William DeGregorio and Austen Eadie-Friedmann, who met at Tufts, were together more than 17 years before Eadie-Friedmann died of ALS in December
When William (Billy) DeGregorio, A08, began dating Austen Eadie-Friedmann, A06, after they watched a movie together at Tufts University’s Rainbow House, things went so well, so fast, that he could picture their relationship lasting forever.
“Definitely something was kindled,” DeGregorio says. “It was like a meeting of hearts and minds.”
But he was only 19 years old, and Eadie-Friedmann only 21. “I had corresponding fears,” he explains. “I remember asking myself, ‘Am I really going to spend my life with this person?’”
As the couple’s love for each other endured and grew—through post-college jobs, graduate school for both men, and career moves that included a two-year stint in London—DeGregorio’s attitude changed.
“I just realized I shouldn’t question it,” he remembers. “If it’s going well, if it continues to go well, go with it. And eventually I did. It became clear to me that, yes, I would be spending the rest of my life with this person, and that would be fantastic.”
It would have been fantastic.
Instead, on December 1, Eadie-Friedmann died at the home he and DeGregorio shared in Thompson, Connecticut. His death came 17 years after the couple’s first date (during which they talked their way through the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby), 10 years after their civil union ceremony, five years after their marriage, and three years after Eadie-Friedmann was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
DeGregorio says sharing the story of Eadie-Friedmann’s life and their relationship became a sort of mission for him after Eadie-Friedmann’s diagnosis, a way to ensure that some part of their love would live on.
“We were a very insular couple,” he says. “We spent all our time together. I feel like I hogged him, and he was such a wonderful person.”
DeGregorio and Eadie-Friedmann were introduced by mutual friends at Tufts. Their first date at Rainbow House, where Eadie-Friedmann was living at the time, was followed by a second at Stephanie’s on Newbury Street. Through what DeGregorio calls their “old-fashioned courtship,” the couple went for ice cream at J.P. Licks in Davis Square and studied together at the Ginn Library at the Fletcher School. After Tufts, they moved to Jersey City where they each pursued graduate degrees. Eadie-Friedmann earned his master’s in human resources management from Rutgers University in 2012; DeGregorio began what ultimately became a Ph.D. in decorative arts, design history, and material culture from the Bard Graduate Center.
From the beginning, Eadie-Friedmann’s career took priority. “We realized early on that he was going to make the money,” laughs DeGregorio. “He was totally fine with that. He loved being a provider.”
Eadie-Friedmann worked in HR for Bristol Myers Squibb and later Alexion, a Boston-based biopharmaceutical company.
“He felt like he was a good problem solver,” DeGregorio explains. “He could help warring parties come to agreements very well.”
Eadie-Friedmann was working at Alexion when he was diagnosed with ALS in 2019 (ironically, the company was pursuing an ultimately unsuccessful treatment for the disease). He and DeGregorio moved to Connecticut when navigating life in their apartment and in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood became too difficult with Eadie-Friedmann’s wheelchair. As the disease progressed, Eadie-Friedmann transitioned into a patient advocacy role at Alexion; when he was forced to take disability leave, he volunteered for organizations including I Am ALS and EverythingALS.
Before his diagnosis, Eadie-Friedmann loved to travel: he had been to Honduras, Spain, Turkey, and Egypt, among other destinations. But, as he lost his mobility, his view of the world shrunk to what he could see from the couple’s dining room window.
“He’d watch the birds, the turkeys, the deer,” DeGregorio recalls. “There was a family of groundhogs for a while.”
Eadie-Friedmann faced his illness head on; he knew he was dying and didn’t want to pretend otherwise. In fact, DeGregorio says the tendency of the health care system and patient advocacy organizations to encourage positive thinking was a challenge for them both.
“There’s so much relentless positivity,” DeGregorio explains. “I think if I were writing a book or pamphlet about this experience, I would emphasize the need to allow people the space for negativity.”
A Lasting Legacy
The pair’s already-inward focus helped ease their transition into post-diagnosis life. They bought antiques and art and relished in decorating their home together; they binge-watched shows such as The Crown, White Lotus, and RuPaul’s Drag Race. Rick Steves’ Europe was a recurring comfort, as were British history and nature documentaries.
Remembering his early fears of a long-term relationship, DeGregorio says he had been “anxious about getting too comfortable.” But he grew to appreciate “the rituals of caretaking.”
“I remember thinking, ‘It’s actually really nice to have a routine that we do every night,’” he says.
Neither DeGregorio nor Eadie-Friedmann were religious; they didn’t look for God or silver linings in Eadie-Friedmann’s disease or suffering. As for a legacy, DeGregorio says they had agreed early on not to pursue having children.
“What we were creating together as a couple was kindness,” he says.
Nevertheless, seeing the comfort children bring to other people who have lost spouses to ALS and other diseases has been difficult, and now DeGregorio worries about how to shore up his husband’s memory, feeling that what they experienced was fleeting.
“With any kind of grief, you don’t want the person who’s passed to be forgotten,” he adds.
That seems unlikely. Much of what DeGregorio and Eadie-Friedmann cared about and worked toward in their relationship continues: the kittens they raised are almost full-grown cats; the paintings they loved to look at still hang on the walls of their house; this month, a book about English needlework that DeGregorio co-wrote while caring for Eadie-Friedmann will be published by Yale University Press.
That continuation of life—and all the pain and joy that comes with it—was a bittersweet reality that Eadie-Friedmann tried to prepare his partner for while he was still alive.
“He said, ‘Your story doesn’t end with me,’” DeGregorio remembers. “‘You go on.’”
Martina D’Amato, a friend of the couple’s, says Eadie-Friedmann was “one of the warmest, kindest people” she’s ever met and that DeGregorio “gave up everything” to take care of him.
“We should all find a love like that,” she says.