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LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) — When Larry Roberts' wife gave birth to their first son seven years ago, Roberts assumed he would have decades to provide fatherly love and wisdom to the boy — and to his brother, who arrived four years later.
When Roberts and his wife assumed guardianship last year of Tamara Roberts' three teenage cousins to prevent them from going into foster care, he faced a shorter window of paternal influence before the trio would reach adulthood.
And then came the shock that forced Roberts to stop thinking of the future in terms of decades or even years. In December, Roberts, now 39, learned he has terminal bladder cancer. Various doctors have estimated his life span at three months to a year.
As he receives chemotherapy treatments through a clinical trial in Tampa, Roberts is less concerned about imparting specific fatherly advice and more intent on transmitting the basics.
"Now (it's) more the love part," Roberts said at the family's South Lakeland home. "Parenting is a lifelong thing, really, so I may not be here for the lifelong so I need to at least show the most important part, which is love and understanding and honesty, I believe. So that's what I've been trying to focus on."
If the Roberts family's story were a novel, it would require shifting perspectives: The father savoring every remaining moment he has with his family. The wife facing the prospect of being left alone to raise five children. The three teenagers, whose father died last year in an attempted home invasion, preparing to lose a second dad.
All of that could foment a gloomy domestic atmosphere, yet mirth and optimism percolated in the Robertses' home on a recent evening. The teenagers — Alexis Large, 16, Mitchell Large, 15, and Tristan Large, 13 — gathered on the patio with the younger children — Cooper, 7, and Mason, 3 — to create a happy ruckus.
Larry Roberts sat in a recliner, his scalp covered with stubble. His voice was raspy, and at one point he seemed to doze off, prompting his wife to ask, "You all right, baby?"
Roberts, a former high school football player who used to work long hours for G & G Electric Service in Lakeland, has lost about 50 pounds since his cancer diagnosis. Sitting with a blanket covering his legs, he said chemotherapy has left him feeling chronically cold, even on scorching summer days.
He occasionally asks for a higher thermostat singing the opening of "You're the One That I Want" from the movie "Grease": "I got chills ..."
"The cancer patient always wins in the thermostat battle," said Tamara Roberts, 33.
The Large children didn't experience much family stability before joining the Roberts household. Their father, Mitchell Glenn Large of Winter Haven, had multiple arrests in Virginia and Florida on charges including aggravated assault and domestic violence. Their mother, Laura Delano-Large, also accrued a string of arrests.
Tamara Roberts, who is Delano-Large's niece, said she became estranged from the Large family because of the parents' drug use and rarely saw her three cousins. She said their parents' legal problems caused the trio to be temporarily removed their home multiple times and placed with relatives or friends.
Even that tumult couldn't have prepared the siblings for what happened April 7, 2014. Early that morning, Mitchell Large, 40, forced his way into a house in Winter Haven, according to police reports. One of the residents grabbed a gun and fired a warning shot, police reported, but Large continued advancing. The residents fired additional shots, one of which struck and killed Large. The State Attorney's office ruled the shooting legally justified.
Two weeks after Large's death, Laura Delano-Large was arrested on a drug charge, according to Polk County Sheriff's records. It soon became clear the Large children would remain in the state's foster-care system unless the Robertses took permanent legal guardianship of them.
The immersion of the teens into their new household created tensions, Larry and Tamara Roberts said, because the siblings at first assumed the arrangement was temporary. Laura Delano-Large indeed was released from jail but was soon arrested for violation of probation and sentenced to two years in prison.
Tamara Roberts said the Large siblings had "no boundaries" in their parents' home, and the Robertses had to wean them from using vulgar language and visiting inappropriate websites.
"We had to figure out how we wanted to parent — our kids and them," Larry Roberts said. "We had to develop structure, and the first and foremost thing was we had to figure out because of the trauma how to properly care, love, all that stuff for them at the time, because it was pretty traumatic, everything that happened."
Larry and Tamara, members at Lakeland's Oasis Community Church, asked the teens to join them for services. Mitchell and Tristan became part of the church's youth group, and the pair said they felt so welcomed they were able to open up and discuss their family trauma.
The siblings had all fallen behind academically at times, and Tamara Roberts said they typically missed about 70 days each school year. Since joining the Roberts household, though, the trio have become A and B students and rarely miss school. Mitchell earned enough credits online through Florida Virtual School to make up a grade and start this fall as an eighth-grader at Lakeland Highlands Middle School.
"They've done a 180-degree turnaround," Larry Roberts said.
Alexis, a junior at George Jenkins High School, showed impeccable manners at the Robertses' home, addressing a visitor as "sir."
"My parents, they actually didn't like whenever I said 'yes sir' or 'no sir' because it's too formal," she said. "Now that I show respect to people, I use that a lot."
Alexis, who calls the Robertses "Mom-ish" and "Dad-ish," summed up the situation this way: "My (biological) parents, I will always love them, but Tamara and Larry, they're my parents — you know what I mean?"
Until last year, Larry Roberts said he had taken just two sick days in the previous decade and rarely set foot in a doctor's office.
Late last year, though, Roberts began to notice blood in his urine. On Dec. 12, a urologist gave a preliminary diagnosis of bladder cancer and ordered testing of the tumor. The family endured a subdued Christmas, and soon afterward, Roberts received a more precise diagnosis from a doctor at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa: small-cell bladder cancer, a form that usually occurs in the lungs.
"They said it was very rare, very aggressive," Tamara Roberts said.
"And it was going to be life-changing," Larry Roberts added. "Which it has been."
Roberts, a smoker since his teens, attributes his cancer to that habit. He said he always figured he would quit smoking before it was too late, and he had switched to electronic cigarettes about a year before his diagnosis.
Doctors at Moffitt started Roberts on chemotherapy in January, and he underwent seven rounds without any apparent positive effects. Testing showed the cancer had spread to his liver and lymph nodes.
Seeking another option, Roberts traveled in July to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Instead of offering new optimism, though, a doctor said he didn't think further chemotherapy would be effective. The doctor estimated Roberts had three to six months to live.
"That was pretty harsh," Roberts said. "I was not expecting it. I was expecting a lot more when we went there."
Returning to Moffitt, Roberts was invited to enroll in a phrase-three clinical trial of a new chemotherapy regimen. He had his first treatment July 31 but soon became dehydrated and had to be hospitalized for three days.
Larry and Tamara Roberts said they pledged to be as straightforward and open with the three Large siblings as they are with their biological children, and they approached the cancer diagnosis the same way.
"I think it's harder for them (the teenagers) having lost their dad and they know what that road looks like," Tamara Roberts said, succumbing to tears.
Though Mason is too young to understand what's happening, Tamara Roberts said Cooper, 7, grasps the reality: "When he prays, he'll say, 'Thank you, God, for letting Daddy be with us longer.'"
The first two chemotherapy regimens earlier this year did not ravage Roberts as he had expected, and he continued to work whenever possible. He also dedicated himself to leisure activities with the five kids. The family has done outings on its boat and made a memorable visit to Disney World in early July.
The latest chemotherapy session produced severe nausea, though, and by late July Roberts' strength had declined dramatically.
Tamara Roberts, who had not worked outside the home in recent years, became certified as a Realtor in May to help supplement the family's income. Meanwhile, she marveled at the generosity of family members, Larry's employer and church friends.
G & G Electric Service, Roberts' employer of 11 years, has kept him on salary and paid for his airfare when he visited the cancer center in Houston.
"My work has been phenomenal," Roberts said. "It makes me cry just thinking about it. ... It's just unbelievable. They've been family. I've given them as much as I could over the years, and they've returned it tenfold."
Larry and Tamara Roberts' parents help care for the children when Larry has medical appointments. And the couple said fellow members of Oasis Community Church have provided invaluable support. A church member anonymously donated $10,000 to the family. On a recent evening, a church friend arrived unexpectedly to drop off bags of food from a Mexican restaurant to supply the family's dinner.
The family of Rev. Phil Grimes, whose daughter died in an accident in July, has passed along food church members have brought them.
"Honestly, we've just really had to lean more on our faith, and our community has absolutely made it bearable," Tamara Roberts said. "It's hard to be negative and find the bad in it because there's been so much good in it all."
Even so, there's no escaping the reality that barring a miracle, her husband's remaining time is short.
"It hits me in waves," Alexis Large said. "I'm going to have hope no matter what, and you really don't ever know. You can never prepare yourself for this stuff truly and fully. So we just spend as much time as we can together, whether it's watching (TV show) 'Bar Rescue' or out on the boat or just simple things like going to Publix. So it's not like accepting the fact he may be gone one day; it's accepting the fact any one of us could be gone one day."
For his part, Larry Roberts said he's not ready to surrender.
"We're really not expecting anything (from the treatment)," he said, "just trying to see how it's going to go. But I'm not one to just lay down and quit, never have been. Plus I've got a family. I want to be here as long as I can."
Information from: The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.), http://www.theledger.com
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