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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Loss of a dear friend

I vivdly recall the day one of my dearest and longest friends, Glenn Gardner, introduced me to the woman who would eventually become his wife, Patti Crocco.

It was the day of the Jersey City St. Patrick's Day parade and it has been a long tradition of mine and my friends to hit our favorite watering hole, the Park Tavern, on the day of the parade.

Glenn brought Patti with him to his favorite joint to meet his friends. And she fit in like a glove, with her beauty, her vibrant smile, her incredible personality and her fanatical devotion to the Mets. She was perfect. She was one of us from the get-go.

As it turned out, Patti was even better than perfect. She was brilliant, knowing so much about a variety of topics, ranging from entertainment, music, Broadway shows and of course, sports.

She loved my friend, a divorced father of two. She married him and gave him two more sons. She accepted his friends like they were her own family. She was loving, caring, giving. A perfect package, someone who provided a sense of stability for my friend, who has been like a brother to me since sixth grade.

As time went on, Patti and I became close friends, talking on the phone constantly about anything and everything. We chatted online almost on a daily basis, either on Yahoo Messenger or later Facebook, which Patti encouraged me to join.

We would share our tales of woe about the Mets or what happened on "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew." One thing is for sure. Patti was definitely the biggest fan of reality television. She gobbled up all those shows and say, "Oh, Haguey, you have to watch Real Housewives of New Jersey." To which I would reply, "Yeah, right."

There were so many instances of laughter and love. Definitely a mutual admiration.

Almost two years ago, we spent an afternoon at CitiField together, watching the Mets beat the Cardinals and Chris Carpenter. Carlos Beltran hurt his knee diving to make a catch that day. We had beers together and shared a glorious summer afternoon with her two sons.

A week later, I called Glenn just to say Hi. He said he was in the hospital, that Patti was sick. I said, "What's wrong?" He said, "It's serious." I insisted he tell me.

"Patti has leukemia," he said.

My heart sank to depths I can't even imagine. He then handed the phone to his wife and said, "Here, tell Hague."

And her first words were typical Patti.

"I guess there must have been something pretty powerful in that beer you bought for me last week," she said.

Amazing. She's been given that kind of diagnosis and she's still cracking jokes.

It began an almost two-year odyssey for Patti in her battle against leukemia, a journey that had its high moments, but were mostly low.

But what the battle against this hideous, nasty, horrendous disease didn't do is diminish Patti Gardner's incredible spirit.

Never did she waver on what she wanted, which was simply to go home and spend time with Glenn and sons Eddie and Johnny. That was always the goal and she was determined to have that happen.

She went through two bone marrow transplant surgeries, thanks to the generosity of her two brothers. The first transplant was believed to be successful. In fact, she called me in January of 2010 to tell me the news.

"The doctor said, 'Mrs. Gardner, you no longer have cancer,'" is what Patti said to me as we cried tears of joy.

I think we all hoped and prayed that it was gone and that Patti was going to get a chance to watch the boys grow up.
She was indeed cancer-free for a time in 2010, but when the cancer returned in August of last year, it came back with a vengeance.

But she endured the countless hours of chemotherapy and treatments. She had to have stent put to her head in order to receive treatment to stop the spread of a chloroma that formed in her brain and she kept going, kept fighting, never giving in.

Cancer is a tough opponent and it usually has a high winning percentage, but Patti wasn't about to let it beat her. I don't know if there was ever a more courageous, a more determined, a more ferocious competitor against cancer than Patti Gardner.

Even when I last spoke to her Sunday to wish her a Happy Mother's Day, she told me of the plans to get home care and a home nurse, provided she had a wheelchair to tool around in.

We spoke of how the boys came to see her earlier that day and how Johnny, her favorite little Wildcat player, showed up at the hospital wearing eye-black for his Tee-ball game later that day.

I said, ``Six year old kids all need eye-black."

She laughed and said that he looked so cute. The kid is definitely one of the cutest things ever produced and proves it every time he's in front of a camera.

We talked for about 10 minutes or so.

"Once I get the house in order, we'll have you over for a visit," she said.

She was not giving in. A day later, the leukemia came back even more and she slipped into a coma.

Patti Crocco Gardner died this morning. She was 45 years old. It's just so unfair that she is no longer with us. She deserved better. She deserved to see her little Wildcat player hit his first homer or to watch Eddie swing like Darryl Strawberry.

Cancer is never fair and doesn't fight fair either. But one thing's for sure. Patti never once gave up that fight. Not for a minute.

The sadness of her passing will remain for a very long time. I can't remember when I've grieved more for someone passing, including my own parents and brother. It's because of the senselessness of it all. She was young, vibrant, alive. She was a loving and caring mother and wife. She was so much fun to be around all the time.

I've cherished getting to know her as well as I have the last 14 or so years, since Glenn brought her into my life that fateful St. Paddy's Day Parade day.

I'll miss the nearly daily chats, the calls, the laughter, the love. I won't know who to call when I needed info on Ozzie Osbourne or Jose Reyes. It's a painful empty ache that has no rhyme or reason.

And I ache for my friend and his little boys. They suffered a far greater loss than anyone else.

I applaud the courage and the strength that Glenn showed through this ordeal. I actually marvel at it. I don't know if I could have done the same.

But I will always remember the courage and the strength that Patti showed in facing her mortality. It was like no other battle I've ever experienced. God, she was so determined to get better.

I'll cherish knowing and loving that remarkable woman. Anyone who ever met her or knew her was much better off having that experience. I thank her for being my friend, not just being the wife of my good friend, but a good friend herself.

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