Author: Cheryle Gardiner
Facing loss – published to select friends on Facebook September 26, 2020
My dear son,
I wrote about you so often on Facebook, but since you didn’t indulge in social media, you never knew – unless I told you. Two years ago today I posted this for just friends and family, and it came up in my FB Memories today.
I can’t believe it was only two years ago. It seems like a lifetime. It seems like you’ve been gone for years and years. Sometimes you seem like a dream. But I know the pain I feel in my heart and the hole in my world is no dream. I know that I carried you and birthed you and raised you and love you. I miss you so much. I miss you so damned much.
Martin had never been a heavy drinker, and his medical and social history gave no indication of what had caused his liver to become cirrhotic, so it was termed “cryptogenic” – which meant there was no way to know. A medical shrug of the shoulders. As it turned out, it wasn’t bad; he was told to stay away from alcoholic drinks, given a couple of prescriptions, and sent home with instructions to have it monitored.
In the intervening years, I didn’t give it a lot of thought, and I really don’t think he did, either. He was young – in his 30s – single, handsome, and living life to the fullest. He lived here for a while, moved back to Miami for a while, lived in NYC for a while – my peripatetic child, grabbing life with both hands, wringing as many adventures and having as much fun as he possibly could. In 2010, he, along with is brothers, walked with me to “give me away” as I joined my life in marriage to Jim. In 2013, when Jim died, Martin and his then-partner were here in my home when I got the call that Jim had died. They drove me to the nursing home where he was, and they, along with my sister, stayed with me through the night till the funeral home came. He was staunchly by my side during those dark days following, a strong arm to lean on, a comfort to me in my grief.
Over the years, we’ve had our differences and our arguments. We love each other deeply, but we don’t do well living together, and when he moved permanently back to Oregon, he lived with me more than either of us was comfortable with. He kept my garage – and my life – in constant disarray with minor and major car repairs until I wanted to scream in frustration. He worked only sporadically, and last year he became unable to hold down a job because he was chronically exhausted and couldn’t seem to stay awake. He went back to the doctor, where a CT scan revealed that the cirrhosis had permeated his liver. Worse, he had developed a small cancer of the liver. In October, he underwent a targeted treatment called TACE, where the cells were surrounded by a “bubble” of chemo. The doctor felt certain that it would get the cancer, and a subsequent CT scan revealed that it had. We were cautioned, however, that cancer would recur, and that he’d need to have twice yearly scans. He applied for, and was granted, SSDI.
Then, this July, a routine scan, followed by an MRI, revealed that the cancer had returned – and that it was no longer small. Initially there was a plan to treat it with two recently approved therapies, both of which would have serious side effects, but it was his best – perhaps his only – chance to beat it. We then got the news that the cancer had spread outside his liver, so these therapies were no longer an option. We made an appointment with a radiology oncologist in the hope that radiation would shrink the cancer enough to allow for other therapies. After much poking and prodding, answering the same questions over and over again, we were told that radiation would only further damage his already fragile liver, and could only be offered to control pain. And that it had grown to a size that was outside the scope of national guidelines for a transplant. His prognosis was six months to two years.
Our one ray of hope was the cancer clinic at University of California-San Francisco’s cancer center, where they apparently take transplant patients on a case-by-case basis, notwithstanding the national guidelines. So we began to investigate that option, and were in the process of finding out how much of the cost of a second opinion, diagnostic tests, and potential transplantation his insurance would cover.
Then, last Friday evening, September 18, he called me from where he was staying, suffering intractable pain in his abdomen and right shoulder, and complaining of shortness of breath. The oxycodone that had been prescribed for him just ten days earlier wasn’t even touching it. I took him to the ER, he was admitted to the hospital, and for the first time we learned just how large the cancer is (about 2” x 3”), and that it had increased in size since the scan just two months earlier. The doctor said the shortness of breath was likely due to the cancer pressing on his diaphragm, creating pressure against his lungs.
He was discharged on Sunday, and I began five days of frantic calls to doctors and social workers, trying to expedite the second opinion and possible treatment at UCSF. Today we learned that there is no chemical treatment that can help, and that the cancer not only is growing rapidly, but appears to have invaded his portal vein, which is the most feared complication. It also effectively ends any hope of transplantation. All the finest, most renowned hospital and medical professionals in Oregon can offer at this point is radiation. It’s not offered as a curative treatment, but only an attempt to shrink the cancer enough to take the pressure off of his diaphragm and off of the many nerves, relieving, they hope, the shortness of breath and some of the pain.
And so, here we are. My oldest child, the child I wanted from the time I understood that girls could have babies, is dying, and the prognosis has shrunk. To what, we don’t know. We’re taking each day as it comes. He sees the radiologist next week to begin palliative radiation therapy. We’re closer than we’ve ever been, except, perhaps, when he was a newborn and completely dependent on me. I find that all of the arguments, all of the frustrations over the years, don’t matter. I’m thankful that he has lived a life filled with adventure and excitement, that he has memories that most of us only dream of.
He is angry and sad, he sleeps most of the time, he has his cat for comfort. His family surrounds him with love. My church family and many of my friends surround all of us with prayer. All I can be is that which I always wanted to be: his mom and his advocate.
He just turned 50 in May.
I have much to write to you – I’ve been neglectful – but today I’m sharing this post from Jason. It was in my email this morning, and it’s a precious memory of two brothers who shared a moment in time. I’m so thankful he sent it to me.
I miss you.
The USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) was Constellation’s sister ship. Both were made from the same set of plans and were structurally identical. She was in SLEP right alongside the Constellation in Philadelphia when Martin separated in 1990.
In 1994, Kitty Hawk was in port in San Diego. Martin and Gary were living there at the time, and I was there for annual training.
Martin had heard she was in port and wanted to see about getting a tour. One afternoon he and I headed over to the pier, but it wasn’t open for public tours. They were open for military visitors, but visitors needed to be escorted by somebody from the ship. As you can imagine, Martin wasn’t happy.
As we were leaving after being turned away, I recognized an A-school classmate of mine on the pier. I told Martin I think I knew him.
“No you don’t. Everybody looks the same. C’mon.”
I grabbed his attention anyway.
“Cerezo! What’s up? What are you doing here?”
“Hey! Just out here for reserve training. My brother and I were trying to see if we could get a tour of the Kitty Hawk.”
“I just got off duty, but I’ll give you guys a tour.”
So he checked us in and Martin and I got our tour. Martin was ecstatic. He kept commenting about how everything was right where he remembered it. The decor was different, but everything was in the exact same place. When our host took us to the communications area (where he worked…and where I would have worked) we couldn’t go in. I had clearance, but Martin didn’t and couldn’t be left unescorted. There was a small window off one wall that opened from the communications room into the passageway.
“Oh! This is where I would come to get messages for Engineering!”
“Well, if your brother were working here he’d be the one to hand you those messages.”
For a brief moment, our Navy lives connected. Martin, the yeoman for the Chief Engineer. Jason, the cryptologist routing the message. Two brothers–separated by time, but connected by a shared responsibility. We smiled at each other, recognizing how close we were in that moment.
As we were leaving, Martin asked if I had considered moving to active duty.
“I’ve thought about it…a lot…but I don’t think I’m going to. I’m glad you were active, though.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
My dear son,
There are days – and today is one of them – when you never leave my mind. It seems that, no matter what I’m doing, thoughts of you overtake me, memories of you are crowded in my brain.
Today, for some reason I am remembering you and gardening. It’s funny, isn’t it? You were never the kind of person I thought of as a gardener, and were far more likely to have grease on your hands than dirt.
But I remember that day in late spring or early summer of 2018 when you were living in your motor home on Division St. You’d spent several days painting your lot number on the cement pylon, carefully getting it just right. You came over to the house with a package of assorted flower seeds to ask my advice on how to plant them. You wanted to make your home attractive and a pleasant place to be. I remember how excited you were, asking how to prepare the soil, did I think you’d gotten the right seeds, how long would it take for them to grow and bloom… oh, you were full of questions for me.
I gave you all of the information I could, you borrowed a few tools for planting, and off you went. From that day forward, you let me know almost every day how they were doing. You’d show me pictures on your phone of the tiny shoots erupting through the soil, and ask my advice on whether each one was a flower or a weed. And then one day, with the excitement of a small boy, you told me that some of them were blooming. A few days later you brought a photo as proof. You were so incredibly proud of them – and you knew for the first time, the real joy there is in seeing something you’d planted and tended bring a bit of color and beauty to your home.
I think that place and that time was the happiest you’d been in a long time. You felt independent and free. I was happy for you and thankful at the pride you were taking in the place you lived.
I’ve also been remembering how hard you worked, and how we worked so well together, to build my raised planters. Over the years you’d made things for me and helped with repairs, but when I asked you about building the planters I’d designed, I wasn’t sure you’d want to undertake the job. You weren’t only willing, you were eager! We spent untold hours at hardware stores and looking online for the things we needed, and when we finally had them all together, you carefully measured and cut the wood, and then produced your impact driver to put them together.
As you know, they work wonderfully well, and I love to tell people how I designed them and you built them. Despite your prediction – which came to pass – that the bottom wouldn’t bear the weight of the soil, we were very proud of the finished product. After the bottom did fall out of one of them and I’d gotten more lumber to brace the screening, you fortified them and we were back in business. I never look at them without remembering those days. Ben has promised to keep and use them after I’m no longer here. That’s just one of many ways you live on in this world. I am grateful for those tangible things you’ve left for me.
Thank you, my son, for these precious memories. Despite our arguments and our difficulties living together, you were always willing to help with my projects. I know we saw the worst in each other all too often, but we also had many times that we gave each other our best selves. I miss you so much and am thankful always that I am your mom.
I love you.
Published on FB January 2, 2022
Shared with Public
One year ago today, my first-born left his earthly life behind to begin anew in the mystery we call “death.” My faith assures me that all is well, even as I grieve, even as I know none of us has the answer to what lies in the Beyond.
Perhaps, as some believe, there is nothing. Or perhaps Martin has already been reborn as someone else, to work through previous incarnations. Perhaps even as I labored to bring him into this world, another mother somewhere was grieving his death. The answer is, We just don’t know.
And so I rely on my faith, on the knowledge that each of us is unique, and my belief that our uniqueness is purposeful, and that it transcends death. I believe that somewhere, in some way, Martin exists. And I also believe – maybe “hope” is a better word – that when my time comes to leave this Earth, I will find him waiting, ready to show me around the Afterlife. He was always a wonderful tour guide, after all.
In the meantime, I console myself with the knowledge that molecules of Martin surround me. He’s in the air that I breathe and the water I drink. He isn’t gone completely away. And, of course, he lives forever in my heart and mind.
As I write these words, I’ve just hung up the phone with the wife of a man I’ve known since he was a small child. He’ not related by blood, but by marriage, and he’s actively dying. He’s in his early 50s – a contemporary of Martin’s, and was his friend
This young man is actively dying of cancer – hours or days, but not weeks. So, even as I grieve my own child, another mom is looking down that dark road, a woman I know is trying to prepare herself for the unimaginable. A wife, a child, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends – all are facing the loss of someone dear to them.
Men, please take care of your health. Regular doctor visits are imperative. Women get into that routine early in life; men tend to put it off. Don’t do that. Have a thorough physical once a year. See your doctor about unexplained pains, or anything that seems unusual. Cancer is an insidious disease, but most can be treated if caught early enough. Not all of them, but most.
Don’t put your parents, your spouse, children, relatives, friends, through this grief. Love them enough to take care of yourself. You don’t realize how much they’ll suffer if the worst happens. You aren’t bullet-proof. None of us is.
Published on FB on 12/31/2021
Shared with Public
There is nearly always a bittersweet feeling about the end of a year. We recall the good and the bad, and if we’re a bit lucky, the good memories dominate.
I think we can all agree that none of us was really sorry a year ago to see the end of 2020. Between the pandemic, the last administration’s mishandling of it – the lies, the subterfuge, the daily death count – and the unnecessary confusion surrounding the election, it was a very bad year, indeed. It was hard to find or remember the times that gave us joy and a sense of well-being.
For my family, that was all overshadowed by the terminal illness of my oldest child, Martin. In the same year that we celebrated his 50th birthday with joy, we also observed the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with full knowledge of his impending death.
I consigned 2020 to the trash bin with a sense of relief.
On January 2, 2021, Martin left this earthly realm after three very hard days when he was in great pain, despite the heavy sedation being administered by hospice. His brothers and I kept vigil at his bedside, and were there when he opened his eyes and truly saw each of us just before he took his final breaths.
We were still deep in our grief when the trump-generated attack on the US Capitol took place. Such an unprecedented event turned our attention once again to the deep divisions within this nation. Even throughout those dark days, I missed Martin. I knew that he would have been next to me as we witnessed a history neither of us could have dreamed of.
I know in my heart that Martin would have struggled more than most with the ups and downs of pandemic restrictions/relief that were the hallmark of this year now ending. He was faithful to wear his mask during the early days, but as it dragged on, as the conventions changed almost daily, I’m not sure how compliant he would have been.
But there are also good things to recall about 2021.
Holding a place in my joyful memories is surprising Jason on his 50th birthday by showing up unannounced to everyone (except Lisa Cerezo – I know better than to pay a surprise visit to a daughter-in-law, especially when planning a week-long stay!). The look of surprise on Jason’s face when I walked in the door is forever imprinted on my mind’s eye! Even having to cut my visit short due to several of us contracting COVID-19 can’t erase that joy.
I was also thrilled to be able to resume some limited activities at my church, along with some dear friends (all of us vaccinated), and then – finally! – to be able to resume services in the church instead of on Zoom, in November. True friendships are a precious gift, and I’ve made several during the almost three years I’ve worshiped at St. Aidan’s.
Also in November I made yet another plane trip to Illinois to spend Thanksgiving with Jason, Lisa, and the boys. It was the first time in the 25 years of their marriage that I’d spent a holiday with them in their home. It was a delightful time – we made cookies, memories, and Thanksgiving dinner – and is a highlight of 2021 for me.
And now, as 2021 winds down, I have managed to get through the first anniversary of Martin’s last celebrations: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and, soon, New Year’s Eve. This will be a hard one. He always called me, wherever in the world he was, to wish me a Happy New Year – both in his time zone and in mine. It was a moment we shared for more than 30 years and I cherished it. Last year, he slept through it all as I sat at his bedside and held his hand. This year, I will be at Ben and Briana’s home, saying goodbye to the old year with them.
In 1992, my family endured the wrath of Hurricane Andrew, holding shut our front doors as the storm decimated the neighborhood. Yet, as I told several people, it wasn’t the worst thing that happened to me that year; it was also the year my mother died and that was far worse than a hurricane.
This year just ending certainly had more than its share of awfulness, but Martin’s death put all of it in perspective for me. I expect there are more dark days to come; humankind always seems to find ways to grab disruption and discontent from the jaws of joy. It’s our nature, I think.
And yet I am choosing to look for the joy. I am ever-mindful of my loss and at times I am almost overwhelmed by grief. But I also know that I am blessed. Blessed with good friends, with two amazing sons who grieve with me and look to my well-being. I’m blessed with two amazing daughters-in-law whom I cherish, and with five grandchildren who are the light of my life. I’m blessed with a sister and brother-in-law who, though far away, are still connected to my heartstrings; with a niece, nephew, extended family, and those who I call my “shirttail relatives” – not related by blood, but by choice. And I’m blessed by you, my Facebook friends. Some of you, I know, some I’ve briefly met, some I know only through your words on this medium. You bring joy to my day, even if I don’t always comment on it.
So, 2021, I bid you farewell. You delivered more than your share of pain and sorrow, but you were also a year that managed to bring joy to my world. For that, for so many things, I am thankful.
As 2021 wanes and we look forward to a new year, I say this to you, my friends: Look for the joy. There is always joy to be found, there is always hope. Sometimes you have to look really hard, but if you do, you’ll find it.
Happy New Year!
“Illegitimi non carborundum.” 😉
On Friends and Memories
Ron came over tonight. He’s been a good friend to me, and will indulge my need to remember and to talk – to a point. Tonight was one of those nights that we reminisced and even shed a tear or two. Even Ron.
A few months back, he told me that you “might” have asked him to check on me from time to time, and that he “might” have agreed. He’s been good about doing that, and it warms my heart to know that you were thinking about me even in the midst of your anguish over leaving this life. I love you
I’m in the hard days now, son. Your last New Year’s Eve with me, you last New Year’s Day – dates you weren’t even conscious of. I do like to think that somehow you knew, though. Not consciously, but maybe in the very deep heart part of you, the part that loved to call me, to welcome a new year with me; the part that knew I needed to be with you one last time as an old year ended and a new one began. I like to believe that. I need to believe that.
Instead of spending these last nights of 2021 by your bedside, holding your hand, anticipating the loss that we both faced, I’ll spend them remembering. I can’t seem to stop crying. I’ll never stop missing you. Did you know I was there? Could you feel how much I’ve always loved you? Could you still feel that connection? I pray that you did and that in some way you were comforted by it.
Thank you for being my son, for being concerned about me even beyond this life. For asking Ron, your friend, to look in on me. I think you knew that simple act would warm my heart.
Wherever you are, wherever death has taken you, know that my heart is there, too, and that the day will come when I will be with you once again. That someday we can be mother and son in a realm that is beyond my understanding, but which my faith and my love for you tells me must exist.
My love for you lives throughout eternity.
It’s a double whammy day for me today – it’s not only your half-birthday, it’s also Thanksgiving Eve. Just a year ago, I was at home with you, cooking, preparing, working in the kitchen to prepare for what we knew would be your last Thanksgiving with us.
This year I’m in Illinois with Jason, Lisa, and the boys, preparing, cooking, and working in the kitchen, getting ready to share the food and the day with them tomorrow.
But, oh, my Marty, my boy! I’m missing you so much! These days are getting harder and harder for me. I do try to keep a happy face, but when I’m by myself, I just can’t hold back the tears. It’s hard right now to even look at pictures of you, knowing that I can’t be with you, can’t hug you or rub your shoulders; can’t laugh or argue, can’t hear your voice.
It’s awfully hard, honey, to be approaching these days of celebration, joy, and family time together, knowing that there will forever be an empty chair at my table, knowing that despite the love of your brothers, your sisters-in-law, your nephews and niece – despite all that, my first-born is gone from my sight and from my hearing.
I’m thankful to have family, and I know they miss you, too, but the emptiness in my heart and in my life is the void left by your death, and one that remains empty, even in the midst of love, laughter, and thanksgiving.
I pray that you are at peace, wherever death has taken you. I pray that love is there and that my love for you is somehow present, that you have an awareness of how much you’re missed. Not in a sad way; I don’t want you to be sad. But in a way that always lets you know how much your mom loves you, and that, despite our struggles with each other, you were always loved.
So this Thanksgiving, even as I miss you and weep for the hole that will forever be in my life, know that I will give thanks always for having given birth to you, for have shared your years, your dreams, your struggles.
I miss you, my son. I love you always.
This past weekend I tackled the garage – again. I’ve been living with, pushing aside, stepping over, the remainders and reminders of your automotive obsession for almost a year now, and I needed to reclaim the space.
I’ve put together a decent set of tools for myself from all the ones I found; I’ve cleaned and sorted the hundreds of sockets, wrenches, screwdrivers that you had bought, used, and misplaced over the years; and I’ve saved those things that I’m not emotionally ready to let go of yet, even though I know I’ll never use them. But this week, it was time to actually donate some things that others will be able to use and appreciate. So I packed things up, and Addison came over to lift and carry, and off we went to ReStore. They were happy to have everything we delivered, and I’m happy to have some space in the garage.
I have one box that I intend to drop off in the dead of night at AutoZone with a big “FREE” sign on it – car parts and automotive tools that none of us can use, but someone can, I’m sure. And free is always a good price!
I actually handled it all pretty well until I got to the two big boxes of nuts, bolts, screws, and washers, and then I lost it. I could see you, sitting on the floor of the garage, sorting and organizing, each kind in its own compartment. There were so many different sizes and shapes; you could have put together anything at all! I kept the washers – I’m always looking for a washer for something – but the screws, nuts, bolts, all went into a box to be given away. It made me sad to think of you sitting and sorting and then never having the chance to use them.
While I was doing all of this cleaning out and organizing, I was remembering you and recalling all of the words that you added to our family’s vocabulary. Why was that what came to mind? I don’t know. It’s funny the things I think of, the odd little things I remember at odd times, so I will remind you and anyone who might read this of the small ways you changed us and the words we use all these years later.
French fries were “sa-sas,” later changed by Jason to “rah-rahs.” Peep-bo-be for peanut butter; an elevator was avivila; Winnie-the-Pooh was Wee-po-po – which led to your dad’s nickname for you of “Wee-po.” Jason and I have laughed over “berry bows” (who knows where that came from!), and “buh-lup buh-lup” for the toll booth. And, of course, there’s your famous swear word “Sandana,” said with feeling, and which we finally translated as son of a bitch. We just let you say it since only we knew and it seemed to ease your frustrations. Perhaps, though, my favorite memory of that type was you listening to your dad speaking Spanish to Grandma Ana on the phone, and mimicking him by saying “bleeka-bleeka-bleeka,” quite convinced you were speaking Spanish, too!
I love you, honey, and I love the memories I have of you. I’m just so sorry we didn’t have time to make more of them.
When lying is loving
October 20, 2021
I’ve remembered a few things that I want to write to you before I forget them! I think about you every day, and I miss you. Sometimes I will do something, or hear something, or a memory of you will just pop up in my mind. Last night, it was the hot tub.
Before bed, I decided to soak in it for a short while. My back was hurting, and I knew the warmth of the water and the force of the jets would give me some relief. As I sat there, I remembered how badly you wanted me to have it fixed during that last couple of months of your earthly time. The heater wasn’t working, and I had ordered a repair. It seemed that was all you could think about – getting it fixed. You wanted to sit in its warmth and relax, and imagined the relief it would bring. I spoke to the hospice nurse about it, and she wanted you to first be assessed by an occupational therapist, since your balance had gotten so bad. With high hopes, you readily agreed to the assessment, even though you hated having people come into the house and “handle” you. The potential of the hot tub overcame whatever resistance you normally had.
Within a few days, the OT arrived. She first wanted to put a gait belt on you so that she could help you if you became too unsteady on your feet. You vehemently refused, saying that your walking was fine. It was obvious that it wasn’t, but her job wasn’t to argue with you, so she deferred to your wish. She followed you closely as you made your way outside to the deck. The hot tub sat empty of water, and the therapist stood by as you made your way up the two steps and climbed in. It was clear even to my untrained eye that you were too unstable to get in and out of it safely. She seemed sad as she delivered the news that you didn’t want to hear, and you responded in anger that you could be safe – if I’d just get it repaired.
The repairman had called me just a couple of days before to tell me the part had arrived, and to schedule an appointment to install it. I called them back the day of your OT assessment to tell them to hold off, and that i’d call them when I was ready to schedule. Pulling myself together, I then told you that the part wasn’t currently available, it was on backorder, and they didn’t know when it would arrive. You angrily insisted that someone, somewhere, must have it, and that I should call around until I could find someone who did. It was a hard conversation. I hated lying to you, especially since I knew how badly you wanted to immerse your poor aching body in the comfort of warm water. (As I write this, it has occurred to me that perhaps it was a subconscious desire to be in a womb-like environment, safely, comfortably cradled in warmth and safety. A fanciful thought.)
For the remainder of your lucid days, you yearned for the hot tub. It was the longest lie I’d ever sustained, and I hated every minute of it. It was something that was in my power to give to you, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t keep you safe if I had it repaired, and your safety was paramount.
I’m so sorry, honey. You couldn’t understand my fear and you didn’t think I understood your yearning, so the lie was necessary. It’s still a painful memory, and one that returns each time I seek the healing power of that warm water. Just know that lying to you was an act of love, not malice.