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A young mother, a cancer diagnosis, and a year of grieving her loss

By Rachel Hutton, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Parenting News

Though time was short, Emily enjoyed many of the milestones she hoped to reach: a large, formal wedding to Rob at Lakewood Cemetery's chapel; a party thrown in honor of their home's centennial; an overnight at a Stillwater B&B; a sailing trip on Lake Superior.


In June 2019, Emily's oncologist predicted she would live no more than a few months. Emily began her funeral preparations in earnest. She tracked down green burial options - a laborious and confusing process, even for a skilled researcher. She looked into sea grass caskets and enlisted the services of a death educator/celebrant.

Emily turned to her longtime friend Jessica Bender, who had worked as a funeral director, for information and advice. Jessica told Emily about a wide range of possibilities, including having her cremains interred in an undersea cemetery, which would give Ruby a reason to learn to scuba dive.

In the end, Emily decided to forgo embalming and have her body kept on ice for a home vigil before being placed in the ground to decay.

"She wanted a place where people could come and sit and talk to her," Jessica said. "She said if we wanted to have a picnic, and bring martinis and sit on her grave and have a martini picnic with Emily, we could do that."

In a notebook, Emily detailed wishes for her service. She would wear a black dress. Guests would sing along to Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light." They'd eat food from Taste of Scandinavia. In lieu of sympathy cards, they'd write letters to be read by Ruby when she is older, sharing a memory of her mother.

That fall, in her final days, Emily decided to forgo treatment and enter hospice. While Rob felt relieved that Emily could now access more pain medications, he found the responsibility to administer them stressful. Even with the guidance of on-call hospice nurses, Rob felt like he was flying blind.

The day before she died, Emily couldn't move her body, but she could still hear and respond to others. So Rob gathered a group around Emily's bed, and had everyone sing "Happy Birthday" to Ruby, even though the special day was a few weeks off. Emily's face perked up.

After that, Emily lay peacefully as loved ones took turns at her bedside until she drew her final breath. Then Emily's wishes for her death unfolded as planned. Hundreds of family and friends attended her funeral.

When Emily's body was lowered into the ground, a small group tossed flowers and dirt into the grave. Ruby did so with special vigor, adding a bit of levity to the gaping hole of her mother's loss.



Even though Emily had all her affairs in order, Rob spent hundreds of hours completing paperwork over the next several months. In the midst of grieving Emily, parenting Ruby and juggling a stressful role at work, he muddled through the mundanities of bank and insurance bureaucracies.

"The depths of darkness that I went to in January, February and March were so profound," Rob said. "I was so miserable, and I felt like it was affecting my level of patience with Ruby. And this girl needs nothing but a father who's connecting and adoring of her."

On top of it all, a fraught project at work blew up. Then Rob contracted a bad case of shingles.

Starting a medication for depression and anxiety helped. And, in a way, so did the pandemic, when work moved home and life slowed down a bit. Rob realized that there was only so much one person could handle - trying to be a good spouse, good parent, good employee - even under the best of circumstances.

The confluence of so many hardships helped crystallize what was truly important, Rob said. "I feel like things just roll off my back a little bit more easily than they otherwise would have. Because having gone through this experience and being better grounded, I know that the first and foremost relationship for me is Ruby and what I need to do to take care of her."

Before meeting Emily, Rob admits he was more the type to check the stock market than engage in social justice work. But as the white father of a Black girl, issues of race and equity have come to the forefront.

Wanting to ensure a strong community for Ruby, Emily had asked the leader of her transracial adoption group to speak at her funeral, imploring guests to support Ruby while being vigilant about white privilege and institutional racism. "We're calling on friends and family to help, but from a lens that Ruby needs more than love," Emily said of her wishes.

Rob and Ruby continue to keep Emily's memory alive in their daily interactions. "I don't know that there's ever a day that we don't talk about her, or bring her up in just a fun or casual way," Rob said. "If I ask Ruby, 'Who's our family?' she says, 'Mama, Papa and Ruby, but Mama's dead.' Very matter of fact."

When Emily bought her Oak Hill plot, Rob balked at doing so for himself. He wasn't ready to confront his own mortality. Or think about where he might want to be laid to rest. His own death could be decades off, and who knew the course his life might take.

After Emily died, Rob regretted the decision. So he bought two more plots, right next to Emily's.

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