Farm family grateful to be together all in one place

Mandie Tilderquist
Special to the Wisconsin State Farmer
Max’s journey is far from over. While Max's future is still uncertain, the family is grateful that he is still with them.

They say farming is in your blood. I believe that to be 100% true. I can’t think of too many people who would suddenly decide that working 18 hour days, dealing with fickle Mother Nature, and an unsteady paycheck sound like an enticing midlife vocation transition.

No, the 2% that feed the world have a little sweat, dirt and silage mixed in with the viscous, crimson liquid running through their pale, blue veins. And it starts the moment when God intricately knits them together in their mother’s blessed womb. I feel qualified to make these statements because I gave birth to a farmer.

Max Omer Tilderquist came into this world like a true farmer. He did it his way and came out how he wanted to — sunny side up. No doctor was going to tell him what to do. And as soon as he was able, he was wearing boots, overalls, and anything John Deere.

Since he was little Max Tilderquist has been a fan of everything John Deere.

His very first sounds were those that a Johnny Popper makes and when he did actually talk, its because he had something important to say. When I couldn’t get him to settle down, Max would go a few rounds in the tractor with daddy and would immediately be lulled to sleep. And when the pint-sized, seventh generation farmer would have to go home for his nap, it would take the strength of two grown adults to buckle him in his car seat.

When Max was 3 years old, we finally moved out to the 165-year-old family farm. I was so nervous that he'd sneak out to go help dad that I almost installed locks on the doors that he couldn’t reach.

In his own responsible way, my toddler would leave notes on my nightstand that he’d gone over to the farm to do chores. By the time he was 4, he could back up the John Deere Gator better than I could. Kindergarten was just plain torture for this working man, who firmly told his principal,” I ain’t going back to class. Dad needs my help and I’m just gonna be a farmer anyways.” After much cajoling, he did finally go back and eventually became an excellent student.

A dyed-in-the-wool farmer, Max drives the round baler through the field on the family's Minnesota farm.

Life was pretty good, until it wasn't

When the school and studying parts were over, it was all about the farm. Max soon started milking the cows, driving anything on the farm that had an engine, and helping with chores. He was his dad's right hand man. By the time he was 10 years old, life was looking pretty good. Until it wasn’t…

The summer of 2018 was the very first time Max and his siblings (Maggie 12, Hank 11, Jack 10) showed calves for 4-H. Something was off and I could feel it in my gut because as a mom, that's one of our super powers. My oldest son just didn’t look quite right to me. His coloring wasn’t as vibrant as my other three and he wasn’t sweating in the sweltering July heat.

He sat around, A LOT, and if you know farmers, you know that this is a huge red flag. So, once we were home and the fair had ended, I quickly made an appointment for him. Bloodwork confirmed our worst nightmare. Along with the sweat, dirt, and silage that co-mingled with this little farmer's blood, there was also cancer.

We made the 50-mile trip to Rochester, MN, and walked into St. Mary’s Hospital for the first time of many. Max was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. It’s a cancer that is usually only detected by bloodwork in people that are much older. Not a typical cancer that 10-year-old children are told they have.

And we laughed at the irony because of course, our “old soul" son would get a disease that’s incredibly rare for his age group. After a two-week hospital stay, we went back home, where all that was required was a daily chemotherapy pill and a relatively normal life. The word “easy" isn’t usually associated with cancer, but in our case, it really was.

Unforgettable conversation

I will never forget that conversation Max and I had, not too long after we came home from the hospital. I told him that he had two options: take a daily chemotherapy pill for the rest of your life or go through a grueling bone marrow transplant. Without hesitation, he replied, ”I want to get the transplant, mom. I don’t want the restrictions that come with the pill because I’m gonna farm someday.” One of the biggest decisions of our lives was made in seconds. That was very unlike a farmer!

The most ideal donor candidate is a family member because the host will more easily recognize those cells. And a 10 out of 10 matched (having the same tissue type) sibling is the very best. Max was very blessed to have that match in his middle brother Hank. His 8-year-old brother didn’t even have to think about if he wanted to do it or not.

Eight-year-old Hank, standing, was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant for big brother, Max, 10, in 2018.

“I wanna save my big brother’s life!,” Hank said, as he proudly puffed out his little chest.

Max was blessed to have two other partial matches in his family as well, his dad and his youngest brother. I felt like this was God’s way of giving us the green light. And we sure went full speed ahead.

Major medical endeavor

The two boys went through rigorous testing at the Mayo Clinic to ensure that both were healthy enough to undergo such a major medical endeavor. They both passed with flying colors and a date was set for the transplant, June 28, 2019, almost a year after the word “cancer" was painfully added to our family’s vocabulary. And we were more than ready to take that awful word out of it again.

A bone marrow transplant is pretty uneventful. To be honest, it was a bit of a letdown. No one hastily ran through the hallways with a red cooler like they do in medical dramas. The nurses just hung the bag from an IV pole, while Hank's glorious donor cells ran into Max’s depleted body.

Brother Hank, right, joins Max in his hospital bed during the bone marrow transplant.

For the 5 or so days prior to the procedure, the patient receives conditioning chemotherapy, completely bringing them down to zero. This prepares their body to eagerly receive the new, healthy cells. Hank had gotten his cells harvested earlier that morning and came to join his big brother after he recovered from his ordeal.

Both of the boys did remarkably well throughout the entire process. Hey, they’re farm kids. Of course, they did! I even decorated Max’s hospital room with all things farming. His toy tractors lined the windowsill, pictures of our farm were tacked on the walls, and Kemp sent over some inflatable cows and other décor. 4-H clubs and farm families from all over the country sent cards, letters, and gifts. What an amazing community to be a part of.

Mandi Tilderquist  decorated her son's hospital room with all things farming - Max's toy tractors, pictures of the farm, inflatable cows donated by Kemps. Max also received cards, letters and gifts from 4-H clubs and farm families from all over the country.

Finding normalcy again

We were eventually discharged to the Ronald McDonald house so we could be close enough to the hospital as well as get some sense of normalcy again. The rest of the kids joined us, but dad had to stay at the farm. It was really hard to be separated because when you’re a farm family, you are so used to working together and being together a lot. We were so grateful because everything had gone so smoothly, all according to plan. Everyone was so optimistic.

When Max was born, he didn’t cry once our entire hospital stay. I thought I hit the “new mom jackpot”, until we got home. And then it seemed like the screaming didn’t stop. This very same scenario seemed to play out again.

A major complication

Generally, 100 days after transplant, you are pretty safe of anything really sinister happening. Well, for Max, that’s when it all really began. He developed a major complication of a bone marrow transplant. Its called GVHD, or graft verses host disease. It is an immune condition that occurs when the immune cells from the donor tissue attack the host's own tissue. And none of us were prepared for this, since we had an exact match.

Recovering from a effects of a bone marrow transplant and lugging an oxygen tank doesn't keep Max Tilderquist from helping family members feed calves on the family farm.

I cannot even begin to explain all the havoc that this disease brings and all the scarring it leaves as a twisted souvenir. It has affected his skin, eyes, mouth, and the worst of all – his lungs.

For the next two years, Max and I would be in and out of the hospital more times than I can even count. If I listed everything that happened, every diagnosis and prognosis, I’d have an entire book written by now.

There have been so many times that I’ve screamed at God and cried angry tears. I’ve begged and pleaded with doctors to save my son’s life. I’ve fought to advocate for him. And as awful as those experiences were, I’ve never felt closer to God or seen Him work in such miraculous ways. We will never forget all the amazing people that have helped us along the way.

Journey far from over

So, let’s skip to the good part. Max’s journey is far from over. The future is very uncertain and we are still waiting to see how his body will heal. He wears constant oxygen and has to sleep with a BiPAP machine. But Max is still here. He does a large majority of our field work and is the brains behind the operation. His will to fight and to keep going amazes everyone that knows him. We are so proud of our firstborn son. Max means “the greatest.” It fits him darn well.

This morning, I am thankful for my cup of coffee, made exactly the way I like it. I’m thankful I got a good night’s sleep in my own bed. I’m thankful God saw fit to bless me with another day to be my kids' mom and my farmer's wife. I’m thankful to see all four of my children, begrudgingly – I mean happily – doing their school work at the kitchen table. I’m thankful I’ve learned to love my family harder, to forgive easier, and to live each day as if it were our last.

The Tilderquist family gather for a group photo on Easter Sunday in 2021 at St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester, Minn.. three years after Max was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, Joining Max, bottom left, counter clockwise, Maggie, Hank, dad Eric, mom Mandi and Jack, center.

I’m thankful for this beautiful mess of a life and everyone who has helped me write my story.

I hope each and every one of us can find something to be grateful for this Thanksgiving season, despite the circumstances we may face. After all, there is always, ALWAYS, something to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving from our farm family to yours!

Tilderquist is a Jesus follower, cookie baker, proud wife of a Minnesota farmer, blessed mama of four and loving her life.