“It’s so rare, I can’t even find the odds on it,” said Moneymaker, a Montgomery County firefighter.
Moneymaker had rarely spoken with the three over the previous five years, the legacy, in part, of a dysfunctional family. But through three simultaneous rounds of chemotherapy, three reports that the disease was incurable and, finally, three funerals, Moneymaker and his sisters drew closer again.
They are no longer with him, but Vicky Higgins, Valessa Baumgardner and Penny Zeller and their disease have become the focus of his life. Moneymaker has transformed himself into a crusader for a cure — a burly dude on a Harley with an infectious sense of humor who goes around wearing all pink.
“Marshall’s story is that of a simple man faced with an enormous tragedy that he turned into something good,” said his wife, Shannon. “Marshall is a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. He’s a firefighter, but he’s confronted these really complicated emotions.”
Cancer hits home
Moneymaker, 44, said he carried on after the call about Vicky’s cancer. The second about Valessa shocked him, but the third about Penny was the blow that sent him reeling.
Growing up, Penny, who was more than a decade older, often functioned as Marshall’s mom. She dressed him for school and let him tag along on dates. His best memory of childhood was a day spent at Great Falls with Penny and her boyfriend, who was shipping out for Vietnam the next day.
During his tour, the boyfriend dutifully sent money home so he and Penny could build a life together. Marshall said his mother took it and donated it to a televangelist. Penny and the boyfriend’s relationship eventually disintegrated.
Life was rarely easy for Marshall and his sisters growing up in Damascus. His father was an alcoholic. His mother worked long hours as a waitress. They were often strapped for money.
Those early years took a toll on the siblings’ relationship and they drifted apart. Moneymaker’s father, who had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is deceased. His mother is in a nursing home.
When Penny was sick and simultaneously going through a divorce, she had no place to live. Marshall and Shannon said they had one option: Invite her into their home.
Over the course of a year, they helped nurse Penny back to health in their Martinsburg, W.Va., home, but it was a short-lived victory. In the meantime, Vicky had gone downhill. A mastectomy could not stem the spread of her cancer. She lost her battle on Feb. 5, 2008. She was 60.
Moneymaker is an imposing man. He stands 6-2. His head is shaved. Once, during a call, he tilted a ladder up against a burning building and rescued a man trapped on a roof, said his captain, Marc Worton.