Yvonne Wagner has faced more than her share of emotional and physical trauma, yet she has lived to tell the tale, with the help of an alter ego and humor. There is nothing funny about being a breast cancer survivor, living through a deadly bout of spinal meningitis, kidney failure and a devastating divorce forcing her to join the ranks of single parenthood. "I truly survived because there is a purpose for me and I picture this as my purpose and destiny. Everyone has a purpose; this is mine," the 47-year-old interior designer from Florence said.
These days Wagner is healthy, a published author and the wife of a loving, supportive husband. Three of the children are grown and have left the nest, leaving one child still at home. She is still crusading for single motherhood.
Her conception a decade ago of the single mom character "Rachel" helped her through the worst of times and now is a part of the best of times.
Culled from experiences from her own children and learning to adjust to the life of parenting solo, the book shares the highs and lows of raising children alone.
Finding humor in life and embracing those moments led her to a creative outlet in the form of a book, comic strip, bumper stickers, T-shirts, sweatshirts, a 2007 calendar and greeting cards.
Her book's title and theme is "Picture This: The Ups and Downs of Single Parenting." Rachel's Ruckus comics is a spin-off from the book.
The clothing features quotes such as "Who are these children and why are they calling me mom?" and "Men - o - Pause," in reference to taking a break from males.
The book and merchandise are complete and ready to be shared with all mothers. "It doesn't have to be just single moms who read the book, it's about parenting. It could be a wife with a husband in Iraq or anyone who is a parent. Even single fathers get it," she said.
"'Picture This' is written from the heart of a single mom and seen through the eyes of the children," said Wagner, whose own parents' marriage ended in divorce. Her father was in the Air Force and they moved frequently. "Dad was away all the time. My mom was a saint. She never swore or said a bad word about anyone."
The book features Rachel, a 30-something single mother and cosmetics executive with two girls and a boy: Tasha is a 15-year-old who is stuck babysitting her two younger siblings; LB is 10 and strives to be the center of attention any way he can; and Lacy, 6, enjoys girly things such as making books and playing with dolls. She constantly asks "why?" and attempts to avoid her brother.
Each page states, "Single parenting is ..." and follows up with quips made by Rachel or the children. Turn the book upside down and get the lowdown on what Rachel is really thinking but can't tell the kids. It's funny, and all G-rated of course. Mostly, Rachel is thinking of "survival."
Wagner strives to be the voice of survival for single moms across the country.
"Single moms need to have a connection with others. There aren't many groups or resources to help them get through it. I want them to know it does get better," Wagner said.
Today there are more single mothers in the United States than there are married couples, said Wagner, who once taught parenting classes to mothers who had made bad choices in their lives and ended up being incarcerated. Her classes emphasized the skills necessary to be a better parent upon release and offered resources available to them that they had not taken advantage of in the past.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 10 million single mothers living with children under 18, up from 3 million in 1970.
"Most moms go to bed every night alone. They lie in the dark thankful they survived the day. If my kids had no major catastrophe, and they were alive when I tucked them in, then I did my job," Yvonne joked. "God forbid you get sick. There is a lot of despair. You have these children who are beautiful and you want to give them everything, but you can't always," she said of the daily trials single mothers face. "Mothers are not always fortunate to have the help of family around you."
Wagner's story is about empowerment and finding humor in even the most dreadful of life's situations. To help keep herself together following the divorce, Wagner began keeping a journal of what her children would articulate during daily life. "All the funny things they would say I put into baby books," the woman with the warm expressive brown eyes said.
She began by trying to explain divorce to her children, all at different ages and levels of maturity. Writing became a healing process; there was not much to laugh about after divorce.
"It was like 'Kids Say the Darndest Things,' that Bill Cosby show," she added.
The quips collected from her children and saved in her journal translated into the desire to do a comic strip and book.
While pulling the book together a decade ago, she discovered she had breast cancer. "I was doing my monthly exam ... and went to the doctor. They were able to catch it early enough and get it all out," she said.
Wagner had surgery and with the cancer eradicated, two weeks to the day from her initial operation, she was diagnosed with spinal meningitis.
According to the Meningitis Foundation of America's Web site, meningitis is a serious, sometimes fatal infection causing inflammation of the membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord (meninges). Viral infections, which commonly resolve without treatment, are the most common causes of meningitis. Bacterial infections are more serious and can result in death, brain damage or limb loss even if treated. Fungi, systemic diseases and toxins can also cause meningitis.
"I should have been up and around and walking, but the minute the light was turned on, I would just scream," she said.
She was in a hospital for two weeks and spent two more months in a nursing home. While there, the staff "had to blacken the windows and they had to put a black sweater over my head," Wagner said.
"It is a phobia to light. Anytime the door was cracked, the light from under the door bothered me. Every vein in my body had practically collapsed. They were running out of places to put needles," said Wagner, who was living on high doses of morphine.
"It was my 39th birthday the day I was diagnosed and went into the hospital. I had five spinal taps during that whole thing. What a nightmare," she recalled.
She was placed in a critical care advanced unit in the nursing home. Lying in bed, all she could hear were the elderly patients down the hall crying for help. Wagner would ask attendants how the people were doing and was told they were no longer "needing help."
Her own body was beginning to shut down, her kidneys stopped functioning and her family planned her funeral.
"That's the first time I realized that your body is actually a machine. I just knew it; it was a difficult time for me. My daughters only came to see me one time - first of all their mother had a blanket over her head and they didn't recognize me, I had tubes all over me, I had tubes all over the place," Wagner said.
She feels extremely blessed to have survived her ordeal.
"I truly believe getting better was a result of God's grace. My mother got her whole community, her church and family members to constantly pray for me.
"I believe it was an act of God. I am only here to tell the story because God had a purpose for me. There is no medical reason why I didn't die. I left (the nursing home) on 13 medications; it was a very long healing process. It was two years of emotional and physical stress before I came out of this."
With a new lease on life, Wagner went back to raising her children and working. "Picture this" was put on the back burner.
Several years later while at work in Mesa, she met a man who was looking for furniture, artwork and accents for his home in Florence. For four hours the interior designer and customer chose pieces to fit his decorating taste.
By the end of the day, Dennis Wagner asked her out on a date. A connection was made. Months into dating, Yvonne shared with her beau the comic strip and book she had created years before.
"He didn't say much about it; I shared it with him so he would know more about myself and my past," she said. "To my knowledge he never gave it a second thought.
"Before we were married he started talking about the book. He said he 'found the writing to be humorous and true to life.' Personally I think he saw some similarities when his mother raised him as a single parent,'" she said. "But according to her, I am surprised that either one of them survived."
The character of LB (Little Brat) is a saint compared to her husband as a young boy.
As things progressed Yvonne had no intentions of remarrying, but they went to the courthouse and purchased a marriage license good for one year in case she changed her mind later.
One afternoon, with Dennis' mother visiting from out of state, he surprised the group with a hot-air balloon ride. While in the air, Yvonne, usually afraid of heights, was surprised to discover she was becoming a bride.
Dennis had arranged their wedding high above Arizona with the balloon pilot officiating.
"I went up single and came down married. It was either that or jump," Yvonne joked.
Another up and down scenario she survived.
Dennis began to show more interest in the book. The couple decided to form Picture This Publications LLC. After one unsuccessful college job fair, Dennis researched artists and e-mailed an Arizona artists group and found Jim Greenwald of Surprise to illustrate Rachel and her three kids.
"Jim was able to visualize the characters as I pictured them in my head," she said.
From there Dennis helped Yvonne add to the book with his own take on parenting. Having no children of his own, this was unchartered territory he gladly accepted when their relationship became serious.
"I have no idea how Dennis was able to work full time and do everything required to start a company," Yvonne said. "Hundreds and hundreds of hours of work later, I am truly amazed and proud of what 'we' have accomplished together. After all, marriage is 50-50, isn't it?" she quipped.
The book is twice as big as the original concept. "It never occurred to me a single man with no children would be able to understand the concept, let alone put this whole thing together," Yvonne said.
"It actually reflected my own childhood," Dennis said.
"I didn't have any kids and always saw life as black and white. It's a good theory and concept, but your best intentions can run amok when kids are involved. I learned the world is not black and white, there is a lot of gray," said Dennis, who created some of the cartoons.
Dennis also found the issues and moral decisions in the book were similar to "Leave it to Beaver" TV episodes of the 1950s.
"She could have talked bad about the other party, (man) but she chose not to," he said.
Yvonne said they chose subtle ways to get the point across. "Rachel looking at cigarettes while shopping, yet remaining a good example. There are different issues such as a stealing scenario. We tried to cover as much as possible and not project the dad as the bad guy," she said.
"It was my destiny, after all I have been through," Yvonne said. Her personal motto stated in the book is "Single parenting is survival - it can be done. Keep the faith." She signs each book with "Keep the faith." Wagner has kept her faith and now enjoys the upside of life.
Purchase "Picture This: The Ups and Downs of Single Parenting" ($14.99) by Yvonne Wagner and the other products that range from $1.99 for a bumper sticker to $24 for a sweatshirt for a gift this holiday at www.picturethispublications.com, at any Discount Party Store in the Valley and at Bubbles of Joy in Mesa. The Wagners will have a booth at Art in the Alley from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Dec. 5 behind Second Street adjacent to Florence Street in Casa Grande.
A portion of the proceeds benefits a charitable, nonprofit organization for hard-working single moms and their families.