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Sorrowful mysteries: a single mother battling cancer finds a friend in Mary.


A single mother battling cancer finds a friend in Mary. Sure, most everybody gets religion when they get a diagnosis, particularly the ones measured in stages.

Except my faith wasn't new, I was a lifer. My diagnosis of stage 1 breast cancer in October 2006 did not make me suddenly see the light of a newly found belief system. It just allowed me to see my faith more clearly. I called upon my Catholic faith not like someone desperately searching to retrieve a forgotten object from a darkened storage closet, but like someone picking up a reliable, often-used kitchen tool from the counter. It is just that now I gripped it more tightly.

My cancer diagnosis terrified me as a single mother to three growing sons who had no contact with their father living abroad. I was afraid to die not so much for me, but for my boys. And I was afraid to surrender. Prayer gave me the calm to meet the challenge head on--of staying alive, staying strong, and keeping my family from falling untethered into the unknown darkness I feared.

In those days, weeks, and months of treatment and recovery, I talked to Jesus and God some, but Mary mostly--she is my favorite. She is a mother; she knew how it was. I asked her to help me when I was overwhelmed. I asked her to help me stay alive to raise my sons well. I asked her to keep me calm.

Four years earlier, along with my five brothers and sisters, I had watched my own 80-year-old mother die under the watch of hospice workers in her room at Kindred Hospital, where after months of ventilators and feeding tubes, she had expressed this was her wish. She was enormously serene and intermittently joyful. I marveled at her resolve and knew that she was a woman of such stalwart faith that she was relieved for herself, and more concerned for our grief than for where she was going.

At 46, I was in no way capable emotionally and spiritually of surrendering to cancer. I was too young. My sons, rambunctious at 17, 15, and 12, needed me more than ever. And I needed prayer to keep me strong, not to help me let go.

Praying to Mary had helped me through a difficult divorce when the boys were 6, 4, and 1. My marriage long ago annulled on grounds of abuse, I needed to retreat to the arms of Mary again to help me through another stretch of pain, hurt, and fear. Because again I was faced with the loss of my dreams of what could be, but now not only for the loss of a life lived happily ever after, but for a life at all.

For as long as I could remember I did have a strong sense that this lifetime wasn't the whole shebang; there was a point, I had a purpose, I was part of a larger divine big picture. It was what I had been taught by my family in practice and in my Catholic school lessons. It was the undertone to the way I was loved as a child and how I expected to be loved as an adult and how I did love my three sons. There was comfort in this brand of belief, really--none of us was alone, and this was not the end.

Growing up we said the rosary in our living room as a family, all eight of us on our knees--my parents, my three sisters, two brothers, and me--every night after dinner. Sure, a lot of families said the "thanks for the grub" abbreviated version of prayer. But no one I knew did the whole Mother Teresa business: knees, rosary beads, and Bible in front of the picture window. It would help hold the family together, my mother said. It would help us with everything from tests to illnesses to bullies to understanding the meaning of all of it.

One Saturday night when Madeleine was 16 and I was 12, we were running late with saying the rosary. Madeleine had a date at 7:30 and we were still in the middle of the Hail Marys when my father answered the door. He told the young man to wait in the marble floored foyer, the look on the boy's face frozen between panic and astonishment. Madeleine had hot rollers in her hair and wore shimmering blue eyeshadow, mascara, and frosted lipstick that I borrowed often, a crime I always denied.

In spite of Madeleine's beseeching whispers, my mother would not let her gracefully exit the rosary, even to take out the rollers. To his credit, her date--a senior at a nearby all-boys Catholic high school--waited quietly for her in the front hall until the last Glory Be ended and we all got back to our feet.

After the conclusion of the petitions that thankfully had nothing to do with her, Madeleine rushed to dislodge the pink rollers and grabbed her suede fringed purse from the kitchen. I am fairly certain he brought her home early.

When I became a parent, we prayed out loud at home as well, not the rosary on our knees, but openly and often: a Hail Mary before bed, an Our Father in the car. And we prayed at church. Every Sunday I took my boys to Mass, from the time I carried them as infants to the present.

We are not Christmas or Easter Catholics, the kind who only show up on the big holidays and don't know any of the prayers or the songs. We walk the block to church, and I concede that it would likely have been a much harder sell if they did not have to just roll out of bed, brush their teeth, and go. Weldon, Brendan, and Colin have received all their sacraments to date, just like their immunizations.

I took them to church so they would know there was a welcoming time and place set aside for what was beyond their reach, a physical place for intangible ideas where other people came together for the same purpose. The truth was, I needed to go, because when they were small and I was freshly wounded from the minefield that was my marriage, I felt as if I was drinking a hurricane through a straw. At church the other mothers there would smile at me, knowing how hard it was to get them all dressed, wash their faces from a hurried breakfast, wash my own, and make sure everyone was wearing a matching pair of shoes.

When they were young, a lot of times the older women at church in the front row would stop me and tell me how healthy the boys looked and how big they were and what a good job I was doing. Some Sundays I cried at church, not loud outbursts, but to myself, hoping no one, especially not the boys, would see. They never noticed.

I needed the respite; I needed the solace. I needed an hour where I was not in charge. I went to church because I wanted to see the other people I knew in the rows around us, and the ones that I didn't. I went to church for the kiss of peace right before communion when I always kissed the boys on the cheek or the top of the head and I smiled and shook the hands of the strangers near me.

"Peace be with you."

"And also with you."

And that was my wish--peace. Throughout their childhoods and particularly after I was handed a diagnosis of cancer, I needed the peace that prayer and the Catholic community handed back to me. It was again with the strange invasion of cancer into my body, my life, and my family's future that I needed my faith to prop me up and assure me of the grace to face whatever would be. I knew I had no right to expect a life without trials. But I did not want to die.

"Offer it up," my mother would say if any of her children complained or went on and on about a minor transgression. I could hear her voice a lot in my head: "Offer it up." It was not a call to martyrdom, but I found it to be a reminder to return to my own inner strength. Now, with cancer that I desperately wanted expunged from my life and my future, I found I heard my mother's reprisal more often.

After both my parents had passed, I prayed to them. My father had died in 1988, before any of my sons were born. I could feel his presence sometimes when I was frightened or when I was worried. I felt my mother with me most all of the time. After I was diagnosed, I was praying to them both quite often.

My faith and reliance on prayer were not the results of a complicated, calculated arrival on a runway after a long, tumultuous flight. I didn't suddenly find a belief through the life event that was cancer. I have always had this conviction, I guess, not without question, but definitely without the torturous soul-searching journey many people I know have endured. My belief system sprouted from notions that felt straightforward, honest, and obvious--this was not all there was, and a whole lot of it was a mystery that we just couldn't figure out. Maybe it did all come from saying the rosary every night after dinner.

I did have the conviction that I was going somewhere else and it would be heaven, I was fairly certain; I think most people are. I thought it was pretty hard not to get there--you had to do something deliberately and unabashedly evil and on top of that you had to not be sorry for it at all, because the system made it easy with all the forgiveness guarantees and the mercy built-ins. It was forgiveness offered, not forgiveness we demanded. I did believe, as I was taught, that it would be better when this part was over. I just absolutely did not want to be evicted from this life when my children needed me. God help me, Mary, please help me, do not let it be now.

I told myself over and over that whatever happened, it would be all right. My sons were not babies. Sure, they would grow up, they would survive, they would be happy. Weldon and Brendan are almost grown. My brothers and sisters would care for them, and probably financially it would even be better for them. They would live in a nicer house, take better vacations, drive newer cars. But they would be without any biological parent to care for them, not have either of the two people who were there from the second they were born, who loved them since they were an idea, a wish, an intention. And that, I was very sure, would hurt them. I couldn't fathom that.

It would end up OK, sure, lots of people lose their parents young and it turned out fine; some people never knew either parent and they were more than just OK. They prospered, they recovered. The hurricane hit the beach and you found shelter somewhere else. You didn't float away. I have faith in that. Even though I do believe that, I do not want to die. I am not so brave.

Every October and March when I return for the mammograms at the radiologist and the follow-ups to the surgeon and oncologist, I am nervous and to my core afraid; the week before, the morning of, during the appointments. And I pray, asking Mary to make me strong. I know it is not my right to beg for mercy, to be spared any fate, and to pray that I be given relief from a disease that kills millions of loving women every year. I have no more right to live than they had. I know we are not privy to the logic of God's larger plan.

But I do want to stay alive.

Because I want to dance with the boys at their weddings, when they grow to be men. I want to hold their babies in my arms, and I want to sit in their homes and see the pictures of their families on the shelves in their living rooms with some of the furniture I gave them from our house, after I moved into a smaller house and put all their grade school pictures and birthday cards and Mother's Day letters in storage. I want to be in those pictures, an old lady, smiling, with silver gray hair.

God willing, I want to grow as old as the woman with the bright white hair in a bun who is the morning crossing guard at the corner near the Catholic school a block from our house. She is tall and elegant looking, even if she is wearing blue jeans and a parka, her face smooth, her lipstick on, that smile delivered to every chubby boy with his backpack or awkward girl on her bike on her way to school.

I pray about it every day.

Michele Weldon teaches journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
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Author:Weldon, Michelle
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jan 31, 2012
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