“After my wife died, I told my kids we couldn’t look back because then we couldn’t see what’s ahead of us.” ~ Mark Schwab
Wow. It was just supposed to be a fun night for the family—Mark Schwab, his wife Tiffany, and their three kids. They were going to cheer at an Iron Pigs game, maybe eat hot dogs, and then drive home, and that would be that.
Instead, the night opened the door to a horrifying downward spiral for Tiffany. A line-drive slammed into her, springing the latch on that door.
Tiffany was taking five-year-old Kylie to the rest room, when a foul ball clobbered her collar bone. At the ER, when doctors examined the X-rays, they found something more startling than anyone could imagine: her collar bone was fine, but she had a mass on her left lung. A PET scan confirmed the diagnosis. It was June 2009.
Even as the family prepared for surgery, they couldn’t help wondering how this could have happened. Tiffany was only 40, the active mother of three five- seven- and 10-year old kids, a full-time employee of Macy’s shoe department, and a non-smoker.
Tiffany had half of her left lung removed, and underwent chemo, but a year later, cancer had lodged in her lung’s other lobe. She had the rest of her lung removed in August 2010, and underwent six months of chemo.
2011 and 2012 were memorable; Tiffany’s health was good. Things didn’t look so bleak any longer. Yet, in October 2013, all that changed. The cancer had returned, and she began 23 rounds of radiation. By 2014, cancer had spread to her remaining lung, and she started 11 months of weekly chemo.
But in October 2015, her lung collapsed. And Mark became the sole parent to his three children, 16-year-old Tyler, and his 14- and 12-year-old Alexis and Kylie.
First, he knew he needed to work closer to home. For 20 years he’d been in maintenance at Guardian, but with great good fortune, he found an opening with the Allentown Archdiocese which was down the street. “If my kids need me,” he says, fiddling with the brim of his grey Phillies cap, “they can just run down the street to find me.”
He began to rely on his parents, who live close by, too. “My dad was retired, and became a taxi for my kids. And my mom made some meals,” he smiles.
Part of his new life was honoring Tiffany’s memory through Tiffany’s Wings of Hope, a golf fundraiser that he, family, and friends began in 2016. Their goal is to give financial help to one or two families with school-age children who are affected by cancer. They can use the money—$2,000—any way they want, except for vacations. In 2017, the Cancer Support Community helped identify potential families, with whom Mark met. “The reason I established Tiffany’s Wings of Hope was to pay back,” he says simply, looking into the distance.
He plans to expand his contributions to other people at other times of the year. “When Tiffany and I first started out, someone helped us. She was at Macy’s, and I was between jobs. Someone gave us turkey and the fixings one Thanksgiving. I want to do that for others at that holiday.” They have to be families with school-aged kids, but they don’t necessarily have to be affected by cancer.
“I would help anyone, but I never saw myself as a guy who could go out and raise money. I have always been quiet because I thought someone else would do it. Even though my wife never wanted to be in the spotlight either, she was always helping out with fundraisers. Some of that rubbed off on me, I guess.” Mark swirls the ice in his ice tea glass.
“I tried to turn a negative into a positive,” he continues, fiddling with the sleeve of his chartreuse—Tiffany’s favorite color—t-shirt with the word’s “Tiffany’s Wings of Hope” emblazoned on the back.
He hesitates a moment, “For those six years, while she was sick, there was a big negative in my life. Now, helping others, letting them know they aren’t alone and that they will get through it, is a way of turning that negative into a positive. When Tiffany was sick, we got random gifts from people. That let us know people were thinking about us. The church gave us food. The hospital paid our bill. If I can let one to two families know they aren’t alone, I will have done a good job.”
His kids—now 18 and a Delaware Valley College student, 15 and 14–are part of Tiffany’s Wings of Hope, too. “At the tournament, one daughter makes hot dogs and the other helps pull pork for sandwiches. My kids feel good about all of this. They realize that we made it through. My daughter talks to kids in other families, telling them that they’ll get through it.
“Even when I went to the support group with my kids, I felt like I was alone. I was at rock bottom. I didn’t know what to do.” Mark toys with the light green rubber bracelet on his wrist. It says Tiffany’s Wings of Hope. “But you get through it.”
His brown mustache and goatee are flecked with afternoon sunlight. “Going through it was harder than her actual death. My kids watched her grow weaker, and knew the end was coming. For two years, no matter what we did, she needed the portable oxygen tank. My younger daughter never knew her not sick.
“After she died, I told my kids we were starting a new chapter in our lives. We wouldn’t forget the old chapter, but we couldn’t look back because then we couldn’t see what’s ahead of us.
“Still,” Mark stops a moment, “there were five of us for Thanksgiving 2014. But for Christmas 2015, there were just the kids and me. Holidays birthdays, homecomings, graduations…you can tell something is missing, but we don’t dwell on it.”
Mark smiles with pleasure. “My kids have grown. My son is a tremendous young man. My girls are typical teenage girls but they’d do anything to help you. I watch them all now, and I am very proud.”
Mark and his children attended the Cancer Support Community’s Family Support groups, and he works closely with the staff as he develops Tiffany’s Wings of Hope.