‘His stomach was swelling. ‘If I don’t make it, I need you to promise me you’ll remarry. We’re not meant to do life by ourselves.’: Woman urges ‘each day is a gift’ after losing husband to Stage IV Stomach Cancer

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“Fernando and I met in 2005. We were introduced over the phone by a mutual friend. She insisted I had to talk to him, or in her words, ‘Carmen he’s a firefighter, get on the phone.’ I was just 20 years old and he was 23. We kicked it off and got each others AIM screen names. I’m dating myself here, but for those of you that don’t know, that stands for AOL Instant Messenger. Remember that? We started out as friends and eventually started dating.

Two years later, after I finished college, we got married. We were married on April 1, 2007. Yes, we got married on April Fool’s Day since it was the only day the venue had available. I felt like the happiest woman alive getting to marry my best friend. We traveled, worked hard, went on many adventures, and even bought our first home.

Courtesy of Carmen Ordonez
Courtesy of Carmen Ordonez

Six years later, we welcomed our son Andy into the world. Life was good. Life was really good. I actually remember having that same thought one Wednesday morning. We had dropped off our son at preschool and decided to go kayaking. It was a beautiful, sunny day. As we were kayaking, I looked at the sky and thought about how good life was in that moment (a little too good) and got this weird feeling. Now looking back, I feel perhaps it was God preparing me for what was to come.

Courtesy of Carmen Ordonez
Courtesy of Carmen Ordonez
Courtesy of Carmen Ordonez

Two months later, while Fernando was at work, he ended up going to the hospital in the middle of the night because he developed kidney stones. He eventually had surgery to have them removed, but there was still this pain that wouldn’t go away. It got to the point where he knew something was just not right. His stomach started swelling and we immediately went to the doctor. I’ll never forget that day and the look on the doctor’s face when he looked at his scans. He looked so worried.

He told us there was fluid in his stomach (ascites) and he needed to be admitted right away. Ascites is usually the sign of only two things: either cancer or cirrhosis (chronic liver failure). After spending two weeks in the hospital and running several tests, doing biopsies and an endoscopy, it was confirmed — Fernando had Stage 4 stomach cancer that had spread to his peritoneum. It’s the words nobody wants to hear. It’s the words you think you will NEVER hear.

The news became worse when the oncologist told us it was terminal and any chemotherapy treatment would only be palliative, meaning to extend life, but never as a cure. That day they gave Fernando 6 to 9 months to live. As unbearable as it sounded, we were filled with a peace that can only be explained as God’s peace comforting us. We decided that day we were going to fight with everything we had. We had so much hope we would beat the odds.

We switched up his diet, tried every natural remedy under the sun. You name it, we tried it. Fernando also started chemotherapy one week later, which happened to be the day before Christmas. He had chemo at the hospital and then had to wear a chemo pouch he would take home that would slowly drip chemo for another 2 days. It was so hard watching him open presents with our son thinking, ‘What if this will be the last Christmas we spend as a family?’

Courtesy of Carmen Ordonez

Fernando slowly started to feel better and in January we took a trip to New York to visit Memorial Sloan Kettering, one of the top cancer centers, to get a second opinion. New York was one of Fernando’s favorite cities and we always enjoyed our time there. It was like a little mini-getaway from all the uncertainty going on in our lives.

Courtesy of Carmen Ordonez

The oncologist there basically suggested he continue on the same chemotherapy he was on—and so he did. Fernando would get chemo every two weeks in Miami (where we lived). The days after chemo were really hard. He would feel very weak and nauseous and would sleep most of the day. But after 4 days, it’s like I got a piece of him back. He was even able to get back to work on light duty, since he couldn’t fully go back to work as a firefighter.

After four months of being on chemo we got the best news ever. They could not find any tumors in any of his scans. They said he was cancer free. We felt like we got our miracle. We even celebrated with a trip to Disney.

That miracle didn’t last too long, however. Three months later after stopping chemo, Fernando started to feel pain in his stomach again. He was experiencing the same swelling in his stomach from when he was first diagnosed. After running scans, they confirmed it was ascites and the tumors were starting to grow again. In fact, the cancer never really left to begin with, it was just too microscopic to be detected in scans. We were crushed. I had never felt so much fear like I did that day. But again I thought to myself, we can still make it. We just needed to have hope.

The next couple of months would be some of the toughest months of our lives. Fernando’s health started to decline very rapidly. We would spend most our nights rushing to the ER because of all the issues the cancer was causing. On August 24, 2015, the day after his 34th birthday, we would make one last trip to the hospital. He was admitted on that day and would spend the next 38 days there.

Courtesy of Carmen Ordonez

I slept in the chair next to his hospital bed and would come home only to take a quick shower and see our 2 year-old son before heading back. I was very fortunate my mom and in-laws would take turns taking care of our son. I didn’t want to leave Fernando’s side, not even for one second. He started a new immunotherapy drug, and I was so hopeful this would be the miracle we had prayed for.

One day in the hospital bed Fernando told me, ‘If I don’t make it, I need you to promise me you’ll remarry. We are not meant to do life by ourselves.’ He also made me promise I would brush Andy’s teeth every night before bed and put him in baseball and soccer classes.

Courtesy of Carmen Ordonez

This absolutely crushed me. I insisted he was going to be okay, we WOULD get through this. But that just shows you the type of person he was. He was always so selfless and thinking of others before himself. He grabbed me by the hand and asked if he could have one last dance with me, and so we did. We slow danced in the middle of his hospital room as the monitors beeped in the background.

After a few days in the hospital, Fernando was no longer able to eat solid foods and lost so much weight. It was so difficult seeing my once strong and healthy husband wither away. He was suffering and in so much pain. Not being able to do anything was nothing short of torture.

He started having hallucinations and only had a few hours of lucidness throughout the day. At this point, the doctors met with me and thought it was best he be put in hospice. My mind could not process it, or should I say, didn’t want to process it. I was still holding out for our miracle. That night, like many others, I cried so much on the cold bathroom floor.

On October 1, 2015, I woke up at around 6 a.m. to head out to a work assignment. I had not worked in more than eight months. Fernando had insisted I take the job, so I did. It would only take a few hours and I would be back by 11 a.m. I still don’t know how I mustered the strength to work that day. Before I left, I had arranged for one of Fernando’s cousins to be there with him while I was out.

A few hours after I left, I received a phone call from his cousin saying, ‘Carmen, please get to the hospital.’ She didn’t say anything else. I remember pleading with God my entire drive to the hospital. When I got there, I parked the car right in front of the entrance and ran as fast as I could to the elevator.  It was like something out of the movies. ‘This isn’t happening,’ I thought.

I got out on the 8th floor and could see at a distance Fernando’s cousin and nurses standing outside of his room. It was in that moment I knew my worst fear had come true. He was no longer with us and I collapsed on the floor. My life was forever changed that day. Knowing him, I know deep inside he waited for the moment I wasn’t there (or his parents) for him to pass. Like always, he was trying to protect us.

I never thought I would be a widow at 31 with a 2 year-old son. At first, I was upset for having so much hope. We didn’t get to say goodbye. He didn’t write any letters for our son. But then I thought, it was THAT hope that got us through. It was hope that kept us going. It’s also that hope that continues to push me forward today. I’ve learned when life tries to weigh you down, hope relieves the pressure. Not only did I learn the true value of hope, but Fernando’s faith helped deepen my own. Not once did he complain or ask, ‘Why me?’

His passing also fueled me to live each day on purpose. To not wait to take the trip, to not wait to say I’m sorry, to take the adventures. Each day we are given is a gift. I truly feel when you lose someone, you gain a new perspective on life. My hope is you don’t have to wait to lose someone to really start living.

It’s been five years since Fernando passed away. I’ve kept the promises I made to him that day in the hospital. Deep inside, I also had hope I could love again, and have since remarried. I have no doubt Fernando played a big part in bringing another amazing man (Julio) into our lives. Not only does Julio embrace my past, but he also embraces keeping Fernando’s memory alive. Last year, we welcomed a baby girl named Valentina (meaning brave) into our lives. Sometimes our stories don’t end the way we expected or the way we prayed for, but that doesn’t mean it still can’t be beautiful.”

Courtesy of Carmen Ordonez

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Carmen Ordonez of Surfside, Florida. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her blog. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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