The night I met my future husband, sparks flew and gunshots rang out in Center City.
We were to rendezvous at a restaurant in Chinatown, but as I walked out the door that January night in 2001, the police scanner crackled with reports of a high-speed crash. So he waited patiently as I took notes at the scene and called in what I knew. By the time I was done, the restaurant had closed.
The story of our first date never grew old. I was the night police reporter for the Inquirer. Jeff was a medical researcher. A handsome guy, I thought, stealing a glance as he stood behind the crime-scene tape.
Nearly two years later, we married. Our first daughter arrived in 2003, and her sister followed three years later.
Throughout most of my career, I have covered crime. It’s not an easy beat when you have children. Dorothy is now 13, and Bella is 10. They dance, sing, and do theater. These apples fell far from the tree.
One morning, a source called about a shooting as I was dropping my oldest at daycare. An Easter egg hunt was planned for all the parents and kids.
“How many dead?” I asked, still on my cellphone. Moms and staff looked in dismay. “I’m on my way.”
First, the eggs.
“Go ahead, Dorothy, go find some eggs.”
“There’s one over there. Go get it.”
She gently placed the egg in her basket.
“OK, sweetie, do you see the others? Right there. THERE,” I insisted. Why isn’t she picking them up? Mommy has to go to a double murder. Just please get the eggs.
Another time, Jeff took Dorothy to police headquarters as authorities hunted a cop killer. I couldn’t be home most of that weekend, but at least I could go with them to Franklin Square for a spin on the new carousel.
Dorothy loved it, and it was a nice reprieve as a difficult news story unfolded.
Despite the horrible crimes, we enjoyed wonderful lives. Having children brought Jeff and me more joy than we had imagined. We lived in a nice neighborhood in the suburbs. We fenced our yard with wide pine pickets to contain the kids and our puppy, Daisy Lou.
As a neuroscientist, Jeff was steady and precise. As a police reporter, I had unpredictable days and nights. Some of the stories made me sad. Mostly, though, it gave me an appreciation for our blessings.
We bought a cottage at Lake Harmony in the Poconos, where we spent our weekends scrubbing mold, painting, and fixing things from a long list of items that needed fixing. The kids swam and built sand castles with their dad, and the two of us savored whiskey sours.
“This place is special,” Dorothy remarked once on the ride home.
A year later, something changed. The magic faded. I struggled at work as my relationship with Jeff grew distant. He watched TV with the girls, but his playfulness disappeared. He no longer wanted to drink wine after dinner as we watched the girls dancing. He laughed less, if at all. One day, he did not show up at daycare.
We tried counseling. We talked about our relationship, what was wrong, and how much we still loved one another. The next day, it was as though those conversations had never happened. Do we need a divorce? Is he having an affair?
“What’s wrong with you?” I yelled one morning as we chaotically got the girls ready for school.
In an uncharacteristic response, Jeff turned in anger and yelled back, “I don’t know, but something’s wrong.”
Things grew worse. I tried to get him psychiatric care. No one in our insurance plan was taking new patients. His general practitioner had Jeff escorted to a crisis center after seeing how much weight and focus he had lost. Depression, they concluded. They sent him home with the same list of unavailable professionals.
After a psychiatrist finally saw Jeff, I recall her hand shaking as she wrote prescriptions for blood tests and an MRI. “He’s experiencing depression and cognitive failure because of a medical problem,” she said. “He needs these tests as soon as possible.”
That night, I confided to a friend that I thought my husband was dying. Our eyes were moist with tears. Our children played nearby, as they did every Tuesday night after dance.
The next day, the doctor called.
“Bad news, sweetheart.”
The medical terms blended as the doctor explained that the MRI showed bilateral frontal lesions on Jeff’s brain. He was scheduled for surgery in two days. Brain surgery. My gut jumped to my throat, followed by tears. I sat in the darkened room on the edge of our bed — more alone than I’d ever felt.
When I told Jeff what the doctor said, he showed little emotion. At the hospital, large white masses appeared on the MRI. Jeff blinked and said stoically, “That’s not subtle.”
He did not cry. He was not worried. I cried. He could not comfort me as our world was falling apart. “Why do surgery?” I asked. “He can’t survive this.”
The diagnosis was a rare form of brain cancer, gliosarcoma. His prognosis was one year — with surgery. Without it, he could die at any time.
I had written about so many tragedies. Now it was our own. I started doing what I do, writing about our lives, the happiness we once had. It was therapeutic. The future emerged as I wrote.
“By the time you read this, Jeff will be dead.”
Jeff died at home. Before his body was taken, we stood at the sides of his hospice bed where he had slept for months. Bella, only 4 at the time, poked and nudged, “Daddy, wake up.”
“He can’t, Bella. He’s dead,” said Dorothy, who had just turned 8.
I tried to pull Bella toward us, but I didn’t have the strength to lift her over Jeff. She lay on top of him, her little arms stretched across his broad chest. She hugged her dad for the last time.
Dorothy and I later confessed to one another that we felt relief when Jeff died. The year had been unbearable as the disease, the treatment, and the unforgiving drugs transformed Jeff into someone we barely knew. His temper flared, his appetite was insatiable, and he could not tolerate light, touch, or sounds. Close contact with the girls, even their giggling, made him uncomfortable.
After his death, our family of three felt incomplete, especially at dinner. We lighted a candle some nights when we wished he could be there. Sometimes, I think he did join us.
Nearly six years have passed since Jeff died. Now, the girls and I lean on one another. We call ourselves the Pink Squad. Among our accomplishments, we have fixed clogged drains, built stairs, and put a deck on our mountain house. We’ve tiled floors and installed drywall. Lake Harmony remains our special place.
I don’t think we knew how sad we were until that day came when we laughed more than we cried and yelled. Yes, we felt a lot of anger. Like so many others who know how unfair life can be, we pushed through. Dorothy and Bella are wise beyond their years. Me? I’m still learning how to be a single parent who became a widow way too soon.
Yet summer is the most difficult for us in many ways. Dorothy graduated eighth grade without her dad at the ceremony. Instead of a barbecue on Father’s Day, we visited the church where Jeff’s remains are buried. Dorothy left a long letter she had been writing for months, placing it under the ivy for only him to see. Next week, as we return to the Poconos for our summer vacation, we’ll share our happy memories of the run-down little cottage that we repaired. I think for every hole we patched, our family heals as well. With each visit comes a renewal that we can do things we once thought could not be done.
We still mourn our loss, especially on those occasions when we know Jeff would be so proud of his girls on stage, singing and dancing. Often, we feel his presence — when Dorothy and I are guiding a plank of pine through Jeff’s table saw, when I am fashioning a large theater prop, or when the girls and I dance in the kitchen to Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” our wedding song.
My smiles disguise lingering pain. Hearing the girls laugh brings back the joy. I spin them around as we sing out loud:
And I’m trying to please to the calling
Of your heartstrings that play soft and low
And all the night’s magic seems to whisper and hush
And all the soft moonlight seems to shine in your blush.