José Rolón didn’t know where life would take him after husband Tim Merrell unexpectedly died. But he knew he needed to be there for his three children. Now, the wedding planner is balancing life with a new partner while honoring Tim’s memory for himself and his children.
When José Rolón initially met future husband, Tim Merrell, in 2007, he felt sure he knew what he wanted in a partner. When the two men started dating, though, José felt a little pushback.
“When I met Tim, he was very clear he didn’t want children,” José said. “I think as soon as the third date, it came up. It was hard, but I thought it was worth the sacrifice to be with Tim.”
Their relationship grew deeper together, and the two married in 2010. They built a happy life full of love, laughter and travel. But José still felt like something was missing.
“I would bring it up or make a joke about having kids,” he said. “Tim would always say, ‘You knew who you were marrying.’ And he was right.”
But after a year of marriage, everything changed.
Tim and José with Avery. Photo credit: C J Isaac Photography
“One day, he starts to talk to me about surrogacy,” José said. “He said he had seen Elton John and his husband talking about surrogacy, and he spent the whole night researching it. He was finally open to it.
“That was the thing with Tim: Once he made a decision, he was 100 percent committed.”
The husbands worked with an agency and were partnered with a surrogate. In the spring of 2013, their son Avery was born.
“Tim immediately fell in love with Avery,” José said. “All of a sudden, he was obsessed with being a dad.”
The strong-willed, caring Tim took so completely to fatherhood that when Avery was only two months old, he started talking about another child. The man who had initially said no to kids now was thinking about having more than just one. Soon after, the two started planning for a second surrogacy.
“At the 10-week appointment with our surrogate, we found out we were having twins,” José said. “I was the one freaking out, but Tim was totally calm.”
After that appointment, the two dreamed of a life together with their son and twin girls. And José realized how much Tim had grown — and how much they had both grown together.
A week later, Tim died in his sleep from heart failure. He was 48 years old. When his body was discovered, his hands were tucked peacefully under his cheek.
“I was devastated,” José said. “I thought, ‘I can’t support three kids by myself.’ I didn’t know what to do.”
José with Avery. Photo credit: Sonia Bousquet
Days after the service, 8-month-old Avery, in his walker, kept reaching out to touch a poster of Tim’s face from the funeral. Seeing his son reaching out for the father the boy might never remember, José made a decision.
“I decided to move ahead with the twins’ pregnancy,” he said. “I was an only child with parents who had passed away. Now Avery had just lost a parent. I knew what that loss felt like. If he were ever to lose me, I wanted to know he had a family, a sibling, to be there for him.”
Even as Tim left their family, twins Lilah and London joined it. José fulfilled his dream of becoming a dad, but he admits the first year after losing Tim was the hardest.
“Being a single dad was tough. There were a lot of hard days, days I didn’t want to get out of bed,” he said. “But I got through it. I distracted myself in good ways, in positive ways. I had a huge, consistent support system for me and the kids.”
The power of that support system is palpable from the stories friends and family share on “Remembering Tim,” a site José hosts as a memorial to his late husband. Videos and galleries show a smiling Tim visiting Paris with José or holding Avery for the first time.
Time passed, and José started to date again. “I wanted to start fresh,” he said. “About a year after Tim passed, I finally came to a place where I realized I would not have changed anything about our relationship.”
But José worried — as a widower, as a single father — other men would be intimidated.
“A single guy with a kid is hot,” José said, laughing, “but a single guy with three kids is a hot mess.”
After a couple of failed relationships, along came Alex Gray, José’s now-boyfriend. The two first connected over Whatsapp on José birthday in early February.
“During our first in-person date, I couldn’t quite believe it,” he said. “Here was this hot, Scottish guy who wasn’t even flinching at a guy with three kids.”
Alex said their relationship began as a bit of blur. “Our relationship happened so organically,” he said. “We just had this really strong connection. And as soon as I met the children, I quickly grew fond of them.”
José and Alex with twins Lila and London
Alex admits his biggest fear with José wasn’t the kids, but dating a widower. “I was worried how I would fit in,” he said. “But José was very supportive. He was committed to protecting Tim’s legacy for the kids. But he was very open with me about keeping a balance.”
Alex remembers one time he helped keep Tim’s memory alive. He, José and the kids had planned on singing happy birthday to celebrate what would have been Tim’s 50th
So Alex got the kids together, lit a candle and sang to Tim with the kids. He sent the video to José at the reception.
José and Alex find moments like that make their relationship stronger — honoring this past partner and father while still creating a family of their own.
Alex and José with the kids. Photo credit: Bill Kotsatos
“I had to learn how to honor Tim’s memory while building this new relationship,” José said. “I didn’t want so much of Tim that it felt like there were three of us in this space. I wanted the right balance so that as the kids got older, they always know who Daddy Tim was.”
As the two get ready to celebrate Avery’s third birthday, José looks back on his life with Tim and realizes that despite the pain, there’s something truly valuable.
“I’ve had two great loves in one lifetime,” he said. “Not everyone can say that.”
José and Alex with the kids. Photo credit: Sonia Bousquet
Feature photo credit: Bill Kotsatos Photography