I never thought that my husband, Braden, would die, and neither did he--even after he was diagnosed in December 2008 with stage IV melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. He was given three to six months to live. But he was such a strong, handsome, vibrant man--if anyone could beat those terrible odds, it was Braden.
"I've never seen anyone look so healthy and be so sick," said his doctor, after telling me that his cancer had spread to his brain, liver, and bones.
"Don't worry, my love," Braden told me. "We've been in tight pockets before. We'll get out of this one too."
I believed him because he'd always been full of surprises. He had been a nationally ranked tennis player, a French-trained chef, a recreational pilot, a trader on the Chicago Board of Trade, and now a journalist who wrote a popular column in the New York Post. Braden was an incredible father, and our kids, 5-year-old Braden Jr. and 3-year-old Kaitlin, adored him. There was a family photo on his hospital bedside table, and he showed it to everyone.
On New Year's Eve, I stayed overnight with him in his bed, and we toasted the coming year with sparkling apple cider. He promised me that we'd finally buy the house of our dreams, and that we'd dance at our children's weddings one day.
Sadly, it was not to be. He died in March, only two and a half months after he was diagnosed. Throughout his tragic ordeal, Braden kept his humor, his wit, his grace, and his courage. He was my hero and will be forever.
He spent his last day on earth with Braden Jr. and me. A friend of ours had put 2,500 songs on an iPod for him, and both Bradens were listening to The Beatles. It was the same music that Braden and I had listened to while driving from New York City to the beach during the summer that I was pregnant with Braden Jr.--which was one of the happiest times of our lives. I took a picture of Braden Jr. kissing his dad on the forehead. Braden died peacefully that evening. I lay down next to him in the bed and sobbed, wrapping myself around my husband's still-warm body.
Helping My Family Grieve
In the movies, young widows go on drinking binges and shut themselves off from the world for weeks or months at a time, eating pizza and crying. At least, that's what Hilary Swank's character did after her husband died of a brain tumor in P.S. I Love You, which I saw by chance when Braden was in the hospital with seven tumors in his brain.
However, I couldn't spend a single day in bed crying--or indulge in anything as seemingly selfish as depression--because my children needed me. My goal was to make sure they knew that they were safe, loved, and cared for.
"Daddy doesn't need his body anymore," I explained to them. "We will bury it underground, but Daddy's spirit still lives and he still loves us. Daddy is in heaven and in our hearts always and he will be watching over all of us."
At first, that frightened them. "How can Daddy watch us from heaven if his eyes are underground?" asked Braden Jr. "Can Daddy Skype with us from heaven?" asked Kaitlin, who had spoken that way to my parents in Canada.
Even though I had to be strong for the children, I also realized how important it was for us to mourn together. They came to the funeral and the cemetery and spoke in front of hundreds of people, just like I did. Afterwards, we went to Florida and spent a lot of time talking. I wanted to make sure they knew that Daddy's death was not their fault. I remember when my grandmother died when I was 9 years old. She'd been in the hospital, and I'd drawn her a get-well card. I thought she loved the card so much that her heart beat too fast and she died. I told the kids, "It's not Braden's fault that Daddy died, it's not Kaitlin's fault, it's not Mommy's fault, and it's not Daddy's fault. It's nobody's fault that Daddy died." I kept repeating it, like a mantra, until they believed it.
"Mommy, what happens if you die?" the kids asked all the time.
"No one else is going to die," I told them. "We've had enough dying in our family. You don't have to worry about that anymore." Sometimes, I've found, young kids just need unconditional reassurance. It's certainly a lot simpler than explaining the uncertainties of life to children whose sense of security has just been shattered. But they also need to know about the other people who would be able to take care of them, so I remind them about all their relatives who love them and call them every day even though they live far away.
When Braden was in the hospital, I wanted the children to spend as much time with him as possible. I'll never forget bringing them on Christmas Eve. They'd just had their baths and arrived in their pajamas and parkas, smelling delicious. They raced down the hallway to reach Braden's room, spreading joy like elves wherever they went.
Back then, we explained that Daddy was in the hospital because he was sick. The doctors were treating him, and he'd get better and come home soon. At Braden Jr.'s Montessori preschool, the children had been learning "works," including how to give a baby a bath. Braden Jr. commandeered the baby and gave orders to the rest of the class: The baby was sick, Braden Jr. was the doctor, and they were going to cure him. He was instinctively doing "play therapy," and I think it helped him feel less scared. But Daddy wasn't getting better. Finally, one day, Braden Jr. said, "Daddy's never going to come home, is he?" The question, like many during this terrible time, broke my heart.
Since Braden died, I have watched my children struggle to make sense of how much their lives have changed. Sometimes, I am amazed at how brave they are, how they are still children who wake up each morning eager to have fun. But it's been so painful to see them reach new milestones without their daddy. I took Braden Jr. to his first baseball game--something my husband had looked forward to doing since before our son was born.
I know that my kids are as happy and well-adjusted as is humanly possible after the death of their father. They have lots of friends and do well in school and their extracurricular activities. Still, I worry. Even though all young kids can go from being giddy to grumpy in seconds, I wonder sometimes that Braden Jr.'s angry outbursts are a sign that the hole inside him is still healing. Of course, he should be angry. He lost his dad.
If you love a man and he dies, did it really happen? People ask me if my life feels like a dream now. No. Braden's death is very much a reality. It's the past, our beautiful life together, that seems like the dream. But then I look at the kids. It wasn't a dream. They're proof of our love for each other.
And then, of course, there are the photos. Our home is filled with pictures of our family--Braden's face is everywhere. At times, I've worried that seeing him all the time would make their pain more raw, but I've realized that the pictures are reassuring.
"We will never forget what Daddy looks like because we have the photos. Right, Mommy?" Kaitlin asked. When their friends come over, I overhear the kids showing them pictures of Daddy.
Now we are used to setting the dinner table for three instead of four, and we sit in different seats. But we still know where Daddy's place was, and we still talk about the superior way that Daddy made milkshakes and lemonade. In the summer, we still play music loud and sing his favorite songs in the car and we still build sand castles and collect seashells at the beach. I know that the best way to remember Braden is to live life the full way that he did. And to make sure our children know how lucky they are to have had such a special man as their father.
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Parents magazine.