Martha Mai & Me

by Ben Sawyer

Martha Mai Thompson. photos/courtesy Ben Sawyer

I’ve never felt love like that before. Martha Mai was my longtime crush, best friends with my departed cousin, Brett Cooper. I had only seen her in pictures and heard of her through mutual friends. And she was always married.

Many years later, we finally met, and by then she was single. I walked over to her table and introduced myself. We went out to dinner a few days later. She called it “kismet.” I call it luck. Her favorite acts were Jane’s Addiction and Tom Waits. She made cool art with Sharpie markers. She thought my band was rad and actually liked that I’m a musician! She had fun, smart kids and was such a good mom. A total babe, the real deal.

We spent the spring and summer together seeing concerts, eating great food, playing, making love, talking about everything late into the night. I was charmed by her house, her art on the walls, her collections of playing cards and trinkets. She was so funny, with a dark, off-color sense of humor. She’d take my picture when I wasn’t looking, then show it to me later.

Being together was easy, but my old devils were still around. I foolishly thought I could still party once in a while. “Do whatever you want,” she’d say, “I just like being with you. Just don’t make it a habit.” Right. I couldn’t help myself. On mornings after she’d tell me it was frustrating to watch me do something that made me feel so bad about myself, that it wasn’t her favorite version of Ben.

Excess and late nights made me cold and distant. To walk the earth with a huge heart, feeling everything, is a blessing and a curse. I eventually realized I was trying to escape my most human trait. Partying put space between Martha and me. It made me worry that I didn’t fit in with her amazing family, that I couldn’t keep up this budding relationship.

Last July, while we were snuggled in bed, she found a lump. She’d been told that she was clear after her most recent breast exam, six months earlier, but she was concerned, so she went to see her primary care doctor. “Cancer doesn’t usually grow that quickly,” she said. On Aug. 1, she got the diagnosis: triple negative breast cancer.

I think I was more scared than she was. She was scared, but she was strong. We both pulled back, but stayed in touch. She did chemo, she did everything the doctors told her to do. She said she had to beat this for her little ones. Her treatments ended in early January and we began to reconnect, but the mastectomy brought bad news. Rather than one shrinking tumor they’d found four, and the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, liver, thyroid, hips and spine. She called to tell me it was unbeatable. I cried so hard on the phone, my heart shattered into a thousand pieces.

Martha and Ben in 2019.

She said she wanted to spend the rest of her days with her kids, not in a hospital, as one final lesson to them. That was the most courageous, loving thing I had ever heard. And I wanted to be there too. “Let’s do awesome things,” I said. We went to concerts and went on adventures with her kids. She’d never been to Bar Harbor, which is a special place to me — my grandparents lived there, and it’s where my final resting place will be. So we went for the weekend. We explored Mount Desert Island and I showed her everything I loved about the town. We visited my family’s burial ground, found Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, got splashed at Thunder Hole and ate comfort food. She was in a lot of pain, but would insist on trying to do almost everything herself before letting me help.

Our last adventure was a trip to her family’s hotel in Portsmouth, where she once worked. Her breathing got very difficult the morning before we left. Walking even a short distance left her struggling to catch her breath. She still wanted to go.

We checked into the hotel and walked slowly down to the bar to have lunch and see her old friends and co-workers — to say some final goodbyes. She took a nap in our room while I drew her a bath. She told me that no one other than her mom had ever taken care of her like that. It made my heart swell and crack simultaneously. We fell asleep that night listening to true-crime stories, a pastime she’d picked up while sitting at home drawing and resting between treatments.

The next morning her breathing was even harder. Brushing her teeth felt like running a marathon, she said. Luckily, the hotel had a wheelchair, so we took off with it. I tried to make it fun, popping wheelies to make her laugh. We had breakfast with her first husband, Jim, and their son Forrest at one of her favorite spots, The Friendly Toast. The wait was long but we had a great time. Time moves both fast and slowly. The cancer had spread to her lungs. She’d be gone within four days.

As promised, I stayed by her side, holding her, kissing her, telling her how beautiful she was and how much I loved her. “Aw, Ben,” she’d say with a gentle smile, “I love you too.”

“You did it, Martha,” I told her, tears raining off my face. “You don’t have to worry about anything anymore. Just relax.” I held my love, Martha Mai Thompson, while her breathing slowed and then stopped. That was the hardest thing I have ever done, and the best.