FARGO — Hannah Erickson was only 12 when she first met Merideth Sorenson, and Sorenson, now in her early 30s, was only 17.
Her mother, Pam, had hired Sorenson at the downtown Fargo YMCA’s temporary child care center.
“And then I lost touch with her until she was diagnosed with cancer,” Erickson says.
When Erickson, now a mother herself, learned that Sorenson was in the hospital receiving chemotherapy treatments just days after having her fourth child, she responded.
“It broke my heart knowing that, as a mom, you’re supposed to be with your newborn baby, holding them all day, loving them, not sitting in a hospital room fighting for your life,” she says. “It’s unnatural and devastating.”
Erickson began helping with Sorenson’s children and bringing Hope to her mama in the hospital whenever possible. “That’s when we rekindled our friendship, and how we’ve grown so close.”
Their friendship includes a faith component. Before one of her surgeries to remove a tumor, Erickson says, her friend “was anxious and nervous and had all the feelings you would before something like that.” But when a stranger came to visit and share Bible passages, “She felt this overwhelming sense of peace the rest of the evening.”
“We’ve talked about how she couldn’t be where she is without her faith,” Erickson adds, and how her struggles “have made her want to pursue it even more.”
When Pam, who was like a second mom to Sorenson, died suddenly this past November, Sorenson shared with Erickson, “I feel this sense of peace, like when it’s my time, I know she’s there waiting for me.”
“She doesn’t want to give up,” Erickson says, “but she knows God has a purpose for what she’s endured, and she just trusts in him.”
‘I’m Not Giving Up’
Not giving up has become a theme of Sorenson’s, thanks to Erickson and singer Andy Grammer, whom the two met this past September.
“When I first heard that song (‘Don’t Give Up on Me’), I instantly thought of Merideth,” Erickson says. “I decided she needed to hear it, so I sent it to her.”
Sorenson texted back.
“She was like, ‘OMG, I love this song! I haven’t stopped listening to it!’” Erickson shares. “Ever since then, it’s become her anthem.”
The two even did a Facebook Live video of themselves singing the song in the hospital before Sorenson had another surgery. “We were having a jam session, singing and dancing together.”
When Erickson learned Grammer was performing in Minneapolis, she began emailing people, trying to connect Grammer with Sorenson’s story. Sorenson had shared how she dreamed of someday meeting Grammer and having him sing the song to her.
Eventually, Erickson secured three tickets, and, along with Pam, they went to the concert in September, despite the failed attempts to arrange a meeting with Grammer. While there, a stranger noticed and commented on the women’s T-shirts, bearing the words, “Don’t Give Up On ME-rideth.”
It turns out her husband, a huge Grammer fan, had died of colon cancer the year before. They’d received Grammer into their home for a private concert before his death, and she still had his manager’s phone number. Attempts to reach him proved fruitless, however, so the three began resigning themselves to leaving without fulfilling Sorenson’s dream.
“I was devastated, but even after the concert ended, I was like, ‘No, I’m not giving up yet,’” Erickson says.
Her determination motivated her to approach a man taking professional videos to ask for help. “He was like, ‘Hold on, I’ll be right back,’” and within minutes, they were backstage — not only meeting Grammer but watching him sing the song they loved, sitting on a couch next to Sorenson, with his band members joining them.
“I was sobbing the whole time, seeing the big picture come to life in that moment. It was the most powerful thing I’ve experienced,” Erickson says. “To share that with my mom and Merideth, it will forever be a favorite memory.”
(To witness this moment yourself, see this video capturing it all.)
Erickson doesn’t believe it was all due to her efforts. “After we walked out, we instantly all agreed, ‘That was the most incredible God moment ever.’”
As for her friend, Erickson stands in awe.
“Merideth is the strongest, most positive person I’ve met, especially when faced with something so debilitating and spirit-crushing; she just overcomes every time,” she says. “No matter how much pain she’s in, she’s still able to put a smile on her face and try to make her daughter Hope smile and giggle.”
“When I’m sick, it’s so easy to just mope on the couch and tell your kids, ‘go play,’” Erickson continues. “But she’s like, ‘Hope, let’s read a book together.’ You can tell she’s miserable, but she pushes herself because she wants to have those memories with her children.”
Sorenson also has taught Erickson that attitude means everything.
“You can feel really crappy, but still have a positive attitude,” she says. “She chooses to be positive and look at the great things that she has, and to love them, no matter how she’s feeling.”
Erickson suspects that Sorenson’s suffering with her own mother, who has dementia, has only strengthened her resolve.
“Merideth wants to be there so badly for her own kids, because she knows what it’s like not to have her mom be able to be there for her. That’s also what’s pushing her to keep fighting.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Feb. 14, 2020. The second story below was run the same day in conjunction with the above piece. ]
Valentine’s Day benefit to lavish love on mom fighting cancer
FARGO — In both his marriage and life, Michael Ludwig has learned well the sacrificial nature of true love.
He learns it anew each morning when rising to enter another day with his beloved wife, Roxanne, now in year 12 of a 12-year projected battle with dementia.
The truths return each time he thinks of his daughter, Merideth Sorenson, fighting for her life on a coast far away — unreachable physically, but always on his heart.
“From the moment she came into our family, she was just a burst of sunshine,” Ludwig says of his youngest. “She was so energetic and outgoing.”
Which is why her diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, discovered the summer of 2018 while pregnant with her fourth child, came as such a shock.
“It floored me,” Ludwig recalls. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Sorenson is currently undergoing an expensive and experimental treatment at a Maryland hospital. It’s been especially hard on Ludwig because, as a devoted caregiver to his ailing wife, he has not been able to be there for Sorenson as much as he’d like.
“Out of my week, I’ve got only eight hours to fulfill my needs around here,” he says. But whenever possible, he visits Sorenson during her Fargo medical stays, even if just for 45 minutes. “She’s a fighter, a warrior,” he says of Sorenson, adding that, based on their close relationship, “I really feel that if (Roxanne) was up and about, she would not leave Merideth’s side for one moment. She’d be right there, 24/7.”
Last year, when Sorenson received treatment at Mayo Clinic, Ludwig arranged to join the family for a time in Rochester, Minn.
“I wanted it to be a surprise, but fathers have big mouths. I was saying goodbye and, by accident, said, ‘Well, see you tomorrow,’” he says. “I realized, ‘Damn, I kind of blew that one.’”
When he did visit, it pained him to see his daughter “so hunched over — you could tell how fragile she was, yet how strong she was on the inside.”
Despite the hassle of simply leaving the house, he’s arranged for respite care for tonight, Feb. 14, when a special event in Harwood, N.D., will raise money and spirits to help the cause.
Ludwig says he wouldn’t miss the “Hope for Merideth” benefit for his daughter for anything. “I’m just overwhelmed with the backing people have given her in this situation,” he says.
Several setbacks have prolonged Sorenson’s stay in Maryland, which could prevent her from being at tonight’s Valentine’s Day benefit as hoped, but organizers aren’t deterred from doing all they can to lift the load of the family of six.
Angie Puhr, a cousin of Sorenson’s husband, Troy, says she’s gotten to know her better recently when driving her to medical appointments.
“Merideth’s a very shy, very private person,” Puhr says, but in their time together, which included an emergency room visit, a bond formed. “She has been through so much, but she’s the strongest person I know.”
When her own aunt became gravely ill in 2012, Puhr organized a benefit, so she knew the ropes. When it became evident the Sorensons could use the same help, it was a no-brainer.
“I reached out to my other cousins for help. I knew we needed to do this quickly,” Puhr says, mentioning the increased expenses from travel and Troy’s work leaves. “This is just what we do as a family.”
Puhr says Sorenson’s faith in God has been evident.
“She keeps going and going for her family. There’s no way that would be possible if God wasn’t at play,” she says. “There’s been days she hasn’t been able to get out of bed, or when she’s been lying on the floor screaming in pain. And yet, her faith keeps her going.”
Hope, their youngest child, offers another sign of this faith, Puhr adds. “That little baby is a miracle in herself. She’s so calm, and she sleeps so her mama can sleep. It’s like she just knows.”
Robin Jack, another of Troy’s cousins, says when the mention of a possible benefit came up, she jumped. “It just tugged on me, with her mother also ill.”
She says it didn’t take long after they began reaching out for donations to arrive. “People who know her are really responding.”
During the benefit, supper will be a free-will donation, and raffles will include a new grill, quilts and wine, among others. A friend offered to DJ the event at no cost, and the Lend A Hand Up nonprofit will provide matching funds.
“We’ve gotten several ‘Pay it Forwards’ from Bell Bank employees,” Jack says, “and with the match of up to $5,000, we’re already at $10,000.”
Though the set Valentine’s Day date initially happened by coincidence, both Puhr and Jack realized quickly how well it all fit.
“What better way to spend some time with your loved one than to share it with somebody who really needs your help, to spread love?” Jack says.
It all pulls mightily at Ludwig’s heartstrings.
“I’d give anything to have this go away,” he says, admitting that, despite his own faith, some days, it seems pointless to pray for an outcome so elusive. “I hope God will reach down and say, ‘You’ve met my plans and I’m going to take this away from you,’ and give her back the life she deserves.”
Even so, he concedes, “You can pray and pray, but the good Lord upstairs is the one with the final decision.”
“She’s a grand gift from God,” Ludwig continues. “She’s a blessing; just a wonderful woman.”
If God won’t answer his prayers for his youngest, he hopes her own children’s prayers will be heard.
“They’re just kids. They shouldn’t have to go through this,” Ludwig says. “Hunter (Sorenson’s son) can be a little bugger at times, but he loves his mother, and she misses them all tremendously.”
If you go
What: Hope for Merideth benefit
When: 5-9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 14
Where: Harwood Community Center, 210 Freedland Drive, Harwood, N.D.
Info: Event will feature a silent auction, raffles, cash bar and pulled pork supper; visit caringbridge.org/visit/meridethsorenson or https://lendahandup.org/event/merideth-sorensen-benefit/ for more information
Donations: Cash or check donations payable to the “Hope for Merideth Benefit Fund” can be directed to: Western State Bank, 755 13th Ave E, West Fargo, ND 58078