In 2013, Ted Wiard shared his tragic and moving story for an episode of Bravery Tapes. This week, Ted remembered the episode on Facebook, I watched it again and was re-inspired. I went back to the original video we did and transcribed it, surfacing many details that weren't in the original video and article. I'm publishing here the first part of that transcription: Ted's telling of the death of his brother and his wife Leslie's battle with cancer. I will post subsequent segments soon. I hope you find his story as moving as I did.
Jens: Take us through everything that happened, beginning with Richard.
Ted: My life story changed heavily in 1989. Before that, I was a tennis pro and a 5th grade school teacher. In 1989, my brother Richard died in a shipwreck up in Alaska. He was as commercial fisherman and it was a strange wave that flipped his boat. Our whole family was devastated, shocked and freaked out.
Jens: What was it like for you when you found out?
Ted: I was super intense. I was actually in Phoenix, taking my USTA exam to be a tennis pro. I had just finished my last test and I was with a bunch of people and we were getting ready to leave the next morning. I was driving back with a pro from Santa Fe. We were planning to leave and I decided I just shouldn’t leave.
And at 5 that morning, I got a call from my mom telling me there had been horrendous shipwreck. They didn’t know who was alive. They had found one body and no other bodies. I knew Richard died. There was something in me that told me he had died.
About a year before that, I had actually been very sick and had almost died. He had made me promise that I would live from that sickness. As a mid 20-year-old, I thought I had that control and I promised him. The first thought was, “you made me promise to live and now you’ve died.”
I also felt I’d failed. I was the bigger brother, the protector and all of sudden my little bro was gone. I was fully confused. I went and woke up my other friend and he drove me to the airport and I flew home. The illusion of safety was gone. The whole way home I thought the plane was going to go down. It wasn’t for the fear of my death, it was the fear that if I died too, my parents would not be able to handle that. But finally, the plane landed safely and I was home.
And then I just felt so numb and so hollow inside. There was nothing I could do. It was the first time I really felt that surrender of total helplessness. Nothing I could do to protect my brother, which had been my job, I felt, growing up in Taos. A role was gone, my brother was gone, and I was completely devastated.
Jens: Did you recover from that before Leslie was diagnosed?
Ted: I don’t think so. Richard was supposed to be the godfather of Amy, who wasn’t born yet. Because I had a little girl already and Amy was about to be born, I didn’t realize it but life, instead of sneaking back in, engulfed us. We were busy being pregnant and we were a new couple trying to make our mortgage payment and hopefully having enough to eat halfway decently. Life just sucked us back into trying to do everything.
Pieces would come and I’d feel really sad and I’d miss Richard. But because then Amy was born and we were so busy, there was part of it that was just shelved away. There was grief, there was ceremony, we spread his ashes. We did all of the rituals but there was a part deep, deep down that really didn’t have Richard physically gone.
There’s death and then there’s this new birth of this little baby who came out and immediately laughed and so Amy just brought all this celebration of life in. The death piece was just an undercurrent.
Jens: What happened next?
Ted: So, we started life again. Amy was one and Keri was three. We went to Phoenix once again and she got really tired. We couldn’t understand why. We were at my step-dad’s house and he’s a doctor. She thought she had one more rib on one side than the other side. It was a tumor coming from her kidney, protruding out the front. It was a five-pound tumor.
My step-dad called people and we started the process. My step-dad came to tell me the next day that Leslie was really sick. The oncologist said, “you have a tumor the size of a softball and a tumor the size of a golf ball on your skull.”
Right there, our whole world changed. We died in the form we had known ourselves. She started having her surgeries. This information changed our world immediately. In some ways, I became a single dad, even though she was an amazing mom through her whole sickness.
All of a sudden, all those logistics I could take for granted were gone. I no longer rock climbed because I couldn't take that chance. I was just overwhelmed. I remember lying in bed and going, “what am I going to do? How am I going to take care of this if she dies?” Leslie looked over and said, “I’d like you to get married again someday.” So, I knew she was having the same thoughts. “How the heck is Ted going to do this if I’m not here, with one and three-year-old daughters?” It was like being in a wave and losing your surfboard and slamming that sand and having no idea what direction is up or down. And everything just hurt and was coming in so fast. The chaos was so intense.
We were making sure everything was ready for death. Luckily, we made it through the six months of chemo. Nothing fit. Everything was so overwhelming. Leslie almost died four or five times during those two years. Finally, as things increased and got worse and she became more and more in pain, I was tying Keri’s shoe in the hallway, and Leslie called me. I ran to check on her and Keri started crying. Leslie said, “Ted, no one is living in this house. It’s time to be reborn.”
We cut back on the steroids that were stopping the swelling and she died that February. And Keri and Amy and I started our life.
Leslie’s lessons still run so deep in me, celebrating every moment and every breath, and honoring death so that we live better. In that, she’s one of my biggest teachers.
So that’s the story of those two years. There’s a cancer bubble and a sickness bubble and nobody really knows what goes inside that bubble except the people who are actually in it. There’s the day in, day out, 2am talks of quality versus quantity, [the questions like] “I’m going to die right now. Should the girls be here?”
All those difference pieces as well as the medical needs are so intense. All of a sudden, when that bubble bursts and that person dies, I lost my role as a husband, as a caregiver. My buddy was gone, my high school sweetheart, my friend.
And all of a sudden, I had these two little girls looking up at me, waiting for me. I was having those same thoughts. “How am I going to do this? What am I going to do?” Keri came out and she was next to me and she goes, “Daddy, look, mother Earth is crying for mommy. And you get to spend more time with us.” And so out of the mouths of babes, comes the truth. Leslie’s belief that we were all being reborn — here was the beginning of that.
So luckily, with good family and good friends, Keri and Amy and I started out on the next piece of the journey.
JENS ERIK GOULD
Jens Erik Gould is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News.