Location: Charlotte, North Carolina
Heather and Phil Gail were college sweethearts. Heather’s dad spotted Phil on the back of a pickup truck when he was helping Heather move into her dorm at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He took in Phil’s bald head and earring and rowdy group and jokingly told Heather not to bring anyone like that home. Heather ended up dating Phil’s roommate and she and Phil became friends. “We became really good buddies,” Heather says, but the summer before their junior year the friendship turned into something more. They got married in 2000. “I married my best friend,” Heather says.
The first sign of hardship in their marriage was when they struggled with infertility. After a year of trying to conceive, when Heather says they grew closer because they “learned how to lean on each other,” Heather got pregnant. Their son Charlie was born in 2005 and Harry joined the family in 2007. Both births had complications, and Phil was the first to hold the babies after each birth. “Those were great bonding moments,” Heather says. “He had an instant love connection with each son.”
Heather says Phil was a great father. “He loved playing with the boys,” Heather says. “Lots of outside time and sports.” She describes those years as busy and happy. Heather and Phil both thought that their trying times – their infertility struggles and complicated C-section births of their sons – were behind them. But in April 2012, Phil was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer. He had started getting sinus infections the previous fall and had tried antibiotics and an ENT specialist, but finally an MRI of a swollen lymph node revealed a rare cancer of the nasopharynx.
“He was a 36 year-old healthy man,” Heather says. But all of a sudden Phil was getting radiation and chemotherapy and seeing specialists at Duke and MD Anderson. He started experiencing pain in his back and was told his cancer had metastasized, which came with the additional devastating news that his cancer had progressed too much to qualify him for any clinical trials. When a PET scan showed the cancer all over his body, Heather knew the fight was over. “My grandmother had cancer,” Heather says. “I knew what happens when it gets to your bones.”
Phil was hospitalized for the last six weeks of his life, receiving palliative care until he died on October 11, 2012. Harry and Charlie were five and seven years old. Heather was a widow at 36 years old. The first night back home after Phil died, Heather remembers feeling overwhelmed with the realization that she was now the only parent. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I have these boys all to myself.’”
She had tried to prepare her sons as best she could. She worked with a counselor to explain cancer and death to them. They had a party in Phil’s room before he died. Casts of all of their hands were made as keepsakes. Heather tried to support the grieving process for the boys at their level and she let them use a Sharpie on their father’s casket to draw him pictures and write him messages. Her parents, who live in Elkin, North Carolina, took turns staying with her and the boys during Phil’s illness and after his death. “They were a tremendous help,” Heather says. Her job at Bank of America was both a relief in that it provided stability and distraction but was also exhausting as she navigated working full-time as a single parent with two young sons. “That first year was really hard,” Heather says. “At first, as exhaustion set in after Phil’s six month fight, it was an effort just trying to get out of bed every morning.”
Heather feels Phil’s absence both as a widow and as the parent left behind. There are times raising her sons when she thinks, “Phil, where are you? This is your territory!” Managing the logistics of raising two teenage boys has also grown more complex. Both boys play sports – Charlie plays basketball and golf and Harry plays basketball and football – and that comes with its own challenges. The logistics of working full-time and getting them both to games and practices has been challenging. When the boys were younger, Heather learned to have a preemptive chat with coaches at the start of each season. She would tell them about their situation and implore them not to tell the team, as coaches often do, to “go home and practice with your dad.” This year she stepped up to coach Charlie’s basketball team. “I am coaching 8thand 9th grade boys,” Heather says. She is grateful that she gets the opportunity and that Charlie is excited about it.
Heather is also grateful for all of the people in her life who have stepped up and tried to be a male presence in the boys’ lives. Her parents have been incredibly helpful and a tightknit group of friends from her church have really helped as well, both with supporting Heather and in taking the boys camping and filling in at school events like Donuts with Dad where the absence of their father would be felt.
Heather appreciates all the help, but she also knows it will never make them whole. “Losing someone you love, especially someone in your immediate household, is a lifelong impact,” Heather says. “It doesn’t just get filled by someone else or something else.” She remembers being frustrated by friends who thought her grief should have been over at a certain point and that it was time for Heather to “get back to normal.” But Heather, who says that “death brings a forever change,” doesn’t wish to be the same person she was before. The grief has lessened, to be sure, but Heather still feels it acutely at certain moments. When she has a trying time with the boys or feels the weight of all of the responsibility and decision making, she wishes Phil were there to help. “The holidays are hard,” Heather says, noting that the most challenging days are the anniversaries of her wedding and Phil’s death. “In some ways, I feel like it was yesterday.”
And she gets daily reminders of Phil in her sons. “Charlie is very much like his dad,” Heather says. “He can be stubborn just like Phil was and he argues just like Phil did. And he is very particular with his decision making.” Harry has many of Phil’s mannerisms and his laugh. Heather says it is uncanny how much Harry sounds like his dad since he was only five when he died. She is proud of how far they have all come. “We are continuing to find our stride as we enter each stage of our lives,” Heather says. She has started traveling with the boys – recent trips include Washington, DC and New York City – and makes a point of scheduling date nights. “We do everything from going to the ballet to wrestling,” she says.
Heather says that people are often surprised to learn she is a widow. She has tried dating but finds it hard to navigate as an adult woman with kids. She is not stressed about it, though, believing that if she is meant to be with someone it will happen. Recently she went to pick up Chinese food at the local spot she has been frequenting for years and the owner asked her if she was dating. When Heather said no, he told her, “It has been too long. You need to start dating.” Heather laughs about that, but says it is more complicated than just finding the time. Phil was not just her husband and the father of her sons, but her rock, the man who told her what a great job she was doing or with whom she could share her successes from work.
It is a sentiment I have heard from my mom a lot lately. Aside from just missing the person who is gone, you miss the companionship and the joy and comfort that is part of being a couple. Those of us who are lucky enough to still have someone who shares the covers with us each night need to double down on our appreciation of that good fortune. I applaud Heather’s courage in making the best of a raw deal and I hope she will find someone with whom to share the next chapter in her life.
And I will be more mindful of the fact that grief does not have an expiration date. My heart goes out to all the folks for whom these holidays are tinged with sadness and loneliness.