Cancer death of loving nurse leaves two girls to build a new life with grandparents

Photography by Melanie bell

Nominated by Feed the Hungry Pantry of Palm Beach County

It seems cosmically unfair that Nikki Kangas was the one who was gobsmacked last summer, when she learned those back pains that had been plaguing her weren’t related to a patient-moving injury the veteran nurse suffered a while back, but the salvos in a battle her body was losing to an aggressive cancer.

After all, Nikki was the one who decided one day several years ago that no patient on her floor at Jupiter Medical Center would die alone and set up a rotation of hand-holders to be there with them.

For their families, she collected tiny strips of their last heartbeats and bottled them as keepsakes and recruited other nurses to do the same.

Nikki was a Disney-loving, Cardi B-singing, 37-year-old mermaid with people legs and blue- (or pink, or green) streaked hair.

She was a single mom with a night-shift job, who still managed to fill the world with pillow forts, all-night movie binges and give-em-heck bleacher battle cries for Jasmine, a 14-year-old soccer midfielder, and Luna, a 4-year-old princess.

Nikki was so effervescent you left her company feeling that much more alive, says her best friend and fellow nurse Jen Dennis, and her brother, Kyle, and her mom and her other siblings. If the dog, Odin, could speak, they’re pretty sure he — and the cat, too, for that matter — would agree.

Despite doctors’ warnings that a battle would be more painful than the cancer and likely ineffective, Nikki gave it a shot.

“She said, ‘I want to fight this. I want to show my girls I did everything to be with them,’” her brother, Kyle Geary, said.

But four months after her diagnosis, Nikki was the one whose hand needed holding.

Friends and family had hoped that Season to Share would give Nikki some ease, help her and her children through this tough time. But with Nikki gone, the focus has shifted to the girls and their new blended home and taking their first steps on a path without her.

Jasmine and Luna have moved in with their grandparents, Cheryl and Frank Rose.

Cheryl, 60, is a mom of six herself. Nikki was her oldest, growing up in Palm Beach Gardens.

And the Roses still have two of their own in the nest, Frankie, 17, and Heather, 16. Their family of four was in the midst of downsizing to a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in West Palm Beach when Nikki’s cancer pounced and Nikki and her girls moved in.

Jasmine and Luna aren’t uncomfortable with the arrangements. When Nikki worked her three overnight shifts a week, Cheryl had the girls and ferried them to school, to practices and home. The aunts and uncles are close-knit.

The house happens to be the one Nikki shared with her best friend when they were both first-time moms in nursing school more than a decade ago. But retrofitting it for Cheryl, Frank and four children 17 and under has been a challenge.

“I had my own bedroom. I had my own bathroom. Now I have to wait to take a shower,” Jasmine said.

The three girls, Heather, Jasmine and Luna, will be bunking in a three-bed tower in one room. The sunroom out front is being converted to give Frankie the privacy of his own room.

Cheryl, who also gained custody of a rescued pit bull and a black-and-white cat when her daughter died — did we mention Nikki at one time wanted to be a vet? — is working on a can-do attitude, but little else. Her budget is stretched thin.

She used to make money cleaning houses while Frank repaired boat motors. They were getting by until Cheryl took over Nikki’s care, and shuttling all the kids to and from school and appointments and child care for little Luna fell to Frank.

“He’s lost out on so much work it’s been horrific,” Cheryl said.

On top of that, Nikki went on disability when cancer sidelined her and eventually her job ended. She and the girls were in line to get stopgap Cobra insurance when Nikki died. Without her that path to medical coverage disappeared.

“We need child care for Luna and therapy, too. I’m waiting for that mental breakdown of Jasmine’s. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s going to happen,” said Cheryl. “I’m in the maze of trying to get them insured.”

Transportation has become challenging as well. The couple has two trucks, which is good for hauling stuff, but not for seating a family of six. Nikki left a small SUV, but again, not big enough.

“We did two trips to the funeral. We’re borrowing a friend’s car that holds six to go to Thanksgiving,” Cheryl sighs.

Cheryl and the family are certain Nikki is watching over them. Cheryl is pretty sure her trickster, pet-loving eldest is the one who sent a stray tabby to curl around Luna’s leg not long after Nikki’s death — the scene was reminiscent of Nikki befriending her first cat.

Still, to have a daughter die is awful. To scramble to rebuild a life and the lives of your grandchildren, that’s more than Cheryl and Frank could have imagined.

“This was not figured in. None of it.”

Cheryl’s wish:

Nikki Kangas, a 37-year-old mother of two, died in late October, leaving her mom and stepdad, Cheryl and Frank Rose, both in their 60s, to care for her daughters Jasmine, 14, and Luna, 4. In the months of Nikki’s cancer battle, the Roses’ work fell off as they cared for their daughter and granddaughters. A top priority is covering the costs of therapy for both girls. The family also must remodel their two-bedroom, one-bath home to better accommodate a family with four children under 17. That includes covering the cost of the three-tier bunk, a bigger refrigerator and building supplies. The girls could use laptops for school as well as school supplies and clothing. The family would like to send Jasmine, a competitive athlete, to surf camp and continue with travel soccer team, a sport that can rack up four-figure costs. She is growing and will need soccer gear as well. They’d like to give Luna dance and swimming lessons and send her to summer camp. The Roses could use help with Christmas gifts, including bikes and phones for the girls.

Nominated by: Feed the Hungry Pantry of Palm Beach County

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