Updated: Feb 26, 2020
Last year, in September 2018, my husband took me to Vienna for our five-year anniversary. I had always dreamed of visiting Vienna, and as it so happens, his oldest friend is Austrian and resides in the dazzling city of Wien.
As one can imagine, I was incredibly excited to be going to the city that inspired the likes of Mozart and Strauss, but I was also struggling with a profound sadness. My beloved father, the wonderful, strong man who raised me and gave me half of my DNA, was extremely sick. He was in a perpetual state of excruciating pain, and not one of the hundreds of doctors we had visited could figure out why. Out of all the tests that were run and all the labs that were taken, not one of them showed that a single thing was wrong with him.
“Everything is fine,” they would tell us, “there’s no reason you should be feeling this way. Just double up at the gym and fight through the pain. Mind over matter.”
That explanation could make sense if it wasn’t being delivered to a man who spent his entire life as an athlete. At age 58, my dad was running three to eight miles a day. His endurance was better than mine, despite my being half his age. If there was one thing he knew how to do, it was to push through pain.
“Something isn’t right,” he would repeatedly tell us.
He couldn’t explain what was going on, but he knew it wasn’t normal, and he knew there was something wrong.
The experience of his decline presented with it a whirlwind of emotions. There were times I felt positive and hopeful, and there were times where I felt like I was trying to climb out of an endless pit of despair.
As we were preparing to whisk ourselves away to Austria, I struggled with the guilt of feeling angry towards him for being sick, and worrying that perhaps he wasn’t as sick as he seemed, and instead was just giving up on life. It was impossible not to notice his physical decline, but what scared me was the mental degeneration I was witnessing. The luster leaving his eyes, the fervor escaping his voice, the happiness fleeing his soul.
Dad was constantly in and out of my mind, so much so that I was beginning to have trouble sleeping. I would be up for hours researching what could be wrong with him, but every online diagnosis had already come up negative during medical testing. I looked into homeopathic remedies for inflammation and joint pain, such as ginger, turmeric, and tart cherry juice. We explored the chiropractor route, intense physical therapy, sports tape, and deep tissue massages, all to no avail. His pain was such that not even 2000 milligrams of the strongest prescribed anti-inflammatory could dent it.
I was at a complete loss. There was obviously something very wrong, but there was no direction as to what it could be. We had a million questions and not a single answer.
For the first time in my life, everything was out of my hands. As someone who prefers maintaining control, I had suddenly found myself in a place where I didn’t have any of it. Throughout my life, I utilized what my husband refers to as “my laser beam.” If I set my sights on a goal, if I wanted it bad enough, I would come up with a plan and see it through until I made it happen. Through pure determination, I was always able to achieve what I wanted. This knowledge gave me immense confidence as I made my way through young adulthood, but then illness struck Dad, and no amount of drive could make him better.
On the plane ride to Vienna, it finally hit me: My father was sick. He was slowly and agonizingly withering away and there was absolutely nothing I could do to help him.
Walking through the streets of Michaelerplatz, home of the Hofburg Palace, Julius Meinl, and the Viennese Riding School, you are immediately captivated. The city of Vienna is like nothing I have ever seen. It dazzles and sparkles, but it packs a subtle punch. It’s clean, yet busy; imperial, yet Victorian. It seems as if every little alley way leads to a hidden courtyard where a secret garden lies within it.
Every inch of Vienna radiates with beautiful sights, but one place stands out in particular, the Stephansdom, or as we Americans would call it, St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Built in 1137, the epic cathedral stands tall at 448 feet. Its stunning roof is bold and ornate, with tiles forming the symbol of an eagle, reminiscent of the Habsburg Dynasty.
Stephansdom has survived world wars, vandalism, large scale fires, bombings, and countless renovations. Like any monument, it serves as a reminder of human ingenuity, and the sheer depths of human will.
When we finally decided to venture into the church, I learned that there were several exploratory options, one of them being a climb through the South Tower. A set of winding stairs comprised of 343 steps takes you to the top of the observation chamber, where incredible views and a little Catholic shop await. I wanted the view of the city, but I desperately wanted a rosary for my dad.
Through the sobering experience of realizing my dad was sick, and the humbling moment where I accepted that I was completely and utterly powerless in the situation, I became obsessed with finding him a rosary in the Old World and bringing it back with me to the new one.
When we reached the top of the tower, after taking in the crisp air and majesty of a city that has somehow managed to get prettier with age, I searched around for the perfect rosary. I wanted a rosary that looked like him, something he could carry on him at all times, a symbol to remind him that he wasn’t alone. I didn’t have any answers for him. I couldn’t put a name to the cause of his suffering, nor could I make his suffering go away; but what I did know to be true was one unfailing, unwavering truth: I was not ready to lose him. Our time together was not over, and something bigger than me, something bigger than all of us would see this truth through.
I had about given up when I spotted a little silver bowl with simple, wooden bracelets. Each wooden panel had the picture of a Saint, and my eyes were immediately drawn to the bracelet with Padre Pio’s picture. It just so happened that the day I visited Stephansdom was the feast day of Padre Pio. My mom had woken up early to watch the live mass from Rome, and she sent me a text saying she had sent in an intention for dad’s healing, and that a prayer was being offered up for him during the mass.
As I ran my fingers across the wooden panels, I couldn’t help but notice how sturdy they felt. The bracelet was light but the panels were strong and durable, just like my dad had always been. Physically, he wasn’t that same man at the moment, but emotionally, he was even stronger than he had ever been. He was carrying a burden. He was bearing his own cross, one full of anguish and torment and torturous pain, yet he never stopped forcing a smile. He never stopped going to work, running his company, or being present for his loved ones. This bracelet wouldn’t just serve as a testament to my faith that he was going to get better, but it would serve as a reminder that he was still, and would always be, that strong, steady, powerful force I had always known him to be.
Overlooking the city of Vienna, I fervently made my intention. I asked God to heal my dad. I told Him there was still too much for us to do together. I admitted to Him that I wasn’t sure if I could live in a world where my dad no longer existed. Standing in front of a gothic, arched window with iron wrought beams, staring out into the graceful city with views so clear that I could see the outline of the Alps in the distance, and a delicate breeze sweeping through the tower, I allowed myself to lament in my grief.
The thought of living without my father, the thought of going through life without hearing his reassuring voice, without being engulfed in his warm, safe hugs, these unspoken fears had consumed me for months and they were only growing stronger as he had been growing weaker. My heartache washed over me like an enormous wave, and I stood there in its crest until there was nothing left.
Finally, when the trough subsided and my soul was bare, I had come to the realization that in the end, it is not up to me. What will be will be. I am not in charge, and if it isn’t meant to be, I must find solace in the humbling and noble act of acceptance.
It was in this moment that I asked God something I had never asked Him before: God, if this is not your will, then please grant me the strength to endure the weight of the pain that may lie ahead.
686 steps and 4,635 miles later, I returned home to North Carolina baring gifts. “You’re going to get better,” I told Dad as I handed him the bracelet. He simply replied, “I know, baby.”
Over the months that followed, things continued to get worse. His health was deteriorating at a rapid pace. He was growing sicker with each passing day, and with every medical lead came yet another dead end. At this point, he was going to physical therapy three times a week. He should’ve been getting stronger, but instead, he was growing more and more debilitated.
Shortly before Christmas, we experienced another devastating blow.
An MRI of his knees showed dozens of spider fractures all around his knee caps. “I can’t explain this,” is all the doctor could utter. My mom, ever so strong, could no longer hide her despair. My dad, ever so positive, could no longer muster any words that weren’t those of impending doom. He went from telling me everything was going to be okay to asking me to record him making the Thanksgiving turkey. He never said it outright, but I knew this was because he believed 2018 would be our last holiday season together. “You’re going to be okay, Daddy,” I would tell him. “Look, I got you this bracelet,” I would remind him as I lifted up his wrist and gently cupped his hand. I could no longer squeeze him tight. He felt too frail and his bones were breaking at an exponential rate. My need to hug him and feel his strength was now outweighed by my need to protect him through this delicate state.
Dad was sent to another specialist, a sought-after specialist who didn’t have any openings until April. Truth be told, I knew this was bad news. “I don’t think he’ll make it to April,” I confessed to Mom, to which she only replied, “Your father has a strong spirit. He can handle more than you know.”
Be that as it may, the man I saw in front of me was brittle, sunken in, and beginning to have difficulty breathing. Four months was too long. The only thing I could hold onto was the bracelet, the symbol of a personal pilgrimage I made in his name. The sense of quiet that I felt at the top of that tower, the sense of peace that my constantly moving mind was overcome with, it was enough to make me hold on.
It was during this time that I decided I needed to meditate, to silence the fearful, nervous thoughts that were continuously crowding my conscious. I wasn’t quite sure where to begin, so I went with what was familiar to me.
I uncovered a box my mom had given to me when I first moved to Charlotte to attend law school. It was the first time I was truly on my own in a city where I didn’t know anyone, and my mom gave me a box with prayers, meditations, and positive messages to bring me back to center when I felt like I had lost my way.
Truthfully, at that time, it was a rare occurrence that I would open it, but I kept it next to my bed night after night. A couple years later when my grandfather died, she had given me a bookmark which I stored away in the box but had since forgotten about. Then, when I got married, she gave me a little pocket guide to praying the rosary, written by one of her favorite people, Mother Angelica, the mastermind behind the worldwide channel, EWTN.
Five years later, as my dad’s health was declining and I was desperately searching for somewhere to place my sorrow, I opened the box. The first item I saw was the tiny blue book with Mother Angelica on its cover, smiling at me with her bright, gleaming eyes. At first, I rolled my eyes and thought “oh my goodness, Mom,” but then I opened it, and on the first page, dated on the day of my wedding, was a message written in her beautiful, incomparable calligraphy style handwriting:
Place all your fears in the Lord,
For you are never alone.
I started flipping through the pages, and out from the middle of the book fell the bookmark she had given me when my grandfather passed away. I had forgotten that the bookmark was a Padre Pio bookmark with his photo on the front, and the words “Be Not Afraid” on the back.
I didn’t need to see or hear anything else. Somewhere deep down, I knew everything was going to be okay. Pretty soon after, our family received our first shred of hope.
There was a cancellation with one of the endocrinologists my mom had tried to make an appointment with. The office called her and told her they could see my dad the following Monday. Naturally, they jumped on the opportunity and set the appointment.
What followed were weeks and months of highly targeted and painful testing. My dad’s suffering wasn’t anywhere near over, but we finally felt like we were on our way. My family had been in a dark and lonely tunnel, and we were now starting to see a glimmer of light.
It only takes a slight flicker to instill a ray of hope.
Finally, after four years of questions, confusion, and torment, Dad was given a diagnosis.
Phosphaturic Mesenchymal Tumor (PMT)
The difficulty in achieving this diagnosis lies in the rarity of the condition. There are only a few hundred documented cases of this condition in the entire world. We had visited hundreds of doctors, all of whom had thrown around thousands of different possibilities, ranging from cancers to degenerative diseases to vitamin deficiencies. Never once was PMT brought up. None of us, not even my brilliant, 30-year medical veteran mom had heard of it.
The good news was that once the tumor is located and subsequently removed, patients go back to normal as if nothing had ever happened. The bad news was that locating the tumor could prove to be difficult.
True to the form of our story, what followed were more weeks of arduous testing, but the tumor was eventually found. It was located in his second rib, meaning he would have to undergo a delicate surgery to remove it. Considering his delicate state, this had everyone on edge, but my mom was right. Dad has a strong spirit and could handle more than we all thought.
We are now seven months past the surgery that saved his life. His pain is gone. My dad is walking without assistance. He’s even lightly jogging when my mom isn’t looking. The color has returned to his cheeks, and his big, infectious smile is back, brightening the lives of every person he sees. Those who witnessed him at his sickest are in awe of his recovery. We were all staring at the end, but instead we got a new beginning.
Three weeks ago, my husband and I went to Munich for our six-year anniversary. As always, we were walking around aimlessly, getting lost in the sights and sounds of the Bavarian capital when a young, dark-haired girl wearing a black puffer jacket stopped to ask me where St. Peter’s was. We had just gotten to Munich, so we weren’t familiar with the city yet. I didn’t have an answer for her, but the name of the church resounded in my head for several days.
I finally gave into the nagging voice and discovered that Peterskirche, Alter Peter, or the Church of St. Peter, is the oldest church in Munich upon which the rest of the city was built around. With a blend of gothic, renaissance, and baroque architecture, the church is a stunning display of 12th century devotion. Similar to Stephansdom, Peterskirche has survived two world wars, catastrophic fires, bombings, and extensive renovations.
Another thing Peterskirche has in common with the Stephansdom is that it has a spectacularly tall steeple with a viewing platform of the entire city. Without hesitation, I made the 306-step climb up. My husband, ever so supportive, made the climb with me, as he did in Vienna.
The views at the top were breathtaking. Seeing as it was November, it was quite chilly up there, but the Munich air is clean, crisp, and invigorating. Standing in the heart of Marienplatz, we had an epic view of the Glockenspiel, with its dancing cuckoo clock that chimes every day at 11am and noon, and re-enacts two scenes from Old World Munich.
My experience this time was different; however. One year ago, I climbed to the top of a Viennese cathedral to ask God to cure my dad. One year later, I had climbed to the top of a German church to thank Him for answering my prayer. There was no shop this time, nothing I could buy to bring back to my dad, but I guess this time, he didn’t need it. Instead, we made the climb back down and entered the main church. We made our way to the front of the stunning edifice and sat down in the second pew. We sat there in silence, we sat there to reflect. Unbeknownst to us, there was a choir practice going on upstairs in the loft. I could hear the conductor’s lovely voice giving instructions, and right as I kneeled down to say my prayer of thanks, the choir began singing.
As my gratitude grew bigger, the music grew stronger. Their angelic voices echoed through the cathedral ceilings so profoundly that I could feel them resonate through the benches we sat on and the floors we walked on. It was dark in there, but all I could feel was light radiating through the church as I stared at the altar. I was overcome with emotion, but this time my tears were those of complete and utter happiness. I attended Catholic school my entire life. I grew up hearing my mom and aunts read and talk about miracles, but often times, I doubted. I thought maybe those things only happened to extraordinary people, to Saints, or to those who devote their lives to service. Sitting in St. Peter’s Church, I acknowledged that I, myself, had witnessed a miracle. There was no forgetting the events that led up to it, and there was no denying the fact that my family had been touched by God. He answered my prayer. He tested us, but He never left us, and when it was the right time, He healed my dad. Two old world churches, two separate experiences, and one majestic truth that binds them together.
This is my story. I know that for many, it will sound outrageous, but I don’t tell this story to make people change what they believe, because I believe everyone finds their own version of solace in their own way, at their own time. I tell this story because it is my truth, and the most important job of a writer, the most challenging work for a writer, is to deliver their world in a way that speaks to others.
When Notre Dame caught fire, I heard many people express their confusion as to the sadness felt around the world. “It’s just a building,” they would say, “why are we rushing to save a monument?” The reality is, these cathedrals, these Old-World churches, they’re not just buildings. They’re not just slabs of concrete that were fused together. They are generations of families living and dying by their unwavering beliefs. They are survivors of wars, monuments that have stood the test of time. They are places of solace for so many people around the world. People just like me, who feel like they’re losing their grip and are searching for a moment of peace. Perhaps for some, they really are just buildings, but for me, they are where my miracle began, and where it came full circle.
Today is Thanksgiving, a day where we reflect on everything we have been blessed with and express our gratitude for being so fortunate. It's a day where we remember how lucky we are and where we take a moment to acknowledge that fact. Today is also my dad's birthday. One year ago, he could barely move the turkey around to season it. One year ago, he was almost bed ridden. Today, he's moving tables up and down the stairs by himself in preparation for our feast. He's running on the beach with my sweet dog, Tiberius. He's dancing and smiling and living each day to its fullest. I know he is eternally grateful for the gift he's been given, the gift of a second chance at life. We are all well aware that many people do not get this chance.
I really can't explain it. Call it modern medicine, call it great luck, call it divine intervention; whatever label one gives it, it doesn't change the truth. My dad was sick and now he's healed. He once was lame, and now he walks. We thought 2018 was our last holiday together, and today here we are, celebrating Thanksgiving 2019. I can't explain this turn of events, but what I can do is be grateful.
On this Thanksgiving Day, hold your loved ones close, hug them tight, and remember that nothing is promised. So be grateful, and give thanks for all the joys that you've been blessed with.
Happy Thanksgiving to all our readers, from all of us in the Wardrobe. May your day be full of good food, good cheer, and good books.
And a special Happy Birthday to my Dad. I am thankful to be enjoying this day with you. I wasn't ready to lose you, so today, I will hug you a little tighter and be thankful that you are here with me, healthy, safe, and happy as can be. I love you, Dad! Happy Birthday!