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Love and pierogies at the end of the line

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It isn’t every day the folks at Perla Homemade Delights of Parma, Ohio, field a call from way out West to ship a passel of pierogies to Deming.

But then, this wasn’t an ordinary order. This was the request of a dying man.

Pierogies – a traditional eastern European dish of boiled dumplings stuffed with potatoes and cheese and served with onions sauteed in butter – were what Jess Hays wanted as his last meal, before pancreatic cancer took away his ability to eat solid foods and savor each bite.

Hays, 62, was diagnosed with inoperable Stage 3 cancer in July 2012, but he had fought back until finally he had conceded that this was a battle he could not win.

“He gave it 18 good months of chemotherapy and radiation before we knew he had to quit,” said his wife, Deborah Gwin. “He knew.”

So what was left to do but make Hays comfortable, get his affairs in order and let him reminisce about the good, golden days of what had been a life well-lived?

Gwin had been at the heart of many of those good days. She had been his big love, his wish come true, the woman he had waited to marry for 13 years.

They had met in 1991 at the University of Akron in Ohio, where they were teachers and administrators. He taught marketing; she taught music.

Both knew they were meant for each other from the start.

But the university then had a strict nepotism policy that precluded married couples from both being employed at the school.

“We wanted to get married,” Gwin said. “But one of us would have been fired.”

So the two lived together secretly, romantically for 13 years until both could lock in their retirements.

They married quietly in December 2004, celebrating their long-awaited nuptials with barbecued ribs and beer.

Then they went back to work.

In 2007, they retired and moved to Deming, a small, sunny community in the southwestern corner of New Mexico.

“We were done with Ohio,” Gwin said, chuckling. “We jumped into hiking and fishing and hunting – all the outdoor activities. The area is also really rich in archaeology.”

They had five wonderful years in Deming before Hays got sick.

Eventually, he could no longer take the hikes or the hunts with Gwin. Last month, he entered hospice care and prepared to let nature take its course.

But he had one last wish. Food had been one of the last pleasures left to him, and he craved pierogies. They reminded him of growing up near Pittsburgh, of his Polish mother, of his life in Ohio, where pierogies are as ubiquitous as burritos in Deming.

Deborah Gwin and Jess Hays waited 13 years to be married because of a nepotism rule at the Ohio university at which both worked. They married in 2004 and moved to Deming in 2007. Hays is in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. Thanks to a family-run bakery in Ohio, he received his dying wish: pierogies. Deborah Gwin and Jess Hays moved to Deming in 2007. Thanks to a bakery in Ohio, Hays got his dying wish: pierogies. (Courtesy Of Deborah Gwin)

Deborah Gwin and Jess Hays waited 13 years to be married because of a nepotism rule at the Ohio university at which both worked. They married in 2004 and moved to Deming in 2007. Hays is in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. Thanks to a family-run bakery in Ohio, he received his dying wish: pierogies. Deborah Gwin and Jess Hays moved to Deming in 2007. Thanks to a bakery in Ohio, Hays got his dying wish: pierogies. (Courtesy Of Deborah Gwin)

Last Christmas, his daughter had sent him a care package from Ohio filled with smoked kielbasa, poppy seed and walnut rolls and his beloved pierogies. The items were made at Perla, a small family business run by Ana and Constantin Serban and their sons, David and Daniel.

“That’s how we knew that Perla’s shipped pierogies to Deming,” Gwin said.

But shipping pierogies more than 1,800 miles takes time and money, neither of which Hays and Gwin had an abundant supply of. Regular shipment by UPS ground delivery costs about $35 – far more than the $7 to $8 for a dozen pierogies – and takes a minimum of four days.

Gwin feared that would be too late.

So the Serbans decided to do something about that.

“We were blessed by God with this business,” David Serban said. “We wanted to share our blessings.”

The pierogies arrived less than 24 hours after Gwin had made her call. The Serbans had rushed to prepare a package of pierogies, which cost about $15, and then covered the $100-plus price of overnight shipping.

“It was better to make the last wish for somebody,” said Ana Serban, who has been making pierogies since she was a young girl in her native Transylvania. “For us, it’s not always about the money.”

Gwin was overwhelmed by the generosity and compassion of distant strangers.

“Oh my, it was just one of those random acts of kindness you never expect,” she said. “It just broke me up. It was incredibly kind and thoughtful.”

That night, Hays ate two pierogies and savored each bite.

“He was very happy,” Gwin said.

Hays has held on to life longer than anybody expected, and perhaps that is not surprising for a man stubborn enough to wait 13 years to marry the woman of his dreams.

But the pain has grown stronger and he has grown weaker. The end is coming, they know.

“He’s not doing so good,” Gwin said last week. “We’re pretty much at the end of the line.”

The pierogies, she said, were the last bites of solid food he could manage, just as expected.

Thanks to the Serban family of Perla Homemade Delights in Parma, Ohio, Hays got his last wish. Thanks to Gwin, the love of his life, he got his best wish.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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