When a dying mother begged her friend: 'Will you take my babies?'

By Lindsey Bever

Beth Laitkep with her children Selena, Will, Dallas, Ace, Jaxson and Lily.
Beth Laitkep with her children Selena, Will, Dallas, Ace, Jaxson and Lily.

It was a heart-wrenching moment for two best friends - one lying in a hospital bed, the other sitting by her side.

One dying from breast cancer, the other promising to care for the young lives she was leaving behind.

At a hospital in Virginia, the two women started to cry.

"'Will you take my babies? Will you do this for me?'" 39-year-old Stephanie Culley, from Alton, Virginia, said her friend, Beth Laitkep, asked her. "I told her yes, I would do it in a heartbeat."

Laitkep, a single mother to six children, found out she had breast cancer in 2014, when she was pregnant with her last - a boy named Ace - Culley said. Ace was delivered by emergency C-section at 30 weeks, she said, so that Laitkep could begin aggressive chemotherapy treatments.

By the next year, the treatments appeared to be working, Culley said, and Laitkep and her children moved from Texas to South Boston, Virginia.

In June 2015, a month after the move, Laitkep's cancer came back; it was a time, Culley said, when the two women, who had been friends since high school, started to reconnect.

Culley said she started helping Laitkep with the house, taking her to doctor appointments and, then, sitting by her bedside when the medicine was no longer helping.

"I felt this pull to reconnect with her," Culley said, "this pull that I could not stop."

The cancer hit Laitkep's bones and although more chemotherapy treatments seemed to beat down the disease once again, Culley said Laitkep soon started to have pain in her back and in her legs. The cancer, she said, had spread to Laitkep's brain and spine.

"The doctor told me that there was nothing that could be done," Culley said. "That's when we started talking about the kids."

Culley said the father to the older children wasn't in the "picture" and the father to the younger children left as Laitkep was battling cancer. She said she could not speak further while the Culleys are in custody proceedings.

Laitkep wanted her children to be cared for in the same way she would have cared for them. She wanted them to be kept together - not split up.

Culley laughed as she told the Washington Post about her best friend's "silliest" request - she wanted them dressed with matching bows in their hair.

"At that point, we took the kids down to the hospital for her to talk to them about it," Culley said. "We said, 'If you do not get a miracle for Mummy, who do you want?' They all pointed to me. That melted my heart."

Culley added: "We all decided that was what we needed to do - take all of them and keep them all together as our family."

On May 19, Laitkep died at 39, and Culley and her husband, Donnie, kept their word - taking the children as their own.

"She fought as long as she possibly could," Culley wrote on the family's GoFundMe page, which has raised more than US$3900. "She was tired."

"I want to thank every one of you that has shown your love and supported Beth and her family during this time," Culley added. "From making monetary donations, all the meals and just being there when needed. It's been unbelievable, the support in our community. As for the future, we're going to take one day at a time, keeping her memory alive and making new ones together as a family."

Culley said she and her husband have temporary custody of the six children and are set to appear in court this month to obtain permanent custody. The family will talk about adoption in the future, she said.

Over the past few weeks, the Culleys have opened their family to care for now nine children, ages 2 to 15. Culley said the youngest, Ace, turns 2 today - a Mickey Mouse-themed day that she hopes will create lasting memories for the children.

"They know she's an angel - they know she's with us every day," Culley said. "Their favourite thing to do is get balloons and send them up to her.

"Actually, maybe we'll do that at the birthday party."

Culley said her friend's death was "the most difficult thing I have ever watched."

"It felt like I was in slow motion," she said. "It was heartbreaking."

Culley said her family has been blessed - and that's why she believes they were chosen to bless someone else.

"People call me an angel - say I'm a hero, but I don't think anyone in my shoes would have done anything different," she said, adding: "We believe God has blessed us in our lives and this is the best thing we can do."

As for the promises she made to her friend, Culley says she has kept them all.

At Laitkep's funeral, the entire family showed up in pink - and the girls wore matching bows in their hair.

"They are exceptional kids. You can't help fall in love with them," she said about the newest members of the family.

"That day was the first day of our new life. I feel like our life is complete now. Those six kids were the six links we were missing from our lives."

- Washington Post

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