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Advocate for people with Down’s dies

The Helderberg mourns the loss of a formidable woman, an exemplary mother and a passionate champion of the vulnerable in the community.

Somerset West resident Celeste Parks died in hospital last Wednesday (5 February), shortly after her 49th birthday on 25 January.

She established the Michael Parks Foundation, inspired by her remarkable journey of raising a son living with Down Syndrome.

Established in 2015, the NPO, which strives to raise awareness about the genetic disorder by educating the community, operates a holistic, therapeutic development centre for the children and their families living with Down Syndrome and other related conditions.

She and her son Michael Parks sought medical attention after not feeling well on Thursday 30 January. Michael got the all-clear and appeared to be having an off-day, while Celeste was immediately admitted to Mediclinic Stellenbosch with a fever over 40 °C.

Her eldest son, Stefan Vermeulen, recalled his mom video calling him the next day to discuss her plan to bake sweet treats for Michael and some of his friends. “I said it’s fine, we could do whatever she wanted to do, but she should just concentrate on getting well first.”

Before and after the birth of his brother, Stefan said, routine hospital visits and the occasional stay were not uncommon, so he naturally thought his mother would recuperate and return home. But her condition rapidly deteriorated.

On Friday afternoon, a few hours after they spoke, he received a phone call informing him that his mother had been moved to the hospital’s intensive care unit following her initial diagnosis of double pneumonia. She was in a medically induced coma and remained on ventilators. The family recalled her condition “roller-coasting”, one moment she appeared to be recovering, the next her condition nose-dived.

Monday she appeared to be doing better, but her condition became most concerning on Wednesday evening, said Stefan. The family were called later that night with news of her passing, which was later confirmed to be due to swine flu.

“We are still reeling in shock,” Stefan said. “I know one should trust in God’s plan, and although His plan was just so unfair to us it was completely fair to her. She was battling, but her tired body just couldn’t cope. Seeing her connected to machines, struggling to breathe and just laying there almost lifeless, was not my mom. She radiated only love and life.”

He will fondly remember his mother for her “stubborn love” shown in the most heartfelt, genuine way. “She would never put anyone at a disadvantage or jeopardise them. What she did was always in others’ best interest. She just had so much love for everyone. In a work capacity for the foundation she kicked ass and took down names. If she engaged in an argument with someone it would not be because of the person, but the situation.”

Stefan is proud of his mom who celebrated the success and achievements of others like they were her own or her children’s. She referred to youngsters who found their way into her heart mostly as “my child”.

“Every person who encountered my mom had nothing but love for her,” he said. “And this rings true in the countless messages of condolences we received, fond memories shared by friends and acquaintances, and loving gestures by those whose lives she impacted.

“I will remember her in everything I do. There is nothing she would not have done for anyone. Going to the mall will never be the same; a quick pop-in for essentials would take two hours because she would stop for conversations with every second person. She could be in the worst mood or going through her own difficulties, yet she would always have a smile on her face.”

He added that his mother would be missed for the tiniest gestures.

“She would phone for the smallest thing. The worst part is knowing your phone will ring endless times in future, but that it would never be her. At the time you get annoyed, but in retrospect I am glad I attended to these little requests every single time.”

For Celeste’s mother, Veronica Walbrugh, the daily phone calls to check-in or ask about supper is what she’ll miss most. Not only has she lost her only daughter, with whom she shared a special bond, but a close friend second to none. Despite battling to come to terms with her loss and having many unanswered questions, Veronica trusts in God’s plan and caring for Michael keeps her afloat.

She spoke fondly of her daughter who started her school career at Danie Ackermann Primary and matriculated from Gordon High.

She praised Celeste for having obtained her degree in logistics management while working at a liquor store and studying part-time; and trying her hand at her own imports and exports logistics company.

“She was a people’s person, blind to the wrongs of others. She treated everyone as equal and could associate with people from all walks of life, on any level and at any time. I will always admire that she lived for God and was driven by her passion to assist families and children living with Down Syndrome and other related conditions.”

Veronica said the passing of the family dog makes it easier to explain to Michael that “just like Tammy, Mommy has gone to Jesus”. The family dog of 17 years was euthanised a day before Celeste’s passing.

Malcolm Parks described his wife as a ray of sunshine, always the same despite pain or troubles, a person who fought for others more than herself.

A memorial service for Celeste will be held at All Saints’ Anglican church in Oak Street, Somerset West today (Thursday 13 February) at 19:30. A funeral will take place at the church at 09:00 on Saturday (15 February).

Celeste is survived by parents, Veronica and Charles, husband Malcolm, sons Stefan (27), Aden Vermeulen (25) and Michael (7), brother Clement, sister-in-law Christina and nephew and niece Jean and Shannon.

V On request from the family, DistrictMail has not published a photograph of Celeste.

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