Aaron Stradecke holds his soon-to-be three-year-old daughter Audrey on his lap as he reflects on the death of his wife and mother of his three children, Mallory Cooper-Stradecke. She died of cancer on March 14 at the age of 28.
“In a way, she [Audrey] is kind of the luckiest of all,” said Stradecke, his eyes welling up. “She might vaguely remember her mom, but she doesn’t have to go through it like the rest of us do.”
He speaks these words towards the end of an interview in his Saanich townhouse near the University of Victoria.
Stradecke’s other children, four-year-old Tristan and his seven-year-old sister Phaedra, have already left for school. The only other person in the house is Stradecke’s sister Carol, who has come from Edmonton to help out in any way that she can. This morning she is cleaning the kitchen, with the sound of dishes clanging and banging in the background.
A cartoon plays on low volume on the television in the living room, but Audrey loses interests and eventually asks her dad if they can go to the park. “We’ll go a little later,” he says. “It’s a nice day for that.”
It is a Monday morning in the middle of May, one week after Mallory would have turned 29, had it not been for a rare genetic disease called Lynch syndrome. That led to cancer of the stomach, which then spread to her right lung, notwithstanding surgery that removed most of her stomach, some 40 lymph nodes and large portions of esophagus, and several rounds of chemotherapy before and after surgery.
“It just kept getting harder and harder for her,” said Stradecke in describing the course of the final months. “Every day it seemed like she was in more and more pain, until they kept bumping up the pain [medication]. Eventually, she just became less and less coherent.”
Mallory’s death cut a wide circle of grief that includes three young children and a husband trying to cope with his own feelings.
“When the kids have sad days or moments, then I need to try to figure how to talk to them, tell them and reassure them that everything is going to be OK,” he said. “I mean, I have my own moments too, but I am the only one who can really help that.”
Stradecke said his children have on balance responded to the death of their mother as well as one might expect.
“My four-year-old son Tristan still asks questions sometimes,” he said. “He knows he can’t see Mommy and she isn’t going to be back. You can tell it gets to him sometimes. But he does OK for the most part. My oldest daughter, she definitely has her moments. Yesterday was Mother’s Day and she had a bit of an off-day yesterday just because of that.”
Stradecke, for his part, is not afraid to speak about his feelings. “I miss her like crazy,” he said. “At least I know she doesn’t have to suffer through that anymore.”
This complex, shifting emotional landscape unfolds against the backdrop of economic anxieties. A carpenter by trade, Stradecke has not worked since mid-December 2017 to help care for Mallory, and currently receives income assistance. While his employer has been very generous, Stradecke says it could be a while until he goes back to work.
A GoFundMe campaign is currently raising funds, and Lambrick Park Preschool is putting together a barbecue fundraiser at Gyro Park on May 27 for the family.
The absence of a will by Mallory has further complicated economic matters. An earlier GoFundMe campaign launched in January 2017 has raised $16,525. But the unused portions of this fund remain inaccessible, because they rest in an account under Mallory’s name, which Stradecke cannot access until a court grants him control of her estate, including her bank accounts.
“Obviously, that GoFundMe would help a lot right now,” he said. “It’s been difficult, just slowly plugging away, day-by-day, at these things when I have the time. It has been tricky.”
Stradecke believes that his wife did not write a will because she was not ready to let go.
“Even I thought that we might have a little bit more time than we did,” he said. “After January, things started to progress very quickly. A lot of it was just a lack of energy and not wanting to give up her responsibilities. I can tell it was really hard on her.”
Mallory, in other words, might have been in denial about what was happening to her. “She really wasn’t ready to let go. She was only 28 years old.”
While any death raises existential questions, the death of a young woman and mother approaching the prime of her life appears especially harsh and raises the obvious question: why?
“I can honestly say, I have asked it, but there is no good answer,” said Stradecke. “There is no answer. This is life. Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. I can only hope things happen for a reason. I don’t really know.”
Stradecke, however, does know one thing. He has received immense support from friends and family, and he could not be more grateful for it.
“I don’t ask anything of anybody, so anytime anybody offers me anything, I am just so very grateful that I am receiving any kind of help.”