Family perseveres after losing both parents

May 7, 2011

PLAINVIEW – Saturday’s graduation ceremony at Wayland Baptist University marked the fulfillment of a dream for Suzi Guenther. With all her siblings in tow, it also represented the family’s monument to perseverance and faith despite life’s storms.

The last few years of Guenther’s life – and that of her older brother, Jacob, a 2009 Wayland graduate; younger sister Maria, who graduates from Tulia High School in three weeks; and oldest brother Frank, who lives in Lubbock – have been a study in overcoming trials and the importance of faith, family and friends during those times.

The Guenthers learned that all first-hand on June 22, 2008, when their mother, Susan, died in a car accident about 12 miles from their hometown of O’Donnell. According to the newspaper reports, the couple’s SUV hit a washout in the road and lost control, rolling the vehicle and landing it in a ditch. She had just taken her seatbelt off and thrown from the car.

According to son Jacob, his father walked to the nearest home on the county road for help and his mother died en route to the hospital in Lamesa. The elder Jacob had no serious injuries but bore a lot of guilt since he was driving the vehicle.

Losing their mother was hard enough on the four children. Jacob was working in Plainview for the summer and living on campus, having just finished his junior year. Suzi had just finished her freshman year at Wayland and was visiting relatives in nearby Seminole with sister Maria.

“She was my best friend,” said Suzi, who on Saturday earned her Bachelor of Science degree in math education and aspires to be a secondary math teacher. “It was my friends who really helped me get through this, and not letting troubles take hold but holding on to my dream.”

Despite her grief, Suzi returned to Wayland in the fall for her second year and Jacob continued, knowing he had only a year left in his own math degree. Frank had just finished his basic training and was in the National Guard Reserves. Maria continued her schooling in O’Donnell, benefiting from the help of kind neighbors Don and Penny Forbes and the Scott Hensley family from First Baptist Church. The family’s own church, the Mennonite Evangelical Church in Seminole, was also highly supportive of the Guenthers as they recovered from their loss.

But it was evident to all that things were not the same.

“I would come home sometimes and (my dad) would be in his room and he’d have her wedding dress spread out on the bed,” Maria recalls of that year. “He just didn’t really want to be around me or anyone.”

But in the end, his grief and depression and a problem with alcohol that Jacob said had plagued his father for years proved to be too much. Eleven months after their mother died, the Guenthers lost their father on May 16, 2009, just a week after Jacob earned his degree from Wayland.

After that, life as the Guenther children knew it morphed once more. Jacob was preparing to move to Tulia for a teaching position at the high school, and Suzi was about halfway through her degree at WBU. Frank, married and expecting his first child, was living with wife Irene in Lubbock and working. Maria moved to Tulia with Jacob and transferred to Tulia High to finish her last two years of school.

Jacob said he considered moving their father to the area to be closer to his children, especially since they could see how his wife’s death was affecting him so adversely. But he hoped to finish school first and begin working.

“It was hard to watch him suffer, but it was almost a relief when he passed away because he was free of the pain finally,” Jacob said.

“He was where he wanted to be,” added Suzi. “I’m glad they’re in a happy place now. I’d love to have them here with me, but I wouldn’t want them to leave heaven and come back here.”

The new family arrangements brought the siblings closer to each other and to a half-brother they only met a year ago. They celebrated Easter recently as a full family and cherished those times together. The girls still admit they bicker as sisters do, but they are closer now than ever before.

“Losing them helped bring us together more and we understand more what it’s like to live in love,” Suzi said. “Without God we could not have gotten through this.”

Perseverance, Jacob added, was not an option.

“We were there for each other, and we had great support from our friends and family,” he said of the struggle to press on. “You just find a way.”

Maria said moving, changing schools and uprooting from her life, added to the loss of both parents within a year, made for some great challenges in her formative teenage years. But she said she made friends at Tulia through school and the First Baptist Church there and her supportive teachers made the rocky times a little easier.

She and Jacob laugh now when recalling the initial difficulty in transitioning from big brother to guardian. She admits to a time of rebellion, but Jacob said Maria was pretty self-sufficient and helped out around the house as well. And she must have made it through alright, as she is graduating from Tulia near the top of her class as salutatorian.

Looking back over her time at Wayland, Suzi said continuing her education was never in question, despite the hardships she and her siblings had faced.

“Never once did I think I should change my plans and my future. No matter what life threw at me, I was going to do it,” she said, adding that her Wayland family, her professors and friends through Alpha Delta Kappa service sorority were the biggest support system away from family.

The future looks bright as the siblings carry on with life and stay connected. Suzi plans to move to Canada, where much of her mother’s family lives, and get a teaching job there. Maria wants to attend cosmetology school after she graduates. And Jacob is planning to move to Lubbock and work there. He’s also planning to be married in October to Jessica Alsup, a student at Wayland’s Lubbock campus.