The choice was unusual, but loving: We wanted them to live without the shadow of their mother's mortality hanging over them.
We decided not to tell the kids. Marla knew that once our three daughters understood that their mother had been given 1,000 days to live, they’d start counting.
They would not be able to enjoy school, friends, their teams, or birthday parties. They’d be watching too closely—how she looked, moved, acted, ate, or didn’t. Marla wanted her daughters to stay children: unburdened, confident that tomorrow would look like yesterday.
Marla was my first and only girlfriend. We were introduced in October 1987, when we joined a coed intramural flag-football team in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I wasn’t very good with women, monosyllabic in their presence. We all went to a bar after one game, and I came home with a napkin on which I’d jotted down words to describe Marla: “Hot. Fast. Fun. Sweet. Flint.” Yes, flint as in Flint, Michigan—her hometown—but also flint as in flinty—steely, speedy, mighty, glinting.
A month later, I mustered the nerve to call her house phone (we only had landlines in 1987). We would spend the next 31 years together.
Marla could water-ski barefoot. I was a rabbi’s kid; I rarely even went on boats. She made a habit of taking me places.
If you had asked me on our wedding day, I would have told you with confidence what our love would look like: We’d be a couple who jogged together in Scarsdale, danced in Nantucket together, carved through snow or lakes on skis together, spun the Hanukkah dreidel together with our children, and sang along together to Bruce Springsteen (her prescient favorite was “Tougher Than the Rest”). I would not have said we’d be a couple who fought a fatal illness together. Nor that this private act would be the thing that united us the most.
In 2009, Marla’s radiologist called to tell her that she had early-stage breast cancer. She was also BRCA-positive, meaning that she carried the inherited gene for the disease—a troublesome marker. After a double mastectomy and ovary removal, she needed eight rounds of chemotherapy to clear the cancer found in her lymph nodes.
Our kids were 8, 9, and 11 at the time, and though they understood then that she was undergoing treatment (wigs were hard to hide), we never told them the news we soon learned from Memorial Sloan Kettering’s head of breast-cancer oncology: Marla had a triple-negative cancer cell, the fiercest of them all. When linked with the BRCA mutation, it is commonly referred to as “the breast-cancer death sentence.” This specialist bluntly told her: “Go live your next 1,000 days in the best way you know how.”