Ashley and Todd have been married for almost seven years and have been trying to start a family since saying, “I do.” Through some unexpected, sad, and difficult circumstances, they have the family they were looking for, even though they haven’t had a baby yet. What a wondrous story it is.
After a year of “trying” to conceive the conventional way – newlywed shenanigans – Ashley turned to tracking her ovulation patterns. She commented, “I could pinpoint my ovulation to the day,” after several months of using ovulation kits. But all of this research and charting didn’t help, so they turned to medical interventions.
They struggled through six horrible cycles of Clomid. Ashley suffered awful headaches, blurred vision, and other side effects. Still no babies. They made the decision to go through Intrauterine Insemination (IUI). Five times they went through this difficult process that involved a number of fertility drugs, shots, numerous ultrasounds, and highly unpleasant side effects. Ashley not only had to deal with the roller coaster of hope and disappointment, but the extreme emotional side effects of the medications – especially the progesterone suppository she was required to take after the insemination took place. On top of that all, she developed cysts with every cycle and had to wait for them to clear before trying again.
After two years of trying without medical help, six cycles of Clomid, and five cycles of IUI, Todd and Ashley decided to give their minds and bodies a rest. They were still hoping for children, but needed to consider their options and give themselves a break for a bit. They decided they would go forward with In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and consulted a few other fertility clinics, switching to one they felt more comfortable with and confident in. “It was so scary because it felt like ‘the last straw,’ that if we tried IVF and it failed we would reach the end of the road.” But they began saving for the expensive procedure anyway. While they were in the saving process, Ashley’s cousin, Lena, was fighting cancer as it ravaged her body. She started with breast cancer, resulting in a double mastectomy. Then cancer was found in her ovaries and Lena had a hysterectomy. The doctors declared her cancer free. Three months later three walnut-sized tumors were found in her brain. Ashley called Lena to check on her after a doctor’s appointment and Lena asked about the possibility of Ashley and Todd raising her daughters, Sam and Megan, if she didn’t survive the persistent cancer. Ashley immediately said they would, of course, but that she was going to beat this. And Lena tried. During the next year she went through chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, only to have the brain cancer return. This past summer she tried one last round of chemo and then the treatments stopped. She turned back to Ashley and Todd to follow up on whether or not they would be willing to raise her girls once she couldn’t fight anymore.
Lena had asked others the same question. She wrestled with the decision, though, telling Ashley that, “She felt like the minute she made that decision and did the legal paperwork she would pass away – like it was her final job.” But she did make that decision and Ashley and Todd were humbled and honored to accept the responsibility of raising Sam and Megan.
Lena and her daughters moved into Ashley and Todd’s home at the end of summer. Lena was able to meet their pets, see her daughters bond with Ashley and Todd, and be there for the beginning of the school year. “Basically she got to see how the girls would live after she was no longer here.” Ashley commented that it was all very difficult, as I might imagine.
But I can’t even imagine. As Ashley shared this all with me, I found the weight of it to be heavier and heavier, and I needed to take a few deep breaths. Maybe you do too…
Lena battled cancer for years and was dying at the tender age of 35. She had to choose who would be there for her children when she no longer was.
Ashley and Todd faced the not-uncommon, yet lonely and difficult problem of infertility for years. They fought for children of their own, only to be disappointed time after time.
And Lena’s daughters – Sam and Megan – I cannot even begin to imagine what they were feeling and going through with all the changes they’ve been through over the last few years.
Yet, even though thinking of the sorrow, the stress, the love expressed outright and held within all the players in this story chokes me up, I want to share their lives with you. Thankfully the story goes on and the weight of it lightens as we all take a bit of it with us. So, let’s continue.
Lena lived with Ashley and Todd for about a month before being moved to Hospice. During that time she required 24-hour adult supervision and need to be reminded frequently that time was running short for her. The decision to move her to Hospice care was extremely difficult, but necessary. Ashley and Todd didn’t want Sam and Megan to have to witness the last weeks of their mother’s life. They were warned that it would be unpleasant, and that was certainly accurate with her body literally deteriorating more each day. They wanted their friend, cousin, and mother of their girls to receive the best care possible during this time. Seventeen days later, Lena passed away with Ashley by her side.
“The month of September 2014 was the hardest month of my entire life. Having to explain to two children that their Mom was in fact dying, having to explain it to Lena herself, having to tell them all we were moving her to hospice, being with Lena as she passed, having to tell the girls that their Mom was gone, going through the funeral, trying to gage both girls and their reactions/emotions (which were entirely different reactions given their age difference). Every time I thought or said, ‘That was the hardest conversation I’ve ever had,’ the next conversation was harder yet.”
And now, months after that incredibly difficult time, Ashley and Todd are still in the process of adopting the girls. There’s a lot of paperwork that has to be filled out and filed before it is official. I asked Ashley what she’s done for her own mental health throughout this whole situation. She answered simply, “I talk to all the people closest to me. My mom, Todd, my best friend. It’s constant communication that keeps me sane.” It’s that same communication that has allowed her and Todd to bond with Sam and Megan, who are adjusting well and feeling comfortable in their new home.
Sam is a senior in high school this year and enjoying it, even though, or possibly because, it’s a new school. In the past years she was the main caregiver at home, parenting her sister, contacting doctors and the insurance company, etc. And at school she was bullied and alone. Ashley helped Sam understand that she could be anyone with this new opportunity. She could simply, “act confident and friendly and just go for it.” And she did. She’s getting involved, playing sports, and made the honor roll for the first time. She’s open about her emotions and talks easily with Ashley. She even admitted to liking the rules set in her new home. What a pleasant surprise for her new parents!
Megan is in third grade and bottles her emotions a bit more. Her concern is always for others first. Ashley and Todd are giving her space to process her emotions but also inquire frequently about how she is. They encourage her to talk with them about all the things she’s had to adapt to lately. And she is successfully adapting! Megan is in several clubs and activities and loves playing outside. Sometimes she calls Todd “Pops” and cuddles with him. Through all of this, Megan has managed to keep her easy smile and plenty of 9-year-old sparkle!
Both girls have a great sense of humor, like Lena had. This has helped fill their home with laughter throughout these difficult months. Even though the circumstances that brought the four of them together were awful, the outcome is a natural fit.
Ashley and Todd still have the possibility of IVF out there. They would still love to raise a baby of their own, but have learned many things in the last year – including that it wasn’t just a baby they were hoping for, it was a family. And they have that now. “I thank my cousin every day for giving me the greatest gift any person could ever give another person.”
See, I told you it would be a wondrous story. Ashley and her family have witnessed and felt the full gamut of emotions – from incredible acts of love to the deepest sorrow. Navigating these waters hasn’t been easy, but by meeting each wave head on, Ashley has provided stability for Todd and the girls. She’s found her strength in those she loves. She’s created family.