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A Spirit of Indomitability : Some worried whether LaNona and Martin Hoke --she's blind, he has epilepsy--could rear a child. Seven-month-old Daniel is proof they can do it just fine.

December 25, 1991|SUSAN CHRISTIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE — Daniel's first Christmas tree is 2 feet high, synthetic, and decorated with happy-faced star ornaments from Carl's Jr.--where his parents work as cashiers.

Santa Claus will visit Daniel's tiny house in Orange only by the grace of his grandmothers. His parents' meager salaries must go toward things more urgent than teddy bears and stocking stuffers--such as the rent for their space in a mobile home park.

But these minimal holiday surroundings--rather bleak by middle-class-America standards--seem not to dampen his spirit in the least. Continually amused by something or the other--Mommy's pant leg, Daddy's cooing, a momentarily unguarded ballpoint pen--Daniel giggles and smiles as though the whole world exists purely for his entertainment.

He is 7 months old now--old enough to sense that his mother cannot see him.

"Daniel makes more noise to get Mommy's attention than he does to get Daddy's attention," says LaNona Hoke, 34.

Her husband, Martin, offers his own evidence.

"He doesn't look directly into LaNona's face, but he looks right at me," he says. "Daniel seems to know that she isn't making eye contact with him."

It was May 3 when Daniel arrived a week overdue. A story on the family's situation appeared in The Times shortly after, prompting numerous gifts of clothing and toys.

Back then, even LaNona and Martin questioned whether they could pull this off--a blind woman and an epileptic man rearing a child.

"Do you think I can do it?" LaNona would ask in a flash of self-doubt, as she attempted to diaper her newborn son by touch.

LaNona's mother, Jan Briley, also fretted--mostly about Daniel's safety. What if Martin had a seizure while carrying the baby? What if LaNona tripped over her child?

For the first two weeks, Briley camped out on the easy chair in her daughter's living room. Of course, nerves could wear thin, what with a baby and a mother-in-law packed inside the small home once shared by only Martin and his wife.

"I know they want their independence, but I'm afraid to leave them alone," Briley, who lives in Fullerton, would confide.

Now, however, many of those worries have been put to rest for everyone concerned.

"Basically, they're doing great," Briley says today. "LaNona is a beautiful little mother."

And the new parents, too, appear confident and relaxed.

"I've stepped on Daniel a couple of times," LaNona says. "But he's usually very good at letting me know his whereabouts."

At first, Martin shied away from holding the baby, for fear he might drop Daniel during a seizure.

"But after a while I decided that if I kept worrying about breaking my son, it would do psychological damage to both of us," he says.

Life has never been a straight paved road for these two.

Martin, 35, began suffering epilepsy when he was 5 years old. As an adult, the seizures are usually mild, but they prevent him from driving. He and LaNona must depend on their parents and other family members for transportation.

At age 6, LaNona--a cherubic towhead who placed second in the 1963 Little Miss America Contest--was felled by a malignant brain tumor. She miraculously emerged from a three-year coma, but her illness had taken its toll. The tumor took her sight and erased all memory of her earlier childhood.

They became sweethearts at Anaheim High School 20 years ago and married 10 years later. For more than half their lives, LaNona and Martin have been allies in a life that has dealt them battle after battle.

"It makes things tough when you're a couple of people who have as many problems as we do," Martin says.

Their latest setbacks: LaNona recently developed painful tendinitis in her wrists, and her hearing--partially impaired years ago by the brain tumor--has worsened a notch.

Adding to their hardships, the Hokes have hit red tape in attempts to receive Social Security and MediCal benefits for Daniel. Meanwhile, their part-time jobs ringing up fast-food orders garner only $200 a week--barely enough to keep them afloat.

Yet despite the difficulties, LaNona and Martin are lucky folks--blessed with an adorable, robust baby.

His sweet looks have not gone unrewarded. Last month Daniel placed second in a baby pageant at the Holiday Inn Anaheim. And he has the trophy to prove it--prominently displayed atop his parents' television set.

Around the house, hazards still crop up that had never even occurred to LaNona and Martin. The other day, while baby-sitting Daniel, LaNona's mother opened a jar of pureed vegetables to find them coated with mold.

"I told LaNona, 'Honey, from now on you're going to have to feel all food before you feed it to Daniel,' " Briley says.

So far, however, there have been no real catastrophes.

"But I still have moments when I worry," LaNona admits.

She also has moments when she longs to see her son, even for an instant.

"My grandmother says, 'He's so cute--oh, I wish you could see him!' " LaNona says. "I think, 'If only I could get my sight back.' But I just try to appreciate what I have."

One thing they have is a reliable support system, with grandmothers, mothers, stepfathers and siblings eager to pitch in. Conveniently, LaNona's older brother and his wife had a baby boy three months before Daniel's birth, so they pass down outgrown clothing.

Their family will shower Daniel with Christmas presents, no doubt.

"They told us, 'Don't worry about buying him toys--we'll take care of it,' " LaNona says.

Daniel's first Christmas may not be fancy. "We don't have a big house, we don't have expensive toys," Martin says. "But we're doing the best we can."

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