August of 2015

"Jake? Hi. Sorry to call you at work," she told him.

"Hold on. I can't hear you. Let me get away from the excavator. Gimme just a sec, okay?" he hollered even though she could hear him just fine.

He walked about 50 feet away from the job site then tried again.

"Leanne? You still there?"

"Yes. I'm still here," she said.

"What's going on? Is Becca okay?"

"Yes. She's fine. She's right here," he heard her say.

He could tell something was wrong by the sound of her voice, but if it wasn't their daughter, he wasn't sure how it was any of his concern. They weren't married, never had been married, and never would be. For that matter, they weren't even in love.

They'd dated briefly and as luck would have it, Jake Wheeler found out the hard way what he'd heard many times about how rare it was for a condom to break. In his case, it only happened that one time, but as he soon learned, once was more than enough.

They called things off about a week after the 'big break' happened for other, unrelated reasons, but a month later, Jake also learned his one-time girlfriend was pregnant. Having been raised to take responsibility for his actions, it never once occurred to him to do anything but step up and be a father to his yet-unknown child, and he did that from day one.

Neither he nor his ex-girlfriend, Leanne Harvey, had any interest in getting married for their baby's sake, but she knew Jake would be there for the daughter they would have some eight months later, so marriage had never even come up.

Over the following months, they got along well and while they occasionally disagreed, they never fought. After Becca was born, child support checks arrived on time the 1st of each month, and Jake willingly helped out with anything else his daughter needed.

And the truth was, he was happy to do it, because that tiny little girl had changed his world in the best possible way, and there wasn't anything he wouldn't do for her. He wasn't opposed to helping out her mother, but Leanne wasn't his responsibility, so if she was calling to ask him to...

"Jake? I...I have...I have cancer," Leanne told him without warning, causing Jake to hold the phone out and look at as though it was the source of the words he'd just heard spoken to him.

"What do you mean you have cancer?" he asked.

At the time of that phone call, Jake had been 27 years old and Leanne was just 23. Old people got cancer. So did some little kids. But not someone her age.

"It's bad, too," she told him quietly.

Jake knew she was doing her best not to cry, and suddenly he was choked up to the point where he couldn't speak.

"Jake? Are you still there?" he heard her ask.

He cleared his throat then said, "I'll be right there, okay?"

Without waiting for an answer, he hung up the phone then ran to the portable building on the job site where he knew he'd find his father, the owner of Wheeler Excavation, LLC, and told him he had an emergency.

Jake wasn't just Jeff Wheeler's son, he was the smartest, most-talented man in his employ; a man who could run any piece of equipment and perform any task from digging out a foundation to a well to anything that required moving large amounts of earth.

"Jesus! That's awful, Jake. Please let me know if I can help," his father told him as Jake flew back out the door and then to his truck.

Twenty minutes later he was at Leanne's house, and when he saw her mom's car there, he realized this was serious.

"Hey," he said to both of them as he walked in without knocking as he always did.

"Hi, Jake," Leanne's mother, Violet Harvey, said as she hugged him. "Thank you for coming home."

It wasn't his home, but he wasn't about to quibble as he looked at the mother of his child who was holding Becca in her lap.

"So...how bad is bad?" he asked, not sure what else to say, as he sat down beside her.

When Leanne's mother, one of the strongest women he'd ever met, started to cry, he knew it was really bad.

Jake Wheeler, whose given name was Jeffrey Mark Wheeler, Junior, had been a very good student in high school. He graduated with a 3.8 GPA and could have gone to nearly any college in the country. But like his father, he loved heavy equipment and had been working for his dad after school and on weekends since he turned 16. He didn't actually believe that sort of love was 'in his blood', but he knew that's the only thing he ever wanted to do.

So while he hadn't gone to college, Jake, a nickname given to him in junior high that had stuck, did a lot of reading on all kinds of topics to include science and medicine. But he'd never even heard the term 'Invasive Ductal Carcinoma' before. He had heard the term 'Metastatic Breast Cancer' and understood what metastasis meant, two terms Leanne quietly repeated to him in answer to his question.

Leanne had Stage IV metastatic, invasive ductal carcinoma that had, as the name implied, moved into the milk ducts of her left breast and further spread, or metastasized, to her lungs and then her brain.

Leanne's mother did her best to recount what the oncologist had just told them a few hours earlier after explaining why they hadn't said anything about this before.

"We...we just didn't want to worry you in case this turned out to be no big deal," her mom said. "But...but this..."

When she couldn't go on, Jake knew she wanted to say, "But this IS a big deal."

He soon learned just how big when Leanne asked him to hold their baby.

"I don't have much time left, Jake."

"How...how much time?" he asked as he took her hand.

She shook her head then said, "Six months at most and quite likely less. Regardless of how many months I have, I won't be well for some portion of it near the end."

It was beyond surreal to have gone from sitting in an excavator an hour ago prepping the ground for a house in a new development to sitting next to the woman who'd borne his child and learning there was very little chance she'd live until Christmas of that same year.

"What can I do?" Jake asked as he fought back tears.

"Take care of our baby girl," Leanne said without any hint of tearing up. "That's all I care about. And that's all that matters."

"You know I will," he told her. "But there's gotta be something I can do."

She looked right at him and said, "There really isn't anything anyone can do for me now. So I just need to know Becca will be with the one other person who loves her as much as I do."

She looked at her mother then said, "Mom? You know what I meant, right?"

"Of course, honey. And I know Jake loves my granddaughter as much as you or me, so you didn't hurt my feelings at all," her mom told her. "Jake is a fine man and a loving father."

"Jake, listen. I don't know how long I'll be able to care for her, but for now, I'm fine," Leanne told her. "But this kind of cancer is very aggressive and that's why it spread so fast before anyone noticed. I...I only found a lump two weeks ago, but it's already twice as big and...still growing. But that lump isn't what's..."

Jake got that, too. It was the cancer cells that moved to her lungs and her brain that were the thing that was...killing her.

Leanne asked for a moment alone with Jake, so Violet took Becca and went outside on the porch.

"I do have one request," Leanne told him once they were alone.

"Sure. Anything. Just name it."

"I need you to promise me you'll find someone to help you raise her."

When he tried to respond, Leanne stopped him.

"No. Don't interrupt, okay?" she said very calmly. "My mom loves Becca, but she can't stay here indefinitely. Your mother is gone, and while I know you'll do a great job, our little girl needs a woman to love her and teach her and be a female role model for her. So...two things. I want you to find someone, but the second part of that is she has to love Becca as much...well, almost as much as I do. Will you promise me that?"

Jake's head was swirling in confusion, and as smart as he was, he couldn't even think. He didn't want to agree to something he'd never do, but he felt like he had to say 'yes'.

"I can promise you I'd never, ever marry a woman who didn't love our daughter," he told her. "That part's a given."

She kept her eyes locked on his and waited for the 'but'.

"It's just that, well, I...I can't promise you I'll get married at all let alone when."

"Jake? You're the kindest, sweetest..."

Leanne managed a smile then said, "Most handsome guy I know. You have a fantastic job, and some day, whenever your dad gets tired of running it, you'll own the business. You're a total catch. I only wish I'd have been able to love you the way you deserved to be loved. But that's all water under the bridge now. I know it's not fair to pressure you, but what they say about a mother being willing to do anything to protect her child is true. And the last important thing I can do is convince her father to find a new mom for her like the woman I just described."

When she reached over and put her hand on his, Jake caved.

"I promise," he told her, his voice quivering, still not sure he could.

She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek then said, "And please shave more often. You look great with the three-day stubble thing, but you never know when you're going to meet her, and you look even more handsome when you're clean shaven."

She reached up and pulled the Seattle Mariner's ball cap off his head, exposing a head of thick, dark hair and said, "And please, please don't wear a ball cap everywhere you go. It's not the 1990s anymore, okay?"

Leanne never gave advice. She let him live his life, and he did the same with her. So if these were her last wishes, something he still couldn't fully accept, they seemed like pretty reasonable requests.

"Okay. I'll break out the razor a little more often, and I'll save the hats for...ball games and barbecues."

"Thank you, Jake," Leanne said very sweetly. "And would you please let my mom know she can come back in now?"

To help ease the transition, the day after Thanksgiving Becca began staying with her father after dinner until he went to work the following morning.

It was on Thanksgiving Day, after having dinner together with both of their families, Leanne told him she didn't have the stamina to care for their daughter full-time, even with her mother's help. She saved what strength she had to spend time with Becca during the day and let her mom help out when she got too tired until Jake came to pick her up.

Then, two weeks before Christmas, Leanne became so ill she was moved to a halfway house. But when, just two weeks later, and with just days left to live, her mom brought her back to her house the day before Christmas after Leanne told her she wanted to die at home. She was too ill to do anything, but she was somehow able to sit up and hold Becca and have a few pictures taken and a final video made with her mom, Jake, and his family there to share her last holiday on earth.

Leanne fell into a coma three days later, and died on the 31st of December just before midnight. Jake was there along with Leanne's mother, each of them holding one of her hands.

After the coroner arrived to take her daughter away, Violet told Jake she could stay there a little longer and was happy to babysit until she had go back home to Spokane. He, in turn, told her how grateful he was, knowing his younger sister would be happy to help out. But having a full-time job herself, Jake was going to have to find childcare in the very near future.

Becca, of course, had recognized her mother and had been able to say 'momma' for quite some time, as well as many other words that were added to her vocabulary as she grew. But being just 18 months old when her mother passed away, she would have no real memories of the woman who'd given her life and who'd loved her so very much.


February, 2019

"Jake? I know this is none of my business," his sister Kayla said when Jake came to pick his five-year old daughter up after work. Being a teacher at the same school were Becca attended Kindergarten, Kayla had been allowed to keep her niece with her class until the final bell before taking her home until her dad arrived.

"Uh-oh. It sounds like you're about to stop minding your own business," her brother said with a smile as he took Becca from her.

"Okay. Yes, that's true. I am about to get nosey. But...well, do you think you'll...ever get married?"

Jake tried not to laugh when he replied before remembering the promise he'd made while Leanne was still relatively healthy. Kayla knew about it and had never once mentioned it in all the time since her brother had taken full-time responsibility for his daughter.

"Gosh, I don't even have time to date let alone have an actual relationship with anyone."

"I'm not bringing this up because of the promise, Jake. That was between you and Leanne. But you only just turned 30, and you're a very nice looking guy. So...I'm more than willing to keep Becca in the evenings, too. You know, so you could maybe have time to meet someone? Would that maybe help?" Kayla told him.

"Gee, why do I feel like you're trying to get me married off?" Jake replied with a smile.

"Well, you can't blame me for caring, can you?" his sister replied with a kind of 'who me' look.

"I really do appreciate that, sis," he told her. "I barely remember Mom, and you never even knew her, but it's not like Becca's...being deprived or anything."

He looked at his daughter then said,"You're my little sister, and as strange as it sounds, you're also the closest thing I've ever had to a mom, and I love you dearly. But I'm so busy with work and raising little Beks here, I honestly don't know how I'd ever fit in any kind of...romance."

Kayla knew Jake had had more than his share of 'romantic encounters' before Leanne got pregnant, and she also knew he'd put his nose to the grindstone from the time he found out, making sure his daughter would be well-cared for. But there were other things she knew, as well. One of those was that her older brother was a very lonely young man. Another was that her niece needed the love of a mother. She got plenty from the rest of her family, but there was no substitute for having a woman there 24/7 who would care for Becca the way she and Jake tried to do.

"Besides," he told her. "Who's gonna want to hang out with a 30-year dad with a five-year child?"

Before Kayla could answer him, Jake said, "But whoever that might be, she'd have to love the Bekster as much as we do, right?"

"Okay. I know I shouldn't have butted in, but I felt like I had to say that. And you know I don't do that very often."

"No. No, you don't," Jake agreed. "And because you're such a wonderful, caring person, I don't see any need to go looking for a wife."

"Well, I'll let it go then," Kayla said, knowing it wasn't her place to push too hard.

"Give Aunt Kayla a big kiss!" she told Becca before handing her off to her father.

"Bye, Auntie Kayla!" Becca told her after giving her a kiss goodbye.

As Jake got ready to leave, he turned around and said, "I do worry about something, though."

"What's that?" Violet asked with a smile.

"Well, the thing you said about having a woman around for Becca. I'm...I'm just a guy. And...I'm all guy. I'm not saying Becca can't be a...a heavy-equipment operator or..."

Kayla winced and Jake laughed.

"See? That's what I'm talking about. I can't sing. I'm a lousy dancer. I can't draw. I don't know anything about arts & crafts or whatever it is that Leanne would would have taught Becca and had fun doing it. I mean, I'm happy to take her deer hunting or to a monster truck rally, but I worry about her not have something..."

"Girly?" Kayla suggested.

"In a word—yes," Jake replied.

"Hmmm. Sounds like someone is making my point," his sister said, trying not to gloat.

"Yeah, yeah. Okay. You win," he told her with a smile as he held his hands up.

He reached down, took one of Becca's then said, "You ready to go home, Punkin'?"

"Uh-huh!" she said happily as she nearly forced her very-tired father to skip out to the car with her.

"See!" he called back to her aunt. "This is what I'm talking about!"

"I'll babysit anytime. Evenings, weekends, holidays!" she yelled back as she waved goodbye. Her brother only shook his head as he put Becca in her carseat.

A couple of weeks later, Jake's dad let him know he and the builder he'd partnered with on the development they were prepping was ready to show the model home that weekend.

"They finished it already?" Jake asked, drawing a puzzled look from his father.

He drove by the model home site every day, but obviously he hadn't been paying much attention if they'd finished it right under nose, so to speak.

His dad laughed then said, "Someone's preoccupied."

"Yeah, maybe so," his son agreed. "Kayla's kind of been on me to find someone."

"Ah, okay," the elder Wheeler said before looking at his daughter, who also happened to be there for the announcement.

"Why are you looking at me?" Kayla Wheeler asked. "I haven't been on his case in..."

"Days?" Jake said before she could say 'months'.

"Okay, but it's been...weeks. Not days."

"Ha! If you mean 'week', singular. Maybe," her brother quipped.

"Anyway," their father interrupted, "Mr. McKee would like us to be there for the open house on Sunday."

Jake shook his head in disgust then said, "No. You gotta be kidding. I get one day a week off, and I gotta go stand around some new house with a bunch of snobs? And what about Becca?"

"I wanna go!" the little girl said, finally making her presence known, too.

"See there. Your daughter thinks it's a great idea."

Jake rolled his eyes and asked his sister if she'd watch her niece.

"Why don't you bring her along?" his father suggested.

"Dad, are you serious?"

"Yes. I'm very serious. She's a little doll, and potential buyers will love her."

"I'm not a doll, Pop-Pop. I'm a ballerina," Becca informed him.

"She's got a point, Dad. I mean, she won't take that costume off except to go to school."

"Then let her wear it. I think she's..."

Jeff Wheeler leaned over, touched his nose to his granddaughter's, then said, "Beautiful!"

Becca giggled then surprised everyone when she said, "My mommy was bootiful, too."

Everyone stopped laughing and talking before Becca answered their question.

"Nanna showed me pictures of my mommy during FacingTime, and she says we're like pea pods."

Jake looked at Becca then at his dad who was trying not to laugh.

"You mean 'peas in a pod', right, sweetie?" her dad suggested.

"That's what I just said, Daddy. Pea pods."

"Oh, okay," her father said with two eyebrows raised high.

"It's from noon until about three or four," the family patriarch said, bringing his son back to the topic at hand. "And you can probably duck out a little early."

"Okay, fine. As long as I don't have to wear a tie. Or a jacket," Jake said, relenting again.

"No suit. No tie. Just...no jeans, okay? And our little princess here can wear her ballerina costume."

Becca clapped and said, "Yay!" having heard nothing but being allowed to wear her favorite new outfit since deciding she wanted to be a ballerina when she grew up.

According to Kayla, Becca had seen some girls her age on TV dancing in a ballet class. She stood up and started trying to imitate their moves and told her aunt she wanted to be one. After checking with her father, Kayla made her a little pink tutu and bought her some white tights. Becca was happy to wear her white tennis shoes with them, and no else cared. So just like that, a ballerina was born. Kind of.

Kayla agreed to go with her father and brother for two reasons. The first was that she loved Becca as much as anyone else in the family, and number two, she was getting ready to finally move out and buy a place of her own.

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