There comes a point in raising every child when a parent has to learn to let go. All the pads and the helmets in the world couldn’t protect us, the adults, against our fears of what may lie ahead.
"It's still pretty tough, watching them take off and go," Suzy Fitterer, a mother of four, says.
That moment seems to come over and over for Suzy as she watches her now 13-year-old daughters roll right into their teenage years, because just getting them this far was a true test of courage.
"These kids have really given me a run for my money," she explained. "But, I am still standing. And I still say to them, 'I can't love you more. I can just love you better.'"
After Suzy's first child was born, she had long held hope in her heart for another. That prayer was answered at a doctor's appointment twice over when an ultrasound showed not one, but two skulls. In 2006, she gave birth to twin daughters, Abygail and Madysen. They were borne out of a love so great, they were conjoined nearly at their hearts. Suzy says the newborns were connected from the top of their sternum to a shared belly button.
"This isn't easy. What they've done isn't easy," Monsignor Patrick Schumacher, of St. Wenceslaus Roman Catholic Church in Dickinson, said. He was the pastor at St. Joseph's in Mandan at the time Suzy and her husband, Stacy, found out there would be complications with the pregnancy. Doctors at Mayo Clinic warned most conjoined twins are stillborn or die shortly after birth.
"In my 26 years as a priest, I'm daily witnessing people's faith and impressed by it. But every now and then, you're somewhat stunned by someone's courage and faith together. Stacy and Suzanne have been exemplary in that from day one," he said.
The family practiced that faith every three hours, when their newborns had to be rotated to their other side. They leaned on that faith in every trip to Mayo Clinic, when Suzy held the girls in her arms as surgeons began a precise surgery to separate their chest cavities. Again and again, they were strong as cold and flu seasons hit them hard and when a wipe out on a bike could be all the more critical.
"It's hard to watch a kid rollerblade anyway, and then you have two and neither one of them has a sternum," Suzy had to laugh, "I've had to learn to relax a little."
That faith will be at work again in three or four years for the major reconstruction on their chest walls, which doctors say they'll face in high school.
And, the more Suzy lets go, the more her daughters become advocates for themselves. This summer, the family arrived at checkups and the girls had questions of their own.
"One of the questions to the doctor was, am I going to be able to have babies some day?" Suzy explained.
That leaves Suzy to navigate what's next for her. But, Monsignor Schumacher sees it as a path she's followed all along.
"We may not see the light in the whole room, but their faith gave them light for each step that brought them to where they are beautifully," he said.
She's beginning to shift her focus to meeting the needs of other families. During the 2019 legislative session, she advocated to expand Medicaid for others facing high-risk pregnancies and expensive ongoing medical care for their children.
"Somebody has always gone before you and somebody always has it worse," she said. "So, if somebody is out there and you think you are alone, you are not. There are so many programs and so many wonderful people in this community. I would love to be a part of helping them like so many others helped us."
It's another lesson a parent learns, that when letting go can be so difficult, we have a community and a faith to hold onto.