Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Children's firefly book helps author cope with multiple sclerosis

By Linda Navarro Updated: July 15, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Childhood wonders are a never-ending delight for Debbie Estrem.

Tiny, flickering lights on a summer night. Running across the lawn screaming, "Lightning bugs, lightning bugs." Catching them in a jar only to let them fly away again.

Playing in the sand on a beach.

Riding a pony.

Lying in the grass and counting the stars.

Sharing her memories with a classroom of third-graders, the children's author struggled a bit to get comfortable in her chair before settling in to read from her book of experiential questions drawn from a poem she wrote several years ago, "Have You Ever Seen a Firefly?"

Quickly, the youngsters had questions of their own. Why did she call lightning bugs "fireflies" on the cover of the book? Estrem laughed, saying that her daughter wondered the same thing. Maybe it's a Minnesota/Midwestern thing, she surmised. She then asked the kids what their parents and grandparents called them. It's all part of the family sharing she hopes her books will inspire.

Then a curious youngster asked about Estrem's chair with wheels.

"Children don't want the deep down and dirty," she said. "They want a simple explanation."

For Estrem, it's that she used to be a runner, even finishing the Honolulu Marathon. One day, her legs didn't work as well.

"But I can walk," she said emphatically, willing her unwilling limbs to hold her up as she stood almost erect from the wheelchair, just for a moment. That was enough to satisfy the children.

That childlike curiosity about people in wheelchairs, on scooters or those using walkers has led Estrem to turn another of her poems, "Sights at the Zoo," into a children's book that explains it's OK to help a person who can't open a door or reach something on a shelf.

Estrem is new to life in her Jazzy scooter and her wheelchair. She's a neophyte to the world of multiple sclerosis.

Her life had been so different. Estrem was a dainty girl who loved poufy hair, short skirts and makeup. She started dating the boy of her dreams when she was 13. Last month, they celebrated their 40th anniversary.

For 32 years, the Air Force was their life and took them to San Francisco, Cape Cod, Hawaii, Switzerland and Germany, among other special locations. When Estrem's husband, Kevin, was in Korea, she raised their daughter, Cassi, in Colorado Springs.

A fitness enthusiast, Estrem taught aerobics. In May 2010, while taking her daily 2-mile walk, she suddenly developed what she describes as "elephant legs." Something was wrong.

"I didn't want cancer," she said. "I didn't want MS."

Estrem went from being a fitness buff to being in the house 24/7. She went from leading a team at Braxton Technologies that raised thousands of dollars for the "Cowgirls and Cocktails" breast-cancer campaign to becoming entirely dependent on her husband and her friends, from being slightly vain about her styled, poufy hair to cropping it extremely short so it would be easier to manage.

"There's a lot going on with your body and I know my body well. Your body is attacking itself," she said. "There are so many sensations and feelings in your body. Sometimes you have a hard time speaking, sometimes you lose the feeling in your hands and feet."

Estrem can't walk, but she's determined that will change. There's a miracle, she's sure.

Her husband does all the shopping and assists with all her needs, she said, yet he still holds down his job as director of business development for Braxton. "He takes care of me and everyone else," she said almost apologetically.

Because Estrem spends most of her time at home, she has become something of an online junkie, educating herself on MS and taking her faith to a higher level.

"I will be better," she said. "I'm positive."

She wants kids "to know they can dream big."

When she goes out to read her book to children or when she sells her books, they always are autographed. Her daughter Cassi - a doctoral candidate in molecular biology whose first job was researching MS at Anschutz Medical Campus - writes "Dream Big" and Estrem adds her initials. She hopes to someday turn a profit so she can give a percentage to MS research.

Estrem is chasing firefly - or lightning bugs, as the case might be - dreams, and took to heart a devotional by L.B. Cowman ("Streams in the Desert") sent by a friend. Some gifts, writes Cowman, wouldn't have been discovered "if not for trials." It's too often "like a firefly showing very little light except when surrounded by darkness."

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