The Widow Co-Parenting With Her Dad

Photo: Constance Bannister Corp/Getty Images

Marjorie used to marvel at the way her life had turned out: She and her husband were happily married with three kids and had fulfilling careers. She felt very lucky, she says, until October of last year, when her 40-year-old husband fell ill and was eventually diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer. Marjorie discusses telling her children their father had cancer, how she and her husband spoke with their children in the weeks leading up to his death, and the way her own father has stepped in as a co-parent.

On getting married and being pregnant in her 20s. I think some people stumble into parenthood, and end up liking it, or not. My husband and I met young, just out of college. Having kids was something we talked about even before we got married, which we also did young. I was only 25. We knew we wanted to have children — he wanted to have three. I thought maybe two.

We ended up having three kids, probably on the early end of having kids in cities: I got pregnant with our first when I was 29. As soon as we had our first, my husband felt ready to have another; I wanted to wait a little longer. Our first two are two years apart; our third was born three years after the second.

On having a “perfect life.” Both of us worked throughout — I’m a teacher, my husband worked full-time. It’s a cliché, but our life was a real balancing act. Even with it all, though, we had kind of a perfect life. Not that everything went perfectly, but everything was good: Our kids were happy and healthy, we had enough resources. My husband and I were happy in our marriage. We used to say it all the time, how lucky we felt.

Things are totally different now. I’m glad I was able to appreciate things when I had them. Though I don’t think I really realized what we had, I did know I was lucky, and that my kids were lucky. They didn’t really have any adversity in their lives, until last year.

On an unexpected diagnosis. Last October, my husband got sick. He was a super-fit 40-year-old guy with no family history of cancer, so no one could figure out what was going on. He was quite sick from the beginning of that month, and his doctor thought he might have some kind of serious infection. It was a difficult time for us. Our kids were 8, 6, and 3.

Right after Thanksgiving, he was in so much pain that he ended up in the ER. Not long after that, he had a scan and the doctors realized that he had cancer. He was diagnosed on December 1 with stage-four colon cancer.

We kept trying to decide how we would tell the kids, what we would tell them. At first we wanted to wait until we had a definitive diagnosis, and then we wanted to wait until we’d heard from a specialist, to be able to kind of map out, for them, what could happen.

We told them at home, together, that their daddy had cancer. My youngest, who was 3, didn’t understand, and our middle child, who was 6, didn’t completely understand, either. Our oldest, who was 8, understood, because a child at her school had cancer. She started crying, which was really tough. The social workers from the hospital had really emphasized that we shouldn’t tell our kids their dad wouldn’t die. So we never said that, even though, at the time, I 100-percent thought my husband was going to get better. We did tell them that their dad was in great shape, that he had the best doctors, that he was going to work really hard on getting better. We didn’t bring them to the hospital a lot, because we kept thinking he was going to get better and come home.

On life with cancer. I don’t know if I would have done things differently, or if that’s even possible. We were just so focused on getting him better. I was at the hospital all the time, and trying to really be there for my kids at home. It was a lot. Stage-four colon cancer has a really low survival rate, but there are people who do survive it. We really thought everything about him — his fitness, his vitality — would mean he was one of those people.

They don’t use the word “cure” with stage-four colon cancer. Initially, we were told he could have two to three years. But then we found out about experimental therapies that could buy him more time. I was starting to reset some of my expectations about our life together — like, we might not take the Trans-Siberian Railroad together when we’re 70. That might not happen. But maybe he could watch the kids graduate from high school. Or at least elementary school. Until the very end, it seemed like we might get to those markers.

On asking for help. My husband’s parents came down for a few weeks after his diagnosis, before they had to return home to their lives. I basically lost it after that. I didn’t work for a few weeks, but I did try to go back for a few hours a day — I thought that my husband’s illness might last a very long time, and I was worried about income and health insurance. I just knew I needed to keep my job. I was trying to help my husband at the hospital, then come home to my kids — it took an army of friends, who brought food, who shuttled my kids places, to help us. But still, it was very difficult. I was on the phone with a friend talking about this, and she said, “Either you can call your dad, or I can.”

So I called my aunt and my dad, and they both flew out, just hours later. My aunt stayed with my children, and my dad and I rotated staying with my husband. My dad went straight to the hospital from his plane and stayed with my husband there overnight. He was so helpful to him, and to me, too: He’s a retired doctor, so he was able to really translate what was happening for us — even though the doctors were very good about explaining, it was still so helpful to have him break things down.

This is hard for me to say, but I think if I’d known that my husband was going to die so quickly after his diagnosis, I might not have left his side. But I didn’t know that; I didn’t think that at all. What I wanted at the time was for my kids to have some consistency, for them to have their mom around at bedtime and in the morning, to give them cereal before school. I thought our lives might continue with my husband being sick for two or three years. I thought there was more time to go back and forth between the hospital and home. I wanted to make sure that my kids had a sense of stability.

On the end. After the doctors told us he was definitely going to die, we thought we had some weeks left, but it turned out we had four days. He was diagnosed with cancer on December 1, and he died on January 9.

My husband was totally lucid, though, until the last day. He made videos for the kids that they watch — “happy birthday” videos, graduation videos, life advice videos. Their memories of him are very different from the way he looks in the videos, though. He’s very thin in the videos, very sick.

We talked a lot about the boys, especially, and the need for them to have positive male role models. There wasn’t really enough time to think through specifics. There were small things — like my husband didn’t want our daughter to get her ears pierced until sixth grade, but that never came up in those final weeks. So now I just tell my daughter we can’t really renegotiate it. We tried to talk about the big-picture things, but there just wasn’t enough time. Plus, it was so impossible to imagine — until the very last day, when he was more out of this world than in it, I still had some hope that something could change.

On the shock of grief. Immediately after my husband died, I think I was so wrapped up in grief that it was hard for me to do much of anything. I just couldn’t parent that much, and my friends and family definitely took over.

Initially, I didn’t have to tell anyone about my husband’s death. I was surrounded by a community where everyone knew us — there weren’t really situations where I had to tell people. But as time has gone on, it definitely comes up. I’m very open about it. Still, it’s not easy, because I know I’ll almost always have to manage their emotions about it. I’m just very frank: My husband died in January. Sometimes it’s shocking to people.

There was a time in which I felt the need to tell everyone — every cabdriver, every person I crossed paths with. It was some weird coping mechanism, like if I told everyone, if absolutely everyone knew, then it would be okay. But obviously there are times when it’s a lot harder than in passing. I hosted a gathering for the pre-K class at my son’s school. I decided I wanted to host it, because I didn’t want to walk into someone’s house alone, with parents who didn’t know me already. To tell the truth, I was hoping that people would look me up and find out ahead of time, so I didn’t have to keep explaining it. But of course it comes up: Explaining that my dad lives with us because my husband died in January. Everyone was really, really nice about it. They couldn’t keep the shock off their faces, though. Which, of course — it is shocking. You’re not supposed to die when you’re my peer. If someone dies, it’s your parent, not your spouse.

On co-parenting with her dad. When my dad first came, he told me that he was going to stay through my husband’s chemotherapy, which was going to be six months. He told me to keep working, and that he’d be there to help. But after my husband died, he just stayed.

My mom died when I was 19, and my dad never remarried. He was devoted to me and my younger sister, always. He’d come out for long chunks of time to visit us and the kids; he loved family, he loved being around them. My dad really knows that so much of love is showing up. It’s not enough to say this, but my dad has shown up for me and my kids, in every way that you can. We’ve definitely gotten a lot closer. He was in the room when my husband died, along with his parents and sisters. I think he understands me in lots of ways that maybe people who haven’t also lost a spouse young do.

After the initial shock of their father dying, my kids started to get nervous about the idea of people leaving. So many people came in for the funeral, and then they left. My sister came for a while, and then she left. My aunt and my dad were still there, and my aunt left after about a month. My dad was still there, and the kids were starting to ask when he was going to leave. He’d say not to worry, because he was going to be there through the school year. And then, a few months after my husband’s death, I heard my dad talking to my daughter: She was asking when he was going to leave, getting preoccupied with when it would be. And he said that he’d be staying until she was in high school. I thought, Oh, God, don’t say that if you don’t mean it.

When I brought it up with him, though, he said that of course he would stay that long, if that’s what I wanted. After a long career, my dad retired to play golf every day and read and watch Texas football. But there was no question to him that this was his new life. Now he plays golf twice a year and makes school lunches every day. He never complains. He does exercises every morning and goes on long walks while the kids are at school. He says things like, “I have to be good for 14 more years” — because my youngest is only 4.

On her family now. Once I started to emerge from the immediate grief of my husband’s death, we really had to figure out our new roles — how it would work between my dad and me. He’s usually pretty deferential to me, but we do have our differences. There are certain things he’s stricter about than I am, like doing homework before you do anything fun. And he’s more lenient in other ways: I used to never buy my kids ice cream at the ice cream truck. My dad’s out there seizing the moment, buying ice cream not just for my kids but for all the kids in the neighborhood, too. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my husband’s death, though, it’s about what doesn’t matter. If your kid eats ice cream right before dinner and then doesn’t eat dinner, that’s annoying. But it doesn’t matter.

The way we’ve set it up so far, my dad will go home during the summer for a few weeks, then come back for the school year. I think the youngest two just never considered that he might leave. I think my oldest was the only one who could really conceptualize that people have lives beyond our family.

Obviously, I really wish that my dad was just here for a visit. That he was here for a few weeks while I went on vacation with my husband, instead of being the person who’s here rescuing me. But I am so thankful he’s here. He allows me to have a break from being in survival mode all the time.

The Widow Co-Parenting With Her Dad