Large, blue lighted orbs are more than mere Christmas decorations for a Wheeling couple and their loving family, dedicated friends and caring neighbors.
Bob Wildpret, who is being treated for an aggressive type of prostate cancer, is crafting the outdoor decorations as a way to give hope to other cancer patients and to encourage men to undergo early screening for prostate cancer. For Wildpret and his wife, Joan, the new project is a mission, one that has given them a renewed sense of meaning for the holiday season.
They are encouraging friends and family to participate in the effort. Their close circle of friends is responding enthusiastically, making the basketball-size decorations part of the holiday scene in Wheeling neighborhoods and as far away as West Palm Beach, Fla.
Busily transforming chicken wire into large holiday decorations are, from left, Dr. James Comerci, Ron White, Eleanor White, Bob Dunlevy, Bob Wildpret and Sue Cunningham, all of Wheeling.
Photo by Linda Comins
The couple has printed a brochure titled, "Bob's Wish: Making a Difference by Spreading the Light," that explains the story of the holiday lights and tells of his desire "to do something that is special this Christmas." The brochure includes a list of prostate cancer symptoms.
The Wildprets held a festive Christmas party in their lovely home in Wheeling's Warwood section Saturday evening, Dec. 17, and explained their mission to the assembled group of about 30 guests, including relatives, neighbors and other friends. Bob offered step-by-step instruction for making the decorations and provided the materials - lengths of chicken wire and strands of miniature blue lights - for the simple, yet beautiful, outdoor ornaments.
Guests watched in fascination as Bob showed them how to shape the chicken wire into a round form and wrap a strand of lights around each ball. Working as couples or individually, the guests then gamely took turns creating balls of lights to display outside their own homes.
To an observer, it was evident immediately that the guests weren't just wrapping lights around chicken wire - they were, in fact, wrapping the Wildprets in love, just as the couple has encircled their friends and relatives with love and caring over the years. Laughter punctuated the air as friends and family expressed their admiration for Bob and Joan and shared stories of the caring love that the couple showers upon everyone around them.
Among those present for the celebration were their daughter, Jennifer, and their son, Jay, and his wife, Karen, of Pittsburgh. Talking about her in-laws, Karen observed, "They are the most giving people I have ever met. It's wonderful to see that love coming back to them."
One guest, Jay Paulovicks of Wheeling, shaved his head in solidarity when his lifelong best friend began taking chemotherapy treatments.
Paulovicks also ordered about 200 blue wristbands labeled "Team Bob" and decorated with a cancer ribbon and a cross. A message inside the bracelets states: "Faith, Hope and Courage. No one fights this alone."
Paulovicks' wife, Nancy, commented, "Bob and Joan are such good people. Their faith is so great. They have good faith."
With Bob undergoing chemotherapy to battle cancer that has spread beyond the prostate gland, the couple was unsure what this Christmas season would bring. But then Bob saw the light - or, more accurately, the lights - that provided inspiration and hope. His enthusiasm spread to Joan, giving her a renewed reason to fill their spacious home with gorgeous Christmas trees and other tasteful decorations this year.
While visiting their daughter and son-in-law, Kelly and Dan DeNamur, and grandsons Max, 8, and Jaydon, 4, in Asheboro, N.C., for Thanksgiving, Bob noticed that residents "put these big, lighted balls in trees like huge, lighted Christmas ornaments." Bob was captivated by the sight of the chicken-wire balls with lights wrapped around them and he began researching the phenomenon.
The concept started in Greensboro, N.C., four or five years ago when a man and his daughter made one of the large balls to hang in a tree. "It has grown to where an entire neighborhood has these huge Christmas balls in their trees. It's an attraction just to see," Bob related.
A light bulb went on, literally, for Bob when he learned that the display is located about one-half mile from a cancer center in Greensboro and that "patients schedule their visits late in the day so they can see it." He commented, "The ball, in a sense, symbolizes the hope that we all have."
While the North Carolina displays feature lights of many colors, Bob chose to use only blue lights to encourage early screening for prostate cancer and to raise awareness of the disease's aggressive form. At the Schiffler Cancer Center of Wheeling Hospital where Bob undergoes treatment, Joan learned that blue is the official "color" for prostate cancer, just as pink symbolizes breast cancer.
Before the party, Bob made half a dozen of the lighted orbs and "put them in trees in front of our yard like we saw them displayed in North Carolina." He said the lights, which are easy to make, also can be displayed on porches or hung from shepherd's crooks used for hanging baskets.
When neighbor Sandra Milliken noticed the blue glow, she thought it was a street light, but after seeing a ladder leaning against a tree, she realized that the source of light was something special. Neighbor Eleanor White agreed, saying, "They were so pretty. You knew there was something special about them."
Another neighbor, Sue Cunningham, recalled the reaction that she and her sister had when they spotted the unusual lights. "As we drove down the street, we saw them in the tree. We actually stopped and looked. I didn't know what they were. My sister thought they were supposed to be hornets' nests."
Cunningham was pleased to learn the story of the lighted balls and of their connection to awareness of prostate cancer.
Bob told the assembled friends, "This has been a different year for us, with not knowing where my cancer is going. It's going great now," he added.
Reflecting on his wish and his new quest, he commented, "I often pray and ask for direction. I'm not always sure I'm accepting or recognizing it. This time, it came through pretty clear: I needed to get in gear and do something to make this Christmas something special that would be remembered."
Surveying the relatives and friends gathered in their family room, Bob told them, "It's just a great feeling to have you all here tonight."
He also noted an act of extreme kindness that his minister, the Rev. David Bruce, who was in attendance at the party, and others performed. When Bob was hospitalized after cancer spread to the liver, Bruce asked if there was anything he could do. Joking, Bob replied, "Paint the house." Bruce took the request to heart and spent over 25 hours painting the Wildprets' house and recruited other volunteers to assist.
Support and encouragement also came from faraway locations. Friends Mary and Emmett Callow of West Palm Beach made one of the balls and illuminated it at their Florida home last weekend to join the Wildprets' efforts.
Mary Callow related, "Emmett, Bob and I have been friends since grade school. Bob was best man in our wedding 43 1/2 years ago. He has always been a very dear friend to us both as well as to many others ... I know that both Bob and Joan and their family feel so blessed to have the thoughts and prayers of so many."
Dealing with aggressive prostate cancer has been a learning experience for the Wildprets. "Until he was diagnosed, we did not know there was an aggressive form of prostate cancer," Joan said.
They said "it was a just a fluke" that his cancer was discovered in 2010. During a regular checkup with his urologist, Bob was informed that two successive Prostate-Specific Antigen tests showed levels that had risen a little bit. The doctor gave him the option to wait six months and have a PSA test again, or do a biopsy immediately. Bob, who had been laid off from his job as an engineer, said, "At that time, I had insurance so I said, 'Let's go ahead and do the biopy.'
"The biopsy was done in August of last year. I got results in early September that all 12 biopsies were showing levels of malignancies," he recalled.
Bob was referred to Dr. Gregory Merrick of Schiffler Cancer Center and underwent 10 weeks of radiation between November 2010 and January 2011. After several months of healing, he had another PSA and cancer was detected in lymph nodes around a kidney; as a result, he received six more weeks of radiation in the summer. After experiencing "pretty severe pains in the stomach area," he was hospitalized in early November and cancer was found in his liver.
Bob is now receiving chemotherapy every three weeks. "I don't know where my cancer will lead to - hopefully, a cure," he said. The day before their Christmas party, he received good news that the chemotherapy is working, Joan added.
As for the Christmas lighting project, Bob said, "We've had a great response."
Joan added, "It's just such a positive response. We're giving out information and asking anyone who would like to please donate to the American Cancer Society. We also bring awareness to the aggressive form of prostate cancer.
"Other people who have since been tested, it was cancer, but not the aggressive type. So I know he's already made a difference in people's lives," she said.
Reflecting on Bob's fascination with the large ornaments, Joan commented, "Most husbands aren't bulb-looking. He was just absorbed with these lights. It was uncanny ... This would not be something he would be ordinarily attracted to. He kept talking and talking about it When he saw the connection with the cancer center, we truly understood why they were so fascinating ... I believe it was God leading us," she added.
"I like to decorate every room, and with him being so very ill, I wasn't feeling like doing it," Joan said, but added, "I feel like God has spoken to me and He wants me to make a difference this Christmas."
Joan's artistic sense and decorating flair can be seen throughout their home. Among their many beautiful Christmas trees is a tall pine that Joan has decorated entirely with get-well cards that Bob has received.
Regarding a cancer diagnosis, Joan said, "It's something you never think is going to happen to you. We thought we had a lot more years of fun ahead of us. Now we face an uncertain future. The survival rate gets lower and lower once it metastasizes as Bob's has.
"So often when something happens to our friends, we don't always know how to respond," Joan commented. "I think this is making people say, 'I can help and make a difference.' I think this is a start. If it could be spread, to see these blue ornaments across the country, it would make people aware of how many suffer from regular prostate cancer as well as the aggressive side."
A few days after the party, Joan said, "The balls are appearing in the neighborhood. We have had a lot of feedback."
It is a true gift of Christmas as the couple lights the way to awareness and brings hope to other cancer patients.