Editor’s Note: U.S. Air Force Maj. Bradley Sullivan is a pilot with the 480th Fighter Squadron, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.
In January 2009, my life abruptly arrived at a fork in the road. While my squadron was making final preparations for our six-month deployment, my wife was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer.
We were living near Misawa Air Base, Japan at the time, and being a remote base, we were medically evacuated to Tripler Army Medical Center, Hawaii, for further testing. Sara was incredibly healthy; she taught aerobics and yoga, ate well and had minimal family history of breast cancer. The fact that she was diagnosed with breast cancer was shocking to us all.
If that was not a big enough surprise, two days prior to her mammogram, we found out she was pregnant with our first child.
In Hawaii, we had some major decisions to make. The doctors gave us three options for treatment. Option one: terminate the pregnancy and treat Sara “normally.” Option two: delay treatment until our child was born (eight months in the future). Option three: tailor treatment slightly, and proceed with surgery and chemo during the pregnancy.
We trusted that our God had a plan for our lives and chose the last option, having faith that our unborn child would be protected.
After two surgeries in Hawaii, we were medically moved to Randolph Air Force Base, San Antonio, where Sara could receive her chemotherapy treatments and I could continue flying. She underwent four rounds of chemo during the pregnancy and lost her hair, yet remained positive throughout.
It was after the second round of chemo we found out that we were going to have a daughter.
Pregnancy complications began after the final round of chemo, and there were numerous discussions about delivering an extremely pre-mature baby and supporting her in the neonatal intensive care unit.
But six months after we found out that Sara had breast cancer, our beautiful daughter Chloe Grace was born, seven weeks early: tiny, but healthy…A HUGE MILESTONE!
One week later, we were under our roof as a family of three. Sara had been experiencing significant headaches after Chloe’s delivery and sought out medical treatment. After being home for two days as a family, Sara had a seizure and was rushed back to the hospital via ambulance.
After a few days of uncertainty about what was happening, Sara’s health took a turn for the worse. The doctors told me that she had experienced a massive stroke.
Two weeks after delivering our healthy baby girl, Sara was declared brain dead and “went to be with Jesus,” as she had always described it. I was left to grieve the loss of my wife and learn how to be a dad to a pre-mature baby girl, while continuing to fly for and serve the needs of the Air Force. Needless to say, times were tough in late 2009 and into 2010.
However, the Air Force family stepped up BIG TIME! We received so much support from the 435th Fighter Training Squadron and the community of Randolph AFB.
Chloe continued to grow and was such a joy to have. At times, I doubted my ability to care for her, but we continued to press on as a family. Single parenthood is not for the faint of heart. The days became weeks, weeks became months and the months became years.
My “new normal” was not how I had envisioned life, but I continued to trust that God had a plan for life.
Eight months after Sara passed away, Jenny, who was a widow who lost her husband to bone cancer six months prior to Sara passing away, reached out to me through a blog I created during Sara’s diagnosis. I followed up with the blog after Sara’s passing occasionally to keep family updated on how Chloe and I were doing after Sara passed away.
Jenny and I initially emailed back and forth, sharing experiences from our “grief journeys.” It was comforting to talk with someone who truly understood. Emails led to phone calls, which led to visits (Jenny was living in Sara’s hometown – less than a mile from the house where Sara grew up and where Sara’s mom still lived). Jenny had heard about Sara and my story from friends of hers who knew Sara’s family.
We dated long distance (Houston to San Antonio) until our marriage in May 2011. She had two children and with our marriage, we became a family of five.
A year after our marriage, Jenny was pregnant and delivered our fourth child in early 2013. We arrived at Spangdahlem Air Base as a family of six in October 2013 and are looking forward to our European adventures.
Throughout this journey, I’ve learned numerous life lessons:
1. You cannot always control what happens to you, but you are always responsible for and accountable for your actions.
2. When times are tough, it is easy to get focused on your difficulties. No matter how bad the situation, there are others going through tougher times than you, and if you look hard enough, there are always things to be thankful for. It’s all about PERSPECTIVE!
3. You do not know what you are capable of until you are face- to-face with significant trials.
4. It is okay (and healthy) to ask for help. Pride tends to get in the way, but people want to help.