Think Helen Hayes. Lots of smile lines, pink cheeks, pearls. Barbara Billingsley. A thinner, giddier Barbara Bush, perhaps.
Donna Claussen of Chewelah manages to resemble the classic American Mom, right down to the soft gray curls, despite living with multiple sclerosis.
This year, she’s being honored as the MS Mother of the Year by the Inland Northwest Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Claussen struggles with declining eyesight, dizziness, memory loss and lack of balance. Her right leg often feels as if it’s been rolled in fiberglass, itching with a hot, burning sensation, and keeping her awake at night. Still, she usually faces the disease with peals of laughter.
“She’s a strong person,” says Jean Rose, who leads a multiple sclerosis support group and nominated her for the honor. “She’s one of those people who is just a delight to be around.”
Claussen is the mother of three grown children. Daughter Carrie Claussen of Kent, a Boeing data technician, remembers the entire family pretending her mother’s multiple sclerosis didn’t exist, and her mother joining the pretense, too.
“She was just going to prove she wasn’t going to be defeated,” Carrie says. “She was going to do everything she could to be a mom.”
Husband Alan Claussen says, “I consider myself very fortunate to have a wonderful companion as my wife, (who is) able to carry on every day and not outwardly show the hurt and pain.”
They’ve made her frequent tumbles onto the living room carpet a comedy routine.
Discovering her on the floor yet again, Alan grins and asks, “What are you doing down there?”
Donna’s line, delivered with a chuckle, is always: “I’m down here for the fun of it!”
The Claussens know this is called denial. They attend Rose’s support group for people with multiple sclerosis and their families. Some nights every eye in the place is filled with tears.
But the Claussens have tried both and prefer laughter.
Sue Skok, a Chewelah friend who also has multiple sclerosis, finds Donna an inspiration. The two hit the bakery for lunch recently, and spent the afternoon shopping and laughing together.
Skok asked her friend once, “How can you think everything is funny?”
Donna Claussen answered, “I can’t let myself get depressed. There’s too much to live for.”
It was 1971 when Donna Claussen believes she had her first symptoms of multiple sclerosis. She was so dizzy she couldn’t lift her head from the pillow without throwing up. She couldn’t walk.
Her symptoms perplexed her doctor. He wondered if it was a nervous breakdown. He offered to send Donna to a hospital where she could stare at four white walls for a while.
“I said, ‘No sir, I’ve got three kids and a husband,”’ Donna recalls. “I’m going home.”
It wasn’t until 1982 that Donna heard the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.
Her first reaction was predictable. “She said, ‘I refuse to have it,”’ Alan recalls.
She pressed on. Her life had always been active. She had hauled kids around on their paper routes on cold winter evenings, fielded baseballs with her son, helped her daughter feed horses. She saw no reason to slow down.
“You have to be strong and you have to have a sense of humor,” she says firmly.
After her children left home, she began running a family day-care home.
“At first I was scared when I heard that,” says daughter Carrie. “But I think those children gave her life. They added excitement to her day.”
In 1990 her life was threatened when a heart spasm stopped her heart. She was flown by helicopter from Chewelah to Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane.
The family was terrified.
Looking back, Claussen says her only regret is that she was too sick to enjoy the helicopter ride.
During that time, she met “some really nice people, beautiful people if you want to know the truth.
“The prayers went from the other side of Colville all the way to California,” she says.
In the years since, the ties among the family members have grown stronger.
Alan, a welder and a mechanic, now looks back to the days when the children were younger and he was working two jobs. He finally realizes the load Donna carried.
She was the bond at the center that kept the whole family together, Alan says.
Carrie, after some tough teenage years, has come to a new appreciation of her mother, too.
“I never realized how wise my mother was before,” Carrie says. “I never listened to what she said before and now I do.”
She remembers now the days when the whole family would pile in the car and travel the dirt roads near Chewelah on a Sunday drive. Inevitably, her mother would start singing, usually some goofy ditty like “Found a Peanut.”
The junior sophisticates in the back seat would roll their eyes, and say, “There goes Mom again.”
Today, says Carrie, “I wish I could take that back and sing right along with her.”