For the past seven years, John and Wendy Bigelow have been trying to maintain a normal, stable life for their five adopted children.
The children made it through foster care, relocating to another state and a cancer scare, but their journey’s still not over. Now they face the possibility of losing their dad and provider.
In August, doctors told John Bigelow, of Conneaut, that his cancer had returned with a vengeance, and that he had months to live.
“It was devastating,” Bigelow said.
The news of the family’s situation spread, putting the Bigelows on the radar for a Thanksgiving charity event in Medina. They will be the recipients of 30 percent of the money raised by this year’s Meadows Turkey Bowl.
For 26 years, Mike Meadows has been hosting the Thanksgiving football game in his Medina Township backyard, and 11 years ago, it became a fundraiser for charity.
Last year, the event raised $190,000, and 30 percent of it went to the family of Peter Radke, a Medina husband and father of four who died while saving a girl from drowning at a Lake Erie beach in June 2014.
Meadows said he wasn’t planning on having the money go to a specific family this year, but he changed his mind after hearing about the Bigelows.
Alan Mowrey, vice president of development for the Arena Football League’s Cleveland Gladiators, plays basketball with the Bigelows’ landlord. When he found out about their situation, Mowrey, who played in the Turkey Bowl last year, asked Meadows if the family could be the “face” of the Turkey Bowl this year.
“I know cancer’s prevalent in all of our lives, but the difference here is they’ve adopted five kids out of horrendous conditions,” Meadows said. “And then this death sentence hits John.”
Adopting five children
The Bigelows’ story began seven years ago in North Carolina, where John and Wendy, who couldn’t have children of their own, lived.
Wendy Bigelow said friends recommend they think about adopting foster children.
“We prayed about it a lot,” she said. “We didn’t really know much about fostering.”
They ended up adopting two children — Johnny, who was 7 at the time, and Mary Emily, who was 5. The brother and sister needed therapy for the family life they had been through. Their parents had been criminally charged and the children’s names needed to be changed “for their safety,” Wendy Bigelow said.
“A therapist recommended home schooling to create a sense of family, so that’s what we decided to do and it was wonderful,” she said. “They’re our little heroes.”
They moved their new family to Northeast Ohio to be closer to extended family in the area. Four years later they adopted three sisters out of foster care — Nicole, who was 7 at the time; Brianna, who was 6, and Morgan, who was 4.
“Before us, the girls were with a couple who wanted to adopt them and told the girls to call them mom and dad,” Wendy Bigelow said. “At some point, the couple changed their mind, gave them up and the children were devastated.”
Getting the diagnosis
Just more than one year later, in February 2014, John was diagnosed with cancer.
“We were told he had cancer and that it was curable,” Wendy Bigelow said.
He started chemotherapy and radiation every day for the next six months at the Cleveland Clinic. They would drive the whole family more than an hour every day for his treatments in the city.
By November that year, the doctors told him the disease was gone. He had oncologist follow-up appointments in December and February that went well.
But this past August, Bigelow had developed a cough, and the doctors found liquid on his lungs.
“His lymph nodes lit up during the scan, which was a sign of cancer,” Wendy Bigelow said. “I cannot express what we went through. We fell apart. You just have so many worries.”
He was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, which had spread to both lungs, his chest and his bones.
“We thought we were just going up there for a regular checkup,” Bigelow said. “I told the doctors that we needed a minute alone, and Wendy and I just embraced and cried. I’ve never cried so much.”
The doctors told Bigelow, who worked as an electrician, to quit his job and spend the remainder of his life with his family.
“We’re fixing to receive the joy of a miracle that we believe in — that I’ll get more time than months,” Bigelow said. “I’ve become a very big hugger. I’m very thankful because a lot of people in car accidents don’t get a chance to see their loved ones or say goodbye.”
The Bigelows told their children that their dad’s cancer is back, but they don’t yet know that it’s terminal.
“I try to put myself in their shoes — they finally have a home and Daddy’s their hero,” Wendy Bigelow said. “It’s going to shatter them. This will just crush them. They can’t handle this.”
Bigelow now gets two different chemo treatments once every three weeks, Wendy Bigelow said.
Coping with challenges
Bigelow said his main concern right now is his family.
“How are they going to get through it?” he said.
The Bigelows have health insurance, but it expires next year, Wendy Bigelow said. She said her husband doesn’t have life insurance and now they have no income other than Bigelow being put on disability with the state.
“We’ve been praying for a miracle for John,” Wendy Bigelow said. “I don’t even have money to bury John, and he’s the love of my life.
“I don’t know what’s around the corner, but I know we’re going to be OK.”
Wendy, 53, and John Bigelow, 55, both cited their faith in God as a means of getting them through this time.
“It’s one thing to go through life and good times to say, ‘I have faith,’ but to actually show it when you go through times like this is much different,” Bigelow said.
Wendy Bigelow said that she’s tried to envision raising her children on her own, but she knows it won’t be easy. She said she hopes to keep things as normal as possible for them.
“I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but they’re going to be happy children,” she said. “I want them to love life and just be thankful. I want them to be able to put sorrow in its rightful place.”
Finding goodness in the world
The family will receive 30 percent of the proceeds of the Turkey Bowl and the rest will go to the Catholic-based charity, Society of St. Vincent de Paul. All of the money that Mowrey raises, with a match from the Gladiators, will go to the Bigelows. Mowrey said he’s up to $12,000 so far.
Meadows said they’ve helped other families outside the county over the years. To break a $1 million total raised over the past 11 years, the Turkey Bowl will have to bring in more than last year’s $190,000.
“Our goal is to get all of the funds raised by 3 p.m. the day before Thanksgiving,” he said. “It’s not about the dollars we raise, but about the people we help.”
On Thanksgiving Eve, the 43 players in the Turkey Bowl will have a draft night from 8 to 11 p.m. Each player has to raise $2,000 to be in it. The money they raised is converted into “Meadows Money” and used to help bid on top players. The four teams play on two fields on Meadows’ property, and the winners play each other for the championship.
People can donate to the Turkey Bowl at www.meadowsturkeybowl.com, where they can find ticket packages for the Cleveland Indians and the Gladiators, which were donated.
Wendy Bigelow said the money the Turkey Bowl raises will “go so much farther than just us,” because it will show her five children, who have been through so much, that “there is goodness in the world.”
“I’m going to be able to show them pictures of what was done for Daddy and for them,” she said. “They will realize that they were loved.”
Bigelow said that if he is still healthy enough, their family will try to be at the game.
“We’re so thankful, you just can’t understand,” he said. “Every good deed God knows about and He will repay it.”