In 2012, Toby Jenkins-Henry and William Henry were on the precipice of something great, exhilarating and uncertain: love. For eight months, Toby (then living in Washington, D.C.) and William (who was in the army stationed in Germany) were developing a close friendship over the phone, Skype and letters. Their long-distance friendship evolved into a committed relationship when William drove from Germany to Paris to visit Toby, who at the time was on a month-long sabbatical in the City of Light writing a book.
They hadn’t seen each other since the first time they ever met, in Virginia. “It was wonderful to open the door and see him walking down the street towards me. I was so excited,” says Toby, a 39-year-old assistant professor. The week they spent together in the French capital was a whirlwind of hours of mind-blowing conversations at cafés, sightseeing and catching a Mos Def and Talib Kweli concert.
Toby planned a romantic picnic in the park for her first date with US Army Sergeant William. They enjoyed each other’s company and feasted on cheese and wine overlooking one of the most breathtaking views in the city, Butte Chaumont. It was then that Toby shared an anecdote with William.
“In movies, there is always a scene where the character is running from danger. They usually wind up on the rooftop. There they run to the edge and have a choice: Turn around and run back into what you were running from or jump,” recalls Toby. “There are moments in life you make a decision to jump into an unknown and hope you make it. I told William I was ready to jump into a relationship.”
“It was a really a beautiful and thought provoking moment. I was ready to jump in too,” says 44-year-old William.
On his drive to Paris, William played out several scenarios in his mind of how their initial encounter would play itself out. “I thought I would play it cool and calm. I envisioned a scene out of Mo’ Better Blues. Like when Denzel is out the window and Clark would ring the bell. He would look out and say something smooth to her,” he shares. In actuality William was so overwhelmed by seeing Toby (“She was as beautiful as the day I met her”) that he froze. “I got to the door and I just turned into a shy country boy. I just stood there looking at her.”
“He was even too shy to sit next to me on the sofa,” adds Toby with a chuckle.
William would visit Toby on occasion during her month-long stay in Paris. “It was frustrating. After we decided to be in a committed relationship, Toby had to go back to D.C. and I was left in Europe a couple of more months,” says William. But their eight months apart prior to meeting in Paris had taught them how to make a long-distance relationship work. Keeping in touch was integral. They talked all the time, sent each other letters, and exchanged “your personality in a box” care packages. They also had a tradition of sending each other daily songs of the day.
Toby thinks that if it were not for their time apart, they may have never gotten to know each other inside and out. “All we had were our conversations. They were at the core of our relationship. The things you do together when you are around each other take away time from deeply getting to know someone through conversation,” says Toby.
Their first year of dating found them spending more time together. Toby switched her schedule around to finish her teaching course load in seven weeks. William was stationed in Hawaii, and before moving to Hawaii from Germany, he spent a month in D.C. with Toby. She stayed with him in Hawaii for a couple of months.
“I had never met anyone like her,” William says. “Maybe that sounds cliché, but it’s the truth. I was attracted to her refusal to take any dishonesty. This is the only relationship where someone knows everything about me. I felt comfortable sharing my imperfections with her.”
“I loved that William was really loving and open-minded. He was incredibly open to growing and to fully becoming a self-actualized person,” says Toby, who admits that she did challenge William on issues of history, oppression and racial identity. “I would joke with my friends that he was taking one of my African-American studies class. I would give him things to read and we would discuss afterwards. A lot of people would have probably been turned off by that. William really enjoyed it.”
“She had a unique way of making me critically analyze my thoughts. She did it in a loving way. It wasn’t confrontational,” says William, adding that Toby made him realize how culturally unaware he was. “I wasn’t taught how beautiful our race is. I went to predominantly White schools.”
Toby also adds that William challenged her to be a great partner, to learn how to share her life and live the principles that are important to her. “Family, truth and love are big for us. It’s essential to have shared beliefs,” says Toby.
In fact, it was a shared history that drew her to William when they first crossed paths in a hotel parking lot in Virginia in 2012. Toby was in town for a wedding and William was undergoing training at Fort Lee military base. There was a hurricane in Virginia, and both William and Toby were staying in same hotel with no power. “I decided to go out to my rental car, and that’s when I ran into Toby outside,” says William. “She looked very cute. She had an Afro and was wearing Converses. She looked approachable, so I didn’t have any reservation going up to speak to her.”
“I’m thinking, I don’t want this guy to get too close. There was no electricity, so I thought I wasn’t looking my best, really. I was going to my car to drive back to D.C.,” says Toby. She thought he was attractive, but she was done with meeting strangers. “You just don’t know anything about these people, their friends or background.”
And then William noticed Toby’s South Carolina tags on her car and told her he played football for the University of South Carolina, also where Toby went to college. Turns out they had friends in common. “That totally changed everything for me. I thought, This is the guy with the mutual experience I’ve been praying for.”
The two years prior to meeting William, a relationship was the furthest thing on Toby’s mind. She was focused on staying alive.
In 2009, a 33-year-old Toby was working at Penn State University but she yearned for a change. She accepted a faculty position at George Mason University and moved from Pennsylvania to D.C. thrilled and excited to experience what D.C. had in store. In the midst of her move, Toby was diagnosed with lupus. “I was having isolated problems for a year before. I was constantly telling my doctor, but I was treated like a hypochondriac,” recalls Toby.
At the suggestion of her aunt, Toby demanded a doctor to give her a lupus test. “I began researching about lupus, and that’s when I realized how serious a diagnosis it was. It became very important for me to take care of myself.” In addition to being hit with news that she had lupus, Toby felt a rock-hard lump in her breast when she gave herself a self-exam. “The physical stress of moving caused me to have a lupus flare that landed me in the hospital for a week,” says Toby.
She had a doctor at the hospital take a look at the lump. He felt it and said it had nothing to do with Toby’s lupus. “I thought it was fine because the doctor thought it was nothing.” Two months later, Toby was settled in D.C. and setting up her primary doctor visits. Her new doctor was shocked the previous doctor was not concerned about the hard lump. She immediately did a biopsy and it came back as cancer.
“I was very nervous and scared. I started thinking about all the time I let pass. Cancer isn’t something you wait on,” Toby says. Toby scheduled surgery right away. “I had to decide if I wanted to take the tissue out or the entire breast with the lump or both breasts.” She decided to have a double mastectomy. “I didn’t want to live wondering if the cancer would come back. No body part is worth my life. I’m addicted to life, not my body. I said take them both off.” Doctors reconstructed Toby’s breast by taking skin from her back. “I had a whole new respect for cosmetic surgeons after my surgery.”
Toby also had to decide whether she would extract her eggs to freeze them before going through chemotherapy (which can cause infertility). “I was a single woman and thought: I can’t fertilize my eggs. This costs thousands. I’ll go through chemo and I will have to become one with the possibility that I may not have children,” says Toby. “It was a very hard decision to make.”
She woke up in excruciating pain following her surgery but was happy to be alive. The outpouring of love from friends and family kept her going. “I definitely cried, but I always was focused on what to do to stay alive. I did a lot of research on cancer. I made some big lifestyle changes.” She learned about all the toxins and chemicals in everything from the food she ate to her laundry detergent. “There is no food or anything that is worth my life. I do whatever I need to do to stay alive.”
Toby’s recovery from surgery lasted a year. She had surgery in December and was back to work in January while she underwent chemotherapy. “Cancer is a chronic condition. It’s not something that goes away. I’m gonna be in recovery for the rest of my life.” The first week Toby started building a friendship with William, she shared her medical history with him. “I wanted to have full disclosure,” she says.
“It didn’t change anything for me,” says William. “She is such a strong woman. I admire her. My mom would always say to me that I needed a strong woman and I definitely found that in Toby.” William, who had been married once before, says his marriage to Toby means the world to him.
On June 29, 2013, Toby and William got married in an intimate ceremony surrounded by family in a historic Victorian home in South Carolina.
As the newlyweds got settled in their new home in Hawaii, some more unexpected news would be revealed at another one of Toby’s doctor appointment. “They wanted to put me on a new medication for my lupus, and when they did the usual test, they told me I was pregnant!” says Toby. The couple was shocked and ecstatic. “It was a blessing and a wonderful feeling to know that we were going to have a baby,” says William.
But only two months into her pregnancy, Toby’s joy would be compromised by another lump she felt underneath her arm. A scan would show the lump wasn’t cancerous, but doctors were worried about a dark spot they spotted in Toby’s scan. “Typically, when cancer returns outside of the first sight, it’s considered a death sentence. I was devastated and it was traumatic,” says Toby.
Doctors wanted to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread anywhere else in her body. Doing a full body scan on a pregnant Toby wasn’t possible. Thee doctors suggested she terminate her pregnancy so they could fully treat her. She could try to have another baby, they reasoned.
“I meditated and prayed on it. It didn’t make sense to me to terminate my pregnancy. What if we do the scan after I give birth and they find cancer? I’ll have five more years to live and the baby could go on to live. If we didn’t find cancer on the scan, I would have killed my baby,” explains Toby. “I chose to invest in the baby’s life.”
William never told Toby, but he thought that maybe they should ensure Toby’s health and terminate the pregnancy. “I was sitting in a zone at a Pizza Hut calling on God one day when I was waiting for her during her doctor appointment. I was thinking, ‘God, you are gonna have to show me something.’ The waitress walked up and asked if I needed help. Her nametag read, ‘Faith.’ When I saw that, I knew that I would trust whatever Toby thought was best.”
During her pregnancy Toby had surgery to remove the cancer. After giving birth to “their little miracle,” Kai Dalton, on March 20 of last year, Toby had a full body scan revealing that she was cancer free. “It was the most amazing feeling to have him in our lives and to learn that there was no more cancer in Toby,” says William.
“This person we created together will be part of our legacy. We are developing an image of what family, partnership, marriage and love looks like and means for our baby,” says Toby. “I am thankful and blessed every time I look at my family.”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn't always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she's not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she's writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and magazines. Check out her work and blog at AlexandraPhanor.com.