Late one night in January 1987, our daughter, Christine, then only three years old, came into our room. Moments later, on her way out, she walked into a wall. Startled, she began to cry and told us that she couldn’t see. I helped her back to her bed and in the morning, I arranged an appointment with an eye doctor.
After the examination, the doctor informed my husband, Joe, and me that Christine had a rare form of cancer in her eyes (retinoblastoma), and that the tumors were quite advanced. Both eyes had suffered significant damage—the retina in her left eye was about 50 percent detached, and the retina in her right eye was completely detached. The good news was that only about 10 percent of the people with this diagnosis died of the disease.
Even at this young age, Christine sensed that something was wrong. Although she was typically an outgoing child, she now became introverted, fearful, and lethargic. I was worried that the tumor had spread into the brain, which would most likely result in her death. The moment this thought came into my mind, I turned to the Lord and prayed, “If it’s over, it’s over. If I have to lose her, I’ll try my best to trust in you. As a Christian, I know that you are in control. But as a mother, I’m asking you to please let her live.”
Radiation treatments caused the tumors in both of Christine’s eyes to shrink significantly. But, as the doctors expected, her right eye had been completely destroyed by the cancer, and it had to be removed. Twenty months later, a periodic checkup exam showed that the tumor in her left eye was again growing. Sadly, on December 28, 1988, our four-year-old daughter lost her left eye as well. She was blind.
Heart to Heart with Mary. It sounds crazy now, but one of the first things we did when the cancer was discovered was to try what we called the “Tobit Cure.” We recalled the Bible story of how Tobiah cured his father, Tobit, of blindness by smearing a combination of fish gall and fish liver on Tobit’s eyes (Tobit 11:1-14). So I went to the store and bought a whole fresh fish and prepared a similar paste. We invited a few people to join us as we prayed, put the paste on Chrissy’s eyelids, and hoped for a healing. We were willing to do anything!
The Tobit Cure didn’t work, but the next day, as I prayed through the full story of Tobit and read some commentaries about it, I saw something new. One commentary said that gall represented the bitterness that opens our eyes of faith. It also said that the heart is the place where God and humanity meet.
Somehow, these comments turned my thoughts to Mary at Jesus’ cross. I remembered the gall that the soldiers offered to Jesus as he was dying. I saw that as I was suffering over Christine, Mary suffered as she watched her son reject the bitter drink. As I tried to turn my anxiety and my tears over to the Lord, I saw Mary doing the same thing. As I pictured Christine being pierced time after time with needles, I could not help but think about Mary watching as her son was pierced with nails and a spear. Over and over again, I felt my heart meeting with Mary’s heart—just as the commentary had explained.
Joyful and Protected. During Christine’s radiation treatment, I had to go to the hospital each day for five weeks in a row. I was blessed to have sisters in the Lord who came with me every day. On the way every morning, we would pray the Rosary together. That simple prayer helped me approach these treatments with a certain amount of peace. It helped me deal with the fact that my daughter was about to receive, yet again, another dose of intense radiation.
It was the Joyful Mysteries—which we prayed the most—that really lifted Christine’s spirits. She liked to announce each mystery and describe each one, telling us what happened at each mystery. For me, it felt as if Mary was saying, “All you have to do is hold your peace. My son will do the rest. He knows the situation. He will calm your heart.” That was really comforting, especially since we didn’t know yet how things would turn out.
One day on our way to the hospital, my friend mistakenly ran through a red light and hit another car, causing severe damage to both cars. It was her first accident in thirty-six years. The owner of the other car was really upset. He began jumping up and down, saying, “Look what you did to my car.” Almost immediately, a woman who saw the accident went up to the man and said, “What are you carrying on for? Aren’t you glad that no one was hurt? Especially that little girl in the backseat?” The man immediately calmed down. Two other men came up and asked us, “Can we change your flat tire for you?”
When the police officer arrived, he asked my friend about her driving record. Then, to our surprise, he didn’t give her a ticket. We drove home in that battered car, thanking and praising the Lord the whole way home, convinced that Mary was watching over us.
The “Mary Veil.” Christine was very frightened when she began radiation treatment. We tried to prepare her by staging a practice session at home: she had to lie perfectly still so that the radiation beam could remain targeted to just the right location. But it was so hard for her. She couldn’t stop crying. The thought of being all alone, with a huge plaster cast over her entire body, while this cold machine shot rays into her eye was just too much for her to handle. So I asked the doctor if we could take the cast home with us.
When we got home, I immediately went to work painting the cast in Mary’s colors—blues and whites, to look like the dress she is often depicted wearing. We even draped a blue cloth over the cast and called it the “Mary veil.” We told Christine that this cast made her just like Mary, who had become her favorite saint.
From the moment she saw her cast, Christine had no problem going into the radiation room. She knew that Mary was with her. She was so proud that she told everyone—doctors, nurses, and patients—“This is my Mary veil!” I don’t think she had any idea how many people were touched by her witness.
Seeing a Bigger Picture. When we started going to the hospital, I was worried only about my daughter. But that soon changed. Sitting in the children’s ward, day in and day out, I saw hundreds of little ones suffering from so many different maladies: brain damage, holes in their hearts, cancer, leukemia, and so many others. It broke my heart to see so many brave children with such horrible illnesses. There was nothing I could do but pray. So I asked Mary, our Mother, to comfort them.
When we began the radiation treatment, I saw the same thing. This time it was in the oncology unit, where there were a lot of older people, many having little to no support from their families. Christine was the only one there under the age of fifty. At least twenty patients, most suffering from terminal cancer, came up to me and said, “I want to offer my suffering to God for the sake of your daughter.” Again, I was cut to the heart by such generosity and selflessness. Over time, we were able to pray with a number of those people, and God truly blessed us with his love and his peace.
Between the children I saw and those older people I met, my eyes were opened to a world of suffering that I hardly knew existed. It was during that time in the radiation waiting room that I felt Mary tell me, “Don’t worry about Christine. I’ll take care of her. But look at what is happening to you. Your heart is being opened to my children who are suffering. You are becoming a more compassionate and prayerful person.”
A Heart for the Poor. Christine is now thirty years old, and she has beaten all the odds. She has a PhD and has taught on the university level, but has chosen to put aside her academic career and devote herself to serving the Lord instead. She spends her time working with the poor and sharing the gospel with university students. She is a fine, well-adjusted young woman who is determined to live her life to the fullest, and we couldn’t be more proud of her.
As for Joe and me, we have a few more years before retirement. Now that our children are grown and out of the house, we have been praying and talking about spending our remaining days in more direct ministry to the poor and marginalized. We are thinking of selling our house in the suburbs and moving to a more depressed part of town so that we can be among the needy and not just reach out to them from a position of relative privilege. Without a doubt, what happened to us when we faced Christine’s cancer is a major driving force behind this decision. It’s the least we can do for Our Lady of Sorrows, who helped us so powerfully in our hour of need.
Felicia Difato and her husband, Joe (publisher of The Word Among Us), live in St. Augustine, Florida.