"Broken But Whole": A Dad's Tribute to a Dedicated Husband & Father
2008, Brooklyn, NY
Does anyone really want to hear the details of someone else's whirlwind romance? I'm not convinced. And does anyone who's experienced that kind of thing really want to share all that much, and force into narrative terms what by definition disorients and leaves you changed? That said, when Lin and I found each other, something clicked instantaneously. We met on Thursday and spent the next 5 days together, each night staying up late, luxuriating in the new and fastly precious thing we'd found. There was wine, too, lots of wine. And in this case the wine may have worked both as an enhancer and a form of self-medication, as all the natural chemicals flowing through me in those first few weeks threw my body and mind into all sorts of glorious disarray. What am I saying here? It was great. It was the greatest thing in the whole world that's ever happened to me, meeting Lin.
Before meeting, both of us were perilously nearing the point of resigning ourselves to being alone, to trying to accept the okay-ness of that, to studiously framing it as some kind of victory. Well, we were blown away that there might be someone for us. And that it could be someone who seemed so perfect. It was a source of great joy and great trepidation at once. Caution was thrown to the wind very early, but not without pangs of wondering if I was setting myself up for a monumental disappointment. Yet one of the first texts I sent to Lin, after our first date, as it hit us both in seismic waves that something big had started, was this: "Trust." So we tried that.
The author (left) and Lin (right)
The summer of 2009 was stressful. I sought to balance my work, which took me away from Brooklyn for days and weeks at a time, with the still-new relationship I was greedy to lavish with attention. A different sort of stress was added when, in June, I'd decided to propose to Lin during our September visit to San Francisco. There's good stress and bad stress, and this definitely falls into the first category, but all in all, there was a lot buzzing around my head in those months.
Marriage, like the idea of having kids, had always been theoretical to me, and over the years I'd vacillated between the notions that it was an outmoded, constraining vestige that same-sex couples should be happy to be free from, and the equality-hungry desire that even if it was all these things, I wanted into the franchise. But now, having fallen head over heels and back again for Lin, my thinking changed. Not only did I want to be able to marry him, I was uncomplicatedly excited by the idea, and my past intellectualizing melted away. I spent countless hours thinking about what I'd say and how and where I'd do it, tapping into the most Virgo-y aspects of myself. I've never thought that perfection was a particularly useful goal, but I wanted it to be "right"; it had to be that.
"One of the first texts I sent to Lin, after our first date...was this: 'Trust.' So we tried that."
San Francisco was our first big trip together, and since Lin had also lived there, we had a full schedule of seeing friends, comparing notes, and generally filtering what we encountered through the new filter of "us". I'd kept my North Beach apartment sublet after decamping for Virginia, France and ultimately New York, in 2005, so we had a good SF home base to strike out from. I decided that Lin's birthday, September 11th, would be the perfect time to propose; we could go to a nice dinner at Chez Panisse, and I'd chalk it up to his 33rd and nothing more. But propose I did. And he said yes, and we cried lots of happy tears.
The lead-up to the wedding was predictably frenzied. That we planned it to be at my Dad's house in Massachusetts, with events in Newport, RI, the day before and the day after meant there were some logistics to tend to. A great many! Lin and I worked to maintain perspective, and keep at front of mind that the idea was to throw a great party for our friends and family, and share with them what we'd found in each other. Simple. And even if the toasts did go on for ever, we were both beyond happy with the day, and I think our guests were as well. [Listen to audio of the wedding ceremony here.]
But there was a definite coming-down period afterward. When you've put months of time and energy into something that occurs over 72 hours and then is done, there's a feeling afterwards, at once liberating but also little wistful of...what next? What next?!?!?! And if that sounds discontented, I wasn't in the least. I was, and remained, just so damned excited to see what was next for me and Lin.
The Author and Lin's Twins, Otis (left) and Max (right)
I went through a couple of weeks, if not months, convinced that I shouldn't be a parent, that had no business being a parent. I'm too selfish, I thought. I'm capricious, and get bored with things, and sometimes don't follow through well, or at all. None of these traits boded well. And we'd talked about taking six months and getting round-the-world plane tickets someday! All by our lonesomes, with nary a diaper in sight! We'd shared dreams of ditching the typically ambitious, driven city life, and both getting jobs at bookstores or cafés! I grasped at the last, flailing tendrils of my youth - wanted to stay out all night, smoke a cigarette or 10, get so drunk I'd lose the whole next day! Then I took the equivalent of a very deep breath...
"'How could I not want to have a kid with this guy?' I thought. 'I may be selfish, but am I stupid?'"
How could I not want to have a kid with this guy, I thought? I may be selfish, but am I stupid? No, really, Lin's going to be like the best Dad any kid could ever hope for, I thought. And stripped of all the finalé-of-youth defenses mechanisms, I knew that with the task of parenting in front of me, I might just be pretty okay at it after all. It's sappy, almost lugubriously so, but what I started to think, and what I said to Lin, is that I just wanted to share whatever magic it was that we'd found with a kid. And once I started thinking that we might both be pretty good at this whole baby-raising thing, I relaxed into the idea, and was soon excited about it in an easy way.
But wait..what?!!! We can't make a baby by ourselves?! What the hell to do???!!!
After a few false starts – including an offer from a friend to be our surrogate that came and wisely retracted in quick succession - I had an important talk with a dear friend, Stef, about where Lin and I found ourselves. And she and I started to break it down, and talk it out in a real way. Did we really want kids at this point or had our small defeats made us think better of the idea? Yes, really we did. Were we really opposed to adoption? Not in theory, but for us, we didn't feel like we were there yet. Maybe someday, but I didn't think so right now. Why did we want kids? The junior project had taken on a life of it's own by this point, and this was a good thing to consider again. We just did. Though it had also crossed our minds that, being somewhat older parents, our children would feel extra-obligated to take care of us in our old age and infirmity. So there was that potential benefit.
We started talking figures. We talked about how envious Lin and I were of those who were able to just decide to go the gestational surrogacy route, those yuppie bastards, and how it made me bitter, and how I didn't like my joyful desire to have a kid co-mingled with all that bitter. And Stef asked, was it definitely not possible, or was it something that we just figured we couldn't do, so we hadn't even crunched the numbers?
No, we hadn't crunched the numbers, mainly because the important number, that of the entire cost of gestational surrogacy, seemed like monopoly money to me. Should you think about whether it would be financially possible, even if it isn't plausible?
So Stef and I ordered another pint, and there, at Prospect Heights' latest-entrant to the gastropub frenzy, we crunched numbers. Savings? Yeah, we had some, but nothing like what we'd need to get through surrogacy. Do they offer loans? I think I'd read something about that, yeah, for some of the medical stuff. Are you willing to go into real debt to do this? Not something we'd considered up to this point, but I guess we could if this was fundamentally important to us. I mean, most of our money seemed to go to eating out with reckless abandon. Some weekends we'd dared to actually add up what we'd spent and it made us blush. Surely, if we could eat $26 burgers at Minetta Tavern we could also put our money into something slightly less evanescent, like a human life!
Stef and I finished up and I walked home through the rain. I roused Lin, who was delirious with sick and had been asleep in bed for hours. I started in: maybe we could do it! Maybe we could make a baby! It took him about 15 seconds to dart straight up in bed, and smile for the first time in days. And we hugged and kissed, and got up and made a makeshift cocktail with whatever we had around, and we toasted. We toasted the hell out of the idea, and it was good.
And then my sister offered to be our egg donor, meaning Lin would be the biological father and we'd both be related to the little whipper-snapper. Ideal.The surrogacy process begins by standing at the opening of a long, pitch-black tunnel that you must negotiate. Only you don't know what's inside, how long it is, or whether there's actually a baby at the other end. You have hope, though, and it's your compass. There are guideposts along the way, revealing possible outcomes to possible scenarios, doing their very best to buff a sheen of scientific gravitas onto something that ultimately involves an enormous amount of inter-personal and intra-uterine uncertainty. But most of the time you don't let yourself think that way. Hope does its job and you power through.
"The surrogacy process begins by standing at the opening of a long, pitch-black tunnel that you must negotiate. Only you don't know what's inside, how long it is, or whether there's actually a baby at the other end."
Except when you "lose" two potential surrogates in the same number of weeks. Then the chaos of it all nudges its way into your psyche whether you want it there or not. Dejected, rumpled, a little tired, and probably indulging in some self-pity. Just for a bit. Then you dust yourself off and remember that, entropy aside, these agencies and clinics have actual facts and figures which exclaim loudly that quite often, this stuff really does work out! And you remember about the bouncy baby you want – it must be bouncy, we'd say! – and how much you both have to share with the little thing, and you right your ship.
And you wait…
On January 10, 2012, we got an email saying that two new surrogate profiles were ready to view. They'd said things would pick up after the holidays, and it was happening! One of the profiles they were particularly jazzed about,one of their "absolute favorites," was available again after having a surrogate birth eight months prior. She was experienced!
The email described her this way:
"We love this carrier; she is one of our favorite GCs. We have known her for four years and have stayed in contact since her delivery last April. She lives in CT and is a stay-at-home mom. She is warm, wonderful and will be the best at communicating with you, it will be so easy to move through the process with her. She is well-educated and lovely to speak with. This carrier does have health insurance to cover the pregnancy costs."
All the first calls elide into one at this point, and I don't remember a lot of specifics of the call with Jeanne. We talked and shared and were serious and even laughed some, and dealt with the two mandatory contingency topics; potential termination and twins – she was okay with both.
She impressed us on the call with her knowledge of the IVF process, having gone through it twice with her own kids, and again as a surrogate the first time. She had the kind of real-world experience that was invaluable to us in this bizarro-world process. She was also solid and kind and we liked her, and asked if she wanted to meet in person. She was in eastern Connecticut, and we'd be going to her. We asked where there was a decent place to eat nearby. Without skipping a beat she answered, "the casino." Yes!
Two weeks later we were in the car and headed for the Mohegan Sun in Montville, Connecticut. It was the first time either of us had been, and I'll be damned if it wasn't pretty compelling. Massive, rough-hewn poles and beams littered among Mashantucket Pequot artifacts from days long before lady luck collided with their tribe. And the way these naturalistic markers contrasted with the crass glare of slot machines and computerized jingles and chain smokers; well it was something.
We'd arrived to the casino early, and called Jeanne to let her know the deal, and to ask where we should meet. We'd done a little scanning around ourselves, but at 3pm on a Saturday there were surprisingly few places still serving. She had a suggestion though, and it was open... Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville!!! So perfectly weird that words almost fail.
We arrived first and planted ourselves at the bar. Lin and I were plainly nervous, much more so than when meeting the last potential surrogate. This was mostly because Jeanne's husband Frank was also coming to lunch, which added some pressure. I ordered a beer, and quick enough it worked its sudsy magic and calmed my nerves a little. Lin did the same. When they entered I recognized her from the profile picture, but she didn't see me so I looked away and collected myself, rather than make clumsy eye contact for the next 8 seconds while they traversed the huge restaurant. When they reached us we made brief introductions. Frank didn't venture a smile, and his eyes darted around focusing on anything but us. Jeanne seemed a little nervous too, but friendly. I talked to the hostess and thankfully there was a table available right away. We hightailed it there, hoping the new setting might wash away the weirdness of those first few seconds.
We did talk about surrogacy. But only after covering our respective jobs, where we were from and the idiosyncracies of those places, and how the food was tasting, in detail. In fact, when I headed to the bathroom at one point, the topic still hadn't been raised. But when I came back they were all talking about it freely. Excellent! I think they wanted to know what kind of parents we'd be, and I hope that they got their answers as much from how Lin and I are together as from the words we said. I got the sense that they were into it.
Lin and I decided beforehand that if things went well, we'd give them the chance to say then and there if they wanted to proceed, while letting them know that if they wanted time to think that was fine, too. So at the end of the meal, we popped the question. Jeanne, who was holding Frank's hand across the table at this point said to him, " So what do you think?" For about ten interminable seconds, he sat speechless, and my stomach knotted. Anything less than a clear yes was not a good sign, and probably was a bad sign. Shit.
"I'm game!" he said, and we all laughed and smiled and exhaled fully.
Our twin boys Max and Otis were born on June 9, 2013, at a hospital in Norwich, Connecticut. After three surreal days in the hospital, we asked friends of ours from Boston to drive us home in our car, such was my anxiety at having to pilot I-95 with such precious new cargo.
We spent the next 18 months in Brooklyn, in a half-stunned adjustment to the realities of parenting. And we fell in love with those boys in the way you hear about. They charm you and they drive you insane and they keep you up and you keep yourself up to steal glances of them as they, at long last, sleep. Jeanne was the one that went through the actual pains of birth, but we underwent a similar process that made it clear after a few months that, yes, we were definitely parents now.
We'd made the decision to move to Los Angeles to raise the kids, a place where Lin could expand his work as a television editor and me, as a private chef. We built in an 18-month extended pit-stop in Newport, RI, where I grew up, to save money and be closer to relatives and friends. It was an amazing decision for the boys, who thrived, and a welcome change in for us.
In June of 2016, we moved in our new rented house in the leafy Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Seamless was the word everyone used to describe our cross-country move, made more remarkable because though we moved with a handful of connections neither of us secured actual employment in advance. Within two weeks though, Lin and I were both working full time, we'd found a fantastic pre-school for the boys, and we started the process of settling deeply into our new adopted home. We loved LA.
Into the fall, Lin worked late hours editing a pilot for MTV, and I settled into an unchallenging but pleasant enough private chef position for a single client in Bel Air. The most stressful thing in our lives was the looming 2016 presidential election, and I could swear it began to affect Lin physically. He kept getting a pain in his side, which would come and go. And we'd laugh and chalk it up to Trump, or the fact that Max and Otis had been up a lot at night and none of us were getting quality sleep, or that they'd had had colds for months, as kids do when they first enter school, and we were all just worn down.
In December, the pain in his side became more pronounced. One morning, we walked into a nearby urgent care center. We arrived at noon and no one was available to see Lin until 1pm, so I left for work, and waited to hear back. Kidney stones, probably, he texted. Nope, not kidney stones. He wants me to go to the ER around the corner, Lin texts. Should I leave work? Maybe, he says. I arrived at the ER of Hollywood Presbyterian hospital and met Lin in the waiting area. He'd already been seen and was waiting to be called back in. When we went back, they busily took vial after vial of blood.
"Your white blood cell count is very very very high, which indicates leukemia," the ER doctor said without emotion when she finally spoke to us.
The room slowed, my ears rung, I felt unsteady on my feet. And Lin and I looked at each other in a way you don't ever want to look at the love of your life, in a way you never want to look at your person. A terror without a name.
Lin was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of leukemia, and he was transferred to City of Hope hospital in Duarte, CA. He was able to leave the hospital after about two weeks, and started immunotherapy, which drove his disease into remission with swiftness and few side effects. But because this kind of leukemia is almost guaranteed to return, a donor bone marrow transplant is essentially required.
"The room slowed, my ears rung, I felt unsteady on my feet. And Lin and I looked at each other in a way you don't ever want to look at the love of your life, in a way you never want to look at your person. A terror without a name."
Being of northern European descent Lin was nearly guaranteed a good marrow donor match. Nearly. Because of an anomaly on one of his genes, it proved extremely difficult to find an appropriate donor, and the one time we came close, the donor disappeared from the registry when it was time to obtain a test sample. What was left was the option of cord blood stem cell transplant. Though the doctor said there can be more risks in the wake of the transplant, cord blood also afforded better protection against recurrence. So that's what we focused on and that was the route we took.
Lin sailed through transplant. He received both radiation and chemotherapy in advance of the procedure and was nauseous for a total of about 18 hours. On the transplant floor on the hospital they incentivize you to exercise by rewarding you with a tiny, colored rubber foot to place on a chain for each mile you walk. When we were discharged after transplant, Lin had 27 feet on his chain. Nurses with decades of experience said they'd rarely seen such a patient like Lin.
Over the next five months, though, Lin had to be re-admitted to the hospital three times for stays ranging from fourteen to 65 days. The first couple of times were thanks to side effects of the transplant, but then we were back on track. Then came the third stay, the 65-day stay. His liver had become infected with something called Graft-Versus-Host Disease, where the old cells and the newly introduced cells engage in a sort of battle for dominance. His bilirubin levels began to climb. And then climb some more. We watched a lot of The Great British Baking Show and stayed positive, knowing that this would subside and we'd soon be home. There were various therapies that could work on the GVHD, and a separate virus he had had was finally responding to drugs, too. Once again, just as during our surrogacy journey, we let hope be our guide, and kept our eyes on the numbers to look for verification that everything would end up alright.
Lin got to come home in mid-October of this year. He was home for a week, and every night of that week he read a bedtime story to our boys; it was the best part of his day, he said. What a father. And then I had to take him back in at 3am one night when he became very confused due to the high bilirubin level in his liver. His heart started to race.
After being back in the hospital for only 2 days, Lin was moved to the ICU after a blood pressure Code Blue and some bleeding. Then he stabilized, and his vitals held, and after a week more he moved to a regular floor. He hadn't been able to talk or move much for a week, but I was communicating with him with his eyes for sure. And I whispered into his ear… "what a battle you've gotten through babysweetness, you're winning, you've gotten through a really shitty time but you're fighting so hard and you're winning!"
He was getting better, I knew it.
Lin died on November 10th, 2017, two days later, at 41 years old. I was in the room with him, as was my father and a close friend. It was peaceful and it was quick. And in the wake of what's happened, the boys and I have been surrounded by family and love, and for me, Lin's palpable presence.
I'm not someone who goes around thinking that life is fair. I know that it isn't. But what happened to Lin is so deeply unfair in a way that words mostly fail to convey. The world has lost a deeply good and wholly decent man. Our boys have lost a father. I have lost my best friend – I have lost my person. And I miss him, I miss him. Oh god, I miss him.
"There's an army of love out there supporting the three of us. It allows me to function. And certain boys still need me to make their breakfast in the morning, and nothing could ground you more."
Losing Lin is something I'll carry with me for as long as I live, and right now, I don't have the words – for myself much less for anyone else. But also, there's an army of love out there supporting the three of us, and I'm taking the support, all of it. It sustains me, it allows me to function. And certain boys still need me to make their breakfast in the morning, and nothing could ground you more.
Overnight, the main directive of my life has become to create a vivid picture of him for the boys, so that their fantasy of him comes as close as possible to touching the reality of him. A dear friend is building a gorgeous wooden reliquary box where all things Lin will be kept, and with luck pored over and savored by the boys throughout their lives, I've created a memorial fund to benefit the kids, a master stonecutter is carving his initials into slate, to keep him close in our home long after his ashes have been scattered.
That will happen on a beach in Malibu next May on what would have been our 8th wedding anniversary. The beach is where we used to take the boys, a place where we had such fun. At various times when Lin was in the hospital, he made videos for Max and Otis, filled with good humor and great sensitivity, as he tried to help them understand what was going on in ways that felt safe and digestible to a three-year-old mind. In the last video he made, during transplant, he promised that when he was all better we'd go back to the beach together. This will be my way of keeping that promise.
What's happened is still unimaginable. It's unthinkable to me in the most literal sense. And I know this is just the beginning. But I'm starting to believe things I never thought I would. The night of his passing, after what seemed like a rousing combination of an Irish wake and sitting shiva, and long after I thought I was done crying for the day, I burst into tears, surrounded by my dad and our friend Tom who'd been in the room when it happened. Clear as day, I suddenly felt Lin's hand on my shoulder, comforting me, steadying me. And there's it's remained over the past two weeks. He is with me, he is with us. We are broken, yet we are whole.
Marc has set up the Lin Sorensen Memorial Fund to help provide for his children in the coming months in his husband's absence.