Kindness vs. cancer: Landscaper lends a hand to woman fighting leukemia

Monitor columnist
Published: 2/25/2019 6:17:23 PM

She hears the sounds – seasonal sounds – while working in her office at home in Pembroke, and she knows Bob Caruso is on the job.

She hears winter sounds, a snowplow pushing aside snow, scraping pavement. Later this year, she’ll hear the sounds of summer, the deep roar and high-pitched whining of lawnmowers, edgers, trimmers.

“I told him I’d take care of him,” Bridget Kelley Nafranowicz told me recently at her home. “I would ask him to send me a bill. He basically ignores me. I can’t get a bill. They plow and leave.”

Nafranowicz and Caruso are now linked, through kindness, through appreciation, through struggles, through cancer. She’s been fighting leukemia for two years and might one day need a stem cell transplant. Her husband, Basil, died from kidney cancer four years ago.

Caruso’s father died from bladder cancer in 2016, and his mother was recently diagnosed with liver cancer, less than a year after her lung cancer had disappeared.

Caruso himself is fine. He owns Proedge Landscaping and Property in Bow. This winter he has a crew of six, including his son, Jeremy. He has empathy for Nafranowicz. He’s got an idea of what she’s going through.

“She’s a single mom with cancer,” Caruso said by phone. “I’m sure the bills she is facing have been piling up. My mom was a cancer survivor, and fighting that is just unbearable. I think of what they go through.

“If I could eliminate one piece of stress, I feel like I can pay it forward.”

Nafranowicz couldn’t keep this to herself. She called the Monitor, unbeknownst to Caruso. She had to tell her story. She had to tell his story.

She had to tell their story.

“The doctor told me I didn’t know what I was in for when I found out I had cancer,” Nafranowicz said. “Bob blew me away with his generosity. I’m in my office and he’s trimming and mowing and then suddenly he’s gone, and then a week or two later he shows up again. I thought it was exceptional.”

She continued: “This news drags your mind down, but it’s important to see there is good out there. I discovered an unbelievable blessing.”

We talked in her living room, where her two Labradors, Beyonce and Sherlock, craved attention, their happy tails whipping like weapons of mass destruction. Her 20-year-old daughter, Vicki, chose to remain upstairs, away from my notepad, still damaged and hurt by the loss of her father and the battle being waged by her mother.

“It’s been hard on her,” Nafranowicz said.

So we talked about her recent past, rough sounding like the blade that scrapes the pavement when Caruso lowers his plow and pushes winter aside.

She and Basil had been married for 24 years. They were set up by a friend and met for the first time at Lake Meredith.

His parents were concentration camp survivors who met on a ship heading to America after their liberation. He was dubbed the mayor in their Pembroke neighborhood, a resident with a “booming” personality, Bridget said, “a powerful and charismatic person.”

“He could sometimes be abrasive,” Bridget added. “He had a lot to say. He was not a wallflower. He had a mind like a computer. He could spit out information. He’s a big loss.”

Basil’s kidney was removed in 2008, but the cancer returned and metastasized in 2013, diagnosed this time as terminal.

That started a two-year nightmare in which Bridget’s husband, losing weight, losing energy, losing hope, seemed to be close to death on a daily basis.

His dream to one day build a house in Meredith kept him going for a little while. He told his wife he wasn’t afraid of dying.

“He just didn’t want to leave Vicki,” Bridget told me.

Bridget was diagnosed with leukemia almost exactly two years after Basil died, telling me “the fog was just lifting.”

Around this time, Caruso joined the narrative. He heard about Bridget’s troubles through his son, who was dating a girl from Bridget’s neighborhood. She asked for help.

From there, Caruso and his crew began showing up, for summer landscaping and winter plowing.

“Just a neighbor trying to do what they can to help her through and keep up the house,” Caruso said. “I already mow some homes in the neighborhood and I decided I would take care of it for them.”

Caruso had already felt the stinging effect of cancer himself. His father, a financial adviser, fought bladder cancer for a few years before dying in 2016. Caruso said chemotherapy treatments on his dad’s bladder infected his liver, and that’s what killed him, at the age of 78.

“He never drank a day in his life,” Caruso said. “He lived a good life. He had no regrets.”

His mother battled lung cancer and seemed to be cancer free, but earlier this month the disease was found in her liver, discovered during a routine three-month checkup to monitor her lungs.

“One day at a time,” Caruso said. “We’ll do chemo and go from there.”

Meanwhile, Nafranowicz says her blood levels are good. She can’t drive and she tires easily. She works from home, in an office upstairs. There, she hears those seasonal sounds on a regular basis, the lawn mower and trimmer during the summer, the snowplow this time of year.

She says it gives her strength.

“They’re amazing,” Nafranowicz said. “It’s my gratitude that’s driving me.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)




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