PLEASANT HILL, Ill. -- Jenny Peebles has a knack for seeing the silver lining in the darkest periods of her life.
Her parents divorced, and her father left when she was 9 years old. The need to provide for her children strengthened her mother. Peebles admits that the divorce was messy but recognizes that a tight bond sprung up out of the turbulence in the home.
"We did see some pretty bad stuff growing up, which made my brothers and I so much closer," Peebles said. "We saw how strong our mom was, and, growing up, it was literally just the four of us for survival."
Her mother, Joyce, stepped back from her nursing job, opting instead to work at a factory to make ends meet. At 16, Peebles would find herself working in the same factory, Louisiana Plastics, during the summer. Throughout the school year, Joyce would work night shifts for extra money. Peebles and her two brothers, Jeff and Jay, would stay with their grandparents overnight.
"She would be down there every morning at 6 o'clock to get us ready for school," Peebles said.
Joyce taught the siblings to share in the responsibilities of the household, spreading out the chores with a sense of gender equality. Peebles has similarly removed the idea of woman's work from her household.
She married Mike Peebles -- both grew up in Pleasant Hill -- almost immediately after graduating from Pleasant Hill High School. The couple moved to Quincy, and she started studying cosmetology. Working a day job and a night job and with a 2-year-old and a newborn at home, Peebles remembers several nights of little to no sleep.
"They're my responsibility," she said. "They're mine, and I want every door to be open for them."
The football incident
The couple has three children: Jalie, Grant and Jade. It was a series of coincidences involving Jade, who was 7 at the time, that tested Peebles' endurance.
Jade can remember vividly the morning a football changed her life. She had spent the previous night at a friend's house. The two were playing in the yard the next morning, and as she was preparing to go down a slide, she heard a "heads-up." Before she could react, a football caught her in the side of the eye.
"We thought it was a black eye, but it kept on getting bigger and bigger," Jade recalled.
Jade is her third child, and Peebles hadn't thought much of it, but after a week, the swelling hadn't stopped. She took Jade to a local clinic, which immediately passed Jade on to Quincy.
"I was just thinking it was only an injury, because Jade is so healthy," she said.
Jade underwent X-rays, and the doctors didn't seem too concerned. The following morning, she couldn't see when she awoke, and doctors scheduled an MRI. The earliest she could get an appointment was two weeks later. Peebles can recall almost word-for-word the conversation she had with the scheduler, urging her to make it sooner.
"I said I wasn't comfortable waiting that long," she said. "That was so not me. I'm usually a passive person, but I was being pushed and I didn't realize it."
Jade had undergone an MRI at St. Louis Children's Hospital when she was 6, after she had torn her ACL. Peebles remembers joking that as long as they never had to go to the ninth floor, oncology, they would be all right.
A cancellation allowed the scheduler to slip Jade into an open slot the next day. The results came back more quickly than expected.
"It was the doctor himself that called," she said. "I was still thinking injury. He said they found something they believe is cancer. They found a mass, and it's pretty big."
It was in the next few moments that Peebles came to understand the expression, "pulled the rug out from underneath you."
"I seriously felt like I was falling," she said. "Cancer? How?"
Still in shock, she called Children's Hospital. They were waiting for her.
"They asked how soon we could get there," she said.
The hospital wanted Jade there at 8 a.m. the following day. Jenny held it together as she called Mike to tell him their daughter might have cancer. When she called her mother, she lost it.
A month before, on March 11, 2013, her older brother, Jeff, had died by suicide.
"He just up and killed himself," she said. "It was just thrown onto us."
Peebles was the one to call and inform her mother of that, too.
"The only time I've ever seen my mom weak is when my brother passed," she said. "Jade's situation saved my mom's life. She had something to focus on. She was so strong and amazing, and it helped me so much."
Jade had the MRI on a Thursday. Peebles' younger brother, Jay, was to be married the following Saturday, and Jade had been asked to be the flower girl.
"They had us going up onto the ninth floor," she said. "I remember thinking, ‘I can't do this,' but it wasn't about me. I had to be the strongest person in the world for that kid."
The surgeon told her to pray that the mass, cancerous or not, was contained, but he admitted that was extremely unlikely. He warned that Jade might lose her eye in the surgery.
"I prayed so hard that it hurt," she said. "I just remember crying, begging that it be contained."
Jade had surgery the following morning at Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis. The surgery originally was intended to be outpatient. When the surgeon told Jade she would need to stay overnight, she was adamant that she would not miss her uncle's wedding the next day.
The family later found out that, although the mass was not attached to her brain, the surgeon had feared it had spread to her bones. During the surgery, he discovered the mass -- which was not cancerous but was comprised of similarly acting langerhans cells -- was contained.
Had Jade not been struck by the football while playing catch, Peebles said, they likely would not have caught the mass while it was contained. Jade was able to fulfill her duties as flower girl at the wedding.
Jade had to undergo chemotherapy treatments once a week for seven weeks after the surgery. After the seven weeks, she went back every third Tuesday of the month. Those monthly trips to St. Louis -- during which she would have doctors' appointments in the morning and chemo in the afternoon -- became a bonding time for the mother and daughter.
"We spent a lot of time at the zoo," Peebles said. "Wherever we had to stop (touring the zoo) to go back for the treatments, we would just pick up at that same place the next month."
In the summer, Jade would still play first base in softball -- her favorite of the three sports she plays -- on the days she had chemo. She only missed one day of school throughout her treatments.
"She's the strongest person I've ever met," Peebles said. "This never stopped her."
After noticing the hospital was running low on toys, Jade organized a toy drive. The family solicited donations and was able to donate an abundance -- four full carloads -- of toys. The nurses told Peebles they had never seen an individual donate so many toys.
On Sept. 10, 2013, which would have been Jeff's 40th birthday, Jade had a CAT scan to determine if she would need to undergo radiation. The family had been told, with the surgeries, Jade would require facial reconstructive surgery and would likely have some deformities. The can showed all cells from the mass were gone, her facial bones were regenerating, and she would not require facial reconstruction.
"I just know she's meant for something great," Peebles said. "Everybody would come up to her during treatments and say, ‘I need to shake the hand of this little girl that likes to play football that saved her life.' "
Five months after Jade's final chemo treatment and two weeks after the family returned from her Make-A-Wish trip at Walt Disney World in March 2014, Peebles received an urgent phone call from a neighbor as the entire family was out walking their dog. There had been a fire at their home.
"We lost everything," she said. "There was nothing left of the house, our vehicles, everything."
Had they been home at the time, Peebles is sure not everyone would have made it out. Friends and family members cared for the children that night, and Peebles found herself unsure how to process being displaced and without her children. She tossed in bed, worrying about where the family would be the next day.
"When we lost the house, I think that's when everything hit my older two," she said. "It was like, ‘What's the next phone call going to be?' "
A woman with whom they attended church owned a rental home and opened it to the family the day after the fire. They were without a home for five months.
"I feel that we were pushed with Jade and didn't realize it," she said. "After her last chemo, I stayed up all night bawling, because life finally hit me again. Then we had the house fire, and I had to get out of it, and refocus and stay strong for my family."
The Peebleses have since moved into a historical Victorian-style home in Pleasant Hill.
"My family is good now," she said. "My kids are happy. As long as I raise kids that are happy and kind, then I've done a good job."
Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.