My Husband Died Two Months After Our Twins Were Born – Now They Are My Reason To Keep Going

Cancer stole Jennifer Hanks’ dream of a long and happy life with her husband – they had just two months together as parents to their twin boys.

Photograph by Luke Nicholls

When I married Justin, life was perfect. We’d grown up knowing each other, friends in high school and at college. Eventually we got together and on the day of our wedding, in May 2013, it seemed as though the fates were smiling on us. We couldn’t have been happier.

I had no idea what would lie ahead. None of us ever expects our world to come crumbling down quite so dramatically, but that’s what happened just a couple of months later.

Justin was getting pains in his chest, bad enough to seek medical attention. I don’t know what we thought the cause would turn out to be, but the last thing we expected to hear was that Justin had a tumor in his chest. ‘Cancer’ is a scary word in any context. I don’t think any of us is ever really prepared for it.

This was the kind of thing that happened to other people, not to us. Our life together was just beginning.

It felt as though I was falling into a dark void with questions swirling around my mind. Was I going to lose my husband? Would he need chemo? Would it affect our chances of having children? This was the kind of thing that happened to other people, not to us. Our life together was just beginning.

But then you realize you have to cope with whatever is happening to you. Within days, we’d packed up our home and moved to Colorado to live with my parents. Not what we’d planned for the start of our marriage, and I was terrified of what was to come.

After a number of chemotherapy sessions and surgery to remove the tumor, we got some good news. Justin was cancer-free and in remission. It felt as though we had a new lease of life, literally. Everything looked good again, and we were ready to make the most of whatever the world had to offer.

It didn’t last. Barely a year later, in January 2015, we learned Justin had a new tumor. He’d been for a routine scan, and I just knew by the look on his face when he came home that there was bad news. I struggled to breathe as I felt the panic and despair crushing down on top of me. Why had this happened? We believed we’d beaten this. It wasn’t fair. I sobbed and screamed, overwhelmed with emotion.

We’d beaten this once. I had to gather my strength, trust in our faith and our love for each other, so we could do it again.

Later, I tried to be calm. I could rage all I liked against God and the world and whatever had caused this, but that wouldn’t help Justin. It wouldn’t help us. We’d beaten this once. Now I had to gather my strength, trust in our faith and our love for each other, so we could do it again.

The odds were against us. The doctors told us Justin’s new tumor was of a rare kind and there were fewer options for dealing with it. Chemo wouldn’t shrink it, but at least it stopped its growth – it was better than nothing. If we could hold the cancer back, it meant more time to find a long-term solution, I thought.

The months rolled by, and sometimes we’d even forget the tumor existed. Life returned to some kind of normality – Justin was working and studying, and we began to think about starting a family. We wanted to be parents, and it wasn’t something either of us was prepared to sacrifice to the cancer. It had already taken so much away from us – instead of enjoying the early days of our marriage, we’d spent them in hospital with Justin hooked up to an IV drip.

Our decision was met with surprise by many. How could we contemplate bringing a child into the world when we didn’t know what Justin’s future would be – or whether he’d even have one? While we could understand their view, it wasn’t going to stop us. It was one part of our dream we were determined would still come true.

At our first ultrasound scan, we discovered we were expecting twins – double the excitement!

We started IVF and were thrilled when it worked. It was really happening – in August 2017 we learned we were having a baby! But there was more to come. At our first ultrasound scan, we discovered the implanted embryo had split and we were expecting twins – double the excitement!

I’d love to say my pregnancy was nothing but happy, but Justin was really not well. He felt terrible and his health was declining. Even so, he did all he could to help me until three months before our boys were due, when he was admitted to hospital. Every day for a month, I’d get in my car and drive an hour each way to see him.

It hurts me to say it, but so much of the joy I’d felt at the prospect of becoming a mother vanished at this time. All I could think about was Justin and how much I wanted him to live. The thought of trying to cope with losing my husband and being a lone parent to our children terrified me. What had we been thinking? ‘Please, God,’ I prayed. ‘Just let him be there for the birth. I don’t know if I’m strong enough to do that without him.’

We were together to welcome our sons into the world, and that will always be a special memory.

With a month to go before my due date, Justin was allowed home. He was weak after being in hospital for so long, but we worked on improving his strength. He was determined to be there for both me and the babies. The plan was that I would go through most of labor alone, but he’d be there to welcome them into the world. It’s certainly not how I’d imagined it when I envisaged us having kids, but I’m so glad he was there. It wasn’t an easy delivery, but having his encouragement made all the difference. We were together to welcome our sons into the world, and that will always be a special memory.

We had a couple of months together as a family, but Justin’s health was deteriorating rapidly. Even though we knew how sick he was, it was still a shock when the end came. I guess there was a part of me that never completely believed it would ever happen – or desperately hoped it wouldn’t. I hope that in time the events of that July day last year will fade in my mind.

Now, with the twins’ first birthday near, I look back on my life with Justin and I’m glad we made the decision to keep moving forward. We chose to believe he would get better one day, rather than focusing on the worst that could happen. We leaned on our faith in God and the support of family and friends when we needed to, and during the darkest times, our love for each other kept us going. I know I will see Justin again one day, and I’m grateful we had the time that we did together as a family and as parents, however brief it was.

I will be the best mother I can possibly be. This is how I will honor his memory.

I can see Justin in our boys every day. He had such piercing blue eyes, and both his sons have them too. I am sure that as they grow they will remind me more and more of their father. They will come to know him, too. Their nursery has pictures of Justin on the walls, and as well as documenting their lives I am using my blog to make sure there are plenty of stories about him for them to read when they’re older.

The boys are my world. They motivate and inspire me every single day. Sometimes it would be easy to stay in bed, to wallow in my grief. But I can’t do that – they need me. I will be the best mother to them that I can possibly be, just as I know Justin would have been the best father. This is how I will honor his memory, until the day we are together again.

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