Parting Gifts

updated 03/06/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/1995 01:00AM

ON A MISTY DECEMBER DAY IN 1993, Jeff and Barbara Barton of Eugene, Ore., were waiting for a phone call, glowing with anticipation. They hoped it would confirm their greatest wish: that after three years of trying, Barbara was carrying their second child. Jeff was out walking their Labrador retriever when the phone finally rang, and he heard Barbara answer. But when he came inside, his wife was crying quietly on the living room couch. Yes, she had been told she was pregnant—but instead of crying from joy, Barbara was terrified. For she had also learned, during the same phone call, that her white blood cell count had soared to 20 times its normal level. A later test verified everyone's worst fear: Barbara had a deadly form of leukemia.

The only way Barbara had even a 50-50 chance of being cured, her doctors said, would be to have a successful bone-marrow transplant—the sooner the better. But that procedure, which includes preoperative chemotherapy, would surely kill the fetus and probably leave her unable to have children. And so she faced an excruciating choice: abort the child and increase her chances of beating the illness, or postpone the transplant until after the baby was born. The decision was made within two weeks, when an ultrasound test revealed not one, but two hearts beating in Barbara's womb. "You could see her face light up," Jeff recalls. "There was nothing more to be said."

On July 13, 1994, the twins—a boy, Hunter, and a girl, McKenzie—were born. A month later their mother underwent a bone-marrow transplant at Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, Calif. Although the transplant was successful, complications set in and Barbara's condition worsened. She was returned to Eugene's Sacred Heart General Hospital, where, ironically, she and her husband had first met as co-workers. (Barbara was a medical transcriptionist, and Jeff is a nurse's aide.) Then, on Jan. 22, 1995—another misty day—Barbara Barton, wife, mother, lover of quilting, gardening and practical jokes, died at the age of 36, with Jeff by her side. Her family plans to scatter her ashes over a field in Bear Creek, Mont., not far from her childhood home. "It was really tough watching her pass away," says Jeff, 35, with powerful simplicity. "But it was a relief to see her stop suffering."

What is perhaps most remarkable about Barbara's decision is that no one, including her husband, seriously challenged her choice. "There was no second-guessing," says Robert Delaurenti, 31, Barbara's brother and bone-marrow donor. Adds Jeff: "I told her honestly I would like to abort, but it was never a demand. I said I'd support whatever she decided to do."

As Barbara had requested early in her illness—and with her husband's assent—the twins have been placed, at least temporarily, in the care of Piper Shanks, 37, her close friend since junior high school. The plan now is for Shanks to mind the twins until Jeff has recovered sufficiently from his loss. "The more I sit around the house, the more I tend to go downhill," he says of his grief. Burly and bearded, Jeff speaks calmly even when evoking his most heartbreaking memories. "Everywhere I look are Barb's thread and needles or her picture," he says. "And it brings back a flood of her sitting on the couch, doing or saying something."

He also remembers her extraordinary courage. The pregnancy itself was fraught with tension, as Barbara underwent grueling treatments to keep her blood count normal. "There were several times during her pregnancy when they thought she wouldn't make it," Jeff says. But Barbara had no doubts. Until the very end, Jeff says, she believed she would give birth to the babies—and live to raise them. "She had no intention of passing away," he says. "She was scared, as anybody would be. But Barbara was the kind of person where, if she had a plan, she was fine."

Clearly she was calling on untapped reserves, for such combativeness was quite out of character. "She wasn't a real assertive person," says Shanks. "She would stand by and let life happen." Born in Billings, Mont., Barbara moved to Eugene at age 12 and graduated from Sheldon High School in 1976. Four years later she began to work at Sacred Heart. There, she was admired from afar by Jeff Barton. He was taken, he says, with "her dark hair, the way she laughed and carried herself." But it took nearly two years for him to get up the courage to ask her out. "How would you like to go to the beach tonight?" he finally blurted out. To his shock, she agreed. The pair drove for an hour to the Pacific coast, watched the sunset and drove back in love. They were married in June 1982. "She was really great for Jeff," says Kit Fisher, a family friend. "On the one hand, she was very patient. On the other, she was very strong."

Anxious for children, the Bartons spent seven years trying to conceive. Then, in July 1990, Barbara gave birth to their first daughter, Taylor, who still lives with Jeff. She immediately tried to get pregnant again and finally succeeded. Later, after the twins' birth, Barbara, heavily dosed with morphine to relieve her pain, seemed emotionally detached from her new babies. But she knew they were being well taken care of. Her friend Shanks, a divorced mother of three sons, leaves the twins with Taylor's babysitter while she works as an office manager. "Her babies were with me from the beginning," says Shanks. "It's as if they were my own."

Both infants are healthy and robust—though McKenzie was born with a cleft palate, which will be corrected through surgery. "I see them coming back home, but I don't know how it's going to be done," says Jeff. "Obviously they relate to Piper more than to me. At first, I couldn't get near McKenzie without her screaming."

Meanwhile he has returned to work at Sacred Heart, where so much of his tragic love story was played out. He admits he is still haunted by his wife's decision to press on with her pregnancy. "I will probably battle with this all my life—whether I should have struggled with her," he says. "But now that the twins are here, I'm glad she chose what she did. She's left me with a little bit of her."

RICHARD JEROME
LAIRD HARRISON in Eugene

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