Two weeks ago, Monica Miracle's world revolved around getting four kids off to school and corralling her rambunctious 18-month-old son, Jayce. She clipped coupons to save money. She worried about the rent and the family sedan nearing 200,000 miles.
Then she heard her name on her favorite morning TV show, Live! With Kelly and Michael. Her phone started ringing. Her friends wondered what she might do with $100,000, and she allowed herself to dream.
"It still doesn't seem real,'' she said. But at 9 a.m. Tuesday, a big white van rolled up to the Miracles' house in Holiday to take them to the airport and New York City. Suitcases filled with borrowed winter clothing piled in the back. Wide-eyed kids, sleepless the night before, thought about their first airplane ride and making snowballs.
Jeremy Miracle strapped the baby in a car seat. Some months earlier he had written a letter to the producers of the syndicated TV show, which for a second year planned to honor "Unstoppable Moms.'' In the inaugural effort, they had received 20,000 nominations before narrowing the field to four and granting the grand prize to a Pennsylvania woman who ran the family's dairy farm while caring for four children, including one severely disabled.
Jeremy told them about Monica, about her selfless, positive attitude. He told them how at age 27, she had put aside her dreams of a nursing career to care for his sick mother and assume responsibility for five children.
Monica deserved to be honored as an Unstoppable Mom, Jeremy wrote.
The producers agreed.
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Jeremy and Monica grew up in the same neighborhood. They both went to Mitchell High School but were just friends until he returned from two years in the Army. They fell in love and when Monica turned up pregnant, they couldn't wait to tell his mom.
Mary Ann Miracle had devoted her life to rescuing children, and a grandbaby on the way would set off a celebration. Sure enough, she squealed with happiness. Two days later, joy turned to dread as doctors discovered the reason for her chronic shoulder pain. Cancer had invaded her lymph nodes, lungs and brain.
"They said she'd be gone in six months,'' Monica said, "but she fought it. She went through all those treatments, all that pain to get at least some time with the baby.''
Monica, a licensed practical nurse, quit her job to care for Mary Ann, helping her through countless rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. She and Jeremy began preparing for the baby and making plans for the inevitable. They would assume guardianship of the four foster children his long-divorced mother had adopted.
On Aug. 2, 2012, after 72 hours of labor, two blood transfusions and emergency surgery, Monica gave birth to an 11-pound, 23-inch-long baby boy with bright red hair at Florida Hospital North Pinellas in Tarpon Springs. The doctor said Jayce was the biggest baby he had delivered in 26 years of practice.
Despite her discomfort and exhaustion, Monica convinced the doctor to let her go home the next day. "I really didn't have any choice,'' she said. "I promised to take care of myself, but we had too much to do for me to stay in the hospital. I couldn't get around very well, but I could still give orders.''
The Miracles rented a four-bedroom house in Holiday Lake Estates and Monica spent her days caring for her sick mother-in-law, an infant and four children heavily involved in school and athletics — Carmen, 16; Nesa, 15; Aaron, 13; and Noah, 7. Jeremy worked as a massage therapist and helped a friend with construction to pick up extra money.
Two months ago, after a short stay at a hospice center, Mary Ann Miracle died at age 54.
"Returning these children to foster care was not an option,'' Monica said. "We love these kids. We have friends who say, 'They are so lucky to have you.' But we say, 'No, we're the lucky ones.' They are amazing kids. We will always be involved in their lives, and we will always make sure they remember their mom.''
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The Miracles have studied the other three finalists, "and I'm honored to be mentioned with them,'' Monica said. Liz Norden of Stoneham, Mass., raised five kids on her own and last year helped care for two grown sons when they suffered amputated legs in the Boston Marathon bombing. Lauren Perkins of Pearland, Texas, is a school psychologist raising sextuplets. Jaspen Boothe of Haymarket, Va., is a disabled Army veteran and cancer survivor who established a nonprofit organization to assist homeless women veterans and their children.
The finalists are being featured this week on the show with hosts Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan. Film crews followed the mothers around for several hours in preparation for the show. Monica is scheduled to be on this morning. On Thursday, viewers will vote for their favorites, much like they do for American Idol. The finalists will be back on the show Friday. And while there will be only one grand prize winner, all will receive elaborate consolation gifts.
"We feel like winners already,'' Monica said. "We could never afford to take a vacation with all the kids, and now we're going to the big city and they're putting us up in a hotel in Times Square. It's all so thrilling.''
Before heading to New York, Jeremy found a picture of his mother, who had lost her hair to cancer treatments and wore a knit hat. She had been a "country girl'' from Ohio and never cared much for the big city. Embroidered on the hat: "I love New York.''