I remember the first time I met Johanna. It was June 2004, and I was attending my first peer group in New York City, to train as a Poetry Therapy Practitioner. I made a connection with Johanna right away, since she, like me, was of Hispanic descent: ‘oh, your last name is Perez? Mine is Martinez!’. As we progressed in our training, we shared more stories: we talked about our crazy, yet close-knit family structures, to our striving to gain independence through intense studying and persistence. Johanna achieved her PTP certificate first, and during a Poetry Therapy conference at Boston, I celebrated alongside her as she proudly earned her certificate. Along with her Master’s in Social Work, she was certified to practice Poetry Therapy! We continued to maintain contact over the years personally and professionally, and as I progressed in my track to earn my certificate through valuable mentors in Poetry Therapy, Johanna continued to offer her valuable wisdom through her life experience. In 2011 I received my Poetry Therapy Practitioner certificate, and Johanna gave me a meaningful gift: a nameplate engraved with my newly awarded title. It was such a meaningful gift.
Johanna and I continued to maintain our friendship, and she gave me the courage to better my position in life. With the help of Johanna and my poetry therapy community, I was able to gain my independence from an unhealthy relationship, and live on my own for a while. This move to gain independence allowed me to reconnect with old friends from my undergrad years at Seton Hall, including Andrew, my fiancé. It was a stage in my life that was truly liberating.
About 2 years ago, I received a message from Johanna while I was at a birthday gathering in New Jersey. Our paths in life somewhat diverged; I had to move back to New Jersey due to losing my job in NYC, yet I still attended poetry groups held by Johanna and Lila, my valued iaPOETRY mentor. Johanna’s voicemail said ‘we need to talk…I visited my doctor, and he told me horrible news’. I sat outside on the front porch, and spoke with Johanna for about an hour. She told me that she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she needed to make arrangements for the necessary treatments, while managing the appointments she needed to treat her fibromyalgia and RSD. It was a very emotional hour, yet Johanna was my very close friend. She was there when I needed her, and I would do the same.
For the next year, Johanna underwent the treatments and chemotherapy needed to fight her cancer, and things looked very promising. So much so that she was to reach remission at January 2018. Just when things were about to turn a corner, she contacted me that January, to share that the cancer spread. Things did not look promising, but Johanna was prepared to do what was necessary to beat this disease. We continued to text each other, then around April the messages decreased drastically.
In the beginning of May, a close mutual friend contacted me to share that Johanna’s health was in steep decline. I visited her at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and we had a chance to talk for a couple hours. Her cancer turned so aggressive that she had no choice but to stop treatment. We both couldn’t believe how her health took such a turn. She was 44, accomplished so much, yet she still had so much to do for her community. Life has such a way in twisting the paths in people’s lives.
This meeting with Johanna in early May turned out to be our last. Her health took a drastic turn downward, and although she was scheduled to go to a local hospice center in mid May, MSK decided to keep her in their care.
Johanna succumbed to cancer this morning. She held such vibrancy and energy with anyone she came across. Along with excitement, she shared endless wisdom with everyone. When people endured hardships, Johanna was able to say the right words to guide others to have confidence to work through them. While it’s difficult for me to think in this mindset currently, I know that she will always be there to share wisdom with me. I know that she is no longer suffering now. I just miss her company greatly. Our poetry therapy meetings will never be the same without Johanna’s passionate words and stories. I will forever miss the endless conversations we shared. Johanna was truly one of a kind.
Rest in Peace, Johanna G. Martinez (1974-2018)