How do we do this? We do it. And you would do it, too.
— Mary

It’s very important to me to start this out by saying that Mary and Rory have known each other since homeroom freshman year of high school. That means they’ve known each other more than half their lives. It’s not particularly important to the entire story, I suppose, but I find it adorable and beautiful and I cannot not mention that, so there it is.

 We promise, in all kinds of relationships but particularly in marriage, to stand by each other, come what may. But you don’t know what may come. You hope, of course, that it will be a very successful set of careers, perhaps a country cottage, several healthy children and then dying side by side in your bed, holding hands, at an age where you are old but not infirm.

That’s the dream, right?

And then there’s the reality. That you can be living dreamily – married to your high school sweetheart, living in a beautiful home in Chicago, raising two girls who look like they are straight up Kennedys, that you give birth to your first son, and at five months…

Something isn’t right.

A common theme for so many of our heroes is Moms Know. We know. We know. We know. No offense, dads.

So, Mary knew. She knew when the doctor sent them to the hospital, when the hospital wanted to run tests, when they were admitted, that their little Danny Boy was not okay.

But she didn’t know how not okay.

She didn’t know that his sweet little body was growing something malicious and incurable, that he would spend 9 months on this earth surrounded by the love of his family and friends, but only 9 months.

She didn’t know that she and her husband Rory would choreograph a new daily routine: Rory handling the shots she couldn’t bear to give Danny, and Mary handling the feeding tube that Rory couldn’t bear to put in their son’s nose.

She didn’t know that their son would die on her birthday – Mother’s Day that year – and they would spend their lives fanning the flame of his memory, raising money to help prevent other families from having this same gaping hole punched through their lives. 

It’s amazing what you get used to. It’s amazing what normal can be.
— Rory

She didn’t know any of that, but that’s what they did. They cared for him at home, with tubes and machines and nurses that turned their house into a hospice. Now, their house is like any other young family’s: Disney on the TV, an aging and lovable dog begging at the kitchen island, the most delicious dairy and gluten-free chili I have ever tasted (I had like three bowls, don’t judge me) and their memories of Danny in photos and books and their words. 

Words are important. His name is important. Danny is still a part of their lives, and always, always will be.

Loss makes people uncomfortable. Mary is seven months pregnant with their fourth child. How do you answer when people ask you how many children you have? She says three, of course. Not because it makes someone uncomfortable, but because it makes her uncomfortable to stop counting him.

Danny’s death has propelled the O’Brien’s into action, though you can tell they were always a couple of overachievers anyway. Their fund at St. Baldrick’s will be funding research for rhabdoid tumors, and this month, so will we. 

As I leave, Danny’s sister CC drops an iPad on her toe. Her toenail is already turning purple by the time I tie my shoes, and Rory and Mary are offering her hugs and band-aids (the latter works for all children, it’s truly amazing).

Her sister Maggie barely looks up from the TV (to be fair, why would you, it’s television!). Her brother Danny smiles down at her from the wall.

Nora McInerny Purmort

Founder and CEO, Still Kickin, and the Still Kickin Board of Directors