Mom diagnosed with cancer the day her husband died passes away at 38

Most important to Tessie Sylvester was that her sons maintain strong ties to their family.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Rachel Paula Abrahamson

When Tessie Sylvester’s husband, John, was diagnosed with ALS in 2012, she had a serious talk with her sister Jenny Halverson. “Tessie was like, 'if anything happens to me, you and Chris need to take the kids,’" Halverson told TODAY Parents. “It just all seemed so farfetched at the time.”

Tessie Sylvester and her husband John had two boys when they found out he had ALS. Courtesy of the Halverson family

Then, on June 17, 2017 — the same day Tessie became a widow — a doctor called with devastating news. Tessie had stage 4 adenocarcinoma, an aggressive gland-based cancer.

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“We sat down and she said, ‘Jenny, if I die promise you’ll be a mom to my boys,’ and I said, ‘Of course I will, Tessie, but we’re gonna fight this. We’re not going to think about anything of this other stuff,’” Halverson said. “I needed her to be OK.”

When John was diagnosed with ALS, Tessie asked her sister, Jenny, to take care of her kids if anything happened to her. Courtesy of the Halverson family

But the cancer was relentless and the Minneapolis dentist began to share her wishes for Gus, 8, Freddy, 7. “One day, Tessie called me and said, ‘They can’t date until after high school,’” Halverson recalled. Tessie was also adamant that her children not feel pressure to be good at soccer. (Tessie was on an award-winning college team while John played professional for the Minnesota Thunder.) But most important to Tessie, who was one of six siblings, was that Freddy and Gus maintain strong ties to their family. “We’re all incredibly close,” Halverson said. “That will never change.”

John Sylvester died on June 17, 2017. That day, Tessie received her diagnosis: She had adenocarcinoma, a gland-based cancer.Courtesy of the Halverson family

In April, Tessie sensed that death was nearing and held an adoption ceremony with Jenny and all of their children at the hospital. (Jenny and her husband, Chris, are parents of Oscar, 15, Edith, 12, and Hazel, 10.) “Tessie did so much to lay the groundwork to help Freddy and Gus face life without her,” Jenny said. “During the ceremony she was like, ‘My brothers and sisters are my greatest blessing. I was one of six and now you get to be one of five. You will always have each other and look after each other.’ Her words brought the boys so much comfort.”

Tessie, 38, died two weeks later on May 1.

As she fought her cancer, foremost in Tessie's mind was that her boys be close to their family. Courtesy of the Halverson family

Gus and Freddy have been sleeping on a big pullout couch with Oscar, Edith and Hazel in Jenny’s basement. They have beds, but prefer having a slumber party. “There is an overwhelming amount of love there,” Halverson said. “They are all taking care of each other and I know Tessie is watching and she’s smiling. As much as they’ve lost they have this huge family network.”

Tessie's sister Jenny and her husband officially adopted Freddy and Gus in April 2019. Courtesy of the Halverson family

Soon, Jenny and Chris will be moving their brood — which includes Tessie’s English Mastiff — into a larger home just two miles down the road. “Tessie chose the house,” Halverson said. “She wanted something with a big backyard where everybody could gather for barbecues and that is exactly what we’ll be doing this summer.” In a sweet twist, Tessie’s brother Frank purchased her house so that Freddy and Gus can always come and visit. The family has also set up a Go Fund Me for the kids.

Gus and Freddy have returned to school and are beginning to process life without their mom. Some days are harder than others. “I will make certain they know how hard she fought for them,” Halverson said. “Tessie was courageous and selfless and strong and I am so grateful for the gift of her boys. We are so blessed to be the ones to have Gus and Freddy.”