"Mom," my 35-year-old daughter, Sherry, said softly, "you need to get a life."
"A life?" I said. "Sweetie, you are my life." I was massaging my daughter's feet like I did every day, trying to take her mind off the pain her cancer was inflicting, a cancer about which nothing more could be done. How could I think about "having a life" when my daughter's was draining away?
"I know, Mom. I don't know what I'd do without you. But you need to find someone. That's what Dad wanted. That's what I want."
Nine months earlier cancer had taken my husband, Greg. By then Sherry was sick, so I more or less moved in with her, her husband, Chris, and their two adorable Yorkies, Rose and Olivia.
Together we cared for Sherry even as she was losing her battle against the disease. But she was right. Her care had become my reason for living. What other purpose did I have? What else was a mother for?
Yet my daughter knew me so well! She knew how lonely I felt without her dad, how much I missed the comfort of his touch, his soothing baritone voice, even his bald head. Especially now when I needed someone to lean on, to share my tears with. I'd tried to fill the emptiness inside me with prayer. I knew God loved me and was with me, but still there were moments when I felt so alone. Panic would creep over me. Then I'd catch myself and think, How selfish to worry about yourself when your daughter is dying!
So I focused all of my being on my daughter's care. Nothing else mattered.
"Dad wanted you to remarry," Sherry said, her voice sleepy. "And I don't want to leave you alone. That would be horrible. You're going to think I'm crazy, but I think you should go on a dating website."
Sherry was right. It was a crazy idea. I was tempted to ignore it. I knew she was worried about me, but this wasn't the solution. "Promise me, Mom," Sherry said before drifting off to sleep.
I couldn't renege on a promise to my dying child, so that night, just as Sherry had instructed, I typed in the web address for a relationship site she thought was right though it felt so wrong. I forced myself to fill out a long and complicated questionnaire. Some questions were very personal and several times I came close to hitting the escape key. I appreciated, though, the opportunity to state that my faith was central to my life.
Then the last question: What more should a possible match know about you? I took a deep breath and typed, "My daughter has terminal cancer and she is my life right now. Why would I be on a dating site? She is encouraging me to move on with my life, and what a treat it would be if you had the opportunity to meet her. She is an angel."
I hit submit, not with any sense of expectation, only the satisfaction that I had carried out Sherry's wish. And maybe it would be fun for us to look at the responses together. Responses? Who was I kidding? A recent widow about to lose her child? What sort of man would understand that? On a dating site no less?
I had to crack a smile. My daughter was really something else. No wonder I loved her more than anything in the world.
It turned out to be good fun. Each day we checked out the profiles the site determined best matched mine, giggling like sorority sisters while Rose and Olivia yapped and jumped. Sherry was so into it I believe it took her mind off her pain.
I was glad I'd given in to her crazy idea. We saw suave, successful businessmen. Men who were into ballroom dancing, tennis, skydiving. Men who wanted someone to sail around the world with them.
But I wasn't looking for exotic travel or romance. Secretly I dreamed of a man who'd understand what I was going through, who'd hold me, listen to me and share my faith. Chances were I wasn't going to find that on a dating site.
But soon all the profiles blurred together. Sherry could no longer make it up the stairs to her room. Hospice workers moved a hospital bed and oxygen tanks into the family room.
Some days she could barely get out of bed. Chris helped as best he could, but he had to work. Sherry needed me. How could I think of spending time with anyone else?
One morning after not having checked the site for a while I halfheartedly scrolled through my latest matches. Maybe there was one Sherry and I could giggle over. Some man with a yacht and a villa in the south of France he couldn't wait to share with a lucky lady.
Instead I stopped on Larry, 52, of San Marcos, just a few miles from my house. He was bald and seemed almost proud of it. Relaxed and confident. There was an innocence about him. Definitely not a player, as Sherry would say.
I skipped to his profile questions. The most influential person in his life? His late wife, for her incredible courage in the face of a rare, fatal disease. My heart went out to him. I knew how he felt. Then I felt a tingling. He must know how I feel.
Still I held back, one day, two, a week, until Sherry finally said, "Mom! Send him an e-mail! You promised!"
I did something I never dreamed I'd do: I typed a strange man a note. "Saw your profile. Would love to learn more. I think we might have a lot in common."
Larry quickly responded, much to Sherry's delight. "Great to hear from you, Rhonda. What would you like to know?"
From there things took off. While Sherry slept I sat by her side and exchanged messages with Larry. Soon I felt I'd known him for years.
We wrote how we loved to travel and play golf. He'd recently sold his small, successful business. I shared how my dreams of early retirement with Greg had turned to ashes with his illness, how terrible it was to see him suffer and how brave a father and husband he was till the end.
We shared our faith, how our trust in God was the only thing that brought us through our tragedies, and how it was my faith holding me up now.
"I pray for you and Sherry every day," Larry wrote.
Whenever Sherry woke up practically the first thing she'd ask was, "How's Larry?" He was so easy to talk to I began to get scared. Was I ready for this? Could my heart stand another blow if it came to that? Was there a single drop of love in me I wanted to give to anyone but my daughter?
I was torn. I hadn't summoned the courage to meet Larry in person. He'd been traveling as part of his own grief process, but soon he was coming home. Lord, I prayed one night as I sat by Sherry's side, please, please help me know what's best to do.
A few mornings later Sherry awoke to me texting Larry and laughed. "Boy, you've really got it bad, Mom. Don't you think I better meet this guy?"
Larry was waiting for me in his driveway the first time we met. When we embraced it felt right, like nothing would ever be the same again. There's just something about the way someone holds you that lets you know you can trust them, and Larry's arms wrapped tightly around me as if he'd never let go.
The next day I led Larry into my daughter's family room. She'd managed to move from the bed to the couch, and Chris had helped her fix herself up. Sherry looked beautiful. Cancer couldn't kill her smile. Larry took her hand and sat down on the couch next to her.
"I've heard so much about you," he said. She started to reach out to take his other hand but was thwarted by Rose and Olivia leaping onto Larry's lap and covering his face with licks. The deal was sealed.
Now came the really hard part, the part no mother thinks she can survive. Sherry began to slip away, sleeping most of the time, barely eating, not always lucid. Yet there was a shimmer in her eyes whenever she saw Larry and me holding hands, as if a final wish had been fulfilled and she was ready to let go.
Chris was with her constantly, dabbing her brow. Even Rose and Olivia lay quietly at the foot of her bed, keeping vigil.
One afternoon I came into the family room with a pitcher of water. Larry was leaning over my daughter and I heard him say, "Sherry, you're an inspiration. I promise I will comfort and protect your mother. She's going to be all right."
Sherry's eyes opened wide and a smile spread across her face. I knew then her deepest prayer had been answered. I reached her side just in time to say goodbye.
"Meant To Be Together" first appeared in Guideposts Magazine, November 2011
Rhonda Hayes lives in Southern California with her new husband Larry. She is currently writing a memoir and is active in her local Toastmasters Club. She writes and speaks from her heart in hope of inspiring others.