When I lived in New York, about halfway between my home and my work there is a beautiful stretch of road called State Route 293. It is not very long, but it gently rises, falls and bends through the hills and lakes in the back training areas of the United States Military Academy at West Point. The speed limit is 55 but even when you are late to meetings, the views make you want to slow and savor.
In the Summer, its broad shoulders allow marching cadets and slow moving troop convoys to pass between the training sites while the few cars meander by. But as summer fades the Cadets return to the main garrison, the route is left much quieter while the trees gradually burst in the Fall as if on fire showing all of Nature’s colors and glory.
In the winter after a snowfall, the hills and the trees become a wonderland lit by the morning sun. Sparkle is everywhere as the lakes are covered with ice occasionally interrupted by a dedicated soul and a fishing rod. The hills announce the Spring with a shout of green as the trees come back to life and the rains fill the lakes again.
It is here that I relaxed from the race I ran. It is here that I was able to see the wonders God has given us. It is here that I could reflect on what is important and sought to clear my soul. It is here that I prayed the Rosary every day for my son.
In March of 2002, my 13-year-old son Michael was diagnosed with a brain stem tumor – Grade III Anaplastic Astrocytoma to be exact. Prognosis on such a tumor is poor. It is nearly always fatal within a year. He was such a brilliant child – 148 IQ! He loved Math so much and wanted to go to Notre Dame and be an architect. He was a gentle giant standing nearly 6”2” when he was struck with this disease. He was kind and loved helping younger kids. He would have made such a difference in this world.
I prayed every day for God to spare his life and let him stay with us – his mom, his sister and me. I guess that was selfish because I knew he was God’s also. He fought so hard to be confirmed in his faith. He chose St. Peregrine to be his Patron Saint and prior to his Confirmation, Sister Rose at our Sacred Heart Church in Monroe said he needed to write an essay about why he chose his Patron Saint and “it had to be a page long”. Michael wrote, “I chose St. Peregrine because he loved Jesus and Jesus cured him of cancer just like I hope to be.” I remember handing it to Sister Rose and asking if that was enough. She read it and through tears said, “It is perfect.”
Michael passed away on May 31st, 2003. We were at Keller Army Hospital in the Emergency Room when I was saying the Rosary and holding his hand as the Priest rushed in and gave him last rites. And then he was gone. Gone with God. Not with me. The pain was overwhelming and remains to this day, but still I pray the Rosary for Michael.
By the early 2010s however I found myself adrift. The sorrow was still there but I had no focus. I still prayed the Rosary but did not feel the comfort and hope it had provided me in the past. I then got word that the younger sister of a colleague with whom I worked was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer.
A young mother with a beautiful baby daughter who was so positive and full of love and life was in the Struggle. I felt a surge and a connection and suddenly believed that if I prayed harder and lived better, Kass would overcome this terror. God would give Michael’s miracle to her! I relied on the Rosary and it again brought me hope.
I never met Kass in person – it just was not meant to be, but with the gift of social media, I followed her journey and cheered at every piece of good news and was crushed with every setback but regardless of the news, I re-doubled my prayer work and surged my hope through the Rosary. Alas, Kass did not get Michael’s miracle. She passed away after a year’s fight but that fight brought me new clarity and understanding.
The Rosary is special to me. Like a casual wine drinker versus a Sommelier, I am not an expert, but I know what I like. I particularly like Thursday and the Luminous Mysteries because one of my favorite Bible stories is Jesus’ first miracle when his Mother tells him to get more wine even though he is hanging out with this friends. This reminds me of Michael’s mom and her agony of losing her only son and therefore I pray for Brigitte and all the mothers I know who have lost their child especially on Thursday.
But it is The Sorrowful Mysteries that grab my heart and I so very much dedicate to Michael. I can feel my heart fill and weigh me down as I reach for the Rosary hanging around my rear view mirror each Tuesday. I focus on Jesus’ suffering and death as I work the beads, but I cannot keep my mind from following along Michael’s path as well. As I became more involved in the “cancer community”, I realized that it is a path on which I find so many cancer patients.
The First Sorrowful Mystery: The Agony in the Garden. Jesus makes his way to a place called Gethsemane with Peter and two others. He knows what lies ahead for him and prays to His Father “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” When he returns to his disciples, he finds them sleeping and not praying with Him.
When Michael was diagnosed, I told him immediately that he might die from this. Michael was smart and knew that the odds were not in his favor. He did not turn away from God however. He continued to believe and pray that he might be saved from his fate.
He had so many friends and supporters at the start of his journey. So many were eager to “be with him through it all”, but yet as the time passed, most had their lives to live and supported less and less. They were all well intentioned, but through it all, it was Michael who had to live the agony himself. As much as his friends and family wanted to support, the agony was Michael’s. But he continued to believe in and trust his Lord.
The Second Sorrowful Mystery: The Scourging at the Pillar. Pilate has Jesus flogged at the pillar. Jesus is beaten with reeds and put through terrible pain.
Michael endured 10 surgeries during his 14 months fighting a brain tumor. He was pricked by needles nearly every day. There were days when his tumor placed so much pressure on his brain that all he could do was vomit continuously. He was in nearly constant pain from the tumor. Through all this, Michael continued to fight.
After one of his many brain surgeries, probably the most significant one, he amazed the doctors and nurses by walking about 10 feet the next day. He asked them when he could go home, they said he had to walk all the way around the pediatric post-op ward. He said, “Then let’s keep going!” He did it that day because he wanted to get home to watch his favorite football team play, the Miami Dolphins. The tumor created great pain for him but did not take his courage, determination or the strength of his soul.
The Third Sorrowful Mystery: The Crowning of Thorns. The soldiers take Jesus and put a crown of thorns on his head. They mock him saying “Hail, King of the Jews!”
Michael was a good looking kid and very popular in his school. He was big and strong and extremely smart. In his Middle School, he played football and basketball and was very good. It was at his AAU basketball tryouts after he just scored 6 points in a row that he collapsed and we knew something was significantly wrong.
After the first surgery, Michael’s right eye drooped and eventually would not close properly. The steroids he took bloated his face and his body and made him disproportionally swollen. The radiation and the chemotherapy made his hair fall out in places and become unmanageable. As the tumor began to attack his spinal column, he lost coordination and had difficulty walking.
He wanted to go back to school however. He wanted to go to his classes and be “normal”. He wanted to see his friends. But this one time star athlete and popular kid, now walked around his Middle School hallways bloated with his droopy face and sewn shut eye and using a walker to help keep him from falling.
The tumor continued to take his faculties away and he eventually became paralyzed from the neck down and only barely able to move his mouth. He still smiled every day however. He still loved his family. And he still prayed to God, to Jesus and to St. Peregrine.
The Fourth Sorrowful Mystery: The Carrying of the Cross. Jesus carries the cross to Mount Calvary where they have crucified others.
At one point in Michael’s 14-month journey when I was alone with him before he went to sleep, I asked Michael if he wanted to talk about anything. About his fears or anything. Michael said “No. I am fine.” The look in his eyes made me realize that he knew that this was his burden. Though he knew without a doubt that his mother and I would do anything for him, in the end, this was something he had to do. It pained me greatly to know that every evening when things were quiet and Michel was with his thoughts alone, he had this burden to carry.
Michael never asked, Why me?” He trusted his God but never gave up. As his time got small and I prepared his cocktail of chemotherapy drugs and pain killers which we gave him each night through a tube in his belly, I said, “Michael, we could just stop this and let go if you want.” Michael mustered all his strength and though he could no longer make sounds, he clearly mouthed to me “NO! I want to keep going. I want to live.”
He knew his burden. He carried it as God asked him to. He believed. To the end.
The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery: The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus. Jesus is hung on the cross and crucified. Eventually, Jesus dies on the cross. At the base of the cross, in His final moments, His mother watches Her son’s agonizing death.
Michael died with me and his mother holding his hand. We knew it was inevitable, but when the time came the pain was overwhelming. Here we had such a wonderful, perfect child with a bright future taken out of our lives unfairly. Cruelly. I often think of how Mary felt at the Cross watching her son and then look to my wife and wonder how she could lose her child and continue to move on. It is the same reason – the trust and belief in God. Even that understanding does not however change the pain.
I cannot shake the understanding that Michael and other cancer patients like Kass truly walk in Jesus’ footsteps. Not all of them die fortunately, but sadly many do still. They don’t die to cleanse us of our sins and save our souls, but perhaps there is a reason and a Grace that God bestows on us who loved them which we must embrace – and on which we must act.
I believe that God is calling us to come together to find a cure for our cancers. He takes his select loved ones along with Christ to drive us to action. We must take our pain and create the energy required to focus our research and our prayer to rid the world of these diseases. It is not just for those who have lost ones to whom they are so close – though most people have lost loved ones. It is for all of us who understand the agony of the Passion of the Christ and believe in Him.
Michael never lost his faith in God. Though there were times along the way when I wanted to question God for making my son go through this, Michael’s strength and devotion ripped me back to trusting God. It is Michael’s devotion and his courage that brings me back to the Rosary every day. It takes me on a journey with Christ where I find myself in God’s grandeur and meditating on The Sorrowful Mysteries. It is God’s way of letting me be with my son again.
Descriptions of the Mysteries were paraphrased from information gained from Catholic.org (https://www.catholic.org/prayers/mystery.php?id=2, accessed April 10th, 2020) and My Catholic Life (https://mycatholic.life/catholic-prayers/the-most-holy-rosary/the-sorrowful-mysteries/, accessed April 10th, 2020) and personal recollections of other sources.