This is an ordinary story about an ordinary person who lived an ordinary life. An ordinary life that was cut too short. If you choose to read it — I warned you.
December 20, 1964
Patricia and Edwin Holahan welcomed their third child, a baby girl, into the world. In a weird turn of events, they end up naming her Monica instead of Julia. Something about seeing a street sign in San Juan, Puerto Rico on the way to the hospital.
Monica’s early life can be described as quintessential to twentieth-century, middle-class America. She was the daughter of a government engineer, which meant she moved more times that she could count (I mean, she was only learning to count at the time). Her family finally settled in Reading, MA when she was 12. And when they did, she settled right into her predetermined role as the third child: a total punk.
She got herself into quite a bit of trouble during her high school years — staying out too late and smoking pot under the courtroom steps.
What was most frustrating to her parents was that she had potential. She was a good student and talented mid-distance runner. When the other girls at track practice ran to get donuts, she finished the workouts.
She could have been anything. But she settled for something, a kind of something we are all grateful for every day.
Monica’s parents were harsh on her during high school. They thought she listened to too much over-sexualized pop music and drank too much Heineken (probably true).
In reflection, she knew they loved her deeply, and wanted the best for her, although it’d take her decades to feel it.
Monica fought a lot with her mom. The classic story of a moody, know-it-all teenager and her much wiser mother battling it out for an inch here or an inch there. Like a lot of parents, her mom was under a lot of stress that Monica couldn’t see, but would later experience on her own terms. It’s hard to sacrifice your independence for your kids. Harder so to stomach that you are being held there captive by your decisions.
After graduating high school, Monica attended The University of New Hampshire. She was pissed about it. She’d wanted to move to Los Angeles to study at USC, but her father wouldn’t have it.
We are lucky he wouldn’t.
In her first semester freshman year, despite still going steady with longtime high school boyfriend, she made a secret pact with herself to marry one of two men she’d crossed paths with. Both had the last name Ward. One, a cute and scrawny frat boy. The other, a superstar football player.
Just a few short months later, in classic Monica fashion, she got precisely what she wanted. The scrawny frat boy, John, noticed her — owning the room in black and red plaid — at his frat’s party. He asked her to a Billy Joel concert that night.
John and Monica had struggles early on in their relationship as most young couples do. Drinking escapades mixed with deep infatuation has never served anyone all that well. To top it off, Monica’s mom, Patricia, or “Patsy,” as they fondly called her, didn’t approve of John. She thought he wasn’t a good influence on her — which, well, was likely true at the time.
They had that off-and-on kind of college romance, where you break up and get back together every few months. Where the two sides of passion meet and stability never arrives.
It would seem to them, however, that the Universe was conspiring for them to be together.
Every time they broke up something bad happened. The first time, John was stabbed (nearly to death). The second time, Patsy was diagnosed with late-stage leukemia.
They resolved never to break up again. Bad things happened when they did. And they simply couldn’t afford any more bad things.
Monica moved home to Reading to take care of her mom and get her act together, working full-time and commuting up to school a few times per week.
She hadn’t taken her college course seriously enough. She’d come into the school still with some promise, lost it somewhere in the middle, and figured a way to piece it back together in the end — during what is fondly called a “fifth-year victory lap.”
Patsy was now spending most of her days in the hospital. The side effects of chemotherapy were physically unbearable. Hospital staff had to monitor her for days after treatment, measuring counts and changing out catheters.
Monica visited her mom on her lunch breaks. It’d be nice to imagine that Tuesday With Morrie style talks ensued, but it was probably more puking than philosophy.
That spring, Monica graduated. Patsy couldn’t make it to the ceremony.
A few weeks later, they transitioned her out of the hospital and back into the home. Which in hospice-speak means that Patsy went home to die.
John and Monica stayed close — both recalling the need to feed her morphine by the Dixie cup.
September __, 1988
Monica was there, holding her hand tightly, as Patsy took her last breath. It was a defining moment in Monica’s life — one that would determine much of the remainder of her own, yet for whatever reason, she eventually “forgot” the specific date.
Monica would live a life in the shadows of her mom’s life and death — as anyone does who loses a parent young.
As it turns out, Patsy had been through something similar.
When Patsy Holahan (Harbaugh) was in her early teens, she’d been involved in a fatal car accident. A drunk driver steered the car her father was driving off of a bridge. Her brothers and father died in the accident. Patsy, her mom, and the drunk driver survived.
Monica would reflect on what that must have been like many times over the years. She even had an implicit fear of overpasses. Every time she crossed a bridge, she’d make her passenger open the sunroof “just in case” they landed in the river.
Patsy met the self-proclaimed fiscal-conservative, well-read, and super intelligent Edwin Holahan when she was in her early twenties. He boasts that she said “yes” to a date with him after having rejected his best friend. It’s perhaps the proudest moment of his life, even still.
Monica stayed at home to be with Ed until she was married to John in March of 1990. Losing a partner, she would learn, is a lot like learning to walk again.
May 4, 1992
John and Monica Ward welcomed their first child, a baby girl, into the world. They brought her to their one bedroom home to live in the closet.
That baby girl’s name was Kate.
The night they brought Kate home from the hospital, Monica was alone holding her, singing to her. She looked out the window and saw her mom, Patsy, staring back at her smiling.
It was the first time she’d experienced anything of the spiritual sort. She was comforted.
And with that Monica was determined to make things right this time. It was a sign from her mother: all was going to be okay.
As many mothers do, Monica saw raising Kate as an opportunity to repay what her own mother had given her, to rewrite the mother-daughter saga in a new way, to right her wrongs.
Her relationship with her mom had been cut too short to revitalize. That wasn’t going to happen here. It wouldn’t need to happen here. Whatever it took — she was determined Kate’s life a good one.
And so she did.
Monica and Kate were inseparable. Their hugs were hard. Their conversations were honest, raw, and tearful. Outsiders often questioned the efficacy — how could a relationship be so pure between a teenage daughter and her mother?
John and Monica added two sons to the mix. Sam in January 1997 and Jackson in August 2001.
Monica loved her children equally, but differently — championing each of their strengths and refusing to compare them.
During her pregnancy with Jackson, she’d complained to doctors of a painful lump in her breast. They shrugged it off for three years — claiming it was just a milk clot (ew). It wasn’t until she complained of acute, unbearable pain that they finally agreed to do surgery and assess the terrain.
Turns out, the docs had been wrong. It was breast cancer. Triple negative, motherf*cker. Good thing for malpractice insurance, I guess.
Monica didn’t let that stop her. She was in her late-30s at the time of diagnosis. Three young kids. Crushing chemo and cupcake contests. Running 6–8 miles a day. A real-life superwoman.
Unless you looked closely and noticed that her hair was not actually attached to her head, you couldn’t have possibly known she was “sick.” She didn’t act sick at all. She was the healthiest person among her peers.
Cancer doesn’t discriminate.
Monica’s particular type of breast cancer was genetic in nature. She had positively tested for the BRCA gene, a mutation (in men and women) that substantially increases chances for specific types of cancer (breast & ovarian).
The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes — which means it had entered her bloodstream — and she had to complete many rounds of both chemotherapy to beat it. [It’s important to note that most chemotherapy does not, for the most part, cross the brain/blood barrier.]
She beat the sh*t out of that cancer. Mom — 1. Cancer — 0.
And… she kept running. She won a Susan G. Komen survivors race. She was inducted into the Reading High Hall of Fame. She built a city for her kids — pushing each of them to the limits. She went back to work full-time, committed to putting Kate through college, just as her father had done.
But below the surface, cancer cells were building their strength again — yet left undetected by yearly “check-ups.” [Side note: these “check-ups” didn’t actually include any full body scans.]
7 years after beating it the first time, the same kind of cancer came back — this time at Stage 4. It was in her lymph and in her lungs.
Kate was living and schooling at the University of New Hampshire like her mom had been a few decades prior. She made her mom the sole priority in her life for a while. Traveling back and forth from school multiple times per week. Bringing her mom to treatments at Dana Farber whenever possible.
Monica would say to Kate on a few occasions:
“I thought since my mom died young, my card had been punched.”
Like we noted before, cancer doesn’t discriminate.
6 months later, the doctors would find it in her brain.
The proximity of death, despite not really being talked about, only strengthened Monica.
In the final year of her life, she kept at it. Kept working, kept running, kept raising her kids. Her marriage was falling apart, but she knew she wouldn’t outlive the marriage anyway. So she stayed with her “Johnny” and supported him in his new romantic relationships.
She didn’t tell hardly anyone about those private battles, just approached every day with reverence for life. Not a remnant of self-pity.
She was the essence of conditional love, hoping for her husband what she had hoped for her dad — that they could learn to walk again.
In the weeks and months leading up to her death, Monica and Kate spent every minute together possible.
They went on “Coffee Quest 2014” to find the best cup of coffee in New Hampshire together. They started a diary of their adventures. They slept in hospital beds together. They had deep talks about parenting and life. They laughed and they cried.
July 4, 2014
The Wards and a few close friends gather around a bed as Monica struggles for her last few breaths. Kate holds her hand tightly.
Slowly, and then suddenly… she let go.
Monica’s life could be described as fairly normal — but should it be?
It was extraordinary to me and all that knew her. Because moms are the special people in this world. Whether they’re good or not so good, they make us who we are. They carve the path forward and backward.
So I say, here’s to the normal ones. The ones that won’t ever have a New York Times piece written about them. The ones that aren’t household names. The ones that will be forgotten when this generation is gone.
Here’s to the ones that had the guts to sacrifice themselves for others, not for fame. The ones that leave it all out on the field. The ones that do it without any thanks.
Here’s to my mom on what would be her 54th birthday.
And to my grandmother for laying down the bricks for her.
It’s not lost on me the chain I followed to get here.
I owe you both everything.
Happy 54th Birthday, MCW. Every word, every mile — is for you and because of you.