A Feast to Remember

“Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.” Mark 5:19

Today is the feast of St. John Neumann.  I would be negligent if I did not remember with a grateful heart his intercession.  Below is a reprint from his feast day in 2008:

The orthodontist called at 8:15 in the morning. “Your son has a cyst in his jaw, and he needs to see an oral surgeon right away,” she said. My eight-year old son, Fritz, had only gone to her for a consultation the afternoon before. She had taken pictures and then shooed us out of the office promising to call in a day or two. “I didn’t want to alarm you, especially not in front of all your children,” she explained on the phone. He would need a biopsy to determine the nature of the cyst.

My husband, Bill, is in the military. Fritz was referred to the Dental Clinic at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.. It would be two weeks before they could see him.

At this initial consultation, a doctor pointed out that Fritz’s jaw was bulging. His chin, on his right side, was more pronounced than on his left. You could clearly see it. But we hadn’t noticed it. Later, I looked at a photo of him from a year earlier, and I could see it there too. We never noticed it.

It was hard not to feel guilty. I hadn’t taken him to the dentist since he was four. We had insurance, I just didn’t feel it was truly necessary. I had made excuses for not going: it is hard to take a whole crew of kids, especially toddlers. But obviously this thing had been growing for quite some time. If I had been taking him regularly, surely they would have seen this sooner.

The doctor told my husband that in a best case scenario my son would be lucky if he only lost a few adult teeth.

The day after this appointment, I wrote:

“I will flog myself for the rest of my life over this. Even if he’s fine. Even if it all works out in the end. But, in all things, I see the hand of God. My wonderful husband…helped me to see it last night. I was in so much need of comfort that he just could not provide. But God, through him, gave it to me. ’We should have been in Fort Leavenworth right now. But we’re not. We’re here, with some of the best doctors in the country.’ I needed to hear that. I needed to know that God is right here actively taking care of us…both the orthodontist and the oral surgeon have asked ‘How long will you be in the area?’ That’s just not good. But it’s OK. My guilt is not assuaged, but my soul is comforted. It will be a rough road. But we’re not alone.”

The biopsy was scheduled for eleven days later. There was plenty of time to worry, to ponder the possibilities, to scour the internet for information. The doctors mentioned a cyst called an OKC which is difficult to eradicate. They didn’t want to talk about what else it might be. I didn’t want to think about it. My heart was heavy, and I knew that I could suffocate in fear if I let myself.

Eleven days were enough time to do a novena. I chose St. John Newmann through whose intercession a boy afflicted with cancer was healed. We also petitioned St. Apollonia, patron of teeth and tooth problems. We begged everyone we knew to pray for our son. And finally, we sought the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick for my child who only earlier that year had made his First Penance and First Holy Communion.

Both Bill and I took Fritz to the early morning surgery. The initial prognosis was good: it seemed to be “just” a cyst and nothing worse. The doctors installed a stent in his jaw through which we needed to irrigate the cyst to help it shrink. They also forbade sports of any kind. His jawbone was extremely thin, and the risk of fracture was great. I thought about my son’s usual free time activities and knew this would be difficult, but I was thankful he had managed to avoid injury so far.

I took Fritz back to Walter Reed a week later for a check-up and for the results of the biopsy. As they suspected, it was definitely just a cyst, and in fact was not the dreaded OKC, but was simply a dentigerous cyst, which is easier to treat and is not likely to return. The staff was happy and surprised that their best case scenario was in fact much worse than the actual results. I consider it to be a miracle.

God gave us a gift of healing. It wasn’t an instantaneous cure, and life was difficult for quite some time. For two months I took Fritz on the hour-long drive to Walter Reed once a week for a check up. Bill’s job required long hours and many days away from home, so the burden of taking my son to these appointments, often with all the children in tow, fell on me. In addition, Fritz still had to avoid activities that risked fracturing his jaw, and we had to remember to irrigate his cyst daily. But he did not have to fight for his life.

Two and a half months later, at his usual appointment, the chief surgeon looked at Fritz’s latest x-rays and exclaimed, “It’s gone!” He had told us it would take six to nine months for the cyst to shrink. He turned to the new resident with him and explained Fritz’s diagnosis and treatment. I was elated to hear him say, “It turned out to be a dentigerous cyst, thank God.” Yes, I silently agreed, thank God.

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It’s never too late to say thank you

On Thanksgiving day, our doorbell and phone both rang at the same time. Since the Caller ID said Private Name Private Number, we ignored the phone and focused our attention on our first guest to arrive. But when one minute later the phone rang again with Private Name Private Number, my instincts (my curiosity) told me to answer it.

It was our friend, Perry, calling from Afghanistan to wish us a pleasant Thanksgiving. Well, actually, he wasn’t calling for us, he was calling for his family, who he hoped was at our house. Although we expected them soon, they were, unfortunately, not the first guests arriving just then.

I passed Perry off to Bill right after I confirmed that this was indeed a wretched Thanksgiving for him. I don’t envy him at all. It is hard to be a single mom and hold the fort down while Uncle Sam sends your husband away for a year. There were many times I longed for a vacation and thought Bill was the lucky one since he didn’t have to deal with the insanity that was (still is) my life. But honestly, never ever ever would I choose to be apart from my children for a year. Too much happens in that time, and I don’t know how I could bear the pain of missing it.

Now, a weekend away…that sounds really nice…

Besides Perry’s family, we also had my friend Stacy and her children here. Stacy’s husband is in Afghanistan, too. I was very happy to be able to host this dinner for these friends. I’d have hosted every deployed soldiers’ family in the area if my home and budget were big enough. I’m not happy that they need to be hosted; I’m just happy if I can distract them for a few hours.

Growing up, it was a tradition to go around the table during Thanksgiving dinner and list the things for which we were most thankful. For the past 8 years, I’ve been able to spend Thanksgiving with my parents, and we continued to do it. I’m willing to bet that my sister, her family and my parents did it last Thursday as usual. That’s what makes it a tradition.

I considered carrying on the tradition here this year as well. But then I thought of my guests, and I really didn’t want them to have to offer a litany of their blessings. The emotions are too high, and the setting – with Bill’s parents, brother, sister, and aunt here as well – wasn’t appropriate for that potential mine field. So, we gathered everyone in the kitchen where the buffet was assembled and offered the traditional Catholic blessing before meals with no extemporaneous ramblings before freeing the guests to fill their plates. I walked away to attend to something, and Stacy came up, gave me a quick hug and thanked me for being a good friend. The rapidity with which she dashed off to get some food for her little ones affirmed that public displays of thanksgiving would not have been a good idea.

Although I am sad that our military is deployed, and I’m not certain we’re accomplishing much, I am very thankful that we have a proud military who voluntarily sacrifices so much for so very little personal recompense. And even if they don’t seem to make a difference in Afghanistan or in Iraq, they do make a difference here in the United States. We are so accustomed to freedom here and so very oblivious to the conditions under which the vast majority of the world lives. We debate tax codes for churches while citizens of other nations pray they don’t get caught worshipping in a manner in which they choose. We rally against censorship if a library wants to put filters on computers to prevent children from seeing pornography while citizens of other nations are arrested for simply owning a Bible. And we owe these freedoms, not to political activists who lobbied for changes and had sit-ins and hunger strikes, but to soldiers who fought and died for it. And while activists may keep the public aware of dangers from within our own society who seek to destroy our freedoms, it is our military which prevents forces from without from forcing us to live in constant fear.

I am also thankful for these military families who manage to keep on with life despite the hardship of deployment. We have an all-volunteer military only because of supportive families and strong women like Stacy and Perry’s wife, Kim.

But most of all, thank you, dear Lord in Heaven above, that it’s not my husband over there right now. I am so very grateful to have him here at home.