Cera Zittlow moved to Hell’s Kitchen with her Marine husband John Tohm in 2017 and the couple immediately took the neighborhood to their hearts. In August 2021, just a few days into his retirement, and after a little over 30 years in the military, John was diagnosed with cancer. Under a year later, he died at home in Hell’s Kitchen, surrounded by friends. Cera shares John’s story on her first Memorial Day without him.

John Thom and Cera Zittlow Wedding
Cera and John on their wedding day in December 2017. Photo supplied

I am not a writer, but on this Memorial Day weekend I wanted to share my story with you. It’s a story of love and of loss, and is about my late husband, Master Gunnery Sergeant John Tohm, who died on August 22, 2022. This Memorial Day would have been his 53rd birthday.

John and I met in San Diego, then I later moved to Pittsburgh after a few months of him being stationed there. But he knew it was my dream to live in New York City, so when it came time for his next transfer he really pushed to get his duty station here. 

We ended up in Hell’s Kitchen because it was close to Penn Station (he was usually traveling all over the country for work as 1st Marine Corps District Training Team Chief, so we needed to be somewhere with easy transit options). 

We thought we’d only be here for two years, and John wanted me to make the most of living in the city, so he suggested that, rather than continue my job as a freelance graphic designer and working with commercial photographers, I quit work and make the most of my time here, doing and seeing everything I could do before we had to move again. 

John Thom retirement in Times Square
John retired after 30 years of service in the Marine Corps with a ceremony in Times Square. Photo supplied

The two years became three years … then the pandemic hit. Which meant we ended up staying in New York until John retired. After 30 years in the Marine Corps, he went out with a bang — with a ceremony in the middle of Times Square. The tourists didn’t know what to make of us!

Although John was often working so didn’t have the chance to explore New York as much as he’d have liked, I think he really fell in love with the city two times. 

The first was during the pandemic, when we were hunkered down at our place on W47th Street – 10th Avenue and walking around whenever we could. We’d go to all of our favorite places and support their businesses and just hang out outside with a cocktail or bite to eat. We met so many neighbors during that time, all of us trying to make the most of a bad situation.

In December of 2020 we got a pandemic special and moved to a new apartment on W55th Street – 9th Avenue. It seemed like a sign when we came to view the apartment and found that it was on one of our favorite blocks — with all the white Christmas lights dripping from the trees during the holiday season. We fell in love with our new space (and not just because it was twice the size of our old place). It really felt like home.

Then, in the months leading up to his retirement, John had to endure a lot of doctor visits and paperwork. His commanding officer was very generous and told him not to come into work and just take care of everything. This gave him the chance to enjoy living in New York, really for the first time. He tired me out because he constantly wanted to go out exploring.

John rarely wanted to leave the neighborhood — he loved all his favorite places and friends here, and we really felt like we were a part of the community.

John and Cera on W47th Street with NYPD horses
Cera and John on W47th Street with NYPD mounted police. Photo supplied

But he also wanted to travel. He’d been deployed to Desert Storm, Okinawa and Somalia, but he’d never had much time to travel for fun. So we decided that, once he’d retired, we’d put all of our stuff in storage and go on an adventure. We’d booked one-way tickets to Colombia and were planning to slowly travel through South America.

Just 18 days after retirement, John was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma. A year later, he died in our apartment, surrounded by our friends.

After more than 30 years of service to his country, doing a job he loved with all his heart, he never got the chance to enjoy his retirement. So every time I travel anywhere, I bring him with me and scatter a little bit of his ashes. He specifically asked to be scattered at the Devil Dog Fountain in Belleau Wood, France — a deeply significant place for Marines. I fulfilled his wish in November.

John Thom as a young marine
John Tohm as a young marine. Photo supplied

He also has some buried at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery. And, as you read this, I’ll be in DC, scattering his ashes by a brick that I bought as a retirement present that is laid at the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico.

John was such an amazing, supportive and loving husband and my life will not be the same without him. On this Memorial Day weekend, please hold your loved ones tight and always live in the moment — you never know what tomorrow will bring. Don’t miss out on making precious memories every chance you get.

Some of John’s Favorite Hell’s Kitchen Places

Down the Road (closed) — corner of W47th and 9th Avenue.
Unfortunately, this neighborhood bar closed, but it was his favorite place to go on his own because he made so many friends there. We held his retirement reception there, and the lovely owners Glenn and Tommy always took time to sit down and chat.

Kiabacca/Scruffy Duffy’s — 639 10th Avenue (between W45/46th St)
Pat would always welcome us and make us laugh. And we loved to play darts (even though I always won!).

Hold Fast — 364 W46th Street (between 8/9th Avenue)
We spent many nights outside on Restaurant Row during the pandemic and we really got to know one of the owners, Shane, who was kind enough to visit John when he was sick.

John and Cera at Hold Fast
John and Cera at Hold Fast on Restaurant Row. Photo supplied

Pocket Bar — 455 W48th Street (near 10th Avenue)
This was a nice change of pace when we wanted a “fancier” night out. The owner, Suzy Darling, became a good friend, who also was so generous and kind during John’s treatments.

Bar Dough — 350 W46th Street (between 8/9th Avenue)
I’m not sure exactly how John met Joe Lisi, one of the owners, but they became fast friends. Joe had been a Marine, and Bar Dough would often host military events — one of which was a small, outdoor USMC birthday party celebration in November 2020. Since John was little, all he wanted was to be a Marine, and the Marine Corps birthday was just as important as his own. Joe knew what it was like to go through cancer treatments, and would always check in and came to visit John while in the hospital.

DBL and Mickey Spillane’s — 667 10th Avenue (corner W47th St) and 350 W49th St (corner 9th Ave)
Both favorites for their cheap drinks and music videos — John LOVED the music videos! When we lived on 47th and 10th we called DBL our patio because it was just outside our front door.

The Waylon — 736 10th Avenue (between W50th/51st St)
John was from Texas and loved the country vibe, the live music and the frito pies.

Rudy’s — 627 9th Ave (between W44/45th St)
You’d think we’d have consumed enough hot dogs during the pandemic to never want another one again. But whenever we were trying to figure out what we wanted for dinner, we’d often go to Rudy’s for a drink and an “appetizer”.

John at Down the Road
John enjoying a beer at Down the Road on 9th Avenue. Photo supplied

Nam’s Nail Spa — 642 10th Avenue (between W45/46th St)
Even though John was a tough Marine, he always wanted to look his best. He’d always say if you looked good you’d feel good. One of his favorite things to do was getting a mani-pedi at Nam’s. He always felt special and pampered there.

Noodies Thai Kitchen — 830 9th Avenue (between W54/55th St)
We ate Thai almost once a week — and once we moved to 55th and 9th we discovered Noodies, yet another very welcoming place with yummy food.


If you know someone who would make a great West Side Story (or you would like to nominate yourself), please fill in this form — w42st.info/WSSnominations. You can check out more West Side Stories and reader recommendations on W42ST’s Hell’s Kitchen Local App.

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5 Comments

  1. Amazing story, tragic loss. I served with John early in his career while a member of 2/5. I praise your strength and will keep you in my thoughts. Always remember John has brothers everywhere if you need anything. God speed..Semper Fi!

  2. I had the privilege of serving with this amazing hero back during the first Gulf War. I never met a kinder, generous and more selfless man in my life than John. I will be honoring this Marine and friend this Memorial Day. Semper fi John…
    Scott Edwards USMC

  3. My heart hurts for you. I lost my John to CC 3/30/2015. I know the absolute pain of this dreadful cancer. I’m glad your time together gave you wonderful memories.💚

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