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Love and faith lead family to pull up stakes to help ailing mother

Rodney and Cindy Henneman of Appleton, Wis., have dealt with Cindy’s chronic illnesses for decades. Now, Cindy Henneman faces the additional diagnosis of renal cell kidney cancer. (Photo submitted by the Henneman family)1 / 2
John and Brook Henneman and their five children are selling everything to move from their Grand Marais home to Appleton, Wis., to help his parents. John holds Genesis, 2 months, and Brook holds Harper, 2. The boys are Boston, 8 (back), and Asher, 3. Trinity, 5, stands next to her mom. (Photo courtesy of the Henneman family)2 / 2

“Honor your father and your mother …” Exodus 20:12

The biblical commandment kept speaking to John and Brook Henneman.

“Whenever we were praying about this decision to go, we just kept hearing the Lord say, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ ” John Henneman said.

Because of that, the Grand Marais couple and their five young children are selling their house, possessions and antiques, and preparing to move the 445 miles to Appleton, Wis.

They’re going to help John’s dad, Rodney Henneman, care for John’s mother, Cindy Henneman, who was recently diagnosed with stage 4 renal cell kidney cancer.

“He’s getting older and it’s just too much for him to do on his own,” John said of Rodney, 65. “So we just felt led to go, and so we started looking into what it would take.”

It’s the sort of situation facing many young adults.

Forty-nine percent of the current workforce expects to be providing elder care within the next five years, according to The Metropolitan Caregiver Service Collaborative and the Minnesota Leadership Council on Aging in a paper released this week. One in six American workers already is a caregiver in addition to their jobs, the paper said.

Patti Cullen, president and CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota, said she knows of numerous cases of elderly parents returning from Arizona or Florida to live near or with their adult children. But for the adult children to pick up and move to be with their parents is much less common, Cullen said.

The decision surprised her, said Cindy Henneman, 63.

“I said, ‘Well, I don’t want you to give up everything to help out,’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, your dad can use some help, you know, especially as I worsen.’ ”

Cindy speaks matter-of-factly about the cancer that was diagnosed earlier this year, despite its serious nature. By the time it was caught, it was in only one kidney but had spread to her liver.

“Once the renal cancer gets into another organ, there’s nothing they can do,” John explained.

But health struggles are nothing new for Cindy.

When she was in her early 30s, she was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, an inherited disorder that attacks the body’s connective tissues, leaving the individual with overly flexible joints and stretchy, fragile skin, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Later, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and relapsing polychondritis, a rare condition that causes inflammation of the cartilage, according to Mayo.

Cindy, who graduated as a registered nurse in 1971, was on Social Security disability before 1980. She has used a walker since recovering from a nasty fall in 2012. She underwent so many operations that she lost count of them.

“Forty-nine surgeries, I think,” Cindy said, with a chuckle. “One of my doctors counted them and told me. I said, ‘Oh, I thought it was 45.’”

During a short telephone interview, Cindy Henneman chuckled frequently, without a hint of self-pity in her voice. John Henneman said that in the 30 years since she first was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos, he never heard her complain.

“Oh, I complain to my husband,” Cindy responded. “I don’t complain to a lot of other people. I don’t blame God for what has happened. Things happen to people.”

John and Brook Henneman share a strong faith with his parents.

“We’re Christians,” John said. “We believe in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

The couple met in Grand Marais, where Brook grew up. John’s parents raised him with his two sisters in Janesville, Wis., before Rodney and Cindy moved to Appleton. After spending some time in college, John decided he wanted to be someplace where he could enjoy the outdoors. He applied for a job at the Gunflint Lodge and was at work there a week later.

“My plan was a year or two just to be outdoors, and that was 10 years, a wife and five kids ago,” he said.

They still love the community and consider it a good place to raise their children, he said. They might come back someday. But since his mother’s prognosis is indefinite, they don’t know when that might be. So they’re pulling up stakes completely.

Their lives are transferable, John said. He’s now a self-employed carpenter, and he also has experience waiting tables. Brook works as a caregiver. Their older children — ages 8 and 5 — are home-schooled.

The major obstacle is their home, purchased three years ago. What they owe on it, John said, is more than it’s worth. Because of that, and because of medical expenses and anticipated funeral expenses facing his parents and the rental costs they’ll face in Appleton, the Hennemans need help to carry out their plans.

So in addition to obeying a commandment that has existed for three millennia, they’re using 21st-century technology: a “go fund me” page on the Internet. With a $50,000 goal, they had raised almost $12,000 as of Friday afternoon.

As she thought about that page, Cindy’s laughter turned to tears of gratitude.

“The people that have read it, I hope it brings them close to Christ,” she said. “I want to thank everyone who read it and even said a prayer. It meant an awful lot to our lives.”

How to help If you want to help the Hennemans, you can visit their page at