I wrote this on New Year’s Eve but wasn’t quite ready to share it yet. We realized that TODAY everything is going perfectly and that should be celebrated without fear. My heart is full. Enjoy…
Reflecting on the past ten years and oh what a decade it has been!
In 2010 I graduated with my master’s and Ralf and I got engaged. I began my career as a speech-language pathologist.
At the beginning of 2011, we bought our home and at the end of 2011, we got married.
2012 was mostly a year of just enjoying each other and being newlyweds.
I think it was the beginning of 2013 that we bought our boat and started enjoying our sunset cruises around the lake.
I had a health scare in 2014 when I got diagnosed with my lymphoma that turned out to be a lot less serious than we originally thought. We decided to try to get pregnant shortly after and Mason was conceived.
The beginning of 2015 was the absolute hardest time of my life. I lost Ralf suddenly to brain cancer while I was 7 months pregnant. My little man made his debut in May of 2015 and saved me in more ways than he will ever know. He was the force that kept me going and hoping for a better life for both of us. Toward the end of 2015, I met Vinnie in person after connecting through a Facebook group for young widows and widowers. Our connection over similar losses sparked a friendship that grew into more.
In 2016 Vinnie moved down from New York to be with us in Florida. At the end of 2016 we decided to move to a new town where we could start our own story together.
We suffered through our first miscarriage in 2017.
In 2018 we had another miscarriage shortly after we decided to get married. We had a perfect, intimate, and very emotional wedding in September.
The beginning of 2019 brought a wonderful job opportunity for Vinnie. We decided to try again and had our third miscarriage. It was devastating. We underwent testing to search for some answers and received none. Everything was absolutely normal. Mason started asking for a sibling incessantly and so we decided to try one more time, despite being very scared.
Now at the end of 2019 we find ourselves 9 weeks pregnant with a baby whose heartbeat is very strong. This pregnancy has looked healthy from the beginning (as evidenced by my nausea and fatigue). We know so very well that nothing is guaranteed in this life, but we are ending this year full of gratitude and hope.
In my heart I believe that 2020 will be the year that we become a family of four.
2020 will be the year I get to witness Mason become a wonderful big brother.
2020 will be the year that I will get to welcome a new life into this world with my husband at my side, holding my hand, as it should be.
And with all the surprises, new blessings, and challenges that are sure to come our way, the one thing I know for certain is that we will get through it all.
We were both just 28 years young when you died. Do you remember how I used to tease you by telling you that you were in your prime and that it would all be downhill from here? Somewhere, in an article most likely lacking any kind of empirical research or actual quantifiable data, one of us had read that men “peak” at 28, while women don’t until their mid thirties or so. As per our usual banter, I’d remind you of this constantly. I’d playfully call you an old man even though you were only a whopping 5 days older than me. Leave it to you to go out at the top of your game – I really shouldn’t even be surprised. Of course I say this jokingly, and yet, I know that somewhere you are smirking to yourself every time you catch me plucking a newly discovered gray hair or making funny faces in the mirror to assess the progression of my crow’s feet.
WE were at the top of our game.
So many years of hard work and dedication to get to where we were, and so much to experience ahead. We had the careers we wanted, our dream home, and our baby boy on the way. Everyone knew you’d soon be a lieutenant, and that you’d continue climbing the ranks in years to come. Everything was seemingly falling into place and life was following our perfectly orchestrated little plan.
Until the unthinkable happened.
I am now living a completely tangent life. When I really stop and think about it, I still almost can’t believe it. So often I ask myself what you would say about the countless changes I’ve undergone since your physical departure. Sometimes I wonder if you’d even still recognize me at all. But then I am reminded that you always knew my heart, and that hasn’t changed a bit. Whenever there is a whisper of doubt, a voice from deep within my spirit tells me how proud you are of me.
Here’s what I believe you already know: I’m happy. I have my struggles and my bad days, life keeps on swinging, but I’m happy. I really, truly am. I miss you always and your name continues to roll off my tongue like butter, often still in the present tense. You are spoken of daily and your son knows very well who his Daddy in Heaven is, although he’s been blessed with a Daddy on Earth who loves him the way you would have. I know that you take comfort and can rest easier knowing that I found a man who loves and cherishes me the way he does.
I imagine you, wherever you are, forever in your prime.
Mason is finally asleep and I am very uncomfortably lying next to him in his Lightning McQueen bed. What a challenge bedtime was tonight! He is currently obsessed with legos and was building a firetruck with Vinnie as I told him it was time to go potty and then night-night. He threw a huge tantrum because there was one tiny little piece missing and he didn’t want to leave the truck unfinished. We tried reasoning with him and explaining it was already late and that we’d look again in the morning because the piece was nowhere to be found, but in true “threenager” fashion he dropped to the floor and screamed bloody murder for the godforsaken lego piece. (Can you tell what a huge fan I am?)
I was left with no other choice but to pick him up kicking and screaming and bring him to his bed. At first it was that defiant, exaggerated, and – for lack of a better word – bratty cry that small children often use when they don’t get their way. After a solid half hour or so, though, it turned into a genuine sob. He cried as if he’d lost the most important thing in the world to him. His cheeks were covered in his salty tears and his little squeals of agony were absolutely heart wrenching. So much so that the disciplinarian in me took a backseat to the nurturing mother that could not stand to see her baby in so much pain. I pulled him close, told him I was sorry he was so sad, and cried with him. Then I held him until he finally calmed down and closed his eyes.
He won’t remember this moment when he is older. Hell, it’ll probably be forgotten in the morning when he wakes up. Lord knows that legos are not worth that kind of heartache and that’s a lesson he will inevitably learn as he faces real challenges in his life, as we all do.
The truth is, it wasn’t about the lego for me. That little white snap block will turn up somewhere in this house and all will be right in Mason’s world once more.
What I was really thinking about in those moments was all the things I won’t be able to protect him from as he grows up. I hope he lives a wonderful life and that future struggles are minimal, but many things will be completely out of my control.
And then I thought about my mom.
What she must have felt witnessing me go through the darkest moments of my life and not being able to make it all go away. Watching me bury my husband with a huge pregnant belly and all the difficult changes I had to endure in such a short period of time thereafter. I know she would have traded places with me in a heartbeat to spare me from the pain I was feeling.
But she couldn’t.
There was nothing she could do other than to be there, listen, hold me as I cried, and support me unconditionally as I started to move forward with my new life. I hope, from the very bottom of my heart, that she knows that was enough and that the gratitude I feel for her during that time of my life is second to none.
And I hope one day Mason will look back on his life and remember a mom who’d do anything for him – even if it meant helping him build the same lego firetruck a million times to see him smile.
Written by a firefighter widow who lost her young husband to cancer, this article addresses the link between firefighting and cancer, as well as possible toxicity exposure affecting their loves ones.
I want to share something that many of you may not already know. In August of 2014, I was diagnosed with a form of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma called Mycosis Fungoides. I was first diagnosed by my dermatologist, who I went to see after some strange white patches appeared on my thigh. She performed a biopsy thinking it was probably psoriasis or severe eczema. I waited weeks for the results only to find out that they were delayed because the specimen was sent to multiple labs throughout the country as they tried to confirm what was a very, very rare diagnosis for a twenty-seven-year-old woman. The dermatologist then referred me to a hematologist/oncologist, explaining that I needed a physician who specialized in treating T-Cell lymphomas. I had to wait about 2 weeks to finally see the specialist and at that point all I knew was that I had lymphoma.
I was a MESS.
I was already imagining having to go through chemotherapy, becoming infertile as a result and never being able to give Ralf a child, and even worse, leaving him behind to live this life without me.
Then, we were finally able to meet with the specialist and he put our minds at ease. He explained to us that because my skin lesions were limited to less than 10% of my body, that there was nothing to worry about. He went on to assure us that my condition was extremely unlikely to ever progress into anything further. That was the point when Ralf asked if we could proceed with our plans to soon start a family, to which the doctor replied, “Absolutely.”
Mason was conceived shortly after and, much to our surprise, Ralf was diagnosed with a brain tumor just 7 months later.
Once Ralf passed away, I started learning about the rising incidence of cancer among firefighters. One day, I had a thought that I was certain was ridiculous, but something in my gut told me it wouldn’t hurt to ask. So, I reached out to the doctor. Below is a direct quote taken from my email to him:
“When we met, you explained to me that not much is known about the causes of Mycosis Fungoides. I know it’s in no way as serious a diagnosis as my husband’s. However, in the research that I have done as a lay person, I know that my case is very rare given that I am a woman and am in my 20’s. I know this question may be very ignorant and extremely off base, but to your knowledge, are there any environmental risk factors for Mycosis Fungoides? I just find it so strange that both of us would acquire such rare diagnoses in such a short time frame. I couldn’t help but ask myself if having been exposed to his bunker gear, or washing his uniforms at home in our washer could somehow be related.”
This was his reply:
“There is some evidence that [Mycosis Fungoides] may be caused by exposures. Most cases, however, have no clear exposure.”
Now, I know this in no way proves that my condition was caused by exposure to toxins that Ralf brought home on his uniforms. The doctor clearly stated that the cause of most cases of Mycosis Fungoides is unknown. But the fact that it is at all possible, in my opinion, is enough to gain my attention. If you work in the fire service, or are a family member sharing a home with a firefighter, wouldn’t you prefer to know about all of the potential risks that are involved?
I’ll never be able to prove that Ralf’s death was caused by occupational cancer. Here’s what I have learned, though. Primary Cerebellar Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM) – the type of tumor that Ralf had – is extremely rare and accounts for just 1% of all cases of GBM. Ralf was otherwise completely healthy and had an unremarkable medical history. I wholeheartedly believe that toxicity exposure played a large role. And when you consider that cancer is the leading cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths? I mean, come on.
If you’re a member of the fire service, wouldn’t you prefer to know about the potential risks that you are exposing yourself to, in order to preserve your health? Not only for yourself, but for your family and loved ones. To keep you around longer, not only to share special moments with them, but also so that you can continue doing the job that we know you love so much.
And if that isn’t already motivation enough – what about the possibility of exposing your family to these toxins? Would you knowingly put them in harm’s way? Of course not.
I believe Ralf would have wanted to be more educated on the topic, and I sure as hell wish I’d known more. I will never be able to understand why he had to be taken from us and why we have been left behind to continue this fight, but as Ralf loved to say, “It is what it is.”
Now it’s up to all of us – firefighters, fire families, concerned citizens, and legislators – to listen, to learn, and to act.
According to the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), cancer has caused 61% of career firefighter line-of-duty deaths since 2002.
As many of you know, the anniversary of Ralf’s passing is approaching.
A few weeks ago, his father spoke at a firefighter symposium in Miami. When he told me about it, I expressed wanting to contribute somehow, but wasn’t sure what I could do. Then, the idea for this simple video came to me.
I share this not to make anyone sad, but rather to hopefully drive home a message that needs to be heard. If it inspires one member of the fire service – or one nagging and loving spouse, parent, or family member – to push for further education of the risks our firefighters face and to fight for the protections that they so deserve, then it has served a purpose.
Trust me, I’ve been there. You don’t actually think it can or will happen to you or the people closest to you.
Three years ago tonight, Ralf and I shared our last meal in our home together. Spaghetti and meatballs from one of our favorite local Italian joints – Ferrari’s.
I remember it well.
I asked if he would be okay with this dish yet again – because it was a frequent craving throughout my pregnancy – and he agreed. We had it delivered and then we sat next to each other at our kitchen counter, like we so often did. Now when I look back at this moment, I specifically remember resting my head on his shoulder and releasing a sigh of enjoyment as I devoured that first meatball.
“I don’t feel so good,” he said, with a mouth full of pasta.
“What do you feel?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I just feel off,” he explained.
“Yeah, you’ve been studying way too hard. You need a break.”
The promotional exam to become a lieutenant was just one week away. We were so close. He would be through with all the studying, his stress level would drop, and I’d have my husband back. We would finally be able to fully enjoy my pregnancy together. The maternity photo shoot was scheduled. He’d be able to join in on the baby shower planning and help me complete the registry – all of which I’d been doing without him because he was so preoccupied with preparing for his test. He would be building baby furniture and we’d be putting our son’s room together.
Just seven more days.
I went to sleep much earlier than he did because, of course, he had to hit the books. Being the extremely light sleeper that I am, I woke up when I felt him climbing into bed hours later.
“Where are you?” he said, as he reached for me to pull me close.
“I love you so much, Maeghan. You really have no idea.”
This was not part of our regular bedtime routine. Sure, he told me he loved me regularly, but this time it was different. His tone of voice was serious, as if he needed to make sure I heard those words that night. It was as if he knew it would be the last night we would share in our bed.
Seven days later, he missed the exam because he was hospitalized awaiting his biopsy.
Eleven days later, he was removed from life support after his tumor unexpectedly ruptured and crushed his brain stem.
Three years later, I love and miss him just the same.
A few weeks ago, my mom sent me a text saying that she’d been cleaning out her filing cabinets and came across some really nice pictures of Ralf and me. She asked if I would like to see. Then, she took pictures of the pictures with her phone and sent them my way.
There we were.
Just 18 years old, freshly graduated from high school, filled with hope and anticipation for the future that we already knew we wanted to build together.
So in love.
And, completely clueless of what was to come.
Mason sat next to me on the couch as I scrolled through the images. In his precious little voice he asked, “What you watching, Mommy?”
I returned his question with another question.
“Mason, who are these people?”
“Mommy and Daddy in Heaven,” he replied with a shy smile.
“That’s right, Baby.”
I took the opportunity to talk to him about his father. I explained to him, as I have many times before, how much we loved each other and how excited we were to have a baby. Mason listened intently as I told him, yet again, the story of how his Daddy in Heaven was a fireman who drove a black RAM and knew how to operate a big boat.
Then I explained that Daddy in Heaven was called to be with God while Mason was still in Mommy’s belly. He loves to hear about how the doctors took him out of Mommy’s belly, how his Yaya placed him on Mommy’s chest for the very first time, and how she fell in love instantly.
He smiled so innocently, paused reflectively, and said something I was not quite prepared to hear.
“I want him to hold me.”
My heart dropped into my stomach.
“Oh, Sweetie. He wants to hold you, too. And I believe one day he will.”
I pulled him in close, squeezed him tight, and reminded him – for probably the millionth time that day- just how much Mommy loves him. Then, a few minutes later, the front door opened and in walked his Daddy on Earth. Mason screamed in excitement and ran into his arms.
And he was held.
Sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way we plan or even hope for, but we must be grateful for the unexpected blessings that come our way.
I know with all my heart that Ralf watches and rests in peace knowing that his son is so loved and cherished. Until the day he can finally hold him in his arms, just like he always wanted to.