‘I did it, honey.’: Widow gets master’s degree, becomes teacher with support from terminally ill husband

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“The backpack I was carrying felt heavier than usual as I walked the short block towards my son Luke’s school. I adjusted the straps, mentally trying to make it lighter, but the weight of worry was relentless as I softly whispered to myself, ‘Just get through pickup.’

As I slowly approached the school, I put on a forced smile and pulled my baseball cap down low to hide my tired eyes. How I longed to go back to the care-free life I once had…my days are now filled with medication pickups, home nurse appointments, and insurance battles. My mind was deep in thought when a friendly face walked up beside me.

couple taking a selfie together
Courtesy of Julie Wilcox

‘You have been on my mind non-stop. How are you?’

A teacher for many years, she read through my fake smile with expertise.

‘I’m scared. I’m worried. I don’t know what I would do if anything were to happen.’

She hugged me and then lovingly asked me a question, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a teacher? You would make such a great one.’

With her words of encouragement, I dialed the admissions department later that afternoon.

‘Hi, I’m interested in your master’s program.’

I quickly jotted down pages of notes as the counselor spewed off a list of prerequisites…personal essay, references, transcripts, and a passing score on the CBEST exam.

woman studying for her test while watching her kids play soccer
Courtesy of Julie Wilcox
woman taking her study space outside
Courtesy of Julie Wilcox

A wave of self-doubt crashed over me. Is this going to be too much for me to take on right now? Would I regret taking possibly limited time away from Chris? Do I even want to be a teacher?

That evening I sat down with my partner Chris and told him about my idea. The smile that came across his face was all I needed to confidently make the decision.

I spent the summer of 2019 studying. As Chris started to sleep more, I used my studying to keep him alert and happy. ‘Honey, I just got an 85% on my practice exam!’ He knew I suffered immensely from test anxiety so watching me face my fear helped him to face his. We would sit at the skatepark together, in our little camping chairs, his blue, mine pink, pushed side to side. We would talk. Sometimes about the hard stuff. Then we would go silent, holding hands while holding back tears.

Exam day arrived which also coincided with the boys being back in school. I left that morning and entered the testing facility with my heart racing. A timed test along with a written portion, my anxiety greeted me just like it did more than two decades earlier. With trembling hands, I answered each question as best I could. I pushed submit and nervously walked up to the test proctor. He gave me a slip and said, ‘Congrats – you passed. The written portion will be graded later but you already have a passing score.’ With tears in my eyes, I hugged this old man. I then walked out and called the love of my life. He started to cry on the phone and shouted to his co-workers, ‘Julie PASSED!  I’m so proud of her!’

man who has cancer in a canoe
Courtesy of Julie Wilcox

I was officially a graduate student in addition to wife, mom, and caretaker.

The fall of 2019 marked one year after Chris’s cancer diagnosis. He had gone through 2 different treatment plans and surgery was not an option at that point. He began spending more time in the hospital. I was thankful to have my in-laws around so that I could ‘focus on the boys and do my homework’ (Chris’ exact words). One evening Chris FaceTimed us from his hospital bed, his faded blue hospital gown askew, revealing the port that saved his veins through the many chemo sessions he bravely endured. As we said our goodnights and I love you’s, I put the boys to bed and headed to the dining room. With my head on the table, I quietly cried. I watched as the wood table slowly drank my tears. Then I opened my laptop and proceeded to do my homework, just the way Chris wanted me to.

I stayed on track even after Chris’s passing. The pandemic caused me to pivot a bit but I still managed to get my clinical hours done and complete my student teaching with two amazing teachers at our neighborhood elementary school. Watching these first and second graders navigate online school during these unprecedented times had such a profound impact on my own dedication and resilience.

woman and her study space
Courtesy of Julie Wilcox
woman sitting outside and studying
Courtesy of Julie Wilcox

The summer of 2021 was spent studying for the last three state exams, the dreaded CSETS. I joined an online study group, learned I study best with flashcards, and I passed all three exams on my first try. An accomplishment I am incredibly proud of.

On September 20th, 2021 I graduated with my Masters in Education and now hold a California Teaching Credential.

There will be times in our lives when we can’t control what is happening around us but what we can control is how we choose to react to those situations. My hope is that you will find strength and inspiration in my story as you navigate your own difficult times.

I did it, honey!


woman's decorated grad cap
Courtesy of Julie Wilcox
woman's decorated grad cap and her smiling
Courtesy of Julie Wilcox
man holding a heart by a window
Courtesy of Julie Wilcox

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Julie Wilcox of Lafayette, California. Submit your own story hereand be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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‘Her last breath was taken doing what she loved—helping people in Afghanistan. Then there was an explosion. And just like that, she’s gone.’: Marine navigates grief after losing veteran best friend

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