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Looking for the Sun

By Jennifer Bowman

January 21, 2022

“I don’t know where to start,” Mel Martin says as he shifts in his recliner. “I guess our honeymoon.”

It was July 26, 1975. Mel Martin had just married the love of his life, Margaret. They drove to Port Elgin, Ontario for their honeymoon, but instead of a romantic evening, Mel was calling the ambulance. He didn’t know what was happening to his wife, and he was scared. The doctors at the hospital told him it was a seizure. Margaret often had severe headaches that left her exhausted, but no one, including Margaret, knew she was prone to seizures.

It was the first of many unexpected challenges and tragedies.

A year and a half later, their oldest son, Chad, was born with ventricle septal defect, allowing blood to flow between the bottom two ventricles of the heart. He outgrew it, but it caused concern in the early years, particularly as it was a possible side effect of Margaret’s seizure medication.

Almost three years later, their second son, Jeff, was born with spina bifida, hydrocephalus, and club feet. He was rushed to surgery within 48 hours of birth while Mel rushed to Toronto to sign papers for critical operations. Jeff was paralyzed with no feeling from the waist down and required extra care to accommodate his daily needs. The doctor said his life expectancy was 36 years and that he would never walk.

“Margaret was a special mom for Jeff,” Mel says, referencing the extra care needed for his medical needs.

Mel Martin recounts many stories of his son, Jeff, and his donkeys. Photo by Jennifer Bowman

The boys grew up and Chad fell in love with a woman from Nebraska. At the end of February 2000, the family drove to Nebraska to help prepare for the wedding on March 4. While Mel was working on the inside of Chad’s new home, he heard emergency vehicles pass by while someone ran in to tell him Margaret and Jeff had been in an accident. Their Ford Explorer had rolled three times, leaving Margaret barely clinging to life and Jeff crawling with his arms on the side of the road looking for help with only a few scratches on his left arm. Mel is convinced an angel removed him from the car as the only way out was a six-inch opening in the passenger window.

“I remember that night in the hospital thinking, I’m going to lose my wife and Chad’s going to get one,” he says.

Margaret died in the hospital that night, two days before Chad’s wedding. They handed out roses in her honour at the wedding and instead of going on a honeymoon, Chad and Marilyn came back to Ontario for her funeral.

Mel was overwhelmed with grief. He worked fulltime at Elmira Farm Service (now Premier Equipment) and threw himself into mowing lawns on the side. Through lawncare, he became better acquainted with Lucy, who became his wife in December of 2000. They were happily married for nearly 15 years, weathering the deaths of both of their mothers in 2013 and 2014, before Lucy was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in November 2014. That followed with five months of chemo and other procedures until she died in March 2015. Mel was heartbroken.

“When she was gone, I couldn’t sleep at night. I begged and prayed God for somebody,” Mel says, wiping the tears from his eyes at the memory. “I heard a voice, it said, ‘You need someone special. I’m working on her.’ I still kept begging and praying to God. I said, ‘I need someone now.’”

He called his sister-in-law every day, sharing his struggle. She gave him a book on patience and suggested Sharon Schwartzentruber. In August he asked for Sharon’s friendship. She was 14 years younger than him and had never been married so she took some time to think about it and got to know him before agreeing to date him in October 2015. They were married in June 2016.

Sharon and Mel Martin take a moment to embrace the joy in life amidst the pain and heartache they have endured. Photo by Jennifer Bowman

Sharon moved in with Mel and Jeff, who had been off work for a year with an undiagnosed sore that wouldn’t heal. She became Jeff’s caregiver, and he started calling her Mom as their friendship grew. Meanwhile, his health worsened. He was diagnosed with cancer in seven places in his body only four months after the wedding. During that time, a friend arranged for Jeff to have a helicopter ride, landing in Mel and Sharon’s backyard. While they were taking off, Sharon saw the pilot as Jesus and knew their time with Jeff would soon be finished. Jeff died one month later on his hospital bed in the living room, surrounded by family and friends.

Jeff Martin spent hours caring for and talking to his miniature donkeys, sometimes getting sunburnt during a long chat. Photo submitted by Sharon Martin

“I really miss that guy,” Mel says, looking at a picture of Jeff with his miniature donkeys on the living room wall. “He had determination beyond words. I’m pretty sure if he’d given up 10 years earlier, he wouldn’t have made it that long.”

Three years later, Chad, who had also started calling Sharon Mom, began having some unusual health concerns. Then he received a concussion as a result of being rear-ended. They scheduled an MRI, but it was postponed when Chad and his family contracted COVID-19. One Saturday in November 2020, Chad spiked a fever of 104°Farenheit and ended up in the emergency room where doctors ran numerous tests, one of which required anesthesia. Chad didn’t wake up. The doctors gave him 24 hours to see if there was a glimmer of brain activity and set up an iPad close to Chad so that Mel and Sharon could speak to him.

“We left praying for a miracle because we thought he’d be fine,” Sharon says.

Chad didn’t recover. The next day, the family watched through the iPad as Chad took his last breaths. Doctors suspect he died of demyelinating disease, which is normally a long slow process but can be triggered by a concussion and exacerbated by COVID-19. 

Chad Martin and his family often drove the 15-hour trip from Nebraska to Ontario straight through to visit his parents and brother in Millbank. Photo submitted by Sharon Martin

Mel and Sharon made one of the most difficult decisions of their lives in deciding not to go to the funeral due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the US and the border restrictions at the time. Just before the funeral, they also contracted COVID-19. Mel spent the next three weeks in his recliner, unable to eat.

“When Chad passed away, that was really a blow because when you hugged him, you knew you had somebody,” Mel says.

He struggles to express how he has gotten through the difficult times in life.

“There were a lot of people praying, that’s all I know,” he says as his voice cracks.

One of the people praying, visiting, and reaching out to Mel was Kevin Bauman. He knew Mel since he was a child, but became better acquainted when Mel married Margaret, who was his wife’s first cousin. They continued to grow closer when he became Mel’s minister.

“What I admire so much in Mel is his acceptance of his lot in life and how he keeps moving forward and doing the best he can,” Kevin says. “He just had that determination to keep on staying strong. There were times he was very weak, at a very low point, but he was a man that I knew would keep going. He would keep pressing on.”

There were times Mel wanted to give up, especially after Margaret died.

“What it boils down to is I made up my mind I’m not going to give up,” Mel says.

During the low times, Mel sometimes called Kevin. As a husband, father, minister, and president of Chervin Kitchen and Bath, Kevin still prioritized being there for Mel no matter what he was doing.

“Sometimes he would just call me, and you have to simply be willing to lay aside whatever you are doing and be there for him,” he said. “Mel was a man who was always appreciative of what you did for him. You stopped and visited and encouraged him and he appreciated it.”

Mel and Sharon know their challenges are not over yet. They long to see their grandchildren and family on the other side of the border, Mel is working through health conditions, and they are still grieving a life of loss.

“We don’t have it all together,” Sharon said. “There’s still struggle. There are still questions. But you go on. I mean, this life isn’t what it’s all about.”

The way God answered his prayer for a wife has brought encouragement to Mel during other difficult times. When people comment on the challenges he has faced, he responds, “God has still been good to me. The last thing I want to do is complain.”

Sharon and Mel Martin find great joy in caring for their son Jeff’s miniature donkeys since he passed away. The donkeys bring a feeling of connection to their son. Photo by Jennifer Bowman