Jacquie Gormley has the sort of relationship with her son guaranteed to make parents of more standoffish offspring burn with envy.
They live together in Glassboro, New Jersey. They call or text each other daily when they’re apart. At 25, he still asks his mother for permission on some things. They even have corny nicknames for each other: “He calls me Big Booger, because I call him my Little Booger,” she said, laughing, of son Marty Martinez.
She was talking with Martinez on the phone last Tuesday when Hurricane Maria’s first raindrops fell on Puerto Rico, where he’s visiting his 71-year-old grandmother Gladys Perez. Winds toppled the cell-phone tower that connected their calls and the line went dead.
She hasn’t heard from him since.
“I have a lot of faith, but I think the fear is taking over now, because it’s been eight days,” Gormley, 48, said Wednesday.
Eight days ago, the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 80 years devastated the U.S. territory, leaving the island’s 3.4 million residents without power — and in the crosshairs of a humanitarian crisis that already has begun costing lives.
The hurricane with its 155 mph winds made landfall just south of Ceiba, where Perez lives. At least 16 people have died in connection with the storm.
Gormley has no idea if her son and his grandmother escaped the storm unscathed. She’s seen reports that 200 homes in Ceiba were destroyed and another 350 lost roofs.
Even if they dodged injury or property damage, Martinez has asthma and uses a nebulizer, a breathing treatment that requires electricity to work, every four hours, Gormley said. He once had an asthma attack so serious at school that paramedics took him by ambulance to a hospital for emergency treatment.
She tries not to imagine how he might be injured or trapped or struggling to breathe — or how, with aid delayed and things becoming more dire on the island, desperation might drive someone to rob him and his grandmother.
“My son would fight for his grandmother,” she said.
Since she last heard from Martinez last week, Gormley has tried everything she can think of to reconnect with him, from stalking his Facebook page to monitoring Spanish-language radio and TV stations to registering with the Red Cross and assistance sites set up by the Puerto Rican government.
“It just makes me crazy not knowing — the not-knowing is worse than anything else,” she said, crying. “I just feel so helpless. I’m his mom, and that shouldn’t happen. You should be able to protect your babies.”
Gormley tried to persuade Martinez to come home with Perez before hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria trampled the Caribbean.
But he’d helped Perez clean up minor property damage after Irma and wanted to do the same after Maria, Gormley said. The pair also didn’t want to leave Perez’s three dogs to face Maria alone. So he stuck with his plans to fly home on Oct. 7.
Now, the cell phone that has always faithfully kept her connected to her son has become a painful reminder of his absence.
“I keep waking up in panic that I missed a call and I immediately pick up the phone and look at it and dial him — and I get nothing but a ringing noise or complete silence,” she said.
She knows thousands of other people have been enduring the same heartache of missing loved ones stranded on Puerto Rico with no means of communicating.
Envisioning her reunion with her son gives her some comfort.
“We’re big huggers, Marty and I,” Gormley said. “So there will be tears of joy, a lot of thanking God, of course, first and foremost. And definitely hugging him and telling him he can’t go vacation or anywhere without me ever again! That’s the truth!”
She added: “I always told him he has to last me a lifetime, because he was the best thing I ever made. I just want to just hear his voice say, ‘Hey Mom, I’m OK!’ And I know he’s going to follow it up with: ‘I’m sorry I made you worry!’ because that’s Marty.”