When I got the call in July 1993 that Dad had been diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma (MM), I was on vacation with my family in Florida. I had no idea what MM was, but I soon found out. And I was devastated.
MM is a rare blood cancer that mostly targets men in their 60s. An MM diagnosis in 1993 was tantamount to a death sentence for all, rich and poor alike. Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, had succumbed to MM the previous year. The doctors gave Dad two to three years, tops. They were on target: Dad died a little over two years later, at age 69.
MM is now treatable with medicines produced in the late 1990s. Due perhaps to la fuerza del destino, years later I worked at Celgene Corporation, the company that developed the treatments that could have helped Dad if they had been around earlier.
Mom nursed Dad during the highs and lows of his convalescence. She was by his side 24/7. They entertained themselves during a particularly bad period by watching the O.J. Simpson saga on television, and then giving a play-by-play to those of us with day jobs.
We tried everything the doctors recommended, including a very taxing stem cell transplant. But nothing helped—except prayer.
After Dad died, Mom was left alone in the suburban New Jersey ranch where she had lived for almost 40 years. We visited often, and Mom visited us. Loving friends and neighbors embraced her. But she was still alone much of the time.
As often as I could, I escaped the grueling hours of my New York law firm to trudge to the Port Authority Bus Terminal for the fifty-minute bus ride to Mom's. One night, I arrived to find Mom sweeping the linoleum floor of the small kitchen of my childhood. Mom had been particularly down that week. Several days before, she had lost Dad's wedding ring, which she had been wearing on her own finger. It fit very loosely and had slipped off, God knows where. Mom had looked and looked and looked, as had I and my siblings, but it did not turn up. She tried to divert herself from this loss with incessant cleaning. “I've swept this floor at least ten times yesterday and ten more times today,” she told me as I sat in my childhood spot at the kitchen table, wolfing down the peppers and eggs she had lovingly prepared.
The phone rang. It was one of Mom's friends, an old Italian lady who had been Mom's Italian teacher and went on to become a great friend. Mom referred to her jokingly not by her given name, but as “Signorina,” her “teacher” name. Signorina was gregarious and quite loud, so I could hear both ends of the conversation easily.
“Marie!” Signorina exclaimed in her heavily accented English. “It is so sad that you lost Joe's wedding ring. Have you tried praying to St. Anthony? He helps you find lost things!” Although Mom and I were both believers and weekly churchgoers, we had never gotten into this “praying to the saints for their intercession” thing. We preferred the direct approach.
Mom brushed off Signorina's entreaties several times. But Signorina, bossy and schoolmarmish, was persistent. “Marie, just try it! What's the harm? Get a pencil and write down the prayer and you can say it later!” Mom reluctantly grabbed a pencil and a piece of scrap paper and began taking dictation.
“O Holy St. Anthony,” Signorina bellowed while Mom scribbled and repeated the words aloud. “Gentlest of saints, your love for God and charity for his creatures made you worthy, when on earth, to possess miraculous powers.”
Listening intently to this prayer volley, I stopped eating and walked over to stand next to Mom for moral support. I could hear everything. “Encouraged by this thought,” Signorina continued, “I implore you to help me find the ring, Joe's ring!”
“I have to go now Marie! But say the prayer over and over,” Signorina confidently predicted, “and you will find the ring!” Mom hung up, having recited the entire St. Anthony prayer. I started to take the few steps that led back to my pepper and eggs. And then it happened.
My foot pushed against something on the floor, that linoleum floor Mom had swept at least ten times that day and the previous day. What was that? I wondered. I leaned down to pick “it” up. “It” was a ring. A simple, tarnished gold band. I held it up so Mom could see. “Mom, what's this?”
Mom looked at what I was holding. Her eyes widened. “That's his ring! I don't understand, I swept this floor ten times today. How did I miss it? Where did it come from?”
Where did it come from? God only knows. And St. Anthony. And, of course, Signorina.
John Soriano writes from New Jersey.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.