The Bradley-Parsons Bunch: A Dying Wish, a New Family

updated 02/05/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/05/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's 3 p.m. on a grey November day in Redford, Mich., and the Bradley-Parsons clan is a whirlwind of activity. Bob Parsons, 55, comes in the front door of the aging, two-story bungalow, his arms filled with groceries. Judi Bradley, 49, who has just put two kids down for a nap, peeks inside the bags as Toyia, 12, gets into her figure-skating gear and waits for her ride. In a few minutes, Bob will take Allison, 10, and Sean, 9, to basketball practice at the Y, but Allison can't find her jersey, and Sean seems more interested in roughhousing with Tres, a white Maltese-poodle mix. "Mommmm," he yells, "where is my basketball?" Scooping up 3-year-old daughter Faith, Judi Bradley smiles. "It takes a lot of work," she says, "but family is a wonderful thing."

Especially one that brings joy in the wake of a tragedy. For the Bradleys and the Parsonses came together in a most unexpected way—when Parsons's wife, Linda, dying of cancer, asked her husband, Bob, and her best friend Judi Bradley to marry and bring their two broods together after she was gone. That would be the Parsonses' four children, ages 12 to 23, all adopted from foster care, and Bradley's six kids, ages 3 to 12, whom the single mom had also rescued from the system. "The whole thing chokes me up," says Bob, fighting back tears. "I'd have never predicted I'd have a whole new family."

Building a family with Linda was foremost in Parsons's mind back in 1993, when the couple, then married 13 years and struggling with infertility—Linda had suffered five miscarriages—met Judi Bradley. A social worker, Bradley was impressed with the Parsonses as prospective parents and placed a baby girl with them. Though that child eventually went back to her birth mother, the Parsonses went on to adopt newborn Tony, who was two months older than Toyia, one of the 24 abused and neglected children Judi would take in for varying lengths of time over the next 11 years. A friendship soon took root. "Linda was the fun mom, planning Halloween hayrides, breakfasts with Santa," Judi recalls. The families spent summers together in cottages at Portage Lake near Jackson, Mich., where the kids spent their days swimming and the grown-ups drank iced tea on the deck and chatted late into the night. Says Judi: "My kids called them Uncle Bob and Aunt Linda."

They all thought it would go on like that forever. Then, on April 5, 2001—her 50th birthday—Linda learned she had stage 3 colon cancer. Chemo and multiple surgeries provided nearly a year of remission. But by 2003 the cancer had returned—and Linda, a planner by nature, began to think in very practical terms about the future of the family she had worked so hard to create. "Linda's children were everything to her," says friend Kim Brown, 33. "She just wanted them to have a mom and Bob to have a wife."

For Linda, there was only one woman for the job. In fact, Judi had never married, but caring for children had been a passion since childhood, when, as a 5-year-old, she would beg her mother to adopt sick children pictured in charity pamphlets. As a teen, she helped a dying neighbor care for her four children and even considered moving to India to work with Mother Teresa. "Judi and Linda were cut from the same bolt of cloth," says Linda's sister Judy Johnson. "Their hearts and arms were open."

Five days before she died, Linda lay in bed beside Bob's sister, Ellen Tendziegloski, marveling at the sunset, trying to imagine what heaven would look like. Then Linda told her sister-in-law, "I want Bob and Judi together."

"Judi who?" Tendziegloski recalls asking.

"Judi Bradley," Linda replied. "Judi will be the only one who will love my kids the way I love my kids."

"Well, what do you want me to do?" Tendziegloski said. "Hog-tie them in the trunk until they agree? I can't make them fall in love, honey."

Undeterred, Linda spoke of her hopes in separate conversations with a stunned Bob and Judi. "I would just roll my eyes and say, 'You're nuts,'" says Judi. Bob too brushed off the idea. "You just don't go there," he says. "I was brought up Catholic and was faithful to my wife all the way to the end."

So it was with surprise—and some confusion—that the two old friends, in the weeks after Linda's death on Aug. 18, 2005, grew affectionate. One afternoon Bob was helping Judi put up a swing set in her yard, and, when he looked up, he saw her in a different light. "It hit me like a ton of bricks and scared the hell out of me," Bob recalls. "I had just buried my wife." After two weeks of sleepless nights, he confessed his feelings to Judi. "I was shaking," recalls Bob. Added Judi: "I told him I felt exactly the same way. It was scary. I felt like it was too soon, but I also knew this was what Linda wanted." One November evening, Bob took Judi to dinner and asked her to pick out an engagement ring at Kay Jewelers at an Ann Arbor mall. On a January 2006 visit to California, the first kid-free trip for both, they decided to tie the knot in the fall.

As with everything in their lives up to that point, their Oct. 7, 2006, wedding was all about the children. Parsons's daughter Ashley, 18, and Bradley's girls Toyia, Tiara, 11, and Allison served as bridesmaids; Faith was flower girl. Parsons's sons Roger, 20, and Tony, 12, and Bradley's son Sean acted as groomsmen. Alongside the shrimp cocktail and stuffed chicken breasts, kid-friendly fare like chicken fingers and pizza were served. "The kids sat at the head table," says friend Kim Brown. At the couple's request, the pastor talked about Linda's role in bringing them together and lit a candle in her honor. (Their story was featured in the Detroit Free Press.)

While the wedding went off without a hitch, daily life for the newly blended family has been more challenging. Straight-A student Tony "wasn't terribly thrilled" about getting a new mother so quickly; longtime friends with Toyia, he now found himself feuding with her over TV channels. Allison struggled to adjust to Bob's booming voice and gruff manner, compared with Judi's more nurturing style. "He can be loud and mean sometimes," she says.

And yet Allison and her siblings are grateful for their new dad. "We never had anyone big and strong to depend on," says Toyia. "Bob helps out." He also has a way with Kyle, Judi's mentally handicapped 5-year-old, holding the boy firmly on his lap and calming him during his frequent tantrums. Sean loves new big brother Tony, who watches wrestling and plays basketball with him. Ashley, eight months pregnant and no longer with her boyfriend, gratefully accepted Judi's offer to babysit in the future so she can take college courses. And Tony has grown to appreciate Judi's ability to run interference between him and his father. "I know Judi will never take the place of my mom," says Tony, "but she is pretty close." And she helps keep Linda's memory alive. On the first anniversary of her death last August, Judi and the kids prepared Linda's favorite foods—fried chicken and strawberry shortcake—and then released balloons with personal messages from the kids, such as "We miss you, Mom" and "Wish you were here." Says Linda's sister Judy Johnson: "It has been a much easier transition for the children and Bob because of Judi."

With eight children, living within their means is a struggle. An ironworker, Bob makes $30,000 a year; that combined with $4,600 in monthly subsidies for adopting foster kids must cover the $1,300 rent on Judi's seven-bedroom, three-bathroom home plus a $1,300 mortgage payment on Bob's house until he finds a buyer. (His kids Emma, 23, and Roger, 20, have their own places.) The family dines at the all-you-can-eat Golden Corral restaurant every other month—a privilege kids lose if their grades drop below a C. Each child has a monthly chore, recorded on a color-coded calendar, such as cleaning bathrooms, washing dishes or walking Tres, who was born with three legs. No one visits a friend's home until Judi speaks with the parents first. "We're old-fashioned parents," says Judi. "And the kids hate it."

Still, the house does permit good old-fashioned fun. At 11:30 p.m. on a recent weeknight, Ashley couldn't sleep and was overcome with the urge to dance. She woke new sisters Toyia, Tiara and Allison, and, before long, the four were doing the Tootsee Roll, the hip-hop dance from the mid-1990s. Says Ashley: "Now it feels like one big family."

Judi serves up 60 pancakes for breakfast on a given Saturday.
On an average week, the family consumes 10 gallons of milk, 7 loaves of bread and 10 64-oz. jugs of juice.

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