Heartache follows call to duty

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 11, 2011

SALISBURY — When Mo Hopper is out running errands, she likes to say she’s killing rats.
Last week, she was killing a lot of rats, putting the finishing handiwork on a surprise going-away party for her husband, Tim, who will be leaving Saturday for a year’s deployment in Iraq.
Tim, 55 and silver-haired, commands a Black Hawk helicopter unit for the Army National Guard in Salisbury, and he’ll be leading its Iraqi mission. He says he has no worries about the wartime job because he’ll be with soldiers he has complete trust in.
The toughest thing for Tim is leaving Mo behind. She continues to battle a blood and bone marrow disease — MPD, for short — that doctors have said will eventually claim her life.
Mo deflects any concerns about herself — the progression of the disease varies considerably from person to person — and says she has a great support system at home with her friends and military family.
“We definitely do not want Tim worrying about anything here,” she says. “He needs to go — for country, family and God.”
Despite dealing with pain around the clock, Mo remains a fireball. She runs her own business — Hopper’s Quick Bite, a food service at area auctions through the week.
She once operated a singing telegram business and learned a lot about selling cars from Salisbury’s June Rives. A mountain girl, she considers herself an avid snake hunter, having milked the venom of rattlesnakes and copperheads. She also is a master scuba diver and accomplished fisherman.
Mo has filled much of Tim’s shop at home with antiques she collects at the various auctions she attends.
Tim likes to say he just married her — he can’t control her.
“I’m wide open,” Mo says. “I’m a talker, and I’m so excited I’ve been able to keep my mouth shut” about the surprise party.
More than 30 friends, neighbors and family showed up for the Saturday night party at the Longhorn Steakhouse.
“She’s a strong person, but this is going to be very hard,” Mo’s daughter, Mandy Raymer, says of Tim’s pending departure. “She has talked about it for so long, now here it is, a week away.”
Tim and Mo will be married 11 years this Friday. Mo describes them as “Mutt and Jeff,” because he’s 6 feet 4 inches tall and she’s 5 feet 4 inches. While she’s the talker and the outspoken one, Tim is the “gentle giant,” Mo says.
A Salisbury seamstress told Mo about Tim, and the first time she saw him in the shop, he was wearing his flight suit. He took her breath away.
Mo impressed him by walking into the shop’s front door on her way out.
It was a fairly quick romance, interrupted once by Tim’s being away for a mission in Nicaragua. But soon she was visiting his family in Iowa, and then he was proposing.
It had been 21 years since Mo’s first marriage ended — a marriage that gave her Mandy and her son, Brian Cade, who is in the Navy.
“I was totally caught off guard,” she says of Tim’s proposal. “He had to ask me a second time, because I couldn’t believe he was asking me.”
About six years ago, Mo had surgery on a foot, but it would not heal. Her primary doctor sent her to a hematologist in Charlotte, and a painful bone marrow test showed she was positive for myeloproliferative, or MPD.
It’s a group of diseases that affect the production of blood cells in the bone marrow.
She was not a candidate for a bone marrow transplant. At the time, doctors told her the disease would eventually attack her major organs, and they gave her a window of eight remaining years.
Mo has her good days and bad days.
“It’s a tough disease, one of those I know there’s no cure for,” she says. “I’m trying to not let the disease define me, but it definitely has taken me down a notch or two.”
Mo has undergone chemotherapy, but “it really didn’t help me because I was so sick during the treatment.” After being referred to a nutritionist in Florida, she says her quality of life improved considerably for about 14 months, but last September “the symptoms came back with a vengeance.”
Tim, who has a grown son, Brandon, from his first marriage, actually was supposed to go overseas two years ago. A colonel was able to defer his deployment because of Mo’s health.
Mo wants him to go this time because his men depend on him, and it will be good for his career.
Hopper retired as a major after 12 years in the regular Army. He has been with the National Guard for 16 years. He and Mo have never been able to celebrate their April 15 wedding anniversary over the past 10 years because he has always been in training, on raid missions or involved in state rescue trips.
Mo credits Tim for being her motivator and making sure she makes all of her doctor appointments. “He has been my blessing,” she says. Mo also appreciates the care Dr. William Brinkley in Salisbury is giving her and says she has a standing appointment with nine specialists in Jacksonville when the disease reaches the advanced stages.
No one really knows when that could happen.
Mandy has a 1-year-old daughter, Zoe — a new granddaughter that Tim carries around like a football.
Charles Neese says his cousin Tim is quiet and down-to-earth with a sly sense of humor. By contrast, Charles and his wife, Stephanie, describe Mo as a spitfire.
“She’s the bomb,” Mo’s son, Brian, adds.
“He calls Tim a man’s man — the daddy he never had, his rock,” Mo says. A veteran himself of Kuwait and Iraq, Brian is preparing to follow in Tim’s footsteps and go into warrant officer aviation school.
There’s a chance Mo and Tim Hopper finally will have time for an anniversary dinner Friday, the day before he leaves.
He and his fellow pilots head for Fort Hood Saturday, where their helicopters will be readied for shipment to Iraq.
Mo remains optimistic.
About everything.
“We’re not promised tomorrow,” she says. “You have to live your days to the fullest.”
Contact Mark Winekaat 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.