SPRING HILL — For many women, being a mother means wearing lots of caregiver hats. Joan Poole knows the feeling.
While Poole, who has two children and two grandchildren, officially became a mother with the birth of her son, Justin, in 1971, she found herself becoming a "mother's helper" to her siblings when she was about 8.
"I was the oldest of six, and there was 7 1/2 years between me and the next sibling," said Poole, who turns 60 next month. "My mother used to call me her extra pair of legs."
The role seemed to come naturally to Poole.
"My mother had her hands full. I used to love to help her, from helping with the babies to cleaning to cooking. So that planted my first seeds of being able to cope with some of the things I cope with today."
Her experiences as an older sister, and 15 years of work as an admissions and marketing director at a nursing home, helped prepare Poole to care for her elderly mother-in-law.
Eloise Poole, who is 87, has lived with the Pooles for two years, and along with her husband, Chuck, and some outside help, Joan provides care for Eloise 24/7.
But there was nothing that could prepare Poole for her latest care-giving role: helping her daughter, Nicole, care for a child with cancer.
"It's been extremely difficult to see your daughter suffer when a major illness comes into play in their family's lives — and something so totally unexpected as a brain tumor and cancer that has metastasized to her spine," Poole said, referring to the disease her 2-year-old granddaughter, Talia, is battling. "It's not something you would ever want anybody to ever go through, much less your daughter."
In talking with her daughter on the phone several times a week and taking two trips to Phoenix to help care for her grandson, A.J., while his little sister has been undergoing aggressive treatment, Poole has watched Nicole develop a strong faith.
"In that suffering, you see a strength rise up in your daughter that you're just so thankful for," she said. "I can't think of anything that could sustain her more than her faith in God and his unconditional love for them."
Poole said she believes God provides women with a special kind of strength.
"I think males and females have different kinds of strength," she said. "But the endurance that a mother has when you don't have the sleep and when you're seeing your child in pain is exceptional. Nicole has to give Tali injections, change bandages that hurt when they're removed, and see a shunt being put in her daughter's head. She's just stepped up to the plate with all of that."
Poole said she draws her own strength from God.
"I begin most every day by getting up earlier than anybody else, and I just have a quiet time," she said. "I have our guest room that I go into and read a portion of the Bible, and I pray. Sometimes I listen to worship music. And I just ask God to bless my day and my thoughts and give me the strength I need for whatever's going to come up in my day."
She also serves as a Bible study leader at Journey Christian Church, where Chuck is an associate pastor. Poole said women need to get together to encourage one another.
"We as women need to encourage each other whether you're a new mother, whether our children are in elementary school or grown up," she said.
As an offshoot of the women's ministry at her church, Poole recently became a volunteer at Hope Youth Ranch, a home for hurting teens in Hudson.
"I just fell in love with Hope Youth Ranch and what they are doing for the teenagers there," Poole said. "I was so drawn to becoming a part of that."
Poole recently coordinated an activity for the ministry that will bring in volunteers this summer to teach the residents life skills. She will also be teaching a Bible study for the female residents on Thursday nights and is coordinating a fashion show to go with it.
"I'm looking for donations of gowns and for somebody to come in and do their makeup and hair," Poole said. "I want to make it a really fun girls' night."
Meanwhile, Poole plans to fly to Ohio to spend Mother's Day with her mother, Joann Evankow, and two of her sisters and their families.
"We'll be going to church and going out for a special Mother's Day dinner," Pool said. "I'm just really comfortable around my mom. When I go to see her, it's a little shelter to get away from everything else, and to spend that time with her is just precious."
And she'll be reflecting on what it's like to be a mother herself.
"I think as I've gotten older, I have a new appreciation for what my mother went through as a mom, which you don't really get until you have your own family," Poole said.
"I think it all starts when you're pregnant and you realize you're carrying a life. Then getting to know them not only as children, but as people — seeing their personality, seeing the gifts that they have inside of them and nurturing that for some day when they're going to leave you. The most important thing about being a mother, other than loving your child unconditionally, is preparing that child to go out some day into the world. You do the best you can to prepare them so that they can be all they are meant to be."
Poole said she has a special memory that has been helpful to her.
"I can remember one of my first prayers for my two children after they were born was, 'Lord, take this child and protect them and let them know that you love them and use them.' That really gave me faith in the hard times when they were going through struggles. Now with Nicole and what she is going through with Tali, I just keep remembering that prayer of faith."
On Wednesday, Poole got the Mother's Day present she'd been hoping for. Nicole called to tell her that Talia's recent MRI revealed that there are no tumors left in her brain and only one small cancerous spot left on her spine.
"That's the best present I could have," Poole said, joy flooding her face as she shared her good news at a luncheon with friends last week. "There is just a bit of cancer left, and we are expecting it to die during the consolidation phase.
"When this began, the doctors only gave Tali a 10 percent chance of survival. We realized it was only God who could intervene against this aggressive cancer. And he has. As my daughter said when she got the results: 'I am so thankful to God that Tali is still with us.' Every day we have with those we love is a gift from God."