parenthood

The Mom Whose Husband Died Weeks After She Gave Birth

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStoc/Getty Images

Rebecca was in high school when she met the man she eventually married. They fell in love quickly, and stayed together while she finished college, then grad school, always assuming they’d have kids together someday. But it was a medical diagnosis that led them to get married at City Hall, then to take concrete steps toward family planning. Rebecca discusses the ways illness did and did not affect her relationship, how she decided to try getting pregnant while her husband was ill, and what it feels like to be a widowed new mom.

On young love. My husband and I started dating when I was about 15. We worked together at my after-school job at an art store. He was in community college, I was in high school. He had a big crush on me, and I just thought he was a nice guy. But then there was an ice storm and a blackout that lasted about four days, and I was so bored, with nothing to do. He came over, and we ended up kissing. But then we started dating, and just stayed together. By the time I finished high school, we were a serious couple. My family didn’t love that I was with him at first, but it didn’t take long for them to end up trusting him even more than they trusted me. We stayed together while I was in college, then grad school, then after.

I think we always thought we would have kids. We’d say things like, Our kid is never gonna play football — all the kinds of things you talk about hypothetically, when the future is assumed.

On illness and marriage. He was diagnosed in January of 2007. I was 26. He was 31. We were living in Brooklyn; I was wrapping up grad school and he was pretty established in his field by then. I was at work when he called and said he’d injured his back so badly he couldn’t get off the ground. I rushed home and called an ambulance to take him to the hospital. There, they basically gave him some cortisone and some painkillers and sent him home. It was about a month before he got an MRI. It turned out he’d been walking around with two collapsed vertebrae. I wouldn’t describe him as a stereotypical “tough guy” in his attitude, but physically — he was very tough.

From there, they sent us to an oncologist. He got the final diagnosis — a blood cancer — on March 15, 2007. That’s the same day we got married. We’d decided to get married while we were going through the process of being diagnosed; it just seemed like a good idea, with everything that was going on. But it was never the plan we would get married the same day the official diagnosis came in. It was just that we needed my sister to be our witness at the courthouse, and that was the day she had off from work.

He and I went to his appointment first, and then met my sister and went to the courthouse. Then we emailed our families and explained — some bad news, some good news.

On family planning. One of the first things the doctors brought up was freezing my husband’s sperm. We didn’t think twice about it. They took what they could, and we put it in storage for the next nine years. Occasionally, I’d wake up in the middle of the night and think, Did we pay the storage bill? Did they throw it out? But we had no idea how viable it would be — because he was already sick when they collected it, and sperm count is affected by the presence of disease.

The treatments became kind of routine for the next ten years. There were scary moments, but then things would normalize. We made it to the first bone-marrow transplant, which is kind of a “mini” bone-marrow transplant, using stem cells from yourself. For insurance reasons, you have to do that one first. It didn’t work at all. He went on to have a bone-marrow transplant with cells from his sister, which was a really big deal. He was hospitalized for eight or nine weeks, then at home for six months, recovering. Your immune system is totally destroyed, then built back up. But he was a champ — he was out of the hospital faster than anyone ever thought he’d be. It sounds crazy, but the time we spent together after he got out of the hospital was really nice. It was more time than we’d spent together in years. He’d drive me to work every day, we’d have coffee in the car. It was just nice.

I think we knew each other so well that we didn’t need to talk about worst-case scenarios. We kept doing all the things we liked doing: traveling, seeing family, hanging out with friends. We bought a weekend house upstate. There was always the subtext that he might not be around, eventually. But we didn’t live our lives with that always hanging over our heads.

On making a decision about parenthood. Eventually, I was in a place where I knew I wanted to get to a certain level at my job before having a baby. And by that point, my husband was gearing up to have a second bone-marrow transplant. The transplant seemed to go well, at first, so we did start talking about it. I had a few other apprehensions: I have lupus. Mine is a pretty minor case, but I knew pregnancy could cause problems. Plus, I knew I’d have to do IVF. We had so many doctors in our lives already — he’d been in treatment for about eight years — and I was kind of loath to get involved with more. I was also concerned with how immuno-compromised he was; often, he’d get sick to the point where he couldn’t take care of himself. How was I going to take care of a newborn, then a toddler, and him at the same time?

I was also worried about what it would be like for a kid. How would it affect a child to grow up seeing your dad get so sick, all the time? Plus, I knew I’d be a single parent at some point. There’s the financial aspect, and there are other questions, too. Is it fair to have a kid, knowing they’re going to lose one of their parents?

Those were all my worries, plus the usual ones: How will it affect my career? Could we afford it? Is our apartment going to work for a kid?

Making the final decision wasn’t something that either of us wanted to put on the other person, I think. Which was a problem, because someone had to make the decision. I knew I’d throw all my concerns out the window if this was really important to him. But I think he didn’t want to put any pressure on me — he didn’t want me to do it just because it was important to him. I had a hard time gauging how strongly he felt about it.

One morning at breakfast, we finally had a discussion. I was trying not to cry. I told him that I just really needed to know if this was something that was important to him. He said that it was, and the way that he looked at me, I could tell he was serious. So I said, Okay, we’re going to do it. I was confident after that, that we were doing the right thing.

In therapy, I’d also realized that if he did die, I’d never think, At least I don’t have kids right now. That was just not a scenario that made any sense to me. As hard as it would be to have a kid, it wasn’t going to make me feel better to not have one. Parsing that answer in this way made it clear to me what we should do. I was worried about being a single parent, but I knew that I wouldn’t regret having a kid. I would regret not having a kid.

On doing fertility treatments. I’m a little bit needle-phobic, so I’d been worried about this part of IVF for years. Luckily, my husband was home while I needed to do the shots, and he gave them all to me. He was lovely throughout the whole thing, those couple of weeks of shots leading up to the retrieval. He basically had to chase me around the apartment to do the first one. I’d be like, Oh, I just need a drink of water … I’ll be right back. He was very, very patient. In the end, it was fine. I’m not so needle-phobic anymore.

It was exciting; I was excited to get started. I didn’t feel too bad, just a bit bloated. I minored in chemistry and do a lot of science-adjacent work at my job, so mixing and measuring the medications was not a problem for me. But I kind of marveled at the fact that they send those medications home with just anyone, though. They don’t seem that easy to figure out, and it’s a lot of responsibility, to get it right. The stakes are high.

The retrieval went well: They got a dozen eggs, which I was satisfied with. I wasn’t trying to have ten babies; I only needed one to work. Eight of those eggs were successfully fertilized, and then they chose the best one to transfer, and then we had to wait for two weeks.

On pregnancy. I was at work when I got the call saying I was pregnant. It might be a weird way to think of it, but I felt like we succeeded. There was so much lead-up — if you’re having sex and just seeing what happens, that’s pretty different. I know some people try with IVF for years and years. But even doing it once, for me, felt like a lot. We were both just so elated it had worked.

Right around this time, my husband started a completely new vector of treatment because the old chemo was no longer effective. It seemed to work amazingly well, and on top of that, he felt great. He had none of the headaches or stomach issues he’d had with previous treatments. The whole time I was pregnant was fantastic.

I didn’t feel that great, however. I was nauseous until about 20 weeks. I had really bad hip pain, especially when I was trying to sleep. I was dizzy because I had to take progesterone after having some bleeding early on. I stopped running, because I just felt like the stakes were too high — I know it’s fine to exercise while you’re pregnant, but after doing IVF, I didn’t want to do anything that could jeopardize it. I just did not love being pregnant.

Things got better after I stopped being nauseous all the time. We were starting to get excited, starting to buy stuff. I was due February 1. Then, in December, his blood results started to look really bad — it seemed like the cancer was coming back. But they didn’t know why. His medication was adjusted, and we just had to wait and see.

On a series of unexpected events. He had an appointment in January, where he was told that he wasn’t getting better, that they’d run out of things to try. The message was basically that it was starting to be the end of the road.

I wasn’t at the appointment; we didn’t know it was going to be so much bad news. He called me at work and I rushed to see him because he sounded so distraught. We’d gotten so much bad news over the years, and it was unusual for him to sound like this. We ended up going back to his work — he’d been working on a major project he wanted to show me, and I wanted to spend the rest of the day with him. We didn’t really discuss anything heavy because we weren’t going to change anything we were doing. Being together was all we could do.

The next day, my water broke. I can’t know for sure, but I think it was either the stress, or maybe the knowledge of what was happening, that made it happen.

On giving birth. I’d always thought that it would be terrible if I went into labor at work. Because, you know, I have to work here — I didn’t want everyone to have a story about me going into labor at work. I didn’t know anyone who that had happened to; I’d only seen it in the movies. But that’s what it was like, for me: I was having lunch with a friend in the staff cafeteria, and I stood up and it was gushing.

Luckily, almost no one was in the office when I went back upstairs to grab my bag. I got in a cab and headed toward the hospital. I called my husband, who was getting chemo before work. Before they gave him chemo, he’d get a really high dose of Benadryl, because there’s always a chance of an allergic reaction. The Benadryl would just knock him out. I was like, My water broke! I’m going to the hospital! And he was like, Whaaaat? He could barely talk. I was mad, but I knew, obviously, that it wasn’t his fault.

I started crying when they admitted me, explaining that my husband was getting chemo. But they reassured me that he’d be there in time, that I wasn’t in active labor at all. I called my sister; she said she was coming right away. And luckily, my husband was able to be there, way before anything actually happened. It took a long time for my labor to really get going.

I didn’t really have a strong birth plan. I’d read one book, and felt like I had a good sense of the phases of labor. I knew so many people who’d given birth, and none of them had it go the way they thought it would go. So I figured, what’s the point? I thought I’d probably get an epidural, but I wanted to see how it went.

My labor ended up being pretty long, so they gave me Pitocin. At a certain point, I decided I had to get an epidural or I’d have no energy to push. I was able to sleep for a few hours, and then when the doctor came back to check, I was a lot further along than before. I remember thinking it was going to be a few more hours, but at the next check, I was ready to push. I pushed for an hour. And then I had the baby.

On early parenthood. My sister came in right after and apparently I said, That was a lot more boring than I thought it would be. It was pretty chill! I just did it, and it was fine. I did need a lot of stitches, but it wasn’t too painful. I’d had a 3-D ultrasound, and I was so surprised: He looked exactly like he did on the ultrasound.

I had the baby at noon, stayed for a night, and went home the next day. Things were okay; I didn’t have any problems nursing or anything like that. A few days later, though, my husband started having really bad leg pain. It turned out that the cancer had spread to his leg. We set up hospice care over the next two weeks, and then, a day and a half later, he died. He died before my due date.

We didn’t talk much about our son’s future, in those last two weeks. I think my husband was confident that I would raise him the same way that we would have raised him together. Plus, he just got so sick so fast — he was rushing to wrap up his affairs. He needed to make sure I knew how to access his computer, his passwords, his credit cards.

To be honest, I don’t know how I got through it, having a newborn and a very sick husband. But with a newborn, you have to be present. You have to focus on the baby. It wasn’t like I could let that go. In a way, it felt good to live my life dictated by someone else’s needs. There’s also a lot I don’t remember from that time. I had to ask my sister later, where my son was when my husband actually died. He was sleeping.

My son was such a calm, sweet baby. He never seemed to demand more attention than I could give him. I have one picture of the three of us together. I really hate it: My husband doesn’t look like himself at all.

My mom and my sister stayed with me for a few weeks afterward. We were just taking care of things, watching the baby. A few close friends were bringing us food, arranging to have laundry picked up, helpful things like that. After that, I started to feel like I wanted to have the apartment to myself, so my mom and sister went home. Friends would come by still; we’d watch The Bachelor. I had so much fruit. People sent so many fruit baskets. I had a hard time eating and preparing food. I kept a bag of trail mix by the sofa.

This was right around the inauguration, in 2017. Crazy things were always happening; there was always something to be reading about, when I’d be up in the middle of the night with the baby. I was on maternity leave for about five and a half months. I was originally going to go back after four months, but I decided to extend my leave. I didn’t want to leave him, but also, getting back to my previous life felt weird and wrong. Plus, my sister set something up for donations; I got so many donations from people at work, even people I hardly knew. That let me take some extra time and made me less terrified about what I would do, financially. It was lovely, how everyone was supportive. But it also felt like everyone knew so much about me now.

On being a widowed new mom. Going back to work was fine. I ended up doing a nanny share — I’d signed up for two day cares while I was still pregnant, but even a year later, there were no openings. At first, I wasn’t sure how the finances would work; I wasn’t sure we could stay in our apartment. But it’s turned out okay.

I haven’t had to tell that many people that I’m a widow, because I just haven’t met that many new people since my son was born. I had to tell the mom when we were arranging our nanny share, though. She gasped, she started crying. I was trying to make her feel better. By that point, it had been five months, but it was still new. I think I could tell someone now without crying myself.

Every so often someone will say, Oh, it’s so amazing, how you’re doing this on your own, which makes me feel kind of awkward. It’s strange to get praise for just doing what I have to do. I don’t really know how to deal with that. I’ve always felt like things could be so much worse; there are a lot of things that could have happened that would have been much worse. Look at what’s going on right now, for example, with immigrant families — their kids are being stolen away.

I’ve thought a lot about how I’m going to talk to my son about his dad, once he’s older. I’m not a religious person. I can definitely see the appeal of telling him his daddy’s in Heaven, that they’ll be together someday. But I can’t say that in good conscience because I don’t believe it. I’ve thought about some ways I’m going to say it that I’d like to keep private.

For me, I think, having so much uncertainty in my life when I did get pregnant helped, in a way. You never know what could happen. I was able to get through some of the fears — the prenatal testing, the scans — during pregnancy. But everything is completely up in the air. Even if your baby is born completely fine, anything could happen after that. It’s not that you should or shouldn’t worry about any of these things. It’s just that uncertainty is a fact of life. Maybe that’s not a comforting thought, but that’s how it is.

I’ve never really been single. I couldn’t even drive when I started dating my husband. It’s crazy to me, to be single now. But at the same time, I don’t have time to date anyone right now. I haven’t been outside at nighttime since my son was born. Plus, I feel like my story might be off-putting or intimidating to a lot of people. Recently, I saw that Michelle Williams and Phil Elverum from the Microphones — he wrote an album about his wife dying that I haven’t listened to because it’s going to make me cry buckets. They got married, which is perfect to me. I need to find someone like that.

I’m really happy to be a mom. I feel so close to my son. Sometimes I really like having him all to myself — it’s kind of a positive about being a single parent. There’s a feeling like we’re a team. Sometimes I’ll be at the playground and see parents arguing over their kid and I feel grateful that I don’t have anyone to argue with over anything to do with my son. Sometimes it’s nice to have the freedom to make all the decisions. I mean, obviously I’d rather have my husband here. It would be nice to have the support, or just someone around to help. But if I had to think of a positive side, that would be it.