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'Why did Daddy have to die?'

"Daddy is going on a surfing trip with his friends!" I said as I looked into the face of my 2-year-old daughter. She looked at me sideways and then wandered off to play. The truth was that the love of my life, my high school sweetheart and my best friend had just been diagnosed with "stage-four cancer of unknown primary." On April 10, 2003, he checked into the hospital for a week of intensive chemotherapy treatment.

Marc and I decided that we would do whatever we could to ensure that our baby would have as "normal" a life as possible while he went through whatever was to come... and come it did. The 21 months that my extremely healthy husband lived with, battled and ultimately died of cancer are filled with wonderful stories of triumph, love, sadness and despair. The story we both lived for was Mia, the little life we loved and who was sleeping upstairs when we got that life-altering phone call.

While I wanted to protect my little girl from what was happening, I knew that she wasn't buying the "surfing trip" each time Marc went to the hospital. She knew her Daddy was sick from hearing the periphery discussions of family and friends and from the prolonged absences we had at the hospital.

I could not find any resources available to parents of a 2-year-old in this situation, so I decided that we needed to seek the counsel of a child psychologist quickly. We had this little life that we were responsible for, but my husband and I could barely deal with the news we had received -- so how could we help her though this time?

We learned that we needed to tell her the truth in a way that she could understand without overburdening her with too much information. I sat her down on my lap and told her that Daddy was very sick with a stubborn illness, not like a cold that goes away after a few days. She had many questions but understood now why Daddy was often gone and was sleepy and sick when he came home.

From then on, when he was admitted to the hospital, we had her visit each day. She loved sitting on Daddy's bed watching a cartoon with him if he was up for it. She delighted the nurses and herself with all of the attention, and when we kept her too long for our own selfish reasons, she let us know.

"Daddy, are you all better now?" she would ask. He would say, "No honey, but I am working on it. The doctor is giving me good medicine and I am doing everything I can to get better." Sometimes this would satisfy her for a few days, sometimes for a few minutes, and she would ask again.

When Marc came home last September from a double stem cell rescue, he told Mia, "Daddy will never have to go to the hospital again!" It was a huge effort to save his life. Marc was able to receive a completely experimental transplant that was the most dreadful thing I have ever witnessed, and one of the few times I could not take her to visit.

Marc's illness was a roller coaster ride, from the day he was diagnosed until the day he passed away. The wonderful gifts were the short times of remission, when we were able to take Mia with several of our friends to Costa Rica and have a huge birthday party for him, and the times he was able to surf and attend local car shows with her.

In the face of another resurgence of his cancer, he always chose the most aggressive treatment his doctor offered without flinching. Later, when I would ask him why, he would tell me that he never wanted Mia to think he didn't try absolutely everything he could to stay alive and be her father. On Dec. 1, 2004, Marc went to the hospital for the last time. He died on Dec. 26.

When I told Mia that Daddy was thinking about going to heaven soon, she looked at me very alarmed and said, "TODAY?!" I told her that he was thinking about it, as his body was tired and very sick, and that he was going to be with God.

She visited every day during those three weeks in December. We read Marc stories and sang him Christmas songs. She would kiss him and tell him she loved him. The simple honesty that we shared with her about the situation brought her peace in the face of our sadness.

Mia is 4 years old now. Every day, she asks when she'll go to heaven, too. I thought I was reassuring her when I told her she had a long life to live, was going to have children (and name one of them after me), go to college and grow up and do lots of things. After she asked me no less than two dozen times, becoming more agitated each time, I finally figured out that she wants to go to heaven to visit Daddy.

A few nights ago, at 2 in the morning, Mia woke up crying. "Mommy, why did Daddy have to die?" she asked.

"Well sweetie," I began. "It is very late, and time to sleep. We'll talk about it more in the morning." But then it hit me. I said to her, "You know that Daddy tried everything, he tried so hard to stay here. Do you know why he went to the hospital and took all of that medicine?"

"Why, Mommy?" Mia asked.

"Because he loved you so much, and wanted to do whatever he could to live another day with you," I answered.

Smiling through her tears, she said, "Really, Mommy, he did?"

"Yes, my love, "I replied. "He did."

Caroline Mandich is a Seattle-area mother who enjoys travel with her daughter. A mortgage banker with Drake Mortgage, she is embarking on the next stage of her life with support from family and friends.

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