Posted by letterstopriests | Filed under Uncategorized
Background story for Peggy’s letter to Fr. James Williams, President of Chaminade High School in Mineola, NY.
In May of 2001, my husband, myself and our three boys could not have anticipated the intensity of the trial our family was about to be confronted with. Without warning, our oldest of three sons(then a Sophomore in high school) was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Overnight, life went from your average trials, difficulties and challenges, to being entirely turned on it’s head for each and every one of us.
In the initial weeks, events unfolded in very rapid succession with scant time to process anything emotionally or physically. All kinds of adjustments had to be made at the speed of light. Things got from bad to worse. What started out as a situation with a 96% positive prognosis, escalated into grave critical complications.
Backing up to Day Two of the reality we were confronted with, my husband and I waited and prayed as the doctor and anesthesiologist readied Michael for a spinal tap that would determine the extent of the spread of the cancer. If there was infiltratioin in the spinal column, the prognosis would be far more bleak as this would involve invasion of our son’s brain.
We were permitted to sit and observe. As they prepped for the procedure, I briefly exited to make a call to the President’s office at Chaminade High School to inform the school about the situation. Michael attended an all boys Catholic high school, in Mineola, NY run by the Marianist order of Fathers and Brothers. In this mother’s view, there can be no more exemplary and solid men on God’s earth. At that time, I only had a limited awareness of these ordinary men who daily live out the call to extraordinary service.
Father James Williams, the school’s president, was suddenly on the other end of the line. I began to ramble about what was taking place with the intent of simply giving him the ‘head’s up’ and attempting to set up an appt to work out the gameplan for our son’s school situation. I can still hear Father’s confident voice cutting past all that. “Where are you now?” A bit caught off guard by the question, I responded “At the Winthrop Cancer Center For Kids”. He shot back “I’ll be right there.” As he hung up, I looked in disbelief at my cell.
It would have been more than enough if he had said that the Marianists would pray for our family and to keep him posted. [One only has to observe one day in either of our local Marianist high schools to realize that the Marianist Community never sleeps! Though they make claims that they do, it's beyond me where they fit it in. The operation of their schools, the outstanding service to their students and the parents, as well as their extensive Alumni communities is unmatched. Those are only the things we know about. To say they go 'the extra mile' is a radical understatement. Whenever you see them in action as they serve others, there is not even a hint of weariness. Fr. James is the ultimate personification of that resilience and fortitude.]
Back to Michael. I returned to my son who was starting to go under the anesthesia. I can vividly recall the pit in my stomach and the clenching of my heart. This thread ran through every fiber of my being as I moved into deep prayer: “Oh my Lord, what are you going to be asking of us?” I turned to Peter and relayed the exchange with Father James. “He’s coming here?” “Yes, I think that’s what he said.” The needle then entered Michael’s spine. I choked up and went more deeply to my God.
Suddenly, from a distance, we heard a chorus of female voices: “Father James!! What are YOU doing here? So good to see you!!” We could hear his very distinct and bellowing laugh. (It never once seemed inappropriate. Rather, all by itself, it ‘called us’ to the Christ. And it would do so throughout the very tough times to come.) We looked at one another. “They know him?” Then it fell into place.
In Michael’s freshman year, I was at a Fall Parent Luncheon when I learned of Father’s own extraordinary story. With the enormity of what was transpiring, I had somehow lost sight of it. Diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma on May 8th right before his entrance into Chaminade, Fr. James was most personally aware of the challenge Michael was now up against. Throughout his freshman year, Jim Williams was still receiving daily treatment with challenging side effects and many extended difficulties. I now recalled his telling us how tough it was contending with the situation while also attending school. As his tall cassocked figure entered the procedure room, Peter and I were bewildered as he and Michael’s doctor gave each other a grand hug. In seconds I realized that this, was in fact, the same oncologist that saved the life of this incredible priest!
Father James quickly turned to us and enveloped us in an embrace. The medicinal value of that alone cannot be expressed in human language at a moment like that. A nurse brought him a chair and he propped himself squarely in front of us entirely blocking our view of Michael and the medical staff. Nothing could speak more to the reality that priests are “other Christs” for, all at once, what had been beyond overwhelming just minutes before and consuming every part of me had quelled. That’s no little thing all by itself. Truly. Yet it was only the beginning of Christ helping us ”walk on water’ and face this trial with Father’s constant support and the support of “his army of Marianist men”.
Eyes piercing through us, he asked us how we were holding up. I wanted him to understand quickly what we were about. We shared with him that our faith is extremely strong and is ‘our whole life’. We told him that we were involved in catechizing adults in the Catholic Faith for many years and that Michael and his brothers were saturated ‘from birth’ with conversations on the meaning and value of trial, pain and suffering. With this perspective, Father James began the process of raising us up to endure the roller coaster ride our family was about to be challenged with.
More than any words Father James said, the greatest hope and calm God gave to us in that moment was posturing this incredible priest between us and our son as we awaited Dr. Weinblatt’s verdict on the spread of the cancer. A “larger than life” figure in every and all ways, looking back at us was a man who, not only survived his bout with cancer back in the 80′s in his own days at Chaminade High School , but went on to become President of this massive operation! God wasted no time in ushering this ‘message’ to our side because He had a lot of work to do in our souls and the souls of the many friends and relatives who would encounter Christ in the trial that was to come. Quickly He drew our attention to the fact that, as always, He was permitting this trial to do a great work in us and in His plan of salvation. In other words “It’s not about the cancer!”
As we continued to soak in Father’s presence, I recalled his sharing at the Luncheon ,that right before his own trial with cancer, the biggest challenge he was ironically experiencing was feeling ‘forced’ to attend Chaminade by his good parents. The trial with cancer and his altered encounter with all things around him, and-most especially-his own witness of the Marianist Community helping him through his own trial- transformed his entire outlook. If I remember correctly, the last thing he thought he was going to become was a priest, let alone the president of this school he was not happy to be enrolled in! As that memory came to my heart, I looked past him and wondered what God might be doing with Michael’s story. Father’s taking his personal time to be present to us afforded me the ability to “step back in the moment” and reach for God’s heart in total trust. And so the roller coaster ride began.
Though Michael’s cancer had not spread to his brain, one month later, over the course of the weeks to come, Michael nearly died three times due to critical complications. Though he survived, he ended up temporarily paralyzed, trached, bald and ematiated. [Lying motionless and crumpled over in an ICU bed at Columbia, it suddenly struck me that he looked like a concentration camp victim....a striking moment as my own mother lived through the devestation of Auschwitz at his very age. ] Added to the initial diagnosis was the fact that he now had to restore all his weight and re-learn how to walk, talk and eat again. God was moving our faith and the faith of Michael and his brothers through a great and radical transformation.
He had asked the extraordinary and He sent these extraordinary ”men who never sleep” to sustain us in a million ways. With countless acts of unexpected or unrequired service, they helped us to remain in hope while always steadying for the worst. To the extent that they can give in any particular crisis at any given time, they are an overwhemling presence of the Christ to all that experience or witness their love. I have witnessed Father ‘and company’ carry many others through unspeakable suffering over the last ten years that the boys have been in the Marianist schools. They lead. They compel. They raise up. They guide. Their hearts are strong enough to exercise tough love. They inspire radical courage. They teach the Truth about our God inside the classroom and out.
So now, I direct my words to Fr. Williams:
Dearest Father James,
When I was approached about the writing of this book there was no question that I would make a contribution. My love of the priesthood is all encompassing and there is nothing I will not do to contribute to restoring focus on the incredible acts of sacrifice, service and love that I have experienced and witnessed throughout the course of my Catholic life on the part of countless priests. That is the experience of a vast amount of the Laity throughout the world and throughout time. So many of us feel called to “shout it from the roof tops” and it’s time that we raise our voices most especially in the Year For Priests. So extraordinary have these good men been throughout the many trials of my life’s story, that it was not an easy task to select one man..
So understand, when I single you out, that you and the Marianists will forever hold a profoundly special and deep place in my heart. As long as this piece was, it doesn’t begin to capture the memories of those days in witness of your countless acts of kindness and concern. And none of it was for the asking.
I would like to single out two moments that will remain impaled in my heart to the end of days.
It was the second roller coaster plummet and possibly the worst. Even the brilliant, prayerful, and ever positive Dr. Weinblatt had a tear in his eye earlier that morning as he indicated ‘between the lines’ that we were losing the battle. It truly looked like in just six short weeks from diagnosis, Michael was probably going to slip out of our grasp and home to God. I can still see Michael lying there in the induced coma. Lifeless. With full heart, I believed the hour had come to gather all of my strength to trust and to say good-bye to my child. I don’t know that I could have moved so rapidly towards trust had you and the Marianists not been so overwhelmingly present in that moment.
What were our last spoken words to one another, my son and myself ? I struggled so hard to remember. As you lead us into the Anointing of the Sick, I was in a state of disbelief and almost numb. I can still hear you saying the “Our Father” with us. When we got to the words “Thy will be done”, I was entirely unable to get them out. You and the Brothers said the words for us and I clung to Peter and we wept. On this day, your bellowing laugh had come to a hault. In it’s place, I looked up and caught one single tear that dropped down your face as you placed a fraction of a Host in Michael’s lifeless mouth.
The contrast of that tear to all of the laughing and the strong and compelling words of encouragement landed right in the center of my heart and has remained there since that hour.. You climbed on the Cross with us and though miraculously our God ultimately spared us the crucifixion, it would have been that tear that my heart would have clung to if I had to offer a radical “yes” to my God. God used your Priesthood to make Christ, HImself, manifest to us in that grave hour and ,through you, I felt His immense love for each and every one of us in our sorrow.
The other most pronounced moment was roller coaster plummet #3. One week after that Our Father, Michael was still somehow with us. The doctor’s were stunned and Michael was still hanging in there but you might remember that he had been transferred to Columbia because fluid had collected around his heart and (for both the procedure to extract it and the continued battle to get to the root cause of his sepsis) our barely living unconscious boy had made the rough ambulance ride from Long Island to Manhatten in rush hour traffic as we followed wearily behind.
One of the greatest difficulties of the transfer was that we thought we were leaving you and our Marianist army behind.
A day and a half later, on the afternoon of my 45th birthday, I had an extraordinary surprise. We were sitting in the 9th floor lounge because the nurses needed to do something with Michael. We were in a holding pattern and somewhat numbed and “peaceful” despite the continued gravity of our situation. (ll is relative when you’ve managed to cling to a lifeboat on the Titanic.) My only somber thoughts were that this might be the last birthday on earth with my son.
Suddenly, the elevator doors sprung open and, much to our surprise, our two younger boys burst into the lounge with big grins and carrying balloons and cards!! You were pulling up the rear with three of the Brothers who were carrying a huge birthday cake that the boys had helped make in the Chaminade kitchen earlier that day. Never ever was their a happier birthday even though I was still on the Cross! After a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday”, you guys whipped out the plates, the forks the napkins…..It was too much. I was handed the cards. One from each of our boys. One from the Marianists. Then you handed me the last one. On the envelope, it didn’t say who it was from. Just “Mom”.
Unsure, I struggled to open the card. It was ‘from Michael”. In your handwriting. Telling me that I was the best mother in the world and thanking me for everything I had given and done for him in his life. Telling me that I had done a great job. It was the very best thing you could have done. How did you think to do that. It will forever remain one of my most treasured possessions and beautiful memories.
Father James, I could have never known, as you sat ‘between us and that spinal tap’ that May morning in 2001 and in the very rough years that followed, that our Michael would be in Medical school nine years later, readying to serve the world hopefully a fraction as well as you have done. Then and now, when people learn of our family’s trial, they will often say “Those must have been the worst days of your life.” Peter and I concur that in a paradoxical way, the Marianist Community made it one of the best years of our lives. It is the memory and witness of your extraordinary acts of service that has inspired each and every one of us to more boldly serve a world in need with all of our strength. There is no question that we are better people for having had all of you by our side.
God Bless you dear Priest.
All of our love forever-