Paternal Instinct

How one dad navigates the challenges of parenthood after losing his wife to cancer.

Photography by Smeeta Mahanti

Imagine your entire life exploding over the course of 16 months. For Bertie and Alexandra Wells of Oakland, Calif., that explosion came in the form of a breast cancer so rare and aggressive that Alexandra was gone within a year and a half of her original diagnosis. Her illness, accompanied by an immediate bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, had complicated the traditional parenting roles that she and husband Bertie had previously fulfilled. But her death decimated them.

In a moment, Bertie became the sole caregiver of his two children, Naomi, then 4, and Adrian, who celebrated his fifth birthday just two days before his mother passed away in February of 2012. Through the fog of his own grief, Bertie became both father and mother, and was responsible for managing everyone’s emotional stability in the wake of a monumental loss. Their young family had lost the mother that made them whole, and yet still—improbably—life went on for those who remained.

“I’ve still got to deal with school and with their clothes, laundry, cooking, figuring out what’s for dinner every day, just keeping the household going, doing the grocery shopping, all that stuff,” says Bertie, 42. “I am so tired.”

“My son plays baseball and my daughter does gymnastics, and they go to therapy twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I drive a lot. And I have to always be present—emotionally—for the kids. That’s the hardest part. I have to be ready for any conversation, anytime they want to talk. Especially if they want to talk about their mom. I can’t shut that down. Never. I can never shut that down and say I’m too tired.”

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Before her illness, Alexandra and Bertie fulfilled somewhat stereotypical parenting roles. He was few years older than her, and personified the strong, silent type. He left most of the parent-related socializing to his outgoing wife, and set off early each morning to work as a distributor at the Alameda County Community Food Bank. Alexandra was the beating heart of their young family. Energetic, artful, and creative, she was always on the go—hiking, painting, or shuttling the kids to and from school. She became a primary school teacher for the Oakland school district after earning her M.A. from San Francisco State University while pregnant with Naomi, and despite a family-friendly schedule, she was still playing catch-up after having two children a mere 15 months apart. “We didn’t plan it like that, but that’s the way it happened,” Bertie says.

When Alexandra was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37, their kids were aged 2 and 3, and they had settled into a new home in Oakland, Calif. Following nearly a year of aggressive treatment, Alexandra was declared cancer-free. Yet within one month of that milestone, Alexandra was back at the hospital with reports of pain. “The cancer came back, and it came back strong,” Bertie says. “It spread from spots on her liver to every bone in her body in two months. That’s how fast it went. By the time she died, every bone in her body was diseased.”

Thus Bertie joined the ranks of the few men in this country who are navigating single parenthood as a father who has forever lost his wife and co-parent. According to census data, there are about 24,000 widowed fathers in the United States. “It’s not anything on earth like being a single parent,” Bertie says. “I don’t ever get to share responsibility—ever. I didn’t get to share it last week, and I don’t get to share it next week.”

He spoke with us, below, about what it’s been like to parent his kids Naomi, now 7, and Adrian, now 8, as a widower. “It kind of makes it all worthwhile if I can help somebody else. Or if they can help me,” says Bertie about sharing his experiences. And he offers one piece of advice to dads in a similar situation:

 


Here, Bertie Wells shares what it looks like to parent through loss. Responses have been edited for clarity.


When you knew Alexandra would not survive her cancer, how did you decide what to tell your children about their mother’s illness?  

On a Tuesday, [the doctors] said that her liver was shutting down by the minute. She had a week, at most. On Wednesday I got the kids and the hospital chaplain in the room—I remember just crying. I cried like a little baby, and I told them that mommy was never coming home. That was it.  Mommy was dying, and mommy was going to be dead soon. And asked them, “Do you know what that means?” And here I have a three-year old and a five-year old looking at me, and I’ve told them that that means mommy’s not going to come home any more. Like, this is it. I told them, “Daddy will be here, and your grandmother, Yaya, will be here, and your aunty. But mostly it’s just going to be daddy.” I just cried and cried, and my son just looked up at me and he reached out and said, “I love you daddy,” and gave me a hug.

I remember on the way out of the hospital, Naomi, who is quiet and doesn’t say much, said, “I want to stay.” And my first thought was, come on—we’ve got to get home, I’ve got to make dinner, it’s getting late, it’s time for bed. But I asked her, “Do you want to stay with mommy?” And she nodded yes. And that freaked me out. So I took her back up and she stayed there with Alexandra for a couple more hours. Then the next morning, the first thing she did was wake up and get these little pipe cleaner twisters, and begin to make a bracelet for her mom. And then I began to cry because I didn’t know if Alexandra would live to get it. I asked Naomi if she wanted to take it to Mommy, because I didn’t know how long she had, and Naomi said yes. So I took them both back to the hospital. Some friends and family disagreed; they didn’t think I should have been taking the kids around her, but it was my choice, I was the dad, and I did whatever I was going to feel I should do. So, we took her there, and we twisted it around Alexandra’s wrist, and I was glad. She got buried with her wedding ring on and that bracelet on.

You didn’t completely restrict their exposure to their mother’s illness. Why was that important to you?
I do what I feel. I have to live my life. I don’t want to look back  at anything that happened and say, “Oh, man, I should’ve done this. I should’ve not done that.” That’s how I approached things from the first time Alexandra was really bad, when she got really ill. Especially with Alexandra and the kids, I never wanted to avoid taking the kids to go see her in the hospital when she was so bad off. I was like, “No, that’s their mom. I’m going to do it.” I wasn’t going to just give them some kind of story that mommy was going away. From the beginning, I was not going to do that. Because when they’re 13, they’re going to wonder, “Why the hell did you lie to us when we were 4?” And I didn’t want that to happen. So a lot of stuff I do is hopefully preparing them for their teenage years, when they shut down and don’t want to talk.

Alexandra died within a few days of the doctors telling you that she only had a week left—how did you two talk about that as a couple?
About midnight on Friday, the night she died, I sat and I talked with her. I don’t know how long, but my mom told me it was a couple of hours. I just sat there, and I talked and cried. It was the only time I told her that I accepted her death. She had talked about it, but I’d never talked about it. I never engaged in that conversation with her. I cried and I rubbed her belly and I promised her that I would do whatever it took to take care of the kids. I told her not to worry about them. And four hours later, at 4:15 a.m., my sister knocked on the door and told me that she had stopped breathing. That began my single parenting.

Did you and your wife try to prepare for a time when you would be parenting alone?
Even before she died, Alexandra wasn’t able to do much with them for her last four months, and by this time, I was working at the food bank and had to be there at 7 a.m. So she put it out there to the neighborhood—she was part of a neighborhood group of cancer survivors that would go walking every morning. So people kind of knew what was going on with other people’s lives. She did that part. I’m not good at reaching out, I’m not good at doing that. A neighbor two houses down, whose name is Alice, said she would come over every morning at 6:30 a.m. and get them ready for preschool and walk them to school a few blocks away. She started this when Alexandra was sick, and she still does it. She’s an angel for my family. She comes over and gets the kids ready for school every morning and gets them breakfast. And the kids love her. She’s done it for almost four years now. My son Adrian wakes up early in the mornings—he always has—so he’ll wake up at like 6 a.m. and sit and wait and countdown for Alice to get here at 6:30.

How do you ask for help when you need a break?
That I had to work on, and I continue to work on it. I’m not a social person. I married a social butterfly for that reason. So, this forced me to ask for help and to reach out for help. I’m getting better. Gradually, I’m getting better. I have a cousin who lives here who is 16, so she babysits them. Right now, the kids are with one of Alexandra’s former career mentors. Her name is Louise—she’s aunty Louise—and she always supported our family. They spend a night with her about once every couple of months to give me a break, like a night out. I definitely need to do it more because I am burned out so often. My thing is when they’re gone, I need to actually get out of the house, because I don’t get away. I usually use that time to clean, and do laundry.

You tag your wife when you post photos of your kids to Facebook, and her memorial page is filled with images of your children growing up. Why?
I did think about shutting down her page, but her friends advised me not to. Now, three and a half years later, I’m glad I didn’t. There were close to 800 people at her funeral. She knew so many people. The page is a chance for other people that she was connected with to reach out. When I post the kids, people who are not friends of mine still see pictures of the kids and everything. So no, I haven’t even thought about taking it down.

How else do you keep Alexandra’s memory alive?
The house is covered with her pictures. My son, Adrian, remembers a lot because he was older then; Naomi remembers mommy but doesn’t remember a lot of specific things. I just bring up something that we used to do together or some place that we used to go. Like with Naomi doing gymnastics—Alexandra was a gymnast when she was young, too, so I let her know that. And Naomi will say that she wants to create things like mommy did. She channels her that way. It’s just things that pop up. Whatever memory may come up. Adrian will say more often that he misses mommy, but he’ll also say stuff like,”It would be easier if mommy was here.” And I’m like, “Yeah, it would be.” And anytime they do stuff, like when they make art or something, they’ll write, “I love daddy. I love mommy.” And I tell them that all the time—that daddy and mommy love you.

How do you draw support from your community of teachers, friends, and family?
I get a lot of support from my in-laws. They pay for a lot, including this great private school that my kids go to. If they were not at this school, I would be back home in Louisiana right now. I think about that all the time. All the time. That’s where my family is. But this school is what’s keeping us here. Everybody at the school knows what’s going on: Adrian has some really emotional stuff that he works on at school, so he’s had some troubled times. Everybody will meet to deal with his situation, or call me up to find out how should they handle conversations with him, or with Naomi. How to approach things when they have a breakdowns, or even how to discipline them, too—what am I doing at home, how do they keep the language the same? They’re really good.

Conversations will come up a lot because they’re kids at school, and we all know that kids are cruel sometimes. Less than two weeks ago, a bunch of kids were talking about moms, and they told Naomi that she didn’t have a mommy. Naomi was like, “Yes, I do have a mommy.” This is a conversation that her teacher emailed me to let me know what had happened, and to ask if I would like her to explain to the class that Naomi does have a mommy, she’s just not here on earth with us.

Is there language that you’ve found useful—for yourself and for others—when talking to your kids about death?
I’ve explained to them a couple of times how families are different. Like at their school, there are white parents with black kids, there’re black parents with white kids. Some families have two mommies, some families have two daddies…your family has just one daddy. Families are different. And this is how your family is different. It’s not you’re less of a family. That information seemed to work.

What’s the single most important thing you’ve done to help your keep your family intact?
My advice to any parent whose kids have lost a mother of father is to get and keep your damn kids in therapy. Put them there, and keep them there. There are resources, like the place that my kids are going to, the Ann Martin Center. They have a sliding scale for cost. I should also be in therapy full time to help me deal, but I’m not. Get and keep your kids in therapy. They might seem fine. No, they’re not. You don’t lose a mother and you’re fine. You don’t do that. That doesn’t happen. I don’t lose someone I was in love with for 13 years, and I’m fine. No. It doesn’t happen like that. Life doesn’t happen like that. You don’t lose that part of your life and you’re fine.

What red flags do you pay close attention to when it comes to your kids?
Kids can accept blame for death. I always say, “Daddy loves you and mommy loves you.” A big part of that is them not feeling like her death is their fault any kind of way. I’m always on my toes with that kind of thinking. I’m constantly letting them know that it wasn’t Alexandra’s choice to die; it wasn’t her choice to leave them. She wanted to be here. And she is always with you, but she’s not physically here.

What red flags do you pay close attention to for yourself?
That I didn’t have any control of the situation. That was really tough for me to deal with right away. My therapist told me to slow down my thoughts, because I thought daddy always fixed everything—daddy always made it better. If something was broken, daddy fixed it. And in my kids’ minds, that’s also huge; if their toy was broken, I’d fix it for them. But this was a situation that I couldn’t fix, and I had to deal with that. I couldn’t make it better. I couldn’t make the kids feel better, couldn’t make her feel better. Sometimes it’s tough, because I feel like I’m not doing enough. Like I’m failing. I cry many days—all the time.

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Do you worry about being straightforward with your feelings?
From day one, my kids have seen me cry. Sometimes I’m in the kitchen preparing dinner, and I’ll just break down. Or if I give them food, give them their dinner, they’ll say, “Daddy, have you been crying?” And I’ll say yes. Sometimes they don’t even ask why—they know why. Or if they ask, I’ll tell them it’s because I miss her. I let them know I miss mommy, just so they know I feel what they feel. I feel pain, and it’s okay. It’s okay to feel that way.

 


 

If you’re navigating loss as a parent, these resources might provide some guidance:

 

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