BY SHARON GITTLEMAN
Last year, mother-of-six Cindy Leon was working hard to make the best of her new life. She’d battled back against troubles that threatened to overwhelm her in the past and triumphed.
Then she learned she was going to die.
Leon faced the double ordeal of finding someone to care for her five children who still lived at home, then ages 8-14, while she fought the esophageal cancer that was to take her life.
She turned to long-time friends Janet Ray and Cindy Tobias.
Ray agreed to become the legal guardian for the Leon children.
“I always wanted what God had in store for me,” said Ray, 43. “I’m a very spiritual person.”
Cindy Leon died at age 45, on July 21, 2006.
Fulfilling a dream
Today, Ray’s and Tobias’ lives have changed in ways they couldn’t have imagined.
Ray reduced her hours working for a non-profit organization that helps improve Detroit schools while Tobias went to full-time status as a pediatric nurse at Children’s Hospital in Detroit.
They are in the midst of remodeling their home to add space for their expanded family, which includes one youngster with HIV and another coping with Down Syndrome.
Leon had broken up with her husband who moved to Mexico before she died, Ray said.
“She asked us to take care of her kids and we agreed,” said Ray. “We love the kids and we didn’t want them to be separated or go into foster care. We wanted to help their mom’s dream be fulfilled – to help them be happy healthy kids and get a college education.”
The couple didn’t consider turning down Leon’s last request.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Ray. “You just know the right thing. Any other option is just not acceptable.”
A tough transition
Becoming parents of a large family at age 40-plus, hasn’t been easy for the couple.
“We love each other and listen to each other. I pray to God a lot and rely on our friends and family who support us,” said Ray. “I have moments of great pride. I’m really tired.”
Ray and Tobias were with Leon during her final days.
“We slept on the sofa bed when she got really ill,” said Ray.
Today, they’re struggling to help the children deal with their mother’s death.
“We hugged them, told them we wouldn’t go away and we would be there for them,” she said.
Leon was a warm and caring person who adored her youngsters, said Ray.
“She said many times, ‘I live for my kids,'” Ray said.
Former teacher, Cathie Hirsch, 50, said Cindy Leon was a fixture at Caesar Chavez Academy in Detroit, where the children attended classes.
“She volunteered for everything we did. She would chaperone for the school dances, she ran some of the booths at school carnivals and she was active in the parent organization,” said Hirsch, a Dearborn resident. “She attended school board meetings. Anything we ever did in our classroom she volunteered.”
When Leon became ill, teachers and other school personnel jumped in to help, even driving one child to his gymnastic lessons.
Caesar Chavez Principal Cheri Wasiel said she thought Ray and Tobias are phenomenal people.
“My life today is better off because I know them and those kids,” she said.
Defining a new family
“Family” has a broad definition to many LGBT people, said Cindy Tobias, who entered a civil union with her partner in Vermont in 2003.
“We choose other people to be our family,” she said.
She has big dreams for the Leon children and her partner.
“I hope that we continue to get closer together and grow,” she said. “I hope we can assist them to be healthy young adults.”
Tobias said she’s enjoying her new life as a mom.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done and the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Tobias, 48. “We love these guys and they love us. I feel like I’m a person that is honored to take care of these kids.”
Spending time with children brings up things from your own past, she said.
“All that stuff comes up,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to grow from that.”
Tobias said she hopes single people will consider becoming more involved in the lives of the young people around them – from their nieces and nephews to the children who live next door.
‘They will enrich their lives in ways they can’t even begin to imagine,” she said. “Parents need a lot of help. We have to start thinking bigger than just ourselves.”
A mother’s dream
During her mom’s illness, Amicia Bowman, 15, pitched in as much as she could with her younger siblings – getting them ready for school, supervising their chores and making sure they completed their homework.
“Janet has always been a sweetheart and so has Cindy,” she said. “But, when I first found out that they would be my guardians, I was angry. I just wanted my mom.”
She’s working hard to fulfill her mother’s dream for her.
“She told me she wanted me to get a college degree,” she said. “I love school. I like knowing that if I have an ability to get an education I will.”
Sarah Leon, 14, said she’s close to her brothers and sisters.
“When my mom died, I wanted to push everyone away. I kind of open up more now,” she said.
Sarah said she doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her.
“I want them to feel happy for me,” she said. “I have two people who care about me so much. They didn’t make me live with foster families. I have Janet and Cindy and they care about me a lot.”