How do you cope in life, and whom do you turn to, when two of your three children are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness? Our family was faced with such a dilemma.
Our eldest son Ian was born healthy. When David was born thirteen months later with multiple problems, including a cleft lip, paralysis affecting his right side, and, more seriously, severe aplastic anemia, life took a more difficult turn. Hannah was born five years later. She was also diagnosed with severe aplastic anemia. The prognosis for both of them was devastating. Without the gift of a bone-marrow transplant, children with severe aplastic anemia rarely live beyond their teen years.
Both children were now fighting for their lives, alternating between being tied to endless blood transfusions (to stabilize their condition and keep them alive in the short term) and going into brief periods of remission. David was the first to go into remission, which was just as well, as I had my hands full with baby Hannah; she required six blood transfusions a week.
I struggled on a day-to-day basis just to keep going. Some mornings I could scarcely face the day. Everything was sheer effort. Seeing my inner turmoil, my doctor offered me medication to help pull me through; but, whether I was just stubborn or unable to evaluate the state of my emotional and mental health, I refused the medication. There had to be another answer somewhere.
One morning I walked the boys to school. I was feeling particularly low and avoided eye contact with the other mothers in the playground. I was tired of having to answer the same questions about Hannah’s health. On my way home, I passed by the gates of our parish church. I suddenly felt irresistibly drawn into the church. I just wanted to sit there in the silence, and pray. Reversing the pram, I wheeled it inside the gates, and carried Hannah into the porch. Holy Mass was almost over. I crept inside and sat down at the back of the church. Hannah gurgled happily over my shoulder.
At first I panicked, thinking that the elderly ladies would rush over after Mass and inquire about Hannah. I was in no mood for talk, so I lowered my head as they left. I closed my eyes, and from deep within I felt this overwhelming cry to God. My soul seemed to soar to God. “Please, please, help me. I can’t manage this on my own” — I screamed interiorly to my Heavenly Father. And, in this one moment, I surrendered totally to God. I recognized my utter dependency on Him. Wholly absorbed, I did not notice that our parish priest had sat down beside me on the bench. I tried to ignore him, hoping he would take the hint and leave. I resented the intrusion. Finally, I looked up into his face.
“Denise, I have been sitting here waiting. What’s wrong?” He asked.
What’s wrong!” I thought. I felt like screaming and pounding my fists against his chest. Instead I took a deep breath. Then I began to think that maybe God had placed him there for a reason. And I opened my heart to him. Everything poured out.
On walking out of the church, I felt suddenly energized. Real joy and hope had entered my heart. Later I came to understand that this was my conversion experience.
I walked a “journey” with David, holding his little hand tightly. During that “journey,” I began, in the deepest core of my being, to search out the very meaning of life. Strange as it may sound, suffering became the tool by which God drew me to Himself. Suffering is not an idea that is in vogue. But slowly, very slowly, it became my teacher as it began to open up my spirit to surrender and reach out to God for His help when my own resources were completely exhausted. He responded to my need.
David had a special spirit that was colored by a rainbow of experiences. Many of these life experiences had painful “dark” hues, but he used them to deepen in maturity, love and generosity. He lived an ordinary life, filled at times with pain and frustration, but also with moments of ecstatic joy and sheer exuberance over a life fully lived. Joy is to be found even at the darkest of times.
In the final weeks of David’s short life, I began to notice subtle changes in his personality. Physically, he was fading away before our very eyes. Lacking the vitality to tear around with his brother and sister, he grew resigned to this quieter period of his life. He accepted the limitations that his illness now placed on him. His serenity was matched by a growing spiritual maturity. It was almost as if he were “transfigured” before my eyes as he allowed God to fill him with His life and love. I felt in awe of the radiant grace transforming him. Truly he was holy ground.
“Mum, I don’t want to be attached to this drip on my tenth birthday,” he blurted out one evening while undergoing a transfusion.
The Lord must have heard his plea. He was in heaven for his tenth birthday. At his packed Requiem Mass our parish priest told the congregation:
“God permitted him to live a relatively short time, but it seemed that in that time he had done a lifetime’s work. Despite his limp and his impish grin, David always seemed to be in a hurry. He was always on the run. He would never walk if he could possibly run. He has now run into the arms of Christ.
It is not too often that little Davids pass through our world, but when they do, we ought to take time to appreciate them. They teach us about how life really is. They are the special loved ones of God.”
When Hannah approached her tenth birthday she too began to fade. She was following the same path as David. An initial search on bone-marrow registers proved fruitless. However, a year later a donor did appear. Hannah received the “gift” of life thanks to a bone-marrow transplant from an unrelated donor.
The Lord has indeed pulled me from the dark pit into the light of His loving presence. More powerfully than I could have imagined, he continues to fill me with His peace and strength, and I thank Him for this, day in and day out.
Eltham, London, U.K.
The above article was published with permission from Miłujcie się! in November 2010