Friends, family remember lost loved one through memorial garden

WEST MILFORD. It started with just a few plants, and now has blossomed into a truly remarkable landscape.

| 27 Jul 2022 | 02:14

The love of a sibling can be a complicated one. Your shared history is like no other relationship, as one sibling often validates the other’s experiences. And because of that shared history, that bond can be everlasting, forever entwined. But when a beloved sibling dies, it can feel like your own history is shorn. Suddenly you are left to carry on the stories, the life, of the one who passed. For Rosemarie Koster, the loss of her sister Joyce Gerbasio was a devastating shock. Gerbasio was the oldest, the wisest, the one who took care of everyone.

It was that caring nature that exposed Gerbasio to COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic in March 2020, when a vaccine was still a year away and treatments were still being figured out. According to Koster, Gerbasio was lending emotional support to a friend of hers whose husband was dying of leukemia. Despite her better judgement, she went to comfort her friend over dinner on a Sunday evening. The next day, Gerbasio’s friend tested positive for COVID, and only a day after that, she was on a ventilator. Gerbasio began feeling ill by Wednesday of that week, and by Thursday, her whole family tested for COVID.

“We are a close family, and we all took turns going to the store and dropping off food on her doorsteps. That went on for about 10 days or so when Joyce started having problems breathing, oxygen levels dropped, and the ambulance came to take her to the hospital,” Koster recalled. “Four days later, with the help of her nurse, Joyce called her husband, children, and grandchildren to say good-bye, she would not be coming home.”

“When I got the news from my nephew that my beautiful sister will not survive, I was devastated. The news paralyzed us all, we couldn’t even be together to grieve as a family,” Koster added. “I lost my sister and best friend to COVID-19.”

Gerbasio died on March 31, 2020, with her husband by her side. Koster also has three other siblings, a 92-year-old mother, and a host of nephews and nieces. But due to COVID restrictions, they couldn’t mourn together.

Koster noted the impotence of grieving during that time. “Grieving alone, unable to be together, we had difficulties dealing with her death, and we all dealt with it in different ways.”

That’s when she decided to get her hands dirty and craft a memorial garden right on her property dedicated to her lost sister. Koster said she needed something to remember Gerbasio by, and a little plot of land in her yard would be a good place to start.

“In front of my home there was a patch of land that had a wild cherry tree and tons of weeds growing and I choose this place for her garden. The thought was to have the area cleared and build, but I was met with a few hurdles.”

To clear the area for a garden, the tree would have to go. But when some hired help came to remove the tree, they told Koster the land was unusable, suggesting that her plans were fruitless. They said nothing would grow due to the rocky soil. But still she was undeterred. She called in an excavator to remove the rocks, which she said turned out to be more like boulders. The area was dug up, the boulders were placed around the would-be garden, and the soil was replaced. She was finally ready to memorialize her sister through greenery.

With the plot ready, Koster called in the family to get planting, with a post-planting barbecue as their reward. The crew included Gerbasio’s husband, Mike Gerbasio, her two sons, Vincent and Michael, her daughter-in-law Krista and her three grandchildren Jacquelyn, Vincent and Joseph. Koster’s mom, Frances Haslbeck, and her siblings Janet and Tim McAleer, Patti and Joe Niemeic, and Bob and Penha Haslbeck all lent a hand, as well as Koster’s husband, Hank.

That day, 16 plants went into the garden, along with a fountain. But that was just the beginning.

Word of the memorial garden spread, and everyone wanted to add something special. A total of 17 nieces, nephews and their spouses, and 14 grand-nieces and grand-nephews got in on the project, adding 12 more plants. The boulders were painted and adorned with the names of those who cared for and missed Gerbasio.

The project has since grown to include even more beautifications from family and friends far and wide, some even coming up from Florida. It now has a plaque, a bridge, a wagon, lights, chairs, and more plants. In all, 60 people have contributed to memorializing Joyce Gerbasio.

“We were all blessed to have Joyce in our lives, unfortunately we could not keep her, she wasn’t ours to keep, she was God’s angel,” Koster said. “Our memories of traveling, playing cards, family parties and just hanging out have helped us through the grieving process. Whenever I write something about Joyce, whether it be a post, a text or now for the paper, I always close the same way: ‘I miss you Joyce, every minute of every hour of ever day – I love you! Until we meet again!’”

While Gerbasio will never leave Koster’s mind, the garden will stand as a physical reminder of the beautiful person she was, and the impact she had on those that cherished her.

“Whenever I write something about Joyce, whether it be a post, a text or now for the paper, I always close the same way: ‘I miss you Joyce, every minute of every hour of ever day – I love you! Until we meet again!’” - Rosemarie Koster