Mary Lee Sherbert-Blanchett
November 1, 1962 - November 2, 1997
One day in 1978, a quiet, shy freshman mustered up his courage in the library at St. Mary's High School in South Amboy, N.J. and asked an equally quiet and shy girl if she would be interested in going to a school dance with him. She said yes, and thus started a relationship that lasted almost 20 years. Mary never quite got over her shyness around people she didn't know well (although in private she could talk my ear off) and it may have been taken by some as a sign of weakness. However, as the years went on and she weathered crises that no one should be asked to bear, she showed a courage that I would defy anyone to equal: the outward quietness proved to have an inner strength and a peace that I am convinced to this day came from a source beyond both of us. I believe that if we had not shared our road of triumph and tragedy together, I would not be on my current path (and Heaven only knows where I would be headed.)
After another turbulent three years of high school (where I will admit, I became something of a "son of a ***" -- insert your own descriptor) we got together in senior year and never looked back. Going to Rutgers together, she studied Pharmacy and I went for Computer Science (although when we studied together I privately thought that her studies were much harder than mine.) After a 5-year engagement it became apparent that we went so well together, although with some stormy times, that it didn't really become much of a surprise that marriage was in our future. She graduated in May of 1986 and we were married the following 16th of August. The first three years of married life went well -- we tried to build our careers, a household and a family; I guess succeeding in two out of three isn't bad.
Life was turned upside-down when she was diagnosed with acute leukemia in August 1989. It was not the way that I had planned to spend our third anniversary, a bouquet of roses delivered to a hospital bed, with her too sick from the chemotherapy to keep them in the room for more than a few minutes. We went through the emotional roller-coaster that comes when cancer touches one's life, dreading the news that doctors could bring and trying to live life as it came. I remember leaving the house for the hospital one day, looking around at my neighbors living their lives and reflecting how fine a line can be drawn between domestic tranquility and disaster.
A ray of hope came when it was determined that her brother Randy was an acceptable donor for a bone-marrow transplant. In January 1990 the transplant took place (and not a moment too soon, as she was in the early stages of a relapse.) The 6-week procedure went flawlessly and, with the exception of a later two-week hospital stay due to shingles (a common side-effect of immunosuppression) we had received the answer to the prayer of any cancer patient: "I want my life back to what it was." We returned to our lives a little wiser and much more appreciative of that gift called life. Due to sterility caused by the radiation treatments, we determined that we would apply for adoption, a proposition that was supported by her doctors due to her great progress between 1990 and 1994.
Two weeks before her 5th anniversary after diagnosis (that "magic guideline" that the American Cancer Association uses to determine a long-term survival) she developed a fever of 103. She was admitted to the hospital suffering from pneumonia, and tests showed that she had relapsed. In an ironic twist of fate, we had convinced the adoption agency that she was reasonably healthy. One of the hardest days of my life came when, after I had returned home from visiting Mary in the hospital, the agency had called to tell us that we had been matched with a 6-month old girl. I called to inform them of her relapse; naturally they were sympathetic but had to drop us from the rolls. BTW, that call was the one secret I kept from Mary; I'm not sure how she'll react when I tell her once we meet again.
She went through the chemotherapy again, and once again achieved remission, which lasted until February of 1997. In September of that year, we were told that the leukemia had entered her brain and there was nothing that could be done. We didn't talk about death too much during that time, but I could sense that she was preparing herself, and we were both trying to do the best we could. She entered hospice in October and I went on family leave so I could spend as much time as possible with her. Between myself and her mom, we made her as comfortable as possible until she passed away at home, while I was on my way to church to attend that Sunday's All Soul's Day celebration. I used to joke with her that the Church celebrated her birthday (All Saint's Day); now it celebrates her entry into eternal life as well.
Mary taught me to enjoy life to the fullest and to fight the adversities that are thrown at us with all of one's strength. When that has been done and we are called back to God, it is possible to depart with grace, peace and inner confidence. My life has been greatly enriched by knowing her, and it's a result of her example and the strength that was given to me in my hours of need that have placed me on the road to serving God's people. How can I accept His strength (as I had put it at the time, "I could feel Him holding me with both arms") and not want to show others how to draw from that same strength?
I thank God that it has been His will that I serve Him as priest. I am confident that my experiences as a once-married man will add a vital element to that life of service, turning that rather ugly term "widower" into one that can provide hope even in the darkest of circumstances. I also have faith that He will continue to provide strength and guidance so that, come what may, I will do my best to ensure that my actions reflect both His will and His love.
Mary, until we meet again, I love you.
Thanks for reading this far. I hope that this may have spoken to you in some way.
May God be with you and may you go in peace.