Monday, 3 February 2014

The Most Romantic Story You'll Read This Valentine's Day

Newlyweds with a baby on the way, writer Donna Freydkin and her husband lived in bliss. Then he got sick—very sick—and for the next 17 months, they took care of each other. His most lasting gift? Showing Donna she could go on—without him.

Pictures of Donna and Justin, and their son Alex, displayed along with Justin's cashmere hat and bike shoes
A little over three years ago, I was giddy, fearless, and madly in love. My husband, Justin, and I were soulmates—he profoundly got me in a way no one else ever had. Our son was due December 25; Justin and I were enjoying our final childless months. But someone, somewhere was laughing. Only the joke was on us.
In November, Justin learned he had a brain tumor.
In January, Alex, our baby boy, arrived.
And on April 5, 2012, 17 months after my husband's diagnosis, a ghostly, cadaverous version of him passed away. Today, after everything I've been through, my friends tell me I am strong, powerful, stalwart: a pillar of hope and optimism. I'm finally starting to believe that's true.
When Justin got sick that fall, it happened suddenly. He was having dizzy spells, which we figured were nothing. Then, over lunch at our favorite restaurant one day, he clutched the side of the booth and nearly fell. We lumbered over to the E.R., with me nine months pregnant. They sent him home and said to follow up with an MRI. "You're not going to die," the attending physician told my laughing husband. But two days later the MRI film showed, clear and distinct as the lights on the Empire State Building, a big red ball.
It's odd, the reaction you have to a brain-tumor diagnosis. The news seems absurd in its sheer magnitude. I expected to feel shock and disbelief, sure, and there was plenty of it. But also denial. We were 38 and 39, living in the greatest city in the world—New York—in a cute apartment with a backyard. I had always marched through life, and my husband and I were strong, vibrant. Nothing tragic could happen to us.
"I expect to get this thing outta there and be up and running soon," Justin told everyone.
And no one bought it more than me.
Up until then, Justin Williams had jaywalked through life. We'd met on a blind date and clicked over something no one but us understood: our joint, bizarre affinity for Khia's foulmouthed song "My Neck, My Back." Justin had a sharp eye and great taste. There we'd sat, me in my skinny jeans, him in a John Varvatos button-down, drinking Vouvray in a vegetarian restaurant in Midtown, rapping the song together. Four years later, he designed my engagement and wedding bands. He helped me pay off my mountain of credit card debt, instilling in me both financial freedom and a fear of being beholden to anyone ever again. When I cooked, I'd cut corners and shorten recipes, resulting in mediocre dishes that tasted slightly off. Justin taught me that it was worth using every pot and mixing bowl for creations that would impress a master chef. An engineer, he could dismantle anything; one Valentine's Day he installed an illegal washer and dryer in our apartment.
Justin had his first brain surgery a month before our son was born. We acted like it was a tonsillectomy. "I'm ready to get out of here," he told me in recovery, minutes after they'd sawed his skull open, removed the foreign growth, and stitched him back up. He came home after four days, a slim incision in his head where they'd operated. We celebrated his fortieth birthday with a dinner at Per Se, Justin slightly weaker and unable to drink his beloved Brunello. But the surgery was the past. Our kid was our future. "We're going to get through this," Justin repeated. "I'll be better than ever."
And for a time he was. Baby Alex arrived in January, after a grueling labor that ended in an emergency C-section, with Justin there every second. After the surgery he was mostly his old bike-riding self, off from work and with the time and—at first—the energy to be a fully involved dad. He sleep-trained our son, got him on a feeding schedule, and took him on adventures to parks, while I interviewed celebrities like Kate Hudson and Ashley Judd for my job at USA Today. I was preening that I had a husband who gamely changed diapers and rubbed Orajel on our son's swollen gums. We pretended the tumor had been a bad dream.
Then, in March, the dizzy spells returned. The tumor had grown back. Justin's doctors planned his second surgery, which went well. We marched onward; he began radiation treatments.
"Let's make a pact," I told Justin. "No brain surgeries for a year."
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