“I loved being called Maria’s husband,” former Merokean Paul Gruol said with a smile. “Because it’s never been about me. It’s about Maria’s spirit.”
Ten years ago, Maria Gruol died of complications of breast cancer. She was diagnosed in 1997, but her final days were marked by pain and a desperation to survive for as long as possible. Her tenacity and love for others never failed to shine through, Paul said.
Paul, 68, still works to honor her spirit to this day. “She showed you the beauty of humanity,” he said. “She always put other people first, especially the kids, even when she was in such pain.”
Maria refused to take pain medication, wanting to be awake and aware for her family.
When she died, she left behind Paul and their two teenage daughters, Michelle, now 28, and Bernadette, 25. The three live together in Farmingville, after moving out of Merrick seven years ago.
After Maria’s death, Paul dedicated himself to the American Cancer Society as a director of special events, attending several walks and spreading awareness. This year, he is training for his longest walk yet: Starting at the Oct. 21 Jones Beach Making Strides Walk, Gruol will walk 60 miles to the Making Strides Walk in Riverhead on Oct. 28. He is already nearing 400 miles in his training.
“I’ve definitely had soreness, joint and knee pain,” he said, “but it’s nothing compared to what a survivor goes through. It’s my way of giving honor and thanks to all the people I’ve met along the way.”
The drive to give back comes from Maria, Paul said. Even in her final struggle, she lent a shoulder for others to cry on. When new patients came to Rockville Center Oncology, where she received treatment, she would spend time with them, ensuring they had company in their most difficult moments. She stayed with patients for hours, offering her perspective on battling cancer. She always showed how grateful she was for her nurses and doctors as well, Paul said.
In 2002, Paul made his first Avon walk with Maria, and in 2003, he found inspiration in the sea of over 3,500 pink shirts walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. “I got to see firsthand how she affected so many people,” Paul said. “And now I get to walk with an angel. I can feel her presence there.”
He has passed that inspiration onto others as well. Paul acted as a mentor to Katie Goepfrich, who is now director of special events at the American Cancer Society, and helped organize the Jones Beach walk.
“Paul is the most giving person I know,” Goepfrich said. “He saw cancer in its raw form, and still went on to care for his two young girls and gave everything to them. Paul inspired me to do better in my role here and gave me energy to do more.”
Goepfrich estimated that up to 65,000 people will be with Paul at the Oct. 21 walk, and $2.6 million should be raised from small donations alone.
Paul also grew close to Greg Hambric, an employee at Modell’s Sporting Goods, where Paul currently works as a manager. He worked at Modell’s before Maria’s death, but left to work with the Cancer Society. He returned five years ago. Hambric was diagnosed with leukemia in 2002, and Paul was by his side throughout.
“Most people in Paul’s position would have a great deal of self-pity, but he is still able to see the forest through the trees,” Hambric said. “When I was at Sloan Kettering, he supported me a great deal. Through Maria’s death, Paul found his calling in a way.”
Hambric recalled an example of Paul’s help. A mutual coworker was in hospice care in his home with his wife by his side. Paul and other coworkers stayed by their side until the coworker’s death, lending relief by sharing his own story.
“The wife was so thankful that Paul and others were there,” Hambric said. “She would’ve been home by herself if not for him.”
“I’m just a vehicle,” Paul said. “It’s all for Maria. She put up with so much pain. I’m still so amazed by her. She was going through what she went through but still was who she was.”
For his walk, Paul is spreading awareness through the Real Men Wear Pink campaign. He is selling T-shirts with the motto for $20 and is also collecting donations through his Facebook page, “Paul’s Real Men Wear Pink fundraiser.”
“Maria taught me the most important lesson of all,” Paul said. “Faith gives you hope. Hope gives you strength. Love gives you reason.”