I had the perfect life—three wonderful daughters and my best friend as my wife. Lisa and I had an incredible marriage. Our children were thriving. We were financially secure, active in our community and genuinely happy with the life we’d built.
All of that changed the Friday before Labor Day, 2009. It was then that Lisa, 39, was diagnosed with a rare form of colorectal cancer. We were blown away. This could not happen to us.
The last day my wife was conscious, I told her that if it was time for her to go, she could. I promised her I would take care of our girls. However, I was fully unequipped to follow through on that commitment.
Lisa was the CEO of our house. I didn’t know the difference between tights and hose. I couldn’t tell an espadrille from a flip-flop. I didn’t even know how to log on to the school website. She handled it all. I was weak and lost.
A few weeks after Lisa’s funeral, I was at my parents’ house, struggling to even get out of bed. My kids tickled me and jumped on my head, but I simply could not respond. Not even a snuggle from my youngest gave me motivation.
Later that afternoon, my mom pulled me aside, “You can do this Bruce. You have to do this.”
She was right. My mom’s words reminded me that I had promised my wife that I would step up. I told her not to worry, that I would raise our girls.
I’m not sure what it was, but a spirit inside me was ignited that day. As I drove home, I actually felt strong, something I had not felt since Lisa had been diagnosed.
The newfound strength didn’t remove my grief. It did, however, begin to motivate me to begin to be the father I was destined to grow into.
Not long after this conversation, I found my youngest daughter, 7 at the time, standing in front of the bathroom mirror sobbing.
“What’s wrong Annie?” I inquired.
“I can’t braid my hair!”
“Can I help?”
“No. YOU can’t! You don’t know anything about hair! You hardly have any.”
“I bet I can do it,” I said with confidence.
I called my middle daughter to the bathroom.
“Lucy, show me how to braid her hair.”
“I’ll just do it dad.” She was clearly annoyed.
“No. I want to learn.”
Lucy proceeded to show me how to separate three strands and weave them back and forth. I took the helm. The first two attempts left lumps at various points on her head. But the third time, I got it right! My first official hairdo was a small plait on the right side of my first grader’s head, just enough to keep her hair out of her eyes during YMCA basketball practice.
I followed my success by looking upward and having a quiet conversation with my wife. I did it! Just like you!
This was a small win, but it began to build my confidence.
I became motivated to bake homemade cookies for Lucy’s school birthday party and to tackle my first sleepover – 18 girls in all! I took on bathing suit shopping and volunteered in my kids’ classrooms.
It didn’t come easy, but it was as if somehow Lisa’s strengths were gradually being passed on to me. I was filling the role of both mother and father.
As I look back on the past few years, I am amazed. Not at myself. No, I am amazed at my daughters who have persevered with only me to guide them. I am amazed at the love and support our community has shown to us. And I am amazed at all I must have absorbed while watching my wife during our 16-year marriage. She taught me well.
Bruce Ham is the author of “Laughter, Tears and Braids: A Father’s Journey Through Losing His Wife to Cancer.” Learn more at therealfullhouse.wordpress.com.