Years ago, I read a Q&A in Oprah Magazine that stayed with me. Maria Shriver asked poet Mary Oliver about losing her life partner to cancer. Oliver said, “I had decided I would do one of two things when she died. I would buy a little cabin in the woods, and go inside with all my books and shut the door. Or I would unlock all the doors—we had always kept them locked; Molly liked that sense of safety—and see who I could meet in the world. And that’s what I did. I haven’t locked the door for five years. I have wonderful new friends.”
I remember thinking that was the bravest thing.
My husband, Martin, was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer on Aug. 19. We were shocked. He had felt fine in June and July, was working with Rights of Man Farm to grow CBD-rich industrial hemp and loving his journey into becoming more of a farmer.
I knew that my own brother had beat stage 4 colon cancer, that he was happily living with no evidence of disease. So I tried to reassure myself.
But this was signet ring cell cancer, something neither of us had ever heard of, very aggressive and only one percent of all colon cancers. As my brother-in-law said toward the end of Martin’s illness, this was a wolf.
Martin died on Dec. 31 at home. He was with me and our two daughters when he passed away. He had only been on hospice for two days.
Mary Oliver’s words came back. This is my small attempt to unlock the doors. We won’t get over his loss.
I see him everywhere now, in our home and in every place we go. I see him especially in the trees. He loved the trees. He spent his childhood and many years as an adult wandering through the woods on his family’s farm in Urbana. He knew them so well that he could find his way in the dark.
When we were dating, he would impress me with the names of all the trees. Years later, he admitted that he made some of these up. As an odd little kid who would cry when friends broke branches off of trees, I loved that he was a “tree-man.”
I introduced him to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century Jesuit priest who saw God’s spirit everywhere, “for Christ plays in ten thousand places” (“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”). A Hopkins poem was part of our marriage ceremony; we buried a book of his poetry with Martin’s wonderful dog, Montana; and Pastor Jonathan Davis read one of Hopkins’ poems at Martin’s memorial service on Jan. 7—“Glory be to God for dappled things” (“Pied Beauty”). The poem expresses joy in “All things counter, original, spare, strange,” and that was Martin.
The illness was swift and terrible, and we are now wading through awful. But there has been beauty, too.
I will be forever grateful for the kindness, love and support of so many people through these difficult months. And that has given me the courage to “unlock all the doors” when my natural inclination is to retreat to that cabin in the woods.
Words are not enough to express how truly wonderful everyone has been.
Martin’s brother, sisters and sister-in-law, nieces and nephews let him know in countless ways that they were fighting right along with him. He was hospitalized five times, and they made many visits to Frederick Memorial Hospital; artwork by his great-nieces and -nephews decorated his rooms. Martin’s brother and sister-in-law, a doctor and nurse practitioner, helped us to understand what was going on, listened to my panic and gave us a huge sense of security when we needed it most.
When the illness and effects of chemo soon made Martin unable to work, Doug and Dani Fink, Larry and Carol Myers of Rights of Man Farm continued to care for the hemp, bringing it to harvest and processing it (a months’ long endeavor). The hemp harvest in early October was a sight to see and something that I’ll never forget. Friends, family and members of the Southern Frederick County Rotary Club came out in force to help. After cutting down four acres of hemp and bringing it into the barn, the hemp all had to be attached to string and hung in the barn to dry. The harvest took days. Without the help of so many, it would have taken weeks.
I am so thankful for my own family and friends who took care of us so well. I made many SOS calls and sent so many alarming emails and texts. Each time, I knew how distressing it would be for them to hear what I had to say. They all loved Martin.
And listening must have been the hard part; in these situations, there is not much anyone can say. But in being there, they saved my life.
Through it all, the paper kept publishing three issues a month—one in Urbana and two in Gaithersburg. This was because of the wonderful people who create this paper—the writers and photographers, news editor, sales reps, designers and printer. They stepped in and let me lean on them, both professionally and personally. I was and am a mess, but thanks to these people we kept publishing.
The day that we celebrated Martin’s life, Tuesday, Jan. 7, I knew again that I could never thank everyone enough for their help, kindness and support—Martin’s real estate partner, Dawn Gordon, who opened Fingerboard Country Inn for visiting family to stay and welcomed everyone there for a reception following the service; the Southern Frederick County Rotary for taking care of food and drink at that reception; and Joe Richardson for providing the bagpiper who played so beautifully at Zion Church in Urbana and at the burial. I was especially thankful for Pastor Jonathan Davis, the father of our younger daughter’s friend, who didn’t hesitate to help us when we needed him. Pastor Davis led a beautiful service, but I am most grateful for his gentle presence and the comfort that I know he gave our daughters during an awful time.
Martin would have been so thankful for all of this. He would have loved seeing family members who came from all over—Switzerland, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Vermont and Virginia—and would have been so grateful for the countless friends and colleagues who took time off from work on a Tuesday to be there for us.
It still feels like he is in the next room, but in my heart I know he is walking through a beautiful forest with his parents and other family members and friends who have made the journey home.