The Dad Who Became a Widower at 30 With 8-Month-Old Twins

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo Getty Images

Long Islanders Jake and Sharde started dating when they were young teenagers, just 14 and 15, after meeting during a high-school travel program in Australia. Jake was smitten immediately. Sharde was funny and kind with striking light-hazel eyes and long, wavy hair, Jake says.

They stayed together through high school, broke up for a year of college, graduated, then rekindled their relationship. The couple moved into Sharde’s parents’ basement apartment in West Islip, and soon after, Jake proposed. But a few months before the wedding date, Sharde noticed a strange tightness in one of her breasts as she was getting out of the shower. Tests confirmed she had stage-two breast cancer. She was 25.

Sharde had a bilateral mastectomy and needed chemotherapy. But knowing chemo could interfere with her future fertility, she and Jake decided to freeze embryos first.

The egg-retrieval process was brutal, Jake says. Sharde was still in significant pain from her breast surgery, and the hormone shots she needed for the egg retrievals were excruciating. But the ordeal was worth it: She and Jake came away with 11 embryos. And after six rounds of chemo, Sharde was considered cancer free.

In 2011, she and Jake finally got married, and three years later, they decided to grow their family. But just as they were about to start trying, Sharde began feeling sick.

Jake shares the turbulent journey to parenthood alongside battling Sharde’s cancer recurrence:

On learning Sharde’s cancer had returned

Sharde was on her feet all day at work; she was the assistant child-care director at our local YMCA. She also had to climb a lot of stairs, at work and at home, and suddenly she was getting short of breath. We were nervous. When you have a cancer history, you know it only takes one cancer cell to move from one spot to another.

She went to the doctor and got scanned, and the cancer had come back. It was stage four — in her lungs, and I want to say her ovaries too. She had to go back on chemotherapy.

Obviously, we were devastated. We didn’t know how much time we had. That was kind of left unsaid, but we knew what was going on.

On choosing surrogacy

Even though we had 11 embryos, we had wanted to try to conceive naturally. Before Sharde’s cancer recurred, we’d been told there was a chance we could. Sharde really wanted to carry our kids. After her cancer came back, we knew we probably wouldn’t be able to conceive naturally anymore. But we both still felt that if the worst case happened, we wanted her legacy to live on. The idea of losing her scared me, but the idea of being a single father didn’t scare me at all.

I think we both hoped having kids would make her feel stronger. Sharde was one of two siblings — she has a brother ― and wanted a few kids, two or three.

A few months after Sharde got sick again, our friends threw us a fundraiser. That day, we announced we were going to look into surrogacy. At the time, gestational surrogacy was still illegal in New York, so you had to find ways around the laws. [Editor’s note: Before former New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Child-Parent Security Act (CPSA) into law in 2020, gestational surrogacy arrangements between intended parents and surrogates weren’t enforceable or legally binding.]

We hired a lawyer recommended by our fertility clinic, and she told us we would need to file paperwork establishing I was the babies’ biological father. After the babies were born, we would need to get Sharde’s name on their birth certificates.

We had to find a surrogate who understood all of this and wouldn’t want to legally claim the babies — and we knew it might be hard to find someone like that.

On finding a gestational surrogate

The week after the fundraiser, Sharde was the maid of honor in her best friend’s wedding. While the bridal party was getting their hair and makeup done, Sharde and her two best friends started talking about our situation with the hairdresser, Antoinette, whom Sharde had been seeing for years. She had become a friend. In fact, when Sharde first became sick and started losing her hair from chemo, Sharde had gone to Antoinette to get her hair cut.

So they were all talking about it, and out of nowhere, Antoinette said: “I’ll do it.”

I’ll never forget being in the middle of the reception and Sharde running up to me and saying, “You’re not going to believe this.” She tells me about the conversation, and suddenly I’m crying in the middle of the dance floor. We’d had a pretty rough few months. Seeing the joy and excitement in her eyes — it was just the greatest feeling.

We went home that night and kept going over the conversation. We were realists about it; we thought that maybe Antoinette would really start thinking about it and change her mind. It’s a little bit crazy, right? Like a lot of people might say they’re going to do it, but who’s actually going to do this?

We went back to her and said, “Listen, thank you, but just think about it. We don’t expect you to sign up for this right now.”

Then, about a month later, we checked in with Antoinette, and she still wanted to do it. She had a long-term boyfriend and they had kids together, so we knew he needed to be onboard too. So we went to dinner with them. At first he didn’t understand why we needed his girlfriend to help us carry a child. But after we explained, he kind of got it. “She’s going to do what she wants to do anyway,” he said.

The fact that we found someone so quickly — just the fact it even happened — was amazing. We couldn’t believe it happened so fast.

On initiating the surrogacy process

After we all decided to move forward, we met with our fertility doctor and started the screening process. We had to meet with a psychiatrist to make sure all three of us were on the same page about the plan. The psychiatrist also wanted to make sure that Antoinette wasn’t interested in keeping the baby.

Once the psychiatrist agreed we were a good match, we started to plan for the embryo transfer. Our fertility doctor only wanted to do one embryo transfer at a time. Carrying a twin pregnancy is risky, and we didn’t want to put Antoinette at risk.

So we transferred one embryo — twice — but neither attempt worked. That was hard on all of us. Sharde and I were really involved; we went with Antoinette to every doctor’s appointment, and we’d ask her pretty intimate questions, like, “Hey, did you get your period yet?” Sharde was really conscious of not being overbearing.

We also knew how physically hard it was on Antoinette. She needed to give herself hormone injections before each transfer. They’re really painful shots with these big needles. So when it came time to do a third transfer, she was like, “Guys, I can’t do this again. Let’s just transfer two embryos.” We told her we didn’t think our doctor would go for it. She said, “Let me go in there and talk to him.” It took her two minutes to convince him.

On finally becoming pregnant — with twins

After every embryo transfer, Antoinette would have blood work to see what her HCG levels were — the level of the hormone that tells you if you’re pregnant.

After that third transfer, our doctor told us he’d call us at noon with her results. I drove over to Sharde’s office at the YMCA; I wanted us to be together when he called. It was 12:01 p.m. and he hadn’t called, so I called over to the office and asked what was going on. I couldn’t wait any longer.

He called back a few minutes later and said that Antoinette’s HCG levels were 720 or something. Anything over 25 usually means you’re pregnant.

We had him on speaker. Sharde and I started crying. We were so excited.

The next week, we went with Antoinette to the doctor for a sonogram. We saw one baby — and then suddenly a second one. I was like, “Two!” It was amazing. We were all crying again.

On getting through cancer treatment and the pregnancy

Early in a pregnancy, miscarriage is obviously a risk, so we knew we had to make it to 12 weeks. Not seeing what was happening every day was kind of tough. We trusted Antoinette. But at the same time, we didn’t know how she was living her day-to-day life.

Sharde was also really struggling, even though she was always strong. She didn’t complain, which is why I think a lot of people didn’t fully understand what she was going through. At that point, she was going for chemo every three weeks. The infusions would take hours, and for days afterward, she would be weak. She’d have a week or so when she’d feel normal, and then the whole cycle would start all over again.

But at the same time, she was so excited. We couldn’t wait to tell our families about the twins. We had friends who were pregnant with twins as well, so telling them was fun. We told them we were pregnant, and then we were like, “And by the way … they’re twins!” There were a lot of happy tears.

Sharde definitely grieved not being able to carry the girls. She really wanted to carry our children. It was devastating.

She had a way, not of compartmentalizing, but of doing what she had to do to get through it. We went to every ultrasound; we loved seeing the babies grow, thinking about the way science has come along. The fact we’d made these babies, and they were in someone else. It was just amazing.

On the babies’ birth

By December 2016, we knew the girls would arrive any day. Antoinette went into labor on January 4, the day of her scheduled C-section, at 39 weeks. Only two people were allowed to be with her in the delivery room. I wasn’t going to tell her that she couldn’t have her boyfriend in the room, so he and Sharde went with her, and I waited in a room across the hall.

We had two names picked out: Loralei and Waverly. And we gave the girls the same middle name: Antoinette, after our surrogate. Right after the girls were born, Sharde and the nurses brought them across the hall to me. Sharde was so excited.

Loralei was able to come home with us a couple of days later, but Waverly needed to stay in the NICU for five or six days to put some weight on. I’ll never forget bringing Loralei home. There was a snowstorm; we were driving through six or eight inches. That was nerve-racking.

Sharde and I decided to divide and conquer. I wanted to be the one to feed Waverly, so while Sharde was home with Loralei, I’d drive back and forth from the NICU every three hours, even in the middle of the night in the snow.

On balancing Sharde’s cancer treatments with newborn life

I had two weeks of paternity leave and then went back to work — I was a sales supervisor at a home heating, cooling, and security company — so Sharde had the twins all day. I didn’t even consider asking her to help me with nighttime feedings. In the beginning, we decided that I was going to handle that. I was running on the happiness of having the two of them home with us.

Sharde was amazing with the girls. I’ll never forget this one time I walked down the hallway and heard her singing to them. I took my phone out and started to record it; I tried to record whatever I could in those days, because we didn’t know what was going to happen. Just seeing her sitting there, smiling at them and singing to them. Little moments like that. She loved them so much.

When the babies were really little, Sharde was still doing well. By then, she had infusions every other week, in two- to three-hour appointments, and she would feel weak afterward. Usually, we’d leave the girls with family members — our parents both live close by — or with our surrogate, because we would be at the hospital for five or six hours at a time. I worked at the time for my cousin’s cousin, and he was really understanding. My schedule was flexible, so I could be with her.

Sharde was really strong. I was a wreck when her cancer came back. But she kept me level. She dealt with it better than I did.

On Sharde’s decline

Sharde tried a lot of different treatments. She’d try one chemo, and it would work for a while, and then it would stop working.

When the twins were about 5 months old, her tumor markers started going up. At that point she’d tried pretty much everything, and her doctor approached us with a clinical trial.

Sharde wanted to do it. And the first few months, it was like, Oh my God. Her markers were going drastically down, and when she had PET scans, we could see her tumors shrinking. We’d never seen her body react to chemo like that. We were super-excited.

Then one day, Sharde woke up and said, “Jake, something’s wrong. I have a bad feeling.”

It wasn’t the first time she’d said something like that. Chemo can make you feel all different types of weird. I was still feeling confident. Her numbers were so good, and she looked good; the trial had been so successful so far. I had a hard time believing anything could be wrong.

But Sharde just knew. I don’t know how she knew, but she knew. “Something’s off,” she said.

She happened to have a doctor’s appointment the next day. I was supposed to be going to a bachelor party in Atlantic City, so I drove down there. But pretty much as soon as I arrived, Sharde called and said she was going to the hospital. She left the twins with her parents. I got in my car and turned around and drove straight to her.

I got there at 10 or 11 at night. She was sleeping, out of it. Over the next couple of weeks, she was up and down. Eventually she started feeling more and more pain, and her mind started to go.

On saying good-bye to Sharde

I tried to stay with Sharde most nights, but she’d always tell me to go home to the girls. One night I got a call from the hospital; something had happened with her heart, they said. They needed to bring her to the critical-care unit.

They stabilized her, and she was okay. But when I went to see her the next day, she said, “I need to see the girls.” Children aren’t usually allowed in the critical-care unit, but we got permission.

There’s this song from the show Barney — I think it’s called “The Family Song.” I brought the girls in, and I’ll never forget it, Sharde singing it to them. I broke down. It was hard to see. We were trying to remain positive, but I think we knew.

That was the last time Sharde was able to see the girls. A few days later, she was moved into the ICU. Her body started shutting down; the cancer was taking over her body. She was weak, tired all the time. Finally, the doctors were like, “There’s nothing we can do. It’s time to make her comfortable.”

Sharde and I had never fully talked about what would happen in that scenario. The doctors were asking me, “What do you want to do? Do you want to move her to hospice?” I didn’t know how to answer. I never thought I’d have to make that decision.

I talked to Sharde’s family, and we decided to move her into hospice.

But Sharde didn’t make it. She passed away the night before she was supposed to be transferred. The twins were 8 months old.

On parenting in grief

Sharde passed away in September 2017. The first few weeks were kind of a fog. I couldn’t stop thinking, How am I going to do this without her? We wanted to do this together.

Sharde was the strongest, most caring person you’d ever meet. We knew her funeral would be huge, because she touched so many people. We totally took over the funeral home, and a friend of ours from high school got us a police escort. I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t well. I wasn’t focused. I couldn’t tell you what people said.

That first year was really hard, especially around the holidays. That was always a big season for us; Sharde’s birthday was December 20, and every year we’d go to Carmine’s in Manhattan for dinner and then go see the tree at Rockefeller Center with Sharde’s family and her best friend and her family. The first December after she passed, we went to Carmine’s and set an extra seat at the table for Sharde. The girls’ 1st birthday was a few weeks later, January 4. So we sang “Happy Birthday” — to Sharde and the twins — at the table. Singing the song, seeing the empty chair at the table … it got me emotional.

On adjusting to life as a single parent

The kids kind of forced me to keep it together.

Every day they would wake up around 7 a.m. I’d get them up, change them, and put them in this double-seat we had to feed them their bottles. Then I’d put them in their high chairs for some baby food, and then I’d play with them for about an hour on the floor until a relative — one of our parents — came over around nine to relieve me so I could get ready for work. I was lucky; there was always someone available to come watch them while I went to work.

I’d get home around 6 and read books with the girls, give them their bottles and bath and get them ready to go to bed by about 7:30. It got harder as they got a little older; they’d want me to sit with them at bedtime and hold their hands until they fell asleep. Trying to break that habit was tough; I didn’t want them to cry. I’d sit there, sometimes for an hour or two. A lot of the time we’d all fall asleep together.

Juggling all their doctors’ appointments and stuff was tough too. My parents and in-laws helped out, but a lot of the time, if one of them was sick, I’d have to call out of work. I was exhausted all the time.

On finding love again

About two years after Sharde passed, I started feeling open to the idea of dating. I worried a little bit about judgment. I didn’t want anyone thinking I was trying to replace Sharde. I was just looking for someone to be comfortable with, who I could talk to.

I started putting myself out there. It was awkward; I hadn’t dated since I was 16. I signed up on a couple of the dating apps and didn’t really think about it a lot.

Then I met this girl on one of the apps: Ryan. She was beautiful, a little bit younger than me. She was 25, and I was 32. I didn’t think she’d want to hang out with me. Why would someone her age want to date someone with young kids?

But Ryan never showed hesitation. She loved the girls right off the bat, and they loved her. They’re Daddy’s girls, but whenever she was around, they wanted to hang out with her. And Ryan was ready to jump in. We started doing all the things families do — apple picking, pumpkin picking. I met her family, and they met the girls.

But about five months in, I pushed her away. I thought, Wait, we shouldn’t do this. I don’t know if I want this again. I wasn’t ready for the commitment. But eventually, I saw that I didn’t want to be without Ryan. Even when I tried to stop talking to her, I couldn’t.

I told Ryan, “You have to be okay with Sharde always being a part of my life and this family. There’s no leaving her.” She’s always been supportive. Sometimes she would be the one who brought flowers to the cemetery.

I proposed in March 2021. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I proposed on the exact same day I’d proposed to Sharde in 2011. I kind of feel like that was a little bit of a sign, like it was meant to be.

Ryan and I knew we wanted to grow our family, so we decided to try to get pregnant right away. Ryan had a miscarriage, and then we got pregnant again. Our son was due in October of last year, but he came a month early. And two months later, we got married. It was a perfect day. Sharde’s whole family was in the wedding. They were overwhelmed with happiness. It feels a little bit weird saying it, but I think this is what Sharde would’ve wanted — for the girls to have a maternal figure and me to be happy.

Our son’s name is Avery. Sharde’s dad comes over to watch him sometimes. He’s a lot of fun: He laughs at everything, and he’s not just walking — he’s running.

On keeping Sharde’s memory alive for his daughters

The girls were so young when Sharde died; they’re 6 years old now. I put pictures of her everywhere. As they got older, we’d kiss her picture every night. I’d show them videos and talk about her all the time. One of my friends wrote a children’s book about Sharde’s story and had it printed up, so I’d read that to them too. The book doesn’t talk about cancer; it just says that God called Sharde up to heaven and that she’s watching over us. “When you feel a breeze on your face,” it says, “that’s her.”

I remember the first time I heard one of the girls say aloud: “My Mommy died.” It takes you aback. We go to her grave often; they always want to go visit. We put a picture of Sharde on the headstone so they can see her.

They ask more questions about Sharde now: What was she like? What did she like to do? Who were her friends? I told them Sharde was a cheerleader, so now they want to do cheerleading. Sometimes, they tell me they dream about her.

On watching his daughters grow up today

Waverly is a ball of energy, super-athletic. She taught herself to do cartwheels; she can do four in a row.

Loralei does the athletic stuff too, but she’s really into learning. She’s reading at a third-grade level. Most people say that Loralei looks exactly like Sharde and Waverly looks like me.

Seeing the girls reach milestones without Sharde has been bittersweet. I try to stay in the moment as best I can. The girls started taking dance lessons when they were 20 months old; they go to the same studio Sharde did, and even have some of the same teachers.

Every year, when the girls have their recitals, I think about how much Sharde would love it. I cry every time, knowing that this is what she would’ve wanted for them.

I miss her. She was the center of my life from when I was 14. How do you describe that, when that person for you is suddenly gone? There’s no word for it.

I see a lot of their mom in them. Just the other day, I was talking to Sharde’s dad. Loralei was with us, and the three of us were walking.

Suddenly, Loralei started leaning on me. I had this flashback: It was what Sharde used to do, lean on me as we were walking.

My father-in-law stopped in his tracks and looked at me. “That’s exactly what Sharde used to do,” he said. “You noticed it too?”

I told Loralei: “You’re leaning on me like Mom did.”

She liked that. Then she started leaning harder.

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The Dad Who Became a Widower at 30 With 8-Month-Old Twins