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"Make sure you do today what you can't do tomorrow"

By Ellen McCarthy
Sunday, September 5, 2010; E08

By January 2000, Ed Urbaniak knew what he wanted: not just a relationship, but the kind of love that could sustain a family.

He set up an AOL Web site, "My Next Man," plainly spelling out his criteria: a guy under 6 feet tall who considered himself a Christian and was interested in eventually having children.

"My degree is engineering -- you have to understand that I have lists of things," says Urbaniak, who graduated from West Point Military Academy, spent nine years in the Army and is now a real estate agent.

Erwin Lobo had just moved to New York City from the Philippines that February, so he was new to a lot of things, including Internet dating. When he spied Urbaniak's Web page, he was impressed by Urbaniak's forthright deliberateness, and the two began chatting regularly, discussing their lives and hopes.

In June, they decided to meet and set up a date at a coffee shop in Chelsea. And an hour after the appointed time, Lobo -- new to the subway system and without a cellphone -- showed up, greeting Urbaniak briefly, then rushing to the restroom. "I have a very small bladder," he explains with a shrug.

No matter: By the time they moved on to dinner at a Thai restaurant, all was forgiven. Urbaniak reached across the table to hold Lobo's hand, and Lobo says, "I suddenly felt connected to him."

It was mutual. After two weeks of dating, Urbaniak invited Lobo to meet his parents back home in Buffalo for the Fourth of July.

That October, Lobo, a marketing professional, got a job offer in Washington. Urbaniak, now 45, signed on with a D.C. company the next month to be with him. They bought a house and began their lives as a unit.

"Right from the very start, I felt like we'd been doing this for a long, long time," says Lobo, 37.

"Our souls felt connected," adds Urbaniak.

On their one-year anniversary, Urbaniak asked Lobo to marry him. Lobo declined, saying he didn't want to go forward without the blessing of Urbaniak's Catholic parents. So they shelved the idea, reasoning that it was just a piece of paper. "In our eyes, we felt like we were married anyway," says Urbaniak.

By the end of 2002, they started planning for children, and in August 2003 they were sent a picture of a young boy from Guatemala. "We fell in love with him and decided right away that he was the one for us," says Urbaniak. The boy, Leon, wasn't able to come to the United States until March 2004, and then, at almost 17 months old, he didn't speak or know how to eat on his own.

They doted on the toddler, and within two years they were planning for another. Emilo, "Ilo," was born in Guatemala in April 2006 and joined them in the summer of 2007. The family of Urbaniak's dreams was thriving and roundly supported by friends and relatives. But when Lobo took Leon to a doctor who wouldn't discuss the boy's care because Lobo wasn't his legal father -- Urbaniak was -- they began to think more about the importance of that "piece of paper."

Late the next year, Lobo was in Paris with a friend when he began having severe back pain. An X-ray revealed a mass in his lung. Two days after a painful biopsy, in March 2009, Lobo and Urbaniak were called to the doctor's office.

"I'm sorry," he told them. "It's cancer."

Doctors told the pair that most people with that type of cancer could expect to live six to 12 months, although Lobo's prognosis might be better because his body was young and otherwise healthy. He began chemotherapy on April 1, Ilo's birthday, as the prospect of a new reality set in for both men.

"When you're dating somebody, you just don't think about that type of thing -- you think about that as being a million years away," Urbaniak says. "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with in my life. . . . For a while, I shut down almost altogether."

But Lobo continued working full time, and by summer's end, six rounds of chemo had shrunk the tumor. They went to the Bahamas with friends to celebrate and watch the Miss Universe pageant.

In September, he started getting headaches, and an oncologist arranged for an MRI. By the time Lobo had gotten back home, the doctor had called Urbaniak and told him that the cancer had spread to his brain. He underwent a month of radiation that left him devoid of energy. The boys knew he was sick, but at 6 and 3, they were too young to fully understand what was happening.

"They would rub my head and say, 'I hope Daddy will feel better,' " Lobo recalls. "It breaks your heart but makes it stronger, too."

The radiation seemed to work, but an MRI after Christmas showed that the brain cancer had spread. Lobo was told to get his affairs in order and start thinking about hospice care. When his grandmother died in February, Lobo flew to the Philippines. He knelt beside her casket and prayed, "Please take this away from me -- I want to see my kids grow up."

In March, with Lobo on new medication, the couple took the trip to Asia they'd talked about for years. They met a California winery owner who was on his way to see the Dalai Lama. The vintner took a bracelet blessed by the Dalai Lama from his own wrist and tied it around Lobo's, promising to ask the holy man to pray for him.

A scan in May showed that the brain cancer had cleared completely.

As a surprise for Lobo, Urbaniak secretly entered a wedding contest sponsored by Crate & Barrel. They didn't win that, but they were put in touch with Wish Upon a Wedding, an organization that hosts weddings for couples facing a terminal illness or other severe hardship. It immediately offered to throw Lobo and Urbaniak a wedding.

Like the trip to Asia and every family dinner at their Sterling home, marriage suddenly seemed like something that couldn't wait.

"Everyone knows their time is finite, but you think about it more when something like this happens," says Urbaniak. "Make sure you do today what you can't do tomorrow."

Lobo wept as he followed Urbaniak and their sons down a path between 50 friends, all dressed in white, who'd gathered in the sunlit garden of the Meridian House on Aug. 14. Urbaniak's parents watched via webcam as the men promised to care for each other in sickness and health. Urbaniak's parents would have been there, but his father had learned that he had lung cancer.

The day was, in Lobo's words, "a celebration of life."

"I'm very, very lucky," he says. "A lot of people just leave their homes and get shot or get in an accident. They won't have the chance to say goodbye to their families."

Lobo worries that he won't be able to repay the caring Urbaniak has given him. But he worries more about leaving the two young boys at the heart of their union.

"It's unfair for them to lose me at this time," he says. "That's why I'll hold on until I can't."

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