A Mother's Suffering
a son's lesson
“The temporary, light burden of our hardships is earning us forever an utterly incomparable, eternal weight of glory.” 2 Corinthians 4:17
Searching the memories of my childhood, my mother’s suffering seemed anything but temporary, and I can’t imagine, looking through the eyes of my youth, ever referring to it as a light burden. Seventeen years after her passing, I am just beginning to understand that there was “purpose” to her difficult earthly life.
Ethel Franchak was born in Archbald, Pennsylvania, in 1928, to proud parents Helen and Michael. At the age of five, she moved with her family from the coal mining region of Pennsy to the fast-paced streets of New York City. Shortly after her arrival in the Big Apple Mom developed scarlet fever; a bacterial infection that is almost unheard of in today’s world due to the availability of antibiotics. While she lay in the hospital, all her clothes, bed linens and scarce belongings were burned, as was the practice at the time. One of Mom’s memories of her time spent in isolation was overhearing the doctor telling her mother to start preparing for a funeral, since it was unlikely that my mother would survive. My existence, as well as that of my three siblings, is proof that the doctor’s prognosis was a bit off.
As a teenager, my mother developed a love and talent for art. She began working in an art studio in Manhattan at the age of 16. If you have greeting cards from the 1940’s in a trunk in the attic, the images of flowers on the front of the cards may be the work of my mother’s hand. Over the next several years, Mom put aside enough of her salary to send her sisters to college. They both became teachers. The income my mother provided to the family had become essential since her mother died of breast cancer when my Mom was only seventeen.
In her late teens and early twenties, Mom was a member of the Saint Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Choir in Manhattan. It was during her time in the choir that she met my Dad, and also had a run in with Andy Warhol, but those are stories for future articles.
In 1954 my Mom and Dad married and moved to Trenton, New Jersey, where my Dad began a long career as a design engineer for United States Steel. Their beautiful love affair lasted until my Dad’s passing on Thanksgiving morning, 1993. The love they shared can be summed up in one anecdote. One day, while packing Dad’s lunch, Mom wrote “I love you” on a scrap of paper and placed it in with his sandwich. While emptying the paper bag later that evening, Mom noticed that Dad had written “I love you too” on the same scrap of paper knowing that she would see it as she discarded whatever Dad had left in the bag. Instead of throwing away the note, my Mom wrote something else on it the next morning. Dad wrote back. They continued sharing little thoughts, prayers, really anything that entered their minds. When one scrap of paper filled up, my Mom would staple another to the previous. Eventually the note was several inches thick, multi-colored, and spanned almost forty years. That kind of love is seldom seen today, and still brings tears of joy to my eyes just remembering it.
“Should you pass through the waters, I shall be with you; or through rivers, they will not swallow you up. Should you walk through fire, you will not suffer, and the flame will not burn you.” Isaiah 43:2
My childhood memories are a strange mix of highs and lows. Along with thoughts of my Mom waiting for me after school with fresh baked cookies and a glass of milk (yes, that actually happened almost daily, my friends called me Richie Cunningham), I remember times when my Mom couldn’t move from her bed because of debilitating migraine headaches that would last from hours to days. When the headache subsided, Mom would offer a Rosary of thanksgiving and get back to mothering her four kids.
Why would my mother pray a Rosary of thanksgiving after having suffered through a migraine? It was because she had offered the pain she endured to our Lord. She was keenly aware that earthly suffering, when accepted without anger, was a way to unite herself with her Savior, and the pain He experienced on Calvary. My Mom understood the theology of suffering, and was able to reconcile her discomfort with her belief in a loving and forgiving God.
One memory, however, stands out above the rest. I can close my eyes and relive it, though I don’t know why I would want to. It was a particularly hot summer night, made more unbearable by the fact that we were still several years away from having air-conditioning in our home. I remember lying face down on my bed, covered partially in sweat and partially in tears. My Mom was in the hospital having had a radical mastectomy to treat a very aggressive form of breast cancer. My Dad was spending every moment he could at the hospital, and I was being cared for by my older sisters and brother. I was ten years old, not understanding what was going on, and feeling utterly alone. My mother’s recovery was slow and painful. She had so much muscle tissue removed that she had to relearn how to use her left arm. I should mention that Mom was left-handed. The same hand that had created countless works of art was now almost useless. Mom never complained. She seized the opportunity to become ambidextrous.
Over the next few years my Mom’s life was further complicated by psoriasis that covered her entire body and rheumatoid arthritis that turned her fingers to pretzels and made walking difficult. Two autoimmune disorders that today would be well managed with one of several available biologics.
I had always known that my mother had an incredibly strong faith. She was never without a Rosary in her hand or in the pocket of her housecoat. Today, when speaking to audiences about my Mom I usually start with the following: “my mother was four foot eleven on her tip toes, maybe 98 pounds soaking wet, but with a Rosary in her hand she scared the hell out of the devil.”
It was on one trip to Philadelphia with my Mom that I began to understand the depths of my mother’s faith. Growing up in New York City, she had never learned to drive. During the summer months, when my Mom would take the train to Temple University for injections into her joints to temporarily reduce pain and swelling, I would tag along. On this particular trip we got very unwelcome news. The doctor told my mother that, at the rate her arthritis was progressing, she would be wheelchair bound within a year. She was in her late 40’s.
“The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for all that He, in His goodness, sends to us day after day.” – Saint Gianna
My mother thanked the doctor for seeing her, we went downstairs and paid our bill, and began the long walk back to the train station. I was old enough at the time, probably fourteen or so, to know that this was devastating news. I kept glancing at my Mom, waiting for tears that never appeared. Instead, with a smile, she suggested we stop at the Saint John Neumann shrine which was located in the basement of Saint Peter the Apostle Church in an area of Philadelphia that was popular with German immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I frequent the shrine as often as I can these days. Mom wouldn’t recognize it! It went through extensive renovations a few years ago, and is an incredibly beautiful, welcoming, peaceful place. I am also honored to now have a first class relic of John Neumann that has gotten me through some very difficult times.
Within months of our visit to the Neumann shrine, my Mom was completely healed, not only of her arthritis, but also the psoriasis. My mother’s fingers, once gnarled and disfigured, were now straight as arrows (I have the X-rays to prove it). Other than a few times when I should have been badly injured performing ridiculous stunts on a dangerously modified bike and somehow escaped unharmed, I would say this was the first experience I had with God’s divine intervention. Looking back on that time now, I realize that Mom was not surprised at all. It was as though she knew God “had her back.”
“Blessed is anyone who perseveres when trials come. Such a person is of proven worth and will win the prize of life, the crown that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12
My Mom was granted a reprieve from ailments that had plagued a good portion of her life. I think God knew she would need all her strength to get four children through Catholic high school and several different universities. As is the case with all reprieves, however, this one was not to last. As my siblings and I stared to venture out of our childhood home and into adulthood, my mother would suffer from two more bouts of cancer; the second one eventually claiming her life. In between cancers, my father passed away, and my mother underwent surgery to repair damage to her heart that had been caused by the scarlet fever so many decades earlier. The surgeon told us after the procedure that Mom’s heart stopped beating for several minutes, but either she was too stubborn to die, or God had bigger plans for her. I think it was a little of both. My sisters, brother and I may not have needed our mother for the day to day care that she gave us as children, but she was still the spiritual rock of the family. We still learned from her every day. There’s that old adage that goes something like “don’t say that about my mom, she’s a Saint!” I’m blessed to be able to say that, and have every faith that it’s true.
During my mother’s last year on this earth, my brother held a 100th birthday party for our grandfather, my mother’s father. He had died twenty years earlier, but this was an opportunity to celebrate his life and his legacy. Also, it was an opportunity for our extended family to get together from all over the country one last time with my Mom.
My brother was living on a farm in West Virginia at the time. Although the day was sunny, it was also brutally hot and humid. My mother was very frail by this point, and we had to keep oxygen nearby for occasional use. The cancer had spread throughout her body, including her lungs.
At the end of a long, fun-filled day, my brother had arranged for Mass to be said on the rolling hills of his extensive property. It was an incredible ending to a perfect day. After Communion, I noticed tears rolling down my mother’s cheeks. I was concerned that the events of the day, along with the excessive heat, had become too much for her. I suggested that I take her inside and maybe treat her with the oxygen. My Mom took my hand, smiled, and said “no.”
She explained that she wasn’t in pain or distress. She said, “We had such a beautiful day today. We are sitting in the middle of God’s glory, I am surrounded by my loving family, and I have just received my Lord in the Eucharist. I don’t think there is a person on earth who is happier than I am right now.”
I doubt that I will ever see a more tangible demonstration of faith, and surrender to the will and love of God.
“Whatever did not fit in with my plan did lie within the plan of God. I have an ever deeper and firmer belief that nothing is merely an accident when seen in the light of God, that my whole life down to the smallest details has been marked out for me in the plan of Divine Providence and has a completely coherent meaning in God’s all-seeing eyes. And so I am beginning to rejoice in the light of glory wherein this meaning will be unveiled to me.” - Edith Stein
My Mom passed away at home just a few months later, surrounded by her children and a priest who has been a friend of the family ever since he attended elementary school with my oldest sister. Although she had plenty of very strong pain medications available during her last days, she never needed anything. I would sit by her side every night, watching her slowly tire and ask if she was in any pain. Her answer was always the same. “No Edward, I feel fine. I have you here with me.” I will always believe that her peaceful passing was a gift from Christ for a life well lived, and for a faith that never flickered, never went out.
My mother never complained about her suffering, although I think Christ would have given her a pass if she shook her tiny fist at Him once or twice. She did, however, teach me that faith in our Lord, and in His mercy, is not optional. I have told many people through the years that joy can be found in suffering, and the response is typically rolling eyes and shrugging shoulders. But I quickly tell them that it’s true. I’ve seen it! My mother may have suffered physically, but the pain wasn’t simply masked by spiritual joy; it was overcome!
Thank you, Mom. Because of you, and the life you lived, your youngest was graced with a beautiful example of sacrifice, selflessness and pure love. Because of you I am able to look into the eyes of everyone who crosses my path, and see Christ. Because of you, Mom, your baby boy has a shot at salvation.
Vicnaja Pamjat. Eternal memory.