Chris Gilkerson never believed in love at first sight -- until he met Ashley Marie Roberts.
When she bought a house in Salisbury, he was there for the settlement and was immediately attracted to her.
“Then I saw how much she cared about others. I saw her kind heart and gentle soul,” Gilkerson said this week, as, through his grief, he recalled happier times with his wife of three years.
Ashley Gilkerson died on Monday, July 5, at age 35, from a bellicose form of cancer that recurred after she had been in remission.
Well-known across the Salisbury community, she was perpetually seen as a beacon of hope and inspiration to friends and family.
“I never really saw her put herself first. She was completely selfless,” he said. “Anything she could do for you, the shirt off her back. There was never anybody she wouldn’t put first. She always put her family and loved ones ahead of herself. The more I got to know her, as attracted as I was to her on the outside, the inside was even more beautiful.”
A self-described “go, go, go kind of man” who rushes to meetings and has a tendency to worry, he learned from his wife to take life slower and pause to admire flowers in bloom.
“I would say, ‘What flowers?’” her husband said with a gentle laugh.
The funeral, planned for 1 p.m. on Monday, July 12, at Trinity United Methodist Church in Salisbury, will be a celebration of life, at Ashley’s request.
With three children to raise – 12-year-old Leo, 5-year-old Alexandra and 3-year-old Nicky – Gilkerson is trying to stay strong, but it’s a challenge -- and it was difficult letting his wife go.
“That was one of the hardest things. At the end I was having a hard time. The night before she passed I was there with her at hospice and we were praying. She was pretty well out of it. Finally I had the courage to give her the permission to go.
“I said, ‘Go and be with God. Be in heaven. We are going to be here. We are going to be fine. And we’ll talk to you all the time.’ The next morning she passed,” he said. She had spent one night at Coastal Hospice At The Lake.
When cervical cancer was first diagnosed in February 2019, after Nicky was born, Ashley underwent treatment, had a complete hysterectomy and was in remission 26 months. The end of April this year, the rare, intrusive disease reoccurred, attacking her liver and bones and spreading rapidly.
She was involved in clinical trials at the National Institute of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md., and doctors tried new immunotherapy treatments “but we knew it was a long shot,” her husband said.
Before the scan in April that indicated the cancer had returned, Mrs. Gilkerson suffered some stomach pain, but, her husband said, was “holding onto hope that it was something else.”
“She was so selfless, she kept a lot to herself and didn’t talk about her pain. She wanted the kids to live their lives and always be having fun and being happy. She was so strong. I feel like I cried more than she did these past few years. I don’t know how she managed to be so strong,” her husband said.
Nicky is too young to completely understand his mother’s death. The other children saw her get weaker and weaker as the months passed and was told she was very sick. Leo is having a difficult time, his father said.
“He will be 13 in December. He knows what is going on. It has hit him pretty hard. I am working on ponytails for our daughter. Ashley gave me some coaching on that. She did most of the cooking, the cleaning. I am trying to brush up on some cooking skills, parenting and cooking. I never did laundry the right way. She never let me do the laundry,” he said with a slight laugh.
“She just lived in the moment. She was very good at slowing down, at feeling the breeze, looking at the birds. She knew nobody is guaranteed tomorrow,” he said.
Brad Gillis, Gilkerson’s business partner and longtime friend, described Ashley Gilkerson as a woman of grace.
“She was absolutely a person who enjoyed the moment -- and that was contagious. She wanted others to kind of be still, if you will. It’s OK to slow down. We did all get closer as she was going through her treatments and that kind of brought us more to the realization of how precious life is. Ashley has given us the gift of taking a moment for gratitude,” he said.
“When her cancer came back, it was a hard pill to swallow for everybody, but the gift she has given us is one of patience, of living in the moment and having a significant amount of gratitude. Those are all gifts that will continue to live with our families and our business in her honor,” Gillis said.
A biomedical science employee at TidalHealth, Ashley Gilkerson’s positive spirit shined in a photograph she posted on Facebook on Nov. 12, 2018. Dressed in a black blouse, accented by a silver necklace, she is holding her youngest son. Her head is shaved but she’s smiling.
“My baby has more hair than I do! And we’re okay with that,” she wrote.
Her last Facebook post was on June 3, a photo of her with her husband and children and the words: “The people in this photo are my absolute entire world! I would and will do anything for them. Including fight cancer … again. I was encouraged to reach out on Facebook, for prayers and support. I know they work wonders. If you can take a moment to talk to your God for my family and I, we would appreciate it more than you know. Without going into details, I have a very aggressive, rare cancer that has spread to my liver and bones. Worse than last time. But, I’m going to kick ass again, so no worries.”
More than 300 comments followed, promising prayer for a miracle, encouragement and compliments about the excellent example she was setting for her children.
Mrs. Gilkerson’s best friend, Jeni LeKites of Delmar, said they were inseparable since meeting at school in 9th grade. LeKites, outgoing and talkative, noticed, with sentimentality, the similarity between quiet Ashley Roberts and LeKites’ own dear mother.
LeKites, who said Ashley taught her to talk about problems and not keep them bottled up, recalled her best friend serving in the U.S. Army, becoming pregnant and returning home. She then worked for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, before going home again.
Nicky was 4 months old when his mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer, LeKites said.
“There were some cells that weren’t supposed to be there. When she went for another test, they found a tumor right away. They called in a specialist and found the only thing they could do was try radiation to shrink the tumor and a radical hysterectomy. She battled cancer for close to a year, had six months of treatment and then finally got the hysterectomy, chemo, radiation. She went into remission in 2018,” LeKites recalled.
One night at yoga, Mrs. Gilkerson confided in LeKites that she just wasn’t feeling right and her stomach was bloated.
A scan revealed several dozen tumors in her liver, a tumor in the back of her neck and cancer in her spine, pelvis and bones.
“It came back with a vengeance. She kind of knew,” her best friend said, recalling Mrs. Gilkerson calling together a group of those closest to her, including her husband, mother, mother-in-law and LeKites, “and told us ‘this is what it is.’
“She didn’t cry when she told everybody but we were all crying. I was mad. Oh, my goodness, yes. I was really mad. You’re mad at it. You’re mad at the whole situation,” she said.
The last time LeKites saw Mrs. Gilkerson was on Saturday, July 3, at home, before she was taken to hospice.
“The last conversation I had with her she said she wanted me to make sure I took care of husband and kids and to make sure I was there and I helped.
“Leo is taking it very hard. Chris is doing an amazing job. He is doing everything Ashley asked him to do, all of her wishes. Everything she wanted for her funeral. She is home with God now. She found comfort in her belief in God,” LeKites said.
“I know she’s an angel,” her husband said.
“She was very worried about me when this time came, but we all firmly believe she is in heaven. She is in peace now. The fight is over.”