An Unusual Love Story
For Pam Kiernan, falling in love and starting a family with the man of her dreams did not turn out exactly as she had planned. Just three weeks before giving birth to their first child, Pam lost her husband, Mike, to pulmonary fibrosis. Three and a half years later, she chose to have another child using sperm she and her husband had banked before he died. Here, Pam tells her not-so-traditional love story and how she’s built a family on her own terms.
I first met Mike at work. It was 1997. I was twenty-eight years old. I had been recruited to join a large bank. It was a very cool time in my career, like being shot out of a cannon. In the first few months of my job, we bought a business and needed to integrate it. The man who would become my husband was one of the senior leaders in that business. He was born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, and lived in Staten Island. He had blue collar values. He had worked his way through college at Pace University, went to classes in the morning, went to work on Wall Street all day in the back office, and back to classes at night. People described him as a gentle man, and a gentleman. He never raised his voice, never cursed. He was the opposite of what you think of Wall Street, especially in that day, the eighties and nineties. He did it his way. He did it within his authentic self. He was a person of the people even though he became a very senior leader in the bank. He was an everybody person.
One of the special stories I remember from when he died, when hundreds of people showed up from many stages of his life and from all over the world, was from the janitor on the floor of his building. When I was cleaning out Mike’s office, alone and crying, the janitor poked his head in and told me, “He said hello to me every morning. He knew what was going on with my kids. He wanted to know how things were going in my life. He knew my story.” That was Mike.
Our story, it’s not a fairy tale. It’s a modern love story. We were both married when we met. We kind of fell in love by accident. In the context of this intense working environment, you get to know each other incredibly well and you begin to rely on each other and support each other. He was an incredibly good person. To make a long story short, we discovered we weren’t in the right partnerships and then we found each other and fell in love by accident. It was years in the making. It was not fireworks and intense physical attraction. It was not love at first sight. It was this blossoming friendship and partnership that became a love story.
We were finally able to be together. I used to say to him, “You showed me the other side.” A relationship, a partnership that I didn’t even know existed. And he did. But there was the complication of work. We were both managing directors. We didn’t have the same reporting line but we were within the same business division and we didn’t know what to do, so we hid it. We thought we were very secretive and we probably weren’t. Once everything was out in the open, we moved to Staten Island. His father lived in our house and we were going to live there as long as his dad needed us. That time, it was a short time—before his dad had advanced stage cancer and passed away—but that time, it was the happiest time of my life. A girl from suburban Connecticut living in Staten Island. So my bar now, the thing I say if I’m dating is, “I like you, but could I live with you in Staten Island?”
Mike and I got engaged in February 2003. We were married that June. We had this lovely ceremony at River Cafe in Brooklyn. It was such an amazing day even though it poured rain all day. We couldn’t even see the Brooklyn Bridge for most of the day. It was the way we wanted to do it and how we wanted to do it. But the backdrop of all of this was his disease.
A couple of years earlier, not long after we’d gotten together, we were hiking in Mohonk and he was short of breath and he always had this dry cough. But he was commuting from Staten Island and the most physical activity he did was walk to the car and then walk to his building, so it was hard to see how bad it was until we were on this hike and I said, “Mike, you know, this is not good. We need to see somebody. We need to go to a specialist in Manhattan.” So we went to a hospital in Manhattan. We showed up at the office and the head of the pulmonary practice was very arrogant and very dismissive. Like, you look perfectly healthy, you’re only 38 years old, what are you doing here? But after an hour of tests, the same doctor sat us down and said to Mike, “You are a very sick man.” So we went from being embarrassed for taking up this guy’s time to the shock of a diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis and Mike’s being on the lung transplant list by the time we left the office. What we learned that day was that pulmonary fibrosis is a degenerative disease and it can be erratic. It doesn’t follow a curve. When we were still in the waiting room Mike said, “You didn’t sign up for this. If you walked away now, I would totally understand.” And I didnt even have the thought of it. I just said, “No way, we’re going to figure this out - we’re going to fix it.” My project manager background took over. No challenge is too big, nothing is too complicated, we’ll get the right people together, we’ll get the right plan in place and we are going to fix it. Maybe, I thought we would have to deal with the transplant thing in twenty years. I had found the man of my dreams, hands down, and I had blinders on. I knew we were going to be together. I knew we were going to be married, and I knew we were going to have a family. Neither of us had kids from our first marriage and I knew we were going to be a family.
We got married in June. We wanted kids right away. I miscarried in October. I was 35 years old. I was miserable, but we didn’t give up. At the same time, Mike’s symptoms were getting progressively worse. We had moved hospitals and we were under the care of the world renowned person in pulmonary fibrosis and I thought, We’re in New York, we have the best doctors in the world, they’re going to fix it. But you come to realize that’s not how it works.
We got pregnant again naturally with our son and we were ecstatic. We bought our home in Brooklyn Heights and were renovating the place of our dreams. We found out as soon as we could that we were having a boy and we planned every detail of Sean’s nursery and our new home together. I never thought for a second that the disease was progressing, never thought that Mike wouldn’t be there to see the birth of our son. We were both still working hard, planning, picking our paint colors and wallpaper, buying blankets and stuffed animals and our baby’s first baby book. But the disease was progressing. Mike’s doctor recommended a new medication but if we were going to have more children we needed to bank sperm to eliminate the risk of birth defects from the medication. So many people ask if we banked sperm because we knew Mike was going to die and the answer is no. Not for one second did we accept that he was going to die. But we banked sperm and Mike started the new medication. Fast forward to September, and Mike had an acute exacerbation. It was Labor Day weekend when he took a turn. It happened so fast. On Friday, we were walking to the front door of the beach house we rented. On Monday, he couldn’t make it to the car. He went to the emergency room. I was due in December.
For September and October Mike was in and out of the hospital. His lung capacity was getting increasingly worse. There was a 911 call on November 11 which is, to me, the day he died. Because he was intubated and he was never conscious again. That day, I called my mom, who was widowed at the age of 51 with seven children. I called her from the ambulance and I said, “Mom, you need to come.” She came that day and she didn’t leave for five months.
Mike died on November 16. Sean was born on December 7. My mom was in the delivery room with me. My twin sister was there. My boss was incredible and gave me the time I needed. I was financially autonomous. I had a very successful career at that point. And I had a strong family system, a strong support system through my colleagues and friends. We’re all so much stronger than we think but you don’t know how strong you are until you know. Also, you’re just going to do it because you have to. There is no other option. And a few years later, I did it again.
My son was three and my biological clock was ticking. I was 39 which meant 40 was right around the corner. I was in a relationship and it was the first and only relationship I’d had since Mike and it was kind of a serious one. I knew very strongly that I wanted Sean to have a sibling. I come from a big family. I just knew. It became a question of I want to have a baby but is it going to be in the context of this relationship? Now I see there was probably a psychological component of wanting to have more of Mike, although I didn’t name that at the time. The person I was with was very supportive as I was going through IVF, but I knew that I was going to go forward with this on my own. That relationship didn’t work out. It wasn’t the perfect relationship for me or for him, and because of my career, I never felt like I needed anybody to take care of us, financially. I didn’t feel like I had to compromise in order to build this family that I love.
So now I was a managing director, a single mom, and I was pregnant. People would say, “Who’s the guy?” I’d try to explain, we banked, I did IVF. When I had our daughter, Emme, again, my mom and sister were in the delivery room. Emme came in with a bang, one push, like I have arrived and I was meant to be here the whole time. She really was meant to be here the whole time.
I tried to have a third when I was 43 but the window was closed. When it didn’t work, I was so sad. A very good friend of mine said, “The universe has spoken.” And it had. It took me a while to realize that I was processing another mourning. It was the end of Mike. I never named that. In the desire to have children—we planned Sean together—but even in having Emme, it was very unexpected, how this desire for more of Mike was underneath.
Mostly I feel lucky to have had him. And to have my kids have him—his quirky, self-deprecating sense of humor, his empathy and compassion, I see it in both of them. People have said to me, “How can you say you feel lucky after having been through what you’ve been through,” but I truly believe happiness is not a product of the events of your life. It’s how you choose to perceive them. I am lucky. I am blessed. I have two beautiful children. I have an amazing job and incredible colleagues. I have a wonderful family and friends and financial autonomy and I have freedom. And I had the most beautiful relationship ever. I would do it again in a heartbeat.