ON THE SURFACE, Kate Mazzola and Courtneylee Martinez couldn’t appear more different. Kate is tall and outgoing, with a voice that carries; Courtneylee, who also goes by “Courtney,” is shorter, soft-spoken, and shy. Raised in leafy, affluent Carlisle by a stay-at-home mom and a sales executive dad, Kate and her older brother “had the quintessential suburban life,” she says. By contrast, Courtney and a younger sister grew up in working-class Attleboro and Pawtucket, Rhode Island, with a widowed mom who, more than once, had to choose: pay the past-due electric bill or buy the groceries. “My mother always put me and my sister first,” she says, but was “usually jobless, relying on the state for assistance.”
But today, Kate, 31, and Courtney, 30, share a bond deeper than friendship, linked forever after witnessing the end of one life and the start of another. Courtney was the surrogate who carried Kate’s now 10-month-old daughter, Amara. She was a child Kate and her husband, Nain Gonzalez, desperately wanted and spent three years working on. But six weeks before Amara was born, Nain died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 42. Gestational carriers and the families they work with share a special connection, yet this one is extra special. “I don’t think I could’ve gone through this with anyone else,” says Kate. “Courtney is part of our family now.”
IN 2002, WHEN SHE WAS A SENIOR at the University of New Hampshire, Kate was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Discovered after a routine Pap smear, the cancer was swift-moving, and weeks after her diagnosis she had a hysterectomy. “I was numb,” she reflects. “There wasn’t time to think about it, or what it would do to me in the future, or how I would feel.”
Desperate to get away, after graduation Kate moved to touristy Cozumel, Mexico. Frolicking on the beach by day and bartending by night, she found it “perfect” — made even more so when she met Nain, a tall, handsome former semiprofessional basketball player turned local tour guide. They fell in love, and in June 2005, eight months into their courtship, they wed.
Watching Nain with his many nieces and nephews, Kate found herself warming to the idea of having kids. Raised in the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz, Mexico, with a half brother (he also had another 14 half and stepsiblings), charismatic, fun-loving Nain was a natural with kids. “He wanted, like, 20,” says Kate. “As many as I would give him.”
In 2009, after purchasing a spacious home in a family-friendly neighborhood in Billerica, they decided to start trying. “I wanted biological children if I could,” says Kate, who retained her ovaries in her hysterectomy. Finding someone willing to carry for them proved a challenge. The timing was off for Kate’s cousins, and Nain’s Mexico-based sister wanted to help but was denied a visa. They called agencies, but sticker shock put them off. One agency “told us we would need $100,000,” says Kate, a price that, even with their salaries combined (Nain was a hotel maintenance worker, Kate an insurance agent), was out of the question.
Around the same time, Courtney was also thinking about having a baby — for another family. She loved being pregnant. When she was 19, she and her high school sweetheart, Kenny Martinez, then 20, welcomed their first child, Angelina, who is now 11. Two years later they wed, then had Alianna, 9, and Dominic, 6. “I would have loved four — three natural and one adopted,” says Courtney, a quality assurance assistant at a Mansfield-based medical supply company. “Maybe one day.”
Always interested in surrogacy, she began to research it in earnest after her husband’s best friend and his wife suffered a series of miscarriages. “I couldn’t imagine having to go through that,” she says. An Internet search took her to surromomsonline.com, a popular website that gets around 2.5 million page views a month, according to its owner, and among other functions links people interested in being, or finding, surrogates. One day in June 2010, on a lark, she put up an ad. “I honestly didn’t think anyone would ever want me,” she says.
Referred to the site by a co-worker whose wife had used it, Kate logged on around the same time and discovered Courtney’s profile. She was excited: Here was a woman in New England who was the same age, done having kids (any pregnancy has the potential to go wrong, explains Kate; she and Nain wouldn’t have wanted to be responsible for impairing their carrier’s fertility), and interested in having an open relationship.
She sent Courtney an e-mail, and soon the pair found they had a lot in common. In addition to native Spanish-speaking husbands, they shared the same guilty pleasures (Teen Mom, Jersey Shore) and childhood obsessions (New Kids on the Block), but more important, the same values when it came to family. “The way she talked about her kids, the things she did with them, I remember thinking she was a good mom,” says Kate. On a sticky afternoon in July 2010, they met at a Dunkin’ Donuts near Courtney’s Pawtucket home, husbands in tow. After that, “we just knew [she was the one],” says Kate. Courtney did, too. “It’s a gut thing,” she says. “I can’t explain.”
SURROGATE RELATIONSHIPS can go many ways. For some, it’s a time to share every moment, from sonograms to painting the nursery; for others, it’s like a business transaction. While laws around surrogacy vary from state to state, in Massachusetts, most doctors won’t move forward until intended parents and their surrogate draw up a legal contract outlining financials and what both parties envision leading up to, during, and after pregnancy — a process that requires time and care, notes Andrea Braverman, a psychologist in New Jersey and Pennsylvania who is active in the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. “I tell both sides to identify what kind of relationship they want,” she says.
Kate and Courtney spent the next several months finding lawyers, securing health insurance for Courtney, and crafting a contract. While Courtney says she was never financially motivated to be a surrogate, Kate and Nain covered all the medical and legal expenses, paid for maternity clothes, and insisted on remunerating Courtney with what they could afford: $20,000 payable “if the pregnancy was viable and went on to a certain stage,” Courtney says. Without contractually stipulating specifics — how many phone calls to have a week, for example — they orally agreed to have an open relationship during and after the pregnancy. “We left out specifics deliberately,” explains Courtney. Adds Kate: “We both wanted it to be flexible.”
On May 2, 2011, doctors transferred two embryos grown from Kate’s eggs and Nain’s sperm into Courtney’s womb. “It was surreal,” remembers Kate. “In the elevator afterward I remember thinking, ‘You have my baby inside you and nobody else here knows that. Isn’t that weird?’ ” Two weeks later, they learned they were pregnant.
Ecstatic, Kate and Nain spent a week and a half in Mexico, celebrating with Nain’s family. But a couple of weeks after they got back, Nain began to complain of a strange ache in his abdomen. On June 30, after a trip to the ER, they learned the news. “I’m not going to be able to finish my shed,” Nain said afterward, dazed. Inside Kate’s head, a voice was screaming: “He’s going to die.”
EACH YEAR IN MASSACHUSETTS, about 1,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It’s a small number, comparatively — rates of prostate, lung, and breast cancer are far higher — but it’s notoriously deadly. The five-year survival rate for patients with the disease hovers at around 6 percent. Courtney would have understood if Kate had wanted to terminate. Still within the first trimester, they could have. When Kate called, sobbing, with the news, Courtney asked right away, “What about the baby?’’ “This doesn’t change a thing,” Kate had said firmly. They’d worked too hard for this baby and they wanted it, no matter what.
For the next five months Kate felt torn in two. On the one hand, her heart was breaking; Nain, once a strapping 6 foot 4, 215 pounds, was declining rapidly. He would wait until she was out of view to fall apart. “I’d catch him crying,” she says. At the same time, Kate couldn’t suppress the rush she felt every time Courtney texted with an update or a photo of her burgeoning belly. In September, a sonogram revealed she and Nain were having a girl. They picked a name — Amara, which in Greek means “eternal,” and the middle name “Lee,” for Courtneylee — and a pale shade of lavender for the nursery. Kate also couldn’t help feeling guilty for leading Courtney into this. “Surrogacy is a lot to go through with anybody, especially someone you just met,” explains Kate. “For someone to take care of your baby and let you emotionally check out when your spouse is dying . . .” She trails off. “I mean, this is not what either of us signed up for.”
In mid-October 2011, scans showed Nain’s chemo wasn’t working. He had reached the end of his fight, doctors said. About a week before he died, Kate called Courtney over to visit. Struck by his jaundiced skin and frail frame, Courtney finally realized, she says, “that he wasn’t going to make it to meet Amara.” That day, sitting up on the couch, he put his thin hand on Courtney’s belly. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope he felt her kick,’ ” recalls Kate. “It was the closest he was ever going to get to her.”
Before he died, Nain told Kate he wasn’t scared; he just didn’t want to leave them. “I trust you. I love you. I know you’ll be a good mom,” he said. Kate couldn’t bear to say goodbye but knew that if she didn’t, he would strain to hold on for Amara. So one day in late November, clutching his hand and crying, she mustered the strength to say the words. “I know you’re tired,” she told him. “It’s OK for you to go.” And a few weeks later, peacefully in his sleep, Nain died.
ON JANUARY 13, Courtney felt her water break in the middle of the Old Navy in North Attleborough. She texted Kate, who was at a Chinese restaurant in Westford with her family. In the month and a half since Nain had died, getting out of bed, brushing her teeth, remembering meals — every task was torture. Only the thought of Amara propelled her forward. “I was trying to use her as a way to get some strength back,” says Kate. “It was coming fast, and I didn’t want to be a mess.”
In the delivery room that day, holding her daughter for the first time, Kate wept. It was painful, of course, not having Nain there to share the moment. But at the same time, she felt a sense of peace. “I just felt like I wasn’t alone anymore, like part of him was given back to me,” says Kate. “It was amazing.”
After the adrenaline and elation wore off and Amara was settled in at home, Kate started to unravel. Caring for a newborn alone exacted an enormous toll. In that first month, in particular, on the way back from appointments for Amara, she would stop in at Courtney’s house, hand over the baby, collapse on the couch, and cry. She was exhausted — and angry. “This isn’t the way I wanted it,” she would say. “This is what Nain wanted, and now he’s not here. I’m not supposed to be doing this alone.” Once she texted Courtney, “Am I a bad mom if I let her cry?” Courtney replied: “No! It’s OK!”
But by July, Kate had blossomed — a change Courtney noticed when she accompanied Kate and Amara to the doctor’s office in Bedford for Amara’s six-month checkup. Having Courtney to share those moments is a blessing, says Kate. “I send her texts with pictures, tell her, ‘Amara did this today,’ whatever it is. Some of my other friends have kids, too, but Courtney carried Amara. So it means more when I share it with her. I know she’ll appreciate it.”
These days, things have normalized. Kate recently left her job and is now at home full time with Amara. She hopes to find a career she can be passionate about, possibly in nonprofits. “Maybe something helping young widows,” she says. Nearly a year after Nain’s death, she admits she is not fully healed; she knows she might never be. “Sometimes I still can’t believe he’s gone,” says Kate. “But I think I’ve come a long way.”
Courtney has too. She won’t be a surrogate again, she says. But she’s already found a new focus: Recently she accepted an education-and-outreach coordinator position with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, an advocacy group with an affiliate in Rhode Island. She sees Kate and Amara about once a month — in October, Kate and Amara attended Courtney’s daughter Alianna’s ninth birthday party in Pawtucket — though Courtney knows that as time goes by, their visits may not happen as often. “They’re an hour away,” Courtney explains. But there will be holidays, birthdays, Amara’s first steps, her first day at school. And even if Courtney isn’t there for every one of them, she knows, and Kate knows, she’s just a phone call away.
Kate still marvels at the immensity of Courtney’s gift. “Sometimes people are brought into your life and you don’t know the reason. I don’t have Nain here, but I have Courtney, someone who loves Amara as much as I do,” she says. “How do you thank a person for doing what she did?” She pauses to collect herself. “There are no words,” she says, finally. “You can’t.”
Kristen Mascia is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.