Writer Daphne Bahl wasn’t sure how she’d cope when the time came for her kids’ ultra-skilled nanny, Dianne, to move on. When Dianne fell seriously ill, Daphne knew she wanted to help Dianne to cope.
“I haven’t seen Dianne in a while—is she still working for you all?” Ashley, fellow mom and baby pool sentinel, casually asks me. We hover, shoulder to shoulder, as our 1-year-old sons gleefully teeter across the splash pad.
Dianne’s brilliant, mischievous smile flashes in my mind. DeDe. Mommy Two. Dianne, our vibrant, boisterous nanny of nearly six years. More than a nanny, Dianne had been my husband’s and my eager ambassador as we stumbled, sleep deprived, along the shores of planet parenthood. Bossy, enthusiastic and funny, Dianne was exactly what we, two over-educated professionals, with absolutely no idea how to parent, needed.
“No, she actually moved back to Colorado earlier this spring, to be closer to her family. We’re looking for someone new, so definitely let me know if you hear of anyone,” I say, keeping my voice as light as possible.
I quickly move on, complimenting Ashley’s new pool bag, which is “such a fun color orange!”
Dianne died a month ago. Only 49, she lost a breathtakingly short battle with metastatic breast cancer. The reality of this fact feels garish and surreal on this sunny June morning, as joyful shouts and actual chirping birds punctuate the air.
This half-truth isn’t just to protect Ashley, now crouched in the dewy grass changing her son’s sopping wet swim diaper, from social discomfort or the reminder of death’s imminence. I know that any attempt to tell the truth will end in tears (mine) and an itchy, stunned silence (hers). After suffering through a handful of these confessions (and they did feel like confessions) earlier in the month, I am eager to avoid this one. Finding it impossible to convey the intimate and familial nature of our relationship with Dianne, I thus find myself aching to disown my grief; to deprive it of oxygen. If I can shrink my sadness, shield it from public consumption, I won’t have to consider whether our family grew “too close” to Dianne or crossed some invisible emotional boundary meant to separate parents from their children’s caregiver. I wonder, is imposter grief a thing? Do I, does our young family, deserve to feel this much pain over the loss of a non-relative?
Before becoming a mother, my practical lawyer mind found it easy to distill the nanny/parent relationship to the non-emotional essence of any transaction: an at-will employment arrangement in which childcare services are exchanged for payment. Then I became a mom and met Dianne. I was immediately drawn to her that hot August morning she bounded up the steep stone staircase to our living room.
“Hiya,” she said as she launched herself inside. “Man, you sure do have a lot of stairs out there. I never would have bought a house with so many stairs. No worries, though, I’m in excellent shape. You do NOT want a fat nanny, I assure you.”
My husband and I laughed nervously. Dianne immediately took Isabel from my arms and continued talking. The dark cloud of working mom guilt started to lift.
“I’m originally from a real small town in Missouri, but I’ve traveled the world,” Dianne told us. “I lived in Mexico and then New York City for ten years before I moved here. I have three older brothers in Colorado—they’re all cops.”
She then regaled us with funny tales of her nannying career, including working for “some very high rollers” who got her courtside seats at the Mets. I had to tell her that any perks of ours would be decidedly less glamorous. Her resume was extensive and references impeccable, her love of children and zest for life both palpable: we had found our unicorn.
While Dianne came from a different world, we seamlessly folded into each other, my family’s house in Baltimore our shared universe. We were both orphans in a way, as none of us had any family within 300 miles of Baltimore. Dianne was our constant companion, our childless but professional guide on the parenthood ascent. She worked the same long hours and unpredictable schedules demanded by our jobs. Dianne never missed a birthday party, school play or end of year party, at her insistence not ours. We conquered breastfeeding, pumping, bottle feeding, pacifier weaning, nap schedules, solid foods, potty training, discipline, adding a sibling, more discipline, more potty training, and adding a second sibling. Dianne was our family.
Like every familial relationship, ours had its conflicts. That bawdy energy that had so enchanted us during her interview could be tiresome. Dianne once got our entire family blackballed from a popular children’s activity gym by posting a scathing public review of the place on Facebook. We waged a longstanding battle over whether hot dogs should be served for lunch only on occasion (me) or as a staple meal (Dianne). Dianne’s feedback was constant, well-meaning and far from subtle. She observed often that I was too lenient with the children, and while this was probably true (working mom guilt), it smarted. In contrast, the kids listened to Dianne obediently, sometimes a little too well. Dianne swore like a sailor when she drove, overcome by road rage, a fact unknown to us until our then two-year-old son Grant greeted his grandfather by saying, “Holy shit, it’s really you, you fucker.”
We saw eye to eye when it came to our approach to raising good kids, and we shared the goal of creating a nurturing environment while also enforcing firm limits. By contrast, Dianne and I had comically different tastes in just about everything else. A Southerner by birth, I favored classic children’s clothing that has admittedly gone out of style in the vast majority of the country, and Dianne could oft be heard yelling, “Stop buying clothes with all these damn buttons!” as she dressed the children for the day. One Christmas she asked for a pair of Lululemon workout pants as part of her gift. I am a shopper and was thrilled to oblige such an easy request, bringing home nine different styles of pants for her to try. To my shock, she laughed and laughed when I presented them.
“These are all so ugly,” she told me. “I hate them all, I would never wear any of those!”
I stuck to cash gifts after that. We passed year one, and then year two, three, and four in a blur of logistics, exhaustion, plenty of laughter and texts, texts, texts. My husband dubbed Dianne and me the dynamic duo because of the rapid-fire text conversations we could carry on before he’d even had a chance to glance at his phone.
You never knew what to expect when a text from Dianne popped up. It could be a link to an article about toddler discipline, with “READ THIS!!!” as the subject line, an animal farm she wanted to venture to, or a tidbit of juicy gossip gleaned during pre-school drop off.
My favorite texts were about “Charlie,” which was the moniker she used for any of the kids if they were having a particularly challenging day.
The text “Charlie came with us today to the zoo” was accompanied by a photo of a hysterical toddler, back arched and writhing. Amidst the chaos, I occasionally considered how long Dianne would be part of our family, and what it would feel like when she was no longer our nanny. She was in close touch with her previous nanny families, so I reassured myself that, when the time came, the transition would be sad but feel natural, something akin to sending kids off to college. The chaos of three children and two demanding jobs put Dianne’s departure on the distant horizon. Sure to be sad, but not exactly pressing.
On Valentines Day 2020, Dianne went in for her first ever mammogram, having recently become insured through Obamacare. She thoughtfully requested the last appointment of the day, and I hurriedly rushed up those damn stone steps and passed her in the noisy hallway.
Dianne: “The kids have already eaten!”
Dianne: “The laundry in the basement needs to be changed.”
Dianne: “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Good luck,” I yelled after Dianne, knowing she was nervous for the dreaded rite of passage for women of a certain age.
An hour later, I was bathing the kids when I saw text from Dianne.
“Hey, they see something on my right breast that they need more detailed tests on. I need to come back tomorrow.”
“Ugh that sucks,” I texted. Then I shot back, “I’m sure it’s nothing. Tomorrow is fine, I can WFH so go whenever they can fit you in.”
As I wrestled the kids into pjs, I shuffled calls and meetings to accommodate this second appointment. Two days later, Dianne and I were chatting amiably, sorting through my son’s too-small clothes when her doctor called. She put him on speaker, and we both listened to Dr. Kadid tell us that Dianne had a small cancerous tumor in her right breast. He had already scheduled her for a mastectomy, followed by eight weeks of radiation and finally breast reconstruction surgery. Dr. Kadid was upbeat and ended the call by telling us that “early-stage breast cancer treatment is unpleasant but blessedly routine these days.”
We were both stunned. Dianne was the picture of health—fit, energetic, and young. Without hesitation I assured her that our family would walk beside her; I’d accompany her to all her appointments, give her as much paid time off as she needed. We would juggle her treatment and healing for weeks or months, then we would go back to normal. As the surgery approached, I set up a meal train and a dog walker for her beloved rescue, Frasier, and hired an in-home nurse for her recovery. All of Dianne’s doctors agreed, without hesitation, that she should absolutely plan to continue working, with the exception of the first few weeks following surgery. I began imagining the Instagram-worthy “Fuck Cancer” celebration I would throw in a few months.
Her surgery was scheduled for March 2. Together we went to her many pre-op appointments, and, ever the law school nerd, I took copious notes, noting the times the doctor seemed to trail off or contradict himself, asking question after question, forcing the doctor to clarify or, more often, to admit uncertainty. On the advice of a close friend, we set Dianne up with Dr. Dylan, a breast oncologist at Johns Hopkins University, for a quick second opinion before she went under the knife. Against protocol, Dr. Dylan ordered a PET scan, which examines the entire body for evidence of cancer cells. Based on Dianne’s diagnosis and Dr. Kadid’s confidence in her treatment plan, this scan should have been “clear” except for the tumor in Dianne’s right breast. Instead, Dianne’s body lit up like a Christmas tree, revealing “extensive evidence of metastases” in her spine, liver, and shoulder. Dianne had Stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
The stakes had swiftly and monumentally changed. The confidence and nonchalance of Dianne’s doctors vaporized. Her treatment plan became open-ended.
“We’ll try this chemo pill for six weeks first. It will make you nauseous, give you myopathy in your fingertips; you’ll lose your hair. Then we’ll do another PET scan. If the cancer shrinks, we’ll stick to this pill. If this pill doesn’t work, we have six other chemo options to try. There are clinical trials…”
Every conversation had this Alice in Wonderland quality. Don’t give up hope, but remember you have Stage IV cancer.
My husband and I surprised ourselves with how involved we became, and how quickly. Dianne was single and estranged from her parents. Her family in Colorado made supportive noises, but they seemed befuddled, unsure what role they should play in Dianne’s cancer battle. By contrast, we lived in Baltimore and had resources and connections that we could immediately deploy in service of Dianne’s treatment: we plowed ahead. It did not feel like a choice; over time, it felt like a privilege. Our days became a blur of juggling kids, work deadlines, accompanying Dianne to oncologist appointments, begging to be added to waitlists for clinical trials, late night Googling, scouring cancer message boards, picking up Dianne’s groceries and prescriptions, 3 a.m. texts from Dianne that she was too sick to come into work the next day, scrambles for emergency childcare. Some days Dianne seemed completely healthy, chipper, energetic, and radiant, and we all did a doubletake, wondering if she would beat the odds. And then there were days (weeks?) that Dianne should have been lying in bed instead of caring for our children. They watched TV all day, ordered Domino’s for lunch, and played with Frasier, making forts of his dog cage instead of going to music class and playdates.
Not a single doctor ever actually said that Dianne was dying out loud. I worried that Dianne herself did not know, or did not accept, how sick she really was, what little time she had in front of her. I gingerly tried to ask her if this was how she wanted to spend her numbered days, wondering if she should be caring for our children rather than traveling, seeing the world, checking items off some bucket list. She rebuffed me each time, insisting, in her Dianne way, that nannying was keeping her alive. I worried, constantly, about Dianne, and I worried, constantly, about our kids. How do you guide young children through their first encounter with death when the person dying is their constant companion?
The answer: You just do it. We screwed up in a million ways. And yet, I am proud of us. We leaned all the way into the ugly, uncomfortable, and scary reality. We gave Dianne everything of ourselves, and in so doing we showed our children how to love someone you are losing.
The once distant prospect of Dianne leaving our family was like a freight train that we all heard coming but were powerless to stop. I knew I should start interviewing a new nanny, but who wants a job without a start date? I was adamant that Dianne should leave us on her own terms, my futile attempt to give her back a tiny piece of the power she’d lost. I woke up one Sunday morning to the text I had been dreading: “So, I thought really hard this weekend about the date that I should quit. I have decided that the date will be February 28, and I am going to move to Colorado to live with my brother Manny. This way your new nanny will have time to bond with the kids before she is with them all summer. I love the kids sooo much and can’t believe I’m typing this. See you tomorrow.”
Dianne left us on an unseasonably warm February morning. We milled about awkwardly on the front patio, not sure whether to sit or stand.
“Ok, just one more picture. Please!” I begged, as Dianne and the kids laughed and then groaned at the blinding winter sun.
Dianne gave the kids a tape recording of herself reading their favorite story, “Dear Girl,” along with an analog tape player.
“This is so you can hear my voice whenever you miss me,” she said.
Isabel started crying, but Dianne reminded her, “It’s not goodbye forever; I’ll see you in a few weeks. I’ll bring you another present!”
The day she left us, we began struggling to find our place in her new life. At first, we kept in constant communication, me texting her pictures of the kids and funny updates daily. She always responded the same way, “I miss them so much it hurts.”
Soon days and then a week would go by before she would respond.
“Sorry, I’ve been in the hospital with an infection, I’m so tired.”
“I had to surrender Frasier, I’m too sick to take care of him. He is with a great family who lives on a farm. I hope he’s happy.”
“They found two lesions in my brain. It’s spreading again.”
Dianne quickly became too tired and confused to meaningfully communicate, at least from afar. I wrestled with whether it was harder to try to stay in touch or to try to move on. I lay in bed at night and re-read the thousands of texts we’d exchanged over the past five years, looking for “proof” that we meant as much to each other as I thought we did. I visited her Facebook page with the dedication of an obsessed ex-lover. Occasionally, I was rewarded with an update or new photo, but usually there was nothing new.
We never saw Dianne again. She died four months after she left us, on June 11, 2021. I found out from a Caring Bridge post that her brother shared to her Facebook page. We weren’t invited to the funeral. Her family reached out to us once, to ask us to sign a tax document they needed to execute her estate. We procrastinated telling the kids, struggling to find the right words (there are none) and dreading the inevitable dismantling of their innocent worldview.
Once we did finally tell them, they vacillated between inconsolable tears and asking questions like, “Do cell phones work in heaven?”
Once we caught our breath, we held our own memorial service, just the five of us. We served all of Dianne’s favorite foods: medium rare cheeseburgers, French fries, BBQ chips, Starburst jellybeans and absolutely NO vegetables. At our son Grant’s request, we sent balloons in “all the colors of the rainbow” sailing into the sky, and Isabel surprised us with an original song, the chorus of which went something like, “DeDe we love youuuuu, we love you more than Christmas Eve, we love you more than Halloween, we love you with glitter and lights, more than all the things that have great heights, we love you THIS much, we all miss you SOOO much.”
Daphne Bahl is a lawyer, writer and mother of three young children. A native of Memphis, she received her law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law and worked in Washington, DC, for several years before settling in her adopted hometown of Baltimore.