DeKALB – Steve Ode lost his 17-year-old son Johnathan to an alleged drunk driving incident in 2017. On Tuesday, he had to sit his 4-year-old son, Louis, down to tell him his mother, Katie Ode, is dying of cancer.
"That has been probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," Ode said, voice breaking over the phone Friday. "It was 10 p.m. Tuesday night. I was like, 'I need to tell Louie,' and he was laying next to my wife. I said 'Mommy is dying' and that Mommy was going to live in heaven with his brother.' And he cried."
Steve, 40, and Katie Ode, 37, of DeKalb, both work for DeKalb School District 428 – Steve, as a freshman science teacher at DeKalb High School, and Katie, as teaching assistant at the high school until she was forced to leave her job due to her declining health. They met in December of 2009 after she'd successfully completed nine months of chemotherapy after her first diagnosis.
Steve's no stranger to heartache. He lost his first wife, Marsha Ode, in September of 2008 after a hard-fought battle with breast cancer. Meeting Katie and discovering that cancer had already touched both their lives led to a deeper connection. They got married soon after.
Less than 1% of metastatic melanoma cancer survivors get the 10 years of remission Katie got, Steve said.
"Our oncologist said it was the equivalent of winning the lottery," he said.
Tragedy struck the family in 2017 when their son, Johnathan Ode, a DeKalb High School senior, was killed in a drunk driving car incident.
"If it wouldn't have been for Katie, I don't know if I would have ever gotten through that," Steve said. The Odes are still battling court proceedings over their son's death, since the driver's trial was postponed until Feb. 24.
Katie's cancer returned in 2018, Steve said. Doctors found tumors in lymph nodes in her lungs, spine, liver. In the two years since, they've tried chemotherapy and radiation, gone to see doctors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, applied for clinical trials, and hoped they'd be able to overcome as they did a decade ago.
In the summer of 2019, Katie was given a respite from her pain thanks to a special blend of chemotherapy, and though it didn't last long, Steve said they took full advantage.
"We went with our son to the zoo," he said. "We did as many museums as she could, went to the aquarium, saw friends, went to birthday parties, had a fabulous summer vacation up in Door County. It was grand. We didn't know how long it would be like that."
The Ode's whole family ended up joining them in Wisconsin last summer. And over the last few days, they've made there way back, this time, to say goodbye.
On Tuesday, Katie was placed in hospice, Steve said.
"We don't know how long she's got," he said. "The hospice nurses said this could be a couple days, a couple weeks. She's declined more rapidly than what any of us would have thought. She's still cognitive enough right now but she can't talk. He strength is absolutely down to nothing. But she's still enough with it where she knows that you're there."
Since she had to leave her job, and lost her life insurance, Steve set up a GoFundMe to help pay for funeral and medical costs, though said he's not one to ask for help but was overwhelmed.
Steve said he thinks Katie would want people to know how important it is to always keep fighting.
"She's always been a fighter," he said. "My wife thought, back in 2009, that that was it. She fought tooth and nail on that. I think in the end, you've got to go in with that mentality of kill or be killed. And to always love people around you. In the last few days having all our friends and family come, it made me think, 'Wow, she's touched so many lives.'"