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MOM'S ABSENCE FELT AT THEIR 10TH

The sound of laughter, chatter and splashing water filled the Windeler home in Spring Hill this weekend.

But this birthday party wasn't just for one or two or three children. It was four: Christopher, Ashley, Victoria and Jaclyn.

Hernando County's first set of quads turned 10 Sunday.

But this was a bittersweet birthday. They had cake, 10 candles, presents (four fish and four fishbowls); they had teachers, aunts and grandparents, but not Mom.

Debra Windeler went to bed one night a year ago and never woke up. She was only 40 when she succumbed to hypertensive heart disease.

Now her absence hangs over every happy occasion, like an empty chair at the dinner table. It was on the kids' mind; it was on her husband's mind.

"She should have been here for this," said Tom Windeler, her husband.

You can't blame him for feeling cheated. Windeler, 45, a cardiac nurse at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point, first met Debra, the Italian nurse with dark hair, at work in 1987. Sparks flew. The next year they were married.

For years, the couple tried to have children with no luck; then they tried in vitro fertilization and got more than they prayed for: one boy, three girls.

Hernando County seemed to adopt the Windeler quadruplets. The community deluged them with presents. The four were born prematurely and spent weeks in the hospital to double their weight, but after they came home, they blossomed.

Christopher, the firstborn, stayed in the hospital the longest; he's the smallest of the quartet. He loves baseball and is a speedy outfielder. Ashley is the most serious about schoolwork. Victoria was mommy's helper and most resembles her mom, while Jaclyn, who was born fourth, is talkative and loves cats and art. They're headed for the fourth grade at Chocachatti Elementary this fall.

They behave like a bunch of happy kids who think their dad is a very funny guy. He likes to throw them headfirst into the pool.

But when he walks into the kitchen, Dad is less sure of himself. After all, Debra was a great Italian cook.

As you can imagine, his initiation as Mr. Mom was dicey.

"For a few weeks, I had to do it all. Thank God for Happy Meals," Dad said with a laugh.

"They wouldn't eat my food. They kept saying they weren't hungry."

So Tom gladly leaves most of the cooking and organizing the household to his mom, Sherrill Windeler, a retired emergency room nurse from New Jersey. She and Tom's dad, Augie, moved to Florida when the quads were born. After Debra died, they moved in with Tom, the quads and a fifth child, 4-year-old Jonny.

For the children, having a grandmother who had cared for them all their lives can soothe the pain of losing their mom. Tom is Dad but Sherrill, 69, cooks, cleans, and organizes the household, and plans the parties.

"I couldn't have done it without her," said a grateful Tom. "God blessed me with good parents."

And happy, healthy kids.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.

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