In Sickness

by Amanda Fretheim Gates

“We need this to look forward to,” my parents said. But as I stared at my mom lying in her hospital bed, tubes coming out of her arms, looking so small and frail, I couldn’t shake my feeling of selfishness. How could I talk to her about gowns, flowers, and caterers when she’s facing such a long road ahead? How could my fiancé and I possibly spend their generous contribution when we knew how much her prescriptions cost each month? It was almost too much to take.

Jon and I were engaged two weeks earlier. We spent a week up in Alexandria, Minnesota boating, grilling, reading, and relaxing. Jon got down on one knee amongst the apple trees at the local winery. The first person I called was my mom, and she couldn’t wait to tell her friends. We made it back to town for a Father’s Day celebration with the family and when it was just the two of us with my parents at the end of the night, we talked dates, venues, and budgets.

The following weekend my mom came with us to look at our ceremony and reception site. She wasn’t feeling well, and she couldn’t walk up the stone steps to the historic library without stopping to catch her breath. When I’d seen my dad the day before, he told me his concern about her health with tears running down his cheeks. We didn’t know what it was, but something wasn’t right.

My mom was admitted to the hospital two days later with low hemoglobin and questionable test results. The doctors began to eliminate possibilities, but still couldn’t put a name to her illness. On Wednesday I missed work to be with her for two scary procedures, and what turned out to be a discussion about the “C” word. She had cancer. Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cell, was eating away at her bone marrow, amongst other things, and the time to act was now. Chemotherapy, stem cell transplants, and months of recovery were to follow.

By then, planning a wedding seemed pretty ridiculous. Life itself was way more important than place cards and programs. I wanted her to be there and I wanted her to be healthy, so maybe sooner nuptials were better? I didn’t need a big party with a lot of razzle dazzle—all I needed was Jon and those few closest to us to help seal the deal.

Jon and I went to the hospital the next day prepared with a speech. We’ll get married before any other big procedures, to ensure my mom would be well enough to attend, and they could keep their contribution. I don’t think I spoke more than two sentences before my dad had heard enough. My parents had their faith, and that’s all they needed to know that everything would be okay. Things were to go on as planned. This “look forward to” was going to get them both through these tough months ahead.

As the youngest by a lot of years and the only girl, it was just my parents and me for a long time. I was very fortunate to receive all that I did. My parents paid for my car and they covered my insurance. I called my dad when I got a flat tire or needed an oil change. My mom would offer to buy me groceries. When my roommate moved out and I just couldn’t bear to find another, my parents helped me with my mortgage every month. Despite all they handed to me, my parents also taught me a good deal about responsibility and I matured quite quickly. But, I always knew they would be there to lean on, too.

Seeing my mom in the hospital, and watching her struggle with her health over the following months, I realized my parents’ mortality. They won’t always be there. And at age twenty-four, though I was living on my own, holding a job with benefits, and preparing to marry, I finally realized my place in the world. It was time for me to switch positions, from being their child to being an adult.

These thoughts came crashing down around me during those first few weeks. I could barely talk to either of my parents on the phone without welling up inside, tears dropping from the corners of my eyes. One night soon after my mom’s diagnosis, Jon and I were grilling hamburgers for dinner before we went to watch fireworks with friends. As we sat down at the table, I started to cry and I couldn’t stop for a long time. Jon held me in his arms and let me weep.

Through his murmurings of reassurance, it hit me that, without knowing it, I had already made the switch. While the two people who raised me would be around as long as they could, the person holding me was the one I would turn to now. By saying yes to Jon’s proposal, I was making a step toward a partnership of my own. I could use all that I learned by watching my parents’ marriage over the years and emulate that in my own, thus making their love truly everlasting. I’m thankful every day for the man in my life; I wouldn’t have made it through that summer without him. Months before he stood in front of me to say them, he lived up to our marriage vows.

Throughout the next several months the wedding planning continued alongside my mom’s treatment. When I was trying on gowns, my mom was ballooning up from the steroids. When we were taste-testing dinners and desserts, my mom was losing her appetite. When we were addressing invitations, my mom’s kidneys were failing her. And when we were designing a seating chart, she started dialysis. But through all her doctor visits and hospital stays, she had the wedding to talk about. Her nurses asked for updates and her doctors knew what she had to get better for. Her bravery and strength amazed me.

As Jon and I danced our final dance during our wedding reception, I looked over at my mom and dad sitting alongside the dance floor, her swollen feet propped up on a chair in front of her. I thought over the past year, when the word cancer entered our family, and, thankfully, the word remission did as well; when I wasn’t sure my mom would be well enough to be there at all, let alone for the whole night. I looked at the couple whose marriage I hoped to model ours after. They were going to be around for a long time to share their love with us. Together, we looked forward to that.

Photo: Christina Richards

Amanda Fretheim Gates is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis. She fortunately had five more years with her mom before she passed in April 2011.

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  • Karen

    Wow! In sickness and in health. This is what marriage is about. Thank you so much for writing this post.

  • This is so beautiful. My condolences on the loss of your mother.

  • Jenny

    This was beautiful. My father had MM when I was in high school. Though he didn’t live long enough to benefit from the major advances, I’ve followed enough to know that there have been some great break throughs. I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this, but I’m happy that you get to have your mother around both for the wedding and for your marriage. Watching the hard parts of marriage made the commitment even more meaningful for me, you did a wonderful job expressing this in your piece.

  • “Months before he stood in front of me to say them, he lived up to our marriage vows.”

    Your entire post is incredibly powerful, but this sentence hit me like a ton of bricks. For all the pomp and circumstance the actual exchanging of vows often receives, it’s these little moments, often wordless, that lay bare the truth of what it means to be married.

    My condolences on the loss of your mother, but it seems that the beautiful legacy of her marriage to your father helps her live on with you and your husband.

    • Ashley

      Oh, her mother is still around, thankfully! (Assuming I read the end right, sounds like she is in remission :)
      I totally agree with your feelings about that line in particular.

      • Brenda

        Unfortunately the about the author bit says she passed in 2011.

    • I think for anyone who went through hard stuff (illness, death, loss) during engagement or earlier in a relationship those lines will always ring true. They certainly have for me.

  • Ellen

    As someone whose grandfather passed away from MM and whose soon-to-be MIL is currently fighting it, this hit me pretty hard. Thank you for sharing your story. While my fiance’s mother is the strongest woman I’ve ever known and is fighting incredibly hard, I worry about what could happen during the remaining year-plus of our engagement. At least I know that he and I will be there together to help each other through it.

  • This post literally took my breath away. I got to the end and realized that I had started holding my breath at some point.

    My mom has been going through a long bout of sickness related to uterine cancer *and* she’s been trying to find a job. (They always have a reason, usually “over qualified,” but we are pretty sure that it is her age and her illness that keep getting her turned down over and over.)For me, it has been a process of finding balance between trying to be there for her and not be all wrapped up in myself and having upbeat news to share with her, to help keep her spirits up.

  • Angela

    This was so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing it and so sorry about the loss of your mother. I’m glad that she was able to attend your wedding. The C world hits me hard because my fiancé dealt with treatment for Hodgkin Lymphoma last summer. We were not engaged at that point but had been partnered for five years. Like you said it was during those tough sad times that we demonstrated the vows that we have yet to make publicly. He’s already my partner in sickness and health whether we are official in the eyes of the state yet or not.

  • Catherine

    Oh my God. Tears tears tears. This is so beautiful and so true. The realization of your parents’ mortality really hits you during engagement, I can’t imagine dealing with an illness on top of that. Your story is so heartwarming as well. I know your parents felt so blessed to have your wedding to look forward to. That must have been an extremely special time. I’m so happy she could be there for it. The fragility of life makes loving scary, but without taking the risk of loving I guess we never really live.

    Thank you so much for this beautiful post.

  • This is an incredible post. Thank you for sharing, Amanda.

    And also – kudos to APW for including an author line at the bottom! I don’t know when that started, but I really love knowing a little bit more about the great people who contribute to the site!

    • But, as an addendum, I miss having the editor’s note at the top every time

  • fermi

    My grandmother passed away from MM a year after I was born, while reading this article I was hoping that your Mom was still around, I know having 5 years more with her had to be the best, back in the early 80s, my grandmother didn’t have that chance. As someone earlier stated, there have been a lot of advances since and we can only hope for those recently diagnosed that their remission will last longer.

    It was a beautiful article.

  • Abby Mae

    Oh, god. That was beautiful and heartwrenching all at once.

    Thank you for your story Amanda.

  • Trisha

    Beautifully written. My mom was also very sick throughout our wedding planning. As the last of three girls to marry, and my mom walking me down the aisle I fully understand how you feel. She was there with me, walked me down the aisle and even danced her way into the reception. I knew the whole time how much she was struggling but she never let it get in her way. Mom passed this March two months before our one year anniversary, but not before giving us a gift certificate for the anniversary dinner we would have. My relationship and marriage is forever stronger for the love and support my husband gives me. I’m still crying from reading this but am comforted to know there are others who understand. In hindsight having here there with me was truly a gift.

  • Beautiful, truly touches my heart. I am so sorry for the loss of your Mom- may beautiful memories like sharing your wedding day with her bring you much peace & comfort!

  • This was a beautiful story and resonates with our own recent engagement. The week we were engaged my fiance’s father had his leg amputated as a result of his lifelong battle with diabetes and within a few days had contracted a hospital infection. The initial excitement of engagement quickly gave way to hospital visits and letting my fiance learn that he could lean on me and share his burdens.

  • Giggles Mom

    This post hit home with me. I went through the same thing 38 years ago. I was a junior in college when my Dad called to say that the doctors had found out what was making my Mother ill. She too was diagnosed with multiple myeloma . This was before all of the advancements in the disease that they have now. I came home from college to spend as much time with my Mother as I could. I too am the only girl in my family with much older married brothers who had children of their own. My Mother and I were best friends as well as having a very close mother daughter relationship. I took part time classes close to home and started a job. As my mother was facing death I met my future husband at my new job. We too bonded in a way that still keeps us together. It was strange meeting and falling in love with my new best friend while watching my mother slip away. I have often wondered if it had to be that way. If I couldn’t be that close to two different people. My Mother was able to come to our wedding ceremony but then had to be whisked away. She wasn’t able to come to our reception. One of my biggest regrets is that we didn’t get a picture of my Mother on my wedding day. Two weeks after our marriage my Mother’s health took a turn for the worse and she spent the remaining 20 months bed fast before she slipped a way to heaven. She was able to live long enough to see my oldest daughter born. She too lived 5 years after her diagnosis. I am so sorry that Daughters and Mothers are still having to go through this. I hope and pray and multiple myeloma will soon be a disease of the past. But I know that faith in God and love will get you through this and anything else that life throws your way.


    Oof. I’ve been reading APW for a year and this is the first time I’ve literally had to hold back tears at my desk at work. Thank you for the beautiful piece. Since I live across the country from my parents, one of my biggest fears is to have their health fail and me be unable to help being so far away. This helped remind me that we could make it through anything, even if it isn’t easy.

  • One More Sara

    “I could use all that I learned by watching my parents’ marriage over the years and emulate that in my own, thus making their love truly everlasting.”

    seriously beautiful piece start to finish, but this line… just.. WOW. Thanks for that.

  • Sarah

    Where was the tissue warning? That was a beautiful post and thank you for sharing. I have often felt the same way about my fiancee and the transition in my relationship with my parents. Your words are so eloquent. I am so glad to hear that your mom was able to participate in your planning, be there with you and spend another 5 years – but condolences on your loss.

  • KW

    Beautiful post, thank you.

  • NTB

    Beautiful story. Thank you.

  • Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful and encouraging story, Amanda. I am sorry for your loss.

    “I finally realized my place in the world. It was time for me to switch positions, from being their child to being an adult.”, I’ve found that to be one of the toughest realizations since getting married, seeing my parents getting older/sick is one of my biggest fears.

  • Wow. Thank you all for the wonderful, heartfelt comments. This was therapeutic for me to write, but reading these comments is also so helpful in times of grief. My mom would’ve been 68 this week and I’m so glad this was posted. APW has such great readers!

    • rachel

      This is so beautiful- thank you for sharing! We were planning our wedding while my fiance’s father was battling colon cancer (and I was suffering from a chronic illness). There is something so powerful in being with your partner, knowing that they have already been there for you in sickness and health.

      Also I love your profile picture! We got engaged at the Stone Arch Bridge, and are still loving living in town :)

  • falnfenix

    this was beautifully written.

  • swarmofbees

    I would like to say thank you, Amanda and APW, for this post. My dad was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma last fall right after I got engaged. My parents gave me everything and made me who I am. The thought of getting married without my father is beyond my powers of contemplation. But, I had to contemplate it and, even harder, I had to contemplate the years that would come after without him. I also wanted to fly home and get married right away. But, thankfully the new treatments are working wonders. We decided to have the wedding on the original date, but to have it closer to my dad in case he is not well enough to travel. We are keeping our fingers crossed that he will be in remission by then. I am so glad your Mother made it to remission and could attend your wedding. Thank you for your post. It is so helpful to hear these stories and know that there is a chance that life can work out ok.