John Sylvester knew what was coming on the day he died.
Early that morning on June 16, he looked at his wife, Tessie Sylvester.
“He told me today was the day,” she said.
Sylvester, a 44-year-old West St. Paul man, had been in a long battle with ALS, the fatal neurodegenerative disease that had robbed the former pro soccer player and coach of the use of his body.
In his last week, he took a turn for the worse even as his wife was struggling to come to grips with a devastating health crisis of her own.
On the day that John Sylvester died, Tessie Sylvester got a diagnosis of a cancer that is threatening to take her own life and leave the couple’s two young sons without a father and a mother.
The story of the family’s plight has spread around the world. In the past 10 days, a GoFundMe campaign has raised nearly $200,000 toward a $500,000 goal.
Tessie Sylvester spent the last week of her husband’s life shuttling between his bedside and her doctor’s appointments.
An abnormal result of blood test from a routine physical sent Tessie to an endocrinologist on June 12. On June 13, an ultrasound showed that her liver was enlarged. The next day, she got MRI and CT tests, and on June 15, a biopsy.
“It was kind of boom, boom, boom,” said Tessie Sylvester, 36. She said her husband knew of the tests she was undergoing.
“John so badly wanted to come with me during those appointments,” she said. But he was too sick.
“It made him so sad. Those last days were hard,” Tessie Sylvester said. “There were a lot of tears.”
On John’s last day, “I just held John and laid with him,” Tessie Sylvester said.
He had a chance to say goodbye to their two children, Gus, 6, and Freddy, 5.
“There was no struggle. It was really peaceful,” Tessie said.
When it was over, she called the funeral home.
She was just finishing that call when another call came in. It was her doctor, calling with the results of the biopsy. It was adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer that forms in mucus-secreting glands.
The cancer, believed to have originated in her bile duct, had spread to her liver and lymph nodes.
According to the GoFundMe page for the family, surgery isn’t an option.
“She will have chemotherapy to try to keep it at bay and buy her time with her sons,” according to the site.
“I just remember saying, ‘How could this happen? How could this statistically happen?’ ” Tessie said. She even asked her doctors, “How is this happening? I don’t feel sick.”
They met on a soccer field
John and Tessie met when they both coached kids at a youth soccer league. She was on the University of St. Thomas women’s soccer team, and John had just finished his pro career with the Minnesota Thunder.
John “Sly” Sylvester grew up in south Minneapolis, as the son of pastor. He was an All-State soccer player at Washburn High School and played for the Minnesota Thunder in the late 1990s when the team dominated the USL leagues and won a national championship.
Sylvester went on to coach Washburn girls varsity soccer and was coaching director of Minneapolis United, a youth soccer organization.
A traveling trophy named in his honor, the Sylvester Cup, is awarded in the competition between the boys and girls varsity teams at Minneapolis Washburn and Minneapolis Southwest.
Tessie Sylvester comes from a longtime West St. Paul family. Her father is an electrician and her parents and four of her five brothers and sisters still live in West St. Paul. Her older sister, Jenny Halverson, is the West St. Paul mayor.
She went to the University of St. Thomas on an academic scholarship. Three days after she and John got married in 2004, she started dental school.
She worked as a dentist in a free clinic at the Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul before going into private practice. She supported the family working part-time while caring for her husband, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2011.
According to the GoFundMe site, Sylvester is self-insured but she won’t be able to work during her own treatment.
The GoFundMe campaign is called the Sylvester Joy and Sunshine Fund because of the nicknames John gave his children, “Gus the Joy,” and “Freddy Sunshine.”
He had those names tattooed on his arms before he died.
‘I need you with me’
Tessie Sylvester said it may be the worst of luck to be stricken with cancer as her husband was dying. But she said she feels fortunate to have the support of her family.
“I don’t see any reason to dwell on it. It is what it is now. You just have to deal with it,” she said.
“She has strength and grace that’s unmatched in this world,” her sister said. “I continue to be inspired by her.”
Tessie said she also thinks she still has the support of her husband. As he was dying, she said to him, “I need you with me. I still need you.
“If you leave me, you’re not going to go far,” she told him. “You’ve got to promise me you’re going to look after me and the boys.”
As she is entering her own fight against a deadly disease, she said “I talk to [John] all the time.”
“Maybe he can do more now that he’s free of his body,” she said. “I don’t think anyone really knows how this is going to turn out.”