Mother’s day is Sunday, and to be frank, I’m not looking forward to it. I still plan on calling my mom and having Sarah talk to her grandmothers, but without Stephanie this year, the mother of my child, I know this Mother’s day is going to be different. It’s going to be difficult, full of tears and heartache, and another reminder that she’s gone and not coming back. But unlike past Mother’s Days, this Mother’s Day I’m thinking more about the Mother of everyone: the Virgin Mary.
I don’t remember if we’ve mentioned it in this blog or not, but Stephanie and I learned a lot more about Mary because of our pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. Truth be told, I didn’t even know that in the Catholic Church, all of the “Our Lady of _____” were all Mary, just where she appeared to someone (Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima, etc). So that shows how deep (or not so much) my relationship was with Mary prior to the pilgrimage. However, most people know that Mary was chosen by God to give birth to Jesus, so she’s the Mother of God, and therefore a very important individual. (sidenote: As I think we mentioned at one point, the misconception that Catholics “worship” Mary and the saints is incorrect. We pray to them to intercede for us, just as Stephanie and I asked so many of you to pray for us.) So while it would make sense to me to celebrate Mary on Mother’s Day, even last year at this time it wasn’t something I ever considered.
So why would this year be different? Well, for one Stephanie’s gone, and I kind of want to forget the whole day exists. But I don’t think that’d be healthy for Sarah going forward (just avoiding days I wasn’t looking forward to). But the bigger reason is because of how Mary was involved in Stephanie’s life and death.
I would tend to say it all began with us praying the rosary. As Stephanie wrote about early, we prayed the rosary together (I prayed out loud while she cried) when we found out something was wrong. We then went to a rosary service at a church a day in between her biopsy and getting the results, and we started praying the rosary daily ever since. It then continued through the pilgrimage to Lourdes. Stephanie and I both (along with many others) truly believed that our trip to Lourdes would bring Stephanie a miracle: complete physical healing. But now I believe it was God’s way of strengthening our relationship with Mary. As Stephanie mentioned in her post about our pilgrimage to Lourdes, it was the location where Mary appeared to St Bernadette and became a place of physical and spiritual healing through the waters there. While there, we had the chance to bathe in the waters, and Stephanie experienced what’s called a “Bernadette Bath” (which is not a common phenomenon), in which she felt immediate physical warmth after being covered in the ice cold water. I believe this was the first time (at least to my knowledge) that Mary made her presence known to Stephanie. What I hadn’t shared before, except to Stephanie, was that I experienced something similar. It’s hard to describe the emotions and presence I felt during that experience, but I do know that after being dipped into the waters, which felt like a polar bear plunge, I came out and felt a physical warmth all around me. Looking back on it, learning that Stephanie had experienced the same thing makes me feel that Mary was trying to reveal herself to both of us. She was letting us know she was with us and would be there for us, as we pray in the Hail Mary, “at the hour of our death.” I knew the experience in the waters at Lourdes was special, but I hadn’t really realized how special it was until September.
I’ll break here from the narrative to help set up the remaining portion of the story. My third grade teacher, after learning about Stephanie’s death, sent me the book “7 Lessons From Heaven: How Dying Taught Me to Live a Joy-Filled Life” by Mary C Neal, M.D. The premise is that she describes a near death experience (NDE): she drowned and was not breathing for 30 minutes. She describes her out-of-body experience, a trip to Heaven, and what she experienced. I’m not going to lie, while the idea intrigued me, I was more than skeptical about such a story. My initial thought was that people would do or write anything that there’s no way of proving as a way to make money. So while I began reading, I did so more to see the entertainment value than to actually believe what I read. I’ll also admit I have not finished the book, but I wanted to share this story before Mother’s day.
As I read the opening chapters, I was floored. I was actually brought to tears, sitting on a plane next to a stranger, as I read this lady’s account. As she described her experience, I related so much of what she said to the last month of Stephanie’s life. In a way, it made everything that happened that last month make a lot more sense to me.
As we mentioned earlier, September 1, 2017 Stephanie was transported from an ER near our house back to the cancer center because she was in rough shape. Along the way, we stopped at another ER because Stephanie wasn’t handling the travel well. While we were there, at one point I reached over while Stephanie lay in the bed and just gave her a huge hug. It had been a very stressful night, and I just needed to hold her. I don’t recall now whether it was that day or a week or so later, but Stephanie told me that she saw that hug. Not like from her to me, but as if looking down on us hugging. And it wasn’t just between her and me: she saw the Virgin Mary hugging us too. One of the things Dr. Neal discusses is how her spiritual body left her physical body and she could see what was happening to her. She also mentioned that a group of “somethings” (there isn’t a human word to describe it without people’s preconceived notions) met her spiritual body. Based on Stephanie’s mental state at the time (not being very responsive, eyes often closed), I believe now that Stephanie was beginning to mingle between the earthly world and the heavenly world. I believe that the Virgin Mary had come to begin to prepare to take her to Heaven, and she was there in the room and hugged us when I hugged Stephanie.
Stephanie’s alertness and focus came back fairly well the next day or two. However, as the days to weeks went on there in the hospital, her alertness dwindled. A couple weeks into our stay, I told a friend that “Stephanie isn’t really awake and alert anymore. Her moments of non-sleep still involve her eyes staying closed and not really being able to speak or communicate”. While she may have not been having a NDE since her body was still working, and the brain tumor would make her mental state make sense, I can’t help but shake the idea that at this time she was bordering between the two realms. Dr. Neal mentioned that while her spiritual body went to Heaven, she still had awareness of her physical body, and that she had to make a conscience decision to go back to it, even though she admits she really would have rather stayed in Heaven. Reading that now makes it make more sense to me how, even though medicine and procedures and everything weren’t changing, she was so “out of it” and then suddenly she’d be able to converse as if nothing happened. Now those moments of conversation didn’t last nearly as long as I wanted, but they did occur. It was almost as if she was returning to her body just long enough to keep my company and let me hold on just a little longer, since I wasn’t ready to let her go yet.
A few nights before she died, Stephanie woke up in the middle of the night and we were able to have a conversation. I don’t remember much of what we said unfortunately, especially since it was one of the last times we truly got to talk with each other. But there’s one phrase that stood out in my mind, and really what I feel ties all of this together. She said:
“I’m just waiting for the virgine.“
I’m just waiting for the VER-gee-nay. It caught me off guard because it seemingly came out of nowhere. But after reading part of this book and looking back on the last 15 months, it makes perfect sense. Stephanie was dying and knew she was dying (she told me she felt like she was dying the first week at the hospital, which she had never felt like she was dying before). She had also met with the Virgin Mary who was beginning to show her spiritual body to Heaven, and while Stephanie was ready (I’m pretty sure anyone experiencing the unfathomable love and peace of Heaven would be ready), it wasn’t quite her time yet. Instead, Mary told her to wait for her, and that she’d be back to take her when the time was right. So Stephanie was waiting for Mary to come back, to take her away a final time and bring her into Heaven for eternity. That time wasn’t until after we celebrated Sarah’s birthday, Stephanie’s birthday, and Blessed Stanley Rother’s beatification, and I had come to terms that, although I didn’t want to lose Stephanie (understatement of the century), that somehow, someway, eventually Sarah and I would be ok and I didn’t want Stephanie to continue to endure the pains of this life.
I’m getting chills just typing this and thinking about it all again. I know Stephanie wanted more than anything to stay here on earth with me and Sarah, to continue to be an incredible wife, mother, daughter, and friend. But I also know that, for whatever reason I’ll never understand I’m this lifetime, cancer invaded her body and while it hurt her physically, she never let it get to her spirit. She stayed positive and always clung to Faith, Hope, and Love. I can’t even fathom what she felt after experiencing a taste of Heaven and knowing that any day she would return to that place for eternity. She surely felt the love of God and His peace that comes with being in Heaven, and she had none other than the mother of the Lord herself to show her the way. So while I’m not looking forward to “celebrating” Mother’s Day on earth without the mother of my child, I’m going to approach this Mother’s Day differently by being thankful to the Virgin Mary for her taking care of Stephanie, and I’m going to try to use it as a day to improve my relationship with the Mother of God.