Like other busy young families, the Jolie-Pitt clan has weekends of comforting domestic frenzy. On a recent balmy spring Saturday, Mom busied herself returning phone calls and correspondence while her young children got underfoot. Meanwhile Dad tried to stay on top of mounting work projects as the older kids enjoyed a raucous playdate with pals in the yard. That afternoon Brad, Angelina and their bright, beautiful and sometimes exasperating crew - plus one family dog - piled into a van for an outing. "Nothing seemed different," says a family source of the scene at the couple's compound in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles on May 18. "The kids were all laughing. Angie seems like she always does - very happy and just focused on her kids."
Only four days before, Jolie, 37, told the world that she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy after learning she carried a mutated BRCA1 gene predisposing her to cancer. But nothing about her was going to slow down. Through three operations to remove and reconstruct her breasts in as many months, her stamina and spirits matched the energy level of her six-kid household. And just three weeks after her last procedure, she'd turned in a New York Times op-ed piece about the experience, adding the title of women's-health advocate to a globally intimidating résumé. How she pulled it off has much to do with the unflagging support of her fiancé. "In my mind, he's already married," says Pitt's friend and furniture-design partner Frank Pollaro. "This is an admirable person, a man with a deep love for his family."
According to Jolie's doctor, Kristi Funk, Pitt was at Jolie's side for every surgery. They even "managed to find moments to laugh together," as Jolie put it in her Times piece. At home "Brad did everything he could to keep things secret and protect Angie," says the family insider. Using early-morning appointments and rental cars to avoid discovery, "they really wanted Angie to be able to recover and rest before they shared the story. Brad was very attentive and sweet to Angie. He always dotes on her anyway." Pitt told USA Today he looked back on the experience as "an emotional and beautifully inspiring few months." His "proudest thing is our family," he added. "This [cancer] isn't going to get that."
The couple have leaned on each other - and seen their seven-year relationship deepen - through pregnancies and adoptions, the death of her mother in 2007 and her directorial debut with In the Land of Blood and Honey. Last year they celebrated by getting engaged - at the urging of kids Maddox, 11, Pax, 9, Zahara, 8, Shiloh, 7, and twins Knox and Vivienne, 4. "We've had a family, we've raised the kids. I'm surprised how much [marriage] meant to me once you had that," Pitt told PEOPLE last November. They also have each other's backs in ways big and small, from seeking each other's advice on movie projects to trading off time working and time home with the kids. "They are very loving and inspiring to each other, exchanging ideas," says Jeremy Kleiner, a longtime exec at Pitt's Plan B production company and producer on his upcoming movie World War Z. On-set, "he would light up when his family showed up. It's just a very cool thing to see." When Pitt is working, says Robert Green, who met the family through Pitt's Make It Right foundation in New Orleans, "he is the engine; she is the backbone."
Celebrating special occasions in a big way is a hallmark of their relationship—and one that helped them get through Jolie's health crisis. "Every event is cherished," says fellow Plan B exec Dede Gardner. "Every birthday is cherished. The holidays are cherished. Events are made of every moment in the most positive way." There are elaborate, custom gifts: Jolie commissioned a diamond pendant for Pitt engraved with a microscopic love message; Pitt designed a jeweled bracelet for Jolie for a recent Christmas present. In the middle of her surgeries, they held a family gift exchange on Valentine's Day and went camping with the kids—after many stints roughing it in the developing world, Jolie didn't hesitate to sleep in a tent—on Easter weekend. And what is most important for their eventual wedding, still in the early planning stage? "Just family," Pitt told PEOPLE in December. "Keep it simple. Keep it simple - really." Before he turns 50 on December 18, he added, "I want to make sure I'm doing things of value. Because I'm very conscious of time; I know it's limited."
The couple have more challenges ahead. Already preparing to direct the movie Unbroken, based on the bestselling book by Laura Hillenbrand, Jolie was laboring over storyboards at home just a few days after her mastectomy. And while that work ramps up, she also plans to have another surgery to remove her ovaries at a later date (see box). Even so, Jolie will likely return to the red carpet alongside Pitt in a few weeks when premieres begin for World War Z. "I think everyone would tell you the same thing. With Angelina, he's got a great partner," says Gardner. "They treat each chapter as the next leg on their journey."
- Pernilla Cedenheim,
- Oliver Jones,
- Elizabeth Leonard,
- Mia McNiece/L.A.,
- Sharon Cotliar,
- Sara Hammel/New York City,
- Phillip Boucher/London.