Niagara Gazette — Ronda Koban-Sortore had hoped to leave some videos for her kids. But, there simply wasn't enough time.
Though she had been ill for years, first with a brain aneurism, then a battle with cancer, which after five years returned with a vengeance, she died rather unexpectedly on Friday. So, Andrea, 12, and Zachary, 17, won't have videos with personalized messages from their mom. But, what they will have is a legion of their mother's friends and family so devoted and so stunning in size, that the siblings will likely be supported their whole lives by a web of love their mother created.
I never met Ronda. I was supposed to go to her house to interview her when I wrote a story about a fundraiser planned for her last February, but she wasn't up to a visit. The event was a few days later, and organizers had not expected the largest outpouring of affection and concern any of them had ever experienced. They'd hoped for 100 or so baskets to raffle and 300 came in. I'm told the Lewiston-Porter High School cafeteria was mobbed the day of the event.
I did talk to Ronda on the phone and she was charming and deeply honest, just like everyone said. So, I have a fairly clear picture of this remarkable woman, who friends said didn't like to be seen without one of her many wigs perfectly combed and makeup done just so, who always kissed everyone hello and goodbye, and who made people feel blessed to know her.
Co-owner of the Niagara Street restaurant Koban's, which her dad opened years ago with her mom and her sister, Ronda also worked for a time at a firemen's credit union and in the Town of Lewiston courts. Between her jobs and the friends she made through her children's schools and hobbies, she knew people from all walks of life.
She only had a few last wishes, and one of them was the videos. When I heard that, I couldn't help thinking about how to make it up to her children — give them something that they could look back on when they wanted to remember their mom. The only thing I could think to do was to let Ronda's friends share a few words about Ronda so that, at least, some of the many stories about her would be on record in these pages for all time.
One of her very best friends, Ann Marie DiMino Hepfer, made it a point to visit Ronda every day, driving from her DeVeaux neighborhood to Lewiston to say good morning and good night. She told me how Ronda was always trying to stay positive through her illnesses and through all the struggles somehow managed to pull her little family closer. How Ronda's face would light up every time her daughter, Andrea, came into the room and how Ronda's son, Zach, a hockey player for Lewiston-Porter, made a goal during a game recently and raised his fist to the sky as if to say, "this one is for you mom."
"I'm happy because she's out of pain, but I'm going to miss going there every day," said Ann Marie, who told me she learned the meaning of courage from Rhonda in a long friendship which she said has "totally changed me."
She was there at Ronda's peaceful passing at Niagara Hospice, with about 40 other family members and friends, and now Ann Marie cannot quite believe the hole that is left in her own heart.
"Her daughter, Andrea, tells me all the time, it will be fine because 'my mother is going to live on, through me,'" Ann Marie said, her voice filled with admiration for the young girl with a ready smile, just like her mother.
As Ronda's friends and family prepared for her funeral service, which will be held today at St. Mary's, I was able to reach a couple more of Ronda's friends, including Zach's third grade teacher, Kami Halgash, who laughed as she lovingly recalled Ronda's many unsuccessful matchmaking attempts, and described Ronda as "like a magnet. You wanted to be around her. She was definitely someone who, when you were in her presence just lifted you up. Her laughter was so contagious."
Another friend, Sharon Dyster, struggled for just the right words. She recalled Ronda's actions just the other day, when an ambulance arrived to take her to hospice for pain management. "When the attendants came in, this woman who was in such excruciating pain sat up and extended her hand and said 'Hi, I'm Ronda,' and she thanked them for coming to take her to hospice."
I asked Sharon what Ronda might have told her children if she'd had the chance to make a video. "I think she would have simply wanted them to remember how much she loved and adored them and how proud she was to be their mom," she replied.
I think that Ronda's legacy is best explained in her own words, which I still have in my notes from the day we talked on the phone. She told me how overwhelmed she was by the endless meals delivered to her home, the enduring love of her husband, her "wonderful" children and all the family and friends. And how she wouldn't change anything if it meant giving up the unbelievable love that surrounded her like a giant embrace.
"They say that good comes out of any situation," she told me. "I might not know exactly all the good, but I might have touched someone else who is having a hard time dealing with something. Maybe they'll hear my story and believe that something good might come out of their own."
And maybe — just maybe — someone struggling right now believes just that. Then another of Ronda's last wishes would come true.