FORT MYERS, Fla. – Eighteen months before he died, Oak Gregg-Donaldson wrote a letter to his wife.
"I know that this time is hard for you and I'm sorry for that," he wrote to Teri Gregg-Donaldson in June 2018 as he prepared for shoulder surgery. "...but I want you to be happy.
If that means you being a widow or getting remarried either is fine with me. You are stronger than you realize and don't you ever let anyone tell you otherwise!"
Written in the event of his death during the surgery, that letter — as well as two others her husband wrote the same day to their six other children, all younger than 10 — now provide strength in the face of the unspeakable loss the family faces.
While the surgery was a success, Oak died unexpectedly at home in his bed Dec. 5 of a cardiac blood clot.
It was hours after the couple had welcomed their seventh child, Rowan. Teri didn't find the letters until after his death, as she was looking through documents for the title to his motorcycle.
"He had told me they existed prior to his surgery," she said. "They were together with the title. It took me about two weeks to find the courage to read them."
Some of the things he wrote in his letter cut straight to her heart.
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"I know we had a future together," he wrote. "And I still want you to go for it."
A future cut short
The couple's last night together was limited to just 20 minutes with 4-pound, 14-ounce newborn Rowan, Teri said, because her husband wasn't feeling well. Still they had a wonderful time, she said, eating dinner, watching TV, cuddling and making a belly cast.
Oak went into detail in the letter, urging her to parcel out any leftover life insurance money for the children for college, or for something near and dear to his heart: scouting dues and camping.
"This is my legacy to them and will create memories for them for a lifetime," he wrote.
His wife said he used to joke with friends about dying.
"He'd say, 'I'm not going to live past 40'," she said. "He used to joke about his funeral, but it was a joke; we had plans." His 41st birthday would have been at the end of this month.
Tears are never far away for Teri, even when she's thinking happy thoughts or when her second-youngest child, Ash, 1, displays one of his toddler smiles.
Her husband was the anchor of the growing family as a stay-at-home dad and Cub Scout leader. Teri still has uncertainties facing her.
"It's hard to think of future plans because we had future plans," the 36-year-old Cape Coral mother of seven said, her voice thick with emotion. "It's going to have to be different now."
She and the other six children have moved in with her mother, Patti Armbruster, in her three-bedroom, two-bath 1,695-square-foot home not far from where they had been living.
"That was immediate," Teri said. "I came right here. I couldn't bring myself to go to the house to get my clothes."
She has since been back to the house the family rented, though it wasn't easy.
"I've been back," she said. "I can go there and be there for short periods of time. But I'll just wander around."
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She's thankful that her mother had the space and was willing to take on the brood. Four of the Gregg-Donaldson children were adopted through the foster care system.
Teri remains on medical leave with pay and has yet to return to her job as a claims adjuster for Progressive Insurance.
There are also new roles for Teri, many more than the sole wage-earner she had before.
"Now, day care will be in play. Once I go back to work, I won't be here to get them off the bus, the big kids," she said. "There's a lot of outside child care. We never had to do that before because Oak was there."
She said her children have been supportive. When she started taking the kids to school for the first time after her husband's death, she got confused and lost.
"I didn't know what I was doing," she said. "I went the wrong way. I had never done that before."
Her oldest daughter, Alexis, shrugged it off.
"'They're just going to have to get over it'," Teri recalled her saying about anyone who might have cast a bad eye on her wrong-way school visit. "Because you're new," Alexis told her.
The children are in counseling at Valerie's House, a Fort Myers center that helps families deal with the loss of a loved one.
"I personally don't feel ready," she said. "But I'll do what I have to do for my kids."
She's relying on her friends as well.
A GoFundMe started by Armbruster has raised over $75,000, an amount that blew her away.
"I feel almost unworthy," Teri said. "So many people have so many tragedies."
Oak's letter, which Teri treasures as a tangible, last bit of words from her husband, is also evidence that he's now her guardian angel.
"I will continue to watch over you and guide things from the other side," Oak wrote, "but you'll be my voice from here. I love you."
Follow Michael Braun on Twitter: @MichaelBraunNP
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Florida mom of 7 finds letters from husband after his unexpected death