Patricia McMorrow | 09.02.21
Jennifer Ndegwa and her husband, Nic, were living 8,700 miles apart in August 2020—not by choice—when Jen had to break the news via WhatsApp that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a heartbreaking conversation, made worse by distance.
Jen was in Mesquite, Texas, with their two young sons, teaching middle-school math. Nic was waiting out a COVID-19 travel ban in Nairobi, Kenya, his home country and where the couple had met, married and lived for 11 years. When Jen and the boys moved from Kenya to Texas in January 2020 to be closer to her family, the plan was for Nic to follow close behind. But neither the pandemic nor cancer were in the plan.
By the time Nic was permitted to travel, the Ndegwa Family had been separated for 230 days. Jen wrote in her CaringBridge Journal, “I can’t believe this day FINALLY arrived!!! And I am reunited with my husband. What a wonderful feeling. Thank you, Lord. And thank you to so many people who prayed for us all along the way.”
Nic and Jen would have preferred for Ethan and Ezra, 5 and 3 at the time, to slowly adjust to Dad being home again. But Jen had waited for her husband’s arrival to begin treatment—a decision supported by her medical team—so surgery, chemo and radiation needed to follow in quick succession.
With the family reunited, Nic set about creating a routine for the boys and keeping Jen as safe as possible during cancer treatment in a pandemic. Their circle stayed small, with Nic taking the lead on Jen’s health, as well as the kids’ education and activities that would have been group-based if not for COVID.
That turned Nic into a caregiver, and essentially a single parent, practically before he’d unpacked his bags. It was an abrupt change after 8 months of unintended bachelorhood; before that, in Kenya, a nanny had helped with childcare, aligning with Jen’s work schedule as a teacher and Nic’s long hours as a small-business owner.
But Nic rose to the challenge. “I had to take care of my wife,” he said. “During the surgery time, she wasn’t very agile. I was making the meals, making sure she was comfortable, tucking her into bed, making sure she had good movies to watch. But mainly it was important for me to just be there with her … just being physically present.”
That physical presence was an anchor for the boys, too, especially after a port was inserted into Jen’s chest and a grueling regime of chemo and radiation made rough-housing and sometimes even hugs simply too painful.
“I just didn’t realize how much the physicality meant to the boys,” Nic said. “They’re like, ‘Can I jump on your back? Can you carry me?’ Or, ‘Let’s wrestle!'”
Both parents were attuned to how much Ezra and Ethan—just 19 months apart—had faced in a short time. From leaving Kenya, the only home they’d known, to not understanding why it was taking so long for Dad to join them in Texas, it was a lot to process.
“And then cancer came, and it was like, ‘OK, let’s tack this on, too,'” Jen said. “I think the hardest thing was seeing the emotions our kids were going through … ‘What is all this new stuff, and why is Daddy not here?'”
“My new challenge was … are they playing enough, are they learning enough?” Nic said. “Did I teach them enough mathematics? Are they riding their bikes? Learning to run? Have I taught them enough Swahili?” (English and Swahili are the national languages of Kenya.)
From the source that matters most—Mom—the answer to all these questions is “Yes.” “Nic has been an outstanding husband and father, friend, encourager, supporter … all those things,” Jen said. “Anything you can think of with children: washing, feeding, all of that, he does with our sons.”
What carried the Ndegwas through a geographical and cultural relocation, an unexpectedly long family separation and cancer during COVID is unshakable faith. Jen is the daughter of American Christian missionaries; she and Nic met through church in Kenya, and faith is at the center of their marriage.
“My faith in God is the most important thing in my life,” Jen said. Though she wrestled with a diagnosis of aggressive breast cancer at age 39, she said, “My attitude was, ‘OK, God, you clearly think I can handle this, so let’s move forward.'”
She and Nic had faced previous trials, including the loss of four babies through miscarriage. “I’m not sure you ever fully heal from that; it’s still really hard,” Jen said. “But faith is about trust, and I just have to trust that God had our best interests in mind then, and now, too.” And from this, Jen said she hopes to be on a path of continual healing.
After her last radiation treatment in March 2021—Jen will continue on hormonal therapy for up to a decade—she said she felt the world was opening again. And, of course, it was, after a yearlong coronavirus lockdown.
“I don’t even know where to begin or how to really collect all of my thoughts … and I have many,” Jen wrote in her CaringBridge Journal. “I think at this point I’m just happy to be alive and in good spirits.”
While she and Nic pray they are done with cancer, that Nic will eventually be able to open his own business and that Ethan and Ezra will grow up in the richness of their American and Kenyan cultures, Jen said they live comfortably in the truth that “God never promised us an easy life. But he has promised to help us through the tough times so we will come out stronger on the other side.”
“We all wish for ‘happily ever after.’ That’s human nature,” Nic said. “But in Swahili we say, ‘hakuna matata.'” As you might remember from “The Lion King,” it means “no worries for the rest of your days,” and that’s what the Ndegwa Family and all who love them hope will come to pass.