.
But the term applies, too, she said, to supportive care for people in the final phase of a terminal illness. It focuses on comfort and quality of life, rather than a cure.
“The goal is to enable patients to be comfortable and free of pain so that they live each day as fully as possible,” she said.
A year in hospice care — as the Zorns have enjoyed — is unusual. But Fernandez and Byrd credit the power of prayer with slowing down their parents’ health decline.
Even now, the couple — who insisted on pushing their twin hospital beds together — display love, faith and perseverance that inspire their daughters.
“One of the sweetest things about the cameras is that I get to hear Mom and Dad praying at night,” Fernandez said. “There’ve been times when Dad has prayed for 40 minutes. Halo and I are like, ‘What’s wrong with us? We’ll doze off.’”
The role reversal of caring for her parents has been challenging — and faith-affirming.
“It is scary in so many ways and has drawn me closer to God at many turns,” she said. “I have been a work in progress my entire life, but I know for sure that focusing on Mom and Dad at this point in life is right.
“They are true servants who helped others their entire lives, and now they need servants to help them.”
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