By Karen Pullano Edited by Nancy Impelizzieri
One of the stories I love to share when I give talks, is the miracle of my own salvation during Divine Mercy weekend in 2008. Of course in the usual way the Lord works, it was a miracle that began taking place long before I noticed. The seeds for it were planted at my baptism; by those who taught me the faith; and by my mother who brought me to the grace of the sacraments throughout my childhood. Much later, the Lord made manifest this work He began in me by way of a tremendous agony in my life. For that, I am eternally grateful.
When Mikey was diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor at the age of three, I refused to accept that he might actually die. My faith in God was shallow at best, but I had faith enough to turn to him in my terror and sorrows. I was terrified of losing my son, and sorrowful day in and day out for all that he had to endure. His childhood was being stolen away and all my dreams for his life and health were increasingly crushed throughout the months of treatment.
As time went on we kept hoping for healing and recovery, but what I didn’t realize for a long time was that as that possibility diminished, my hope in the eternal was growing. We are an Easter people and hope is written on our hearts from the beginning. That hope of course has the face and name of Jesus, but I didn’t understand that then.
Mikey suffered through many rounds of intense chemotherapy after his brain surgery was unsuccessful. Imagine our extreme disappointment when again and again we were told that it wasn’t working. The tumor continued to grow despite the worst poison this world had to give it. After two months of rigorous treatment, the doctors decided to stop. It was the briefest and longest two months of my entire life, as my baby’s life hung in the balance. I used to hug him so tight that I imagined there was no possible way the cancer could survive the squeezing. And in brief moments of pure love and prayer, hope in the eternal was growing. The rest of the time it was ignored as we continued to look to the doctors and the world for the cure that surely must come.
I remember receiving one particular card in the mail that contained a pivotal scripture for me. From Jeremiah 29:11 it read, “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you declares the Lord. Plans for your welfare and not for woe. Plans to give you a future and a hope.” Upon reading this, I was filled with the Lord and the Holy Spirit, though I couldn’t recognize Him at the time. I knew beyond a doubt that the promise was true. I knew the Lord would be faithful and do exactly as He said, giving both Mikey and me a future and a hope. Naturally, I took it to mean that Mikey would be healed. I had no room in my mother’s heart for any other possibility.
So, facing the end of treatment options in March of that year, we brought our first-born son (the 5th of seven children) home from the hospital, to rest and heal from treatment and love him as much as we could while continuing to seek the instrument of his grand miraculous healing. We enjoyed Easter at home together as a family, and hope rose as never before. A new day, the Lord’s day, that He made for us to rejoice and be glad in, had sprung up along with the daffodils in the yard and the buds on the trees promising new life everywhere we looked. That very Easter night, the doctors called and said he should have another chance at treatment since they had detected some response. I knew it! The Lord had promised after all. We eagerly took Mikey back to the hospital that Easter Monday for more toxic chemotherapy. It was a rigorous and near deadly cocktail in and of itself, but it was our only hope.
As was the routine, Bill and I took turns staying with him around the clock throughout that week. On Friday, at about 3 o’clock, I relieved Bill so he could come home to shower and rest. I couldn’t wait to be with my baby even though I knew it would be heartbreaking to be so helpless in the face of his suffering. Imagine my surprise when I arrived and he was sitting up in a chair smiling and talking! Bill felt good about leaving him for a short time and it filled my heart to have some time with this little boy, treasure of my heart. He chattered away telling me his big plans to get Daddy’s keys and drive home in the truck, and play with Andrew and take care of his new baby sister Laura. As he spoke, there was a gleam of life and joy in his little face. (It was years later that I recognized the significance of the 3:00 hour of mercy, and how God showed His great mercy to us on that Friday, in that hour.)
A short time later, the nurses came to get Mikey for a quick procedure. We made the arduous journey down the hall with all his paraphernalia, got through the procedure just fine, and made the slow move back to his room again. Along the way back, out of the blue, he suddenly couldn’t breathe. Instantly there was mayhem. Nurses were running and yelling for doctors and the blue light in the hall was flashing and screeching. Our hospital neighbors all stood in their doorways watching the commotion and I numbly but hurriedly followed the stretcher as we made our way to the elevator and down to the pediatric ICU. Mikey was whisked through the giant double doors and a team descended on him at which point I was stopped by his doctor. Despite the roaring in my ears, I heard her ask if I wanted him to be resuscitated, but somehow the question made no sense. Nothing made sense in those moments. I was expecting a miracle of healing, after all I had been praying so much more, and surely the Lord was pleased with me. But most importantly, He promised! So I answered with the only possible answer I could give and despite her loving protest, I begged her to save his life!
With shaking hands, I called Bill and tried to explain the unexplainable. I called the rest of the family and repeated the doctor’s thoughts, that the tumor in the middle of his brain stem had simply grown enough to shut down his life center. One minute he’s here and the next he’s just… not.
I remember watching Bill arrive. Perhaps he seemed unhurried and at ease to the casual observer. I saw the defeat of a Dad who couldn’t save his son, but more importantly I saw the humble confidence of a son who trusts in his Father. He stood firmly beside me in that trust when the doctor finally returned with the news. Armed with brain scans, she explained that, as they had feared, Mikey was brain dead and being kept alive by the machines. She showed us the scans with the white areas of dead tissue and explained that our next step would be removing the ventilator and saying our goodbyes, not necessarily in that order.
I remember feeling nothing and everything. I remarked to no one in particular that I would never be able to eat again. It felt like my insides just twisted up and died, not that it really mattered. But most of all, I felt such complete disbelief. If Mikey died, then God wasn’t really who He said He was to me. The God I thought I knew lied and let me down. If Mikey died, then my Hope did, too. That was the source of my despair as I stood at his ICU bedside and the priest arrived to give last rites. He led us in the Our Father just as Anna was arriving.
The kids had been scattered at their various activities with family members and had filtered in as soon as they could. Anna was the last to arrive before we could say our goodbyes as a family. The doctors encouraged us to talk to Mikey in case somewhere between life and death he could hear us. So we did and nonsensically I said, ‘Mikey, Anna’s here now, do you want to see her?’ And all of us gathered there, in that moment, saw the slightest nod of his head. His doctor urgently told me to ask again and when I did, his little eyelids fluttered open. There was mayhem as the doctors scrambled to their large screen with the images of his dead brain still visible to us all. They couldn’t make the pieces fit, but I could! This was more like it. Hope unfurled it’s glorious wings. The priest happily joked that he was no longer needed there and led us in a few more prayers before he was on his way. Mikey was not showing signs of breathing on his own, but he was awake and responding and definitely alive!
The night for me was spent keeping a vigil of sorts. How could I sleep when the excitement of what the Lord was doing was palpable within me? I didn’t understand it all, but I was filled with a ‘knowing’ that He is God and we are not. I saw His power and majesty and understood this God of mine in a whole different way. He alone is the Lord of life and death. He is mighty to save and to heal, if it is His will. He has plans in mind far greater than what we can see or conceive. I felt His love and His Favor and was giddy with excitement about this incredible miracle. I knew He wouldn’t take my little Michael away from me. Not yet.
I spent Saturday in a feeling of incredible relief and thanksgiving. I was intimately connected with my Lord in my newfound space of trust, even as the doctors continued to look grim. Mikey still had a massive tumor filling his brain stem and was intubated in the ICU, but I was celebrating! And by evening, he was showing hopeful signs of being able to breathe on his own.
Our family took turns at his bedside, two at a time per ICU regulations, throughout that day and night and it was decided that on Sunday they would try to remove the tube. We made a plan to come to the hospital early and go to Mass in the chapel and then gather together by his bedside for the removal just in case it didn’t go well. Once again, I was so excited at what my newfound Lord and friend was about to do that I wasn’t able to sleep.
I was so sure of the total miracle He would finish in restoring Michael that I was unaware of another miracle He was bringing about in my very own soul.
It would be years before I would understand what the Lord spoke in my heart that Sunday morning when we arrived for Mass. The priest announced that it was Divine Mercy Sunday and I was floored. It was a somewhat new celebration in the church calendar and I had honestly never heard of it before. But on this day, with that announcement, suddenly it was everything. On Friday, in the Lord’s divine providence and mercy, He had restored my Mikey to life in the greatest show of a miracle that could neither be ignored nor denied and I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. After Mass we headed for the ICU. I was ready for His incredible mercy to be made manifest. We entered Mikey’s room not knowing the procedure was done and that adorable little face greeted us with a beaming smile and words to the effect of ‘let’s go’. It was finished. My little boy who died on Friday, was resurrected on Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday. We could bring him home. And I didn’t know it, but that wasn’t the Lord’s greatest work that weekend.
Although the next months were filled with disease, we had tremendous hope of a total miracle of healing. The Lord had already proved that He could and would, and it was impossible for me to accept the mere reality of impending death. Without realizing it, my hope that had been in doctors, medicine, and treatments, had gradually shifted to hope in the divine and eternal. It was July when the Lord gave me my first glimpse of this.
I was desperate to take my family and escape from reality. In a crazy move, our entourage of 12 boarded a plane bound for the magical world of Disney. Mikey’s wish was to see Mickey Mouse and though he was wheelchair bound and declining rapidly, to the Mouse we went. The plane took off up through the scant clouds and a great peace descended upon my soul as I looked out over the vastness of the earth below. The Spirit breathed truth and life into my prayer, “Lord you have created all this, you have us too in the palm of your hand.” I flew right into His heart that day and barely realized it.
As July turned to August I could feel that Michael’s time was short. My ultimate cross was looming and instinctively I took refuge in Mary’s heart. She had walked this road before me and I begged her to show me how. So gently did she take my hand and guide me, that I didn’t realize she had.
August 19th my sweet baby, my first-born son, the little prince of our hearts, breathed his last and Mary was with me. There was anguish and there was tremendous peace. Instinctively, I knew that he had to go to the Father in order for the Spirit to come, even as I grieved and hated it. He couldn’t come back to me, but I knew Mary would show me how to go to him. Suddenly I wanted nothing more in my life than to find the way. And so I began.
The miracle of that Divine Easter weekend of mercy had little to do with saving Mikey’s life and everything to do with saving my own.