Retired cancer patients raise preschool-age grandchildren

Cecil and Margaret Lennon lost their two oldest sons to drowning in 1999; are both cancer survivors; and are now raising two grandchildren.

For four decades, Cecil “Jim” Lennon followed the seasons, cutting sugar cane around Lake Okeechobee in the fall, then pulling sweet corn and celery from Glades vegetable fields in the winter and spring.

In summer, the South Bay resident rode the migrant stream north, from Georgia to Virginia.

“The Georgia cornfields were the worst — 104 degrees or more with no shade,” Lennon, 66, recalled.

His wife, Margaret, worked in the Glades’ vegetable packinghouses.

Their hands fed their family and put salads on the tables of thousands of people around the nation.

They raised nine children in a small house they bought at the edge of a cane field in South Bay. Nearly the only thing the Lennon family had in excess was fun.

“I liked to stir it up,” said Margaret, 63. “Music, dancing, jive talking, I just liked to have fun.”

The laughter stopped on Mother’s Day weekend, 1999, during a family fishing trip when their two oldest sons, Jerry, 16, and Jacob, 13, drowned in the West Palm Beach canal.

Margaret barely survived their loss.

Jim and Margaret are now raising their granchildren Eli, 2, (left) and Elijah Waters, 4.

“You hold on, that’s all you can do,” she said.

They would have much more to endure.

In 2012, the radiation treatments for Jim’s prostate cancer made him too weak to work in the fields. He was in remission for a few years, but the cancer was back in February 2015, a year of crisis for the Lennons.

Two months after Jim’s cancer returned, Margaret was diagnosed with breast cancer.

A month after that, they took in two grandchildren after their parents lost custody. In an instant, Margaret and Jim became parents again.

On a recent afternoon, Elijah and Eli, now 4 and 2, raced around the house, pausing occasionally for a quick hug from the woman they call “Momma.”

“I’m hoping I can finish raising these two,” said Margaret, her eyes brimming. “They fill some of the space left by my boys.”

But so much is stacked against them. There is no money to repair the roof leaks that ruined the kitchen cabinets and spread mold. A worn-out stove and refrigerator are barely operational. The fence around their property needs to be repaired, to keep Elijah and Eli safe in the yard.

They don’t have a reliable car to get the boys to preschool or themselves to an increasing array of doctor’s appointments. One of Jim’s doctors is an hour-and-a-half away.

Lately, Margaret has been losing her balance. She ended up in the emergency room recently after a bad fall in the bathtub.

But what she really wants is to make Elijah and Eli happy. For Christmas, she’d like to decorate their bedroom with the superheroes the boys love.

Elijah loves anything Spider-Man while Eli favors The Hulk.

Margaret says, “Whatever else happens, they always come first.”

 

THE LENNONS’ WISH:

Cecil “Jim” Lennon and his wife Margaret are both battling cancer, while raising two preschool-age grandchildren in a South Bay house that needs extensive repairs. His illness forced Jim, 66, to retire from migrant farm work in 2012. The retired couple need extensive home repairs and help paying their medical bills. They also need a reliable car to go to medical appointments and clothing and furniture for their grandchildren.

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Photography by Calla Kessler / Staff

Nominated by Farmworker Coordinating Council of Palm Beach County

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