Faith As A Prescription

St Gerard (photo by Vito Calise)
Faith can make you believe that you will survive...
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Is anyone listening?  Grandma always said Saint Gerard was the answer to our prayers, but my faith in prayer had been lost long ago, thanks to the endless battles and separations my parents had engaged in as I was growing up. I soon wished that I still believed.

I went to my primary physician because of persistent hoarseness and she immediately sent me to an ear-nose-throat specialist who scoped my throat. He found two nodes on my voice box and a slight lump in my throat so he biopsied them all. The nodes were benign, as he expected, but the lump was stage one of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.


“Isn't that cancer?”  I asked.          

“Yes, Marlene,” he said softly, “you will need chemotherapy.”

CANCER? CHEMOTHERAPY?  How could it be? I followed all the rules, ate the right food, worked out, kept my weight under control. There was no way I had cancer. They are wrong! Maybe they read the biopsy wrong.

My children did all they could to comfort me and took me to the best oncologist at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey. But I didn't want to burden my children with my fears and doubts because they were married and had children and households to attend to. I was an only child so I had no sister to lean on. My parents had passed on and my husband and I were divorced, seeing each other only for major family events. I had no one and I needed a shoulder to cry on.

I remembered how Grandma Mellilo, my mother, her family, friends and neighbors had embraced Saint Gerard as their patron saint and had exchanged numerous stories of miracles attributed to him. The story is that while lay brother Gerardo was visiting a friend in the little village near Naples where he lived, he dropped his handkerchief.  The friend's daughter picked it up and handed it to him. He told her to keep it because she might need it some day.  Years later, as she lay dying during a difficult childbirth, she asked for the handkerchief and placed it on her stomach. The pain disappeared and she gave birth to a healthy baby.  Hence his unofficial title of the patron saint of mothers and babies.

So when the Neapolitans came to the First Ward of Newark at the turn of the 20th Century, they established a shrine to Saint Gerard in St. Lucy's Church on 7th Avenue, just down the street for most of them.

Every year a giant outdoor feast was held in that Ward, dedicated to the remembrance of the saint and his acts of healing. The Neapolitan-Americans took the larger-than-life statue of the saint from its full-room shrine, placed it on a wooden platform and lifted it with two huge beams onto the shoulders of a dozen or more strong men who walked it through the streets to the accompaniment of the one-two beat of the St. Lucy Fife and Drum Corps. The old men in their threadbare uniforms tweeted and toodled Italian songs of praise as Grandma and hundreds of barefoot ladies in black followed arm-in-arm singing in their nasal falsetto to express their devotion. I remembered laughing and imitating them with my young cousins as the Saint, the mini-orchestra and all the pious, singing parishioners passed by.

People offered dollars in all denominations to the man on the platform who pinned them to the statue in streams of green. Children, dressed in white as angels with harnesses hidden under their wings and baskets in their chubby little hands full of dollars, flower petals and doves were lowered by ropes and pulleys attached to the fire escapes of the six-family tenements on opposite sides of Cutler Street down to the Saint below. 

After offering the basket, the doves were released with a thrilling flurry to the “ahs” of the bystanders as the Saint passed on.  He visited the temporary shrines which were constructed in front of the buildings along his path where he stopped to receive the offerings deposited there. Food stands were set up on 7th Avenue offering zeppoles and fried sausage, pepper and onion sandwiches on home-made Italian bread, filling the air with their wonderful aroma. A little carousel on a truck offered ten-cent rides for the kids. At night there were fireworks on every street corner. I remembered it with the same awe I felt as a child.  Maybe Grandma was right.           

So I called my ex who lived near Newark and asked him to please visit the Saint Gerard shrine for me so I wouldn't have to make the long trip there. I asked him to light a candle at the Saint's feet, say a prayer for me and leave a $10 donation. He did so and I sent him the money which he didn't want. But I insisted that the sacrifice had to come from me in order for Saint Gerard to take me seriously and offer his intercession on my behalf to God.           

I found some St. Gerard pins in my late mother's belongings and I wore one on my bra, close to my heart so I would always have him near me. It helped to have someone to talk to.           

It immediately became apparent to my doctors as I started my tests and therapy that something very weird was taking place. The PET scans before the chemotherapy even began showed no evidence of cancer in my body. But my doctor said that I needed to take the chemo in case the machines were not powerful enough to detect it. There was the possibility that a molecule of the cancer was hiding somewhere in my lymph system and only chemotherapy would kill it before it could metastasize. So I started chemo and prayed to Saint Gerard for strength and courage.

I expected all sorts of vile reactions from the chemo, as my oncologist had warned me, but the first four sessions were relatively event-free, possibly because my body was so strong going into the treatment.  Maybe the champion in my corner was praying for me. Anyway, my mental state was as strong as my physical and I thanked St. Gerard daily as I sailed through my treatment, with all doctors and nurses amazed at my resilience. Thank you Grandma!           

Then, session five sent me to the hospital with a fever which would not abate, despite aspirin and rest. It seems the treatment's negative effect is cumulative. I was put into a bed on an IV drip as they waited for my vital signs and blood counts to return to normal. I pinned my Saint Gerard pin to my pillow case so I would not get stuck by it on my hospital gown. A lay pastor came to see me to offer me Holy Communion and saw the pin on my pillow.           

“Who is he?” she asked.           

“He's Saint Gerard, I replied, the patron saint of...”          

“Mothers and babies,” she said, finishing my sentence.           

“Yes,” I responded with a look of surprise. “But, how did you know? Nobody knows about Saint Gerard these days.”           

“Because,” she went on to explain, “When I was expecting my first child, there was a problem with him and he was not expected to survive the pregnancy or to be normal if he did make it. So I prayed to Saint Gerard and promised to name my son Gerard if my baby lived and was normal. He was born full term and as healthy as they come so I named him Gerard.”           

“How strange,” I said, “that you, of all people, should come to my room and be the one to offer me religious support. I have never been religious, but I turned to Saint Gerard for help in desperation. And now, with you appearing, could it be that it is a sign that he hears me?”           

“You know,” she said, “I believe it is a sign for me too, because in forty years since my son was born, I have never thought of Saint Gerard. So I believe that I was sent to you as a reminder to me of the great miracle he performed.”

We prayed together and parted in the knowledge that our prayers had been heard. I promised to evangelize on Saint Gerard's behalf in return for his grace and now give his pins to the sick women or their relatives who need and want support.           

Treatment six sent me back to the hospital in the middle of the night in an ambulance because I was too weak for my daughter to get me to the car. I was bedridden with an IV drip for four days when the nurse came in with a blood transfusion. I refused it. The oncologist's Fellows came to my room late in the day to ask why I would not accept the blood transfusion.

“I've heard too many stories of contaminated blood. Won't a steak replenish my red blood count just as well?”   

They smiled, “It will but a blood transfusion is quicker and the current testing makes blood transfusions virtually fail-safe. Your white and red blood counts are down to zero.”            

“So I'm dead is what you are telling me,” I said with a stupid grin.

“You will be. We must get them back up.”           

I finally agreed to let them administer the blood transfusion but it was too late in the day to prepare the infusion. It would have to wait until the morning. That night I ordered iron-rich eggs, hamburger and spinach for supper and prayed to Saint Gerard to make me not need the blood transfusion. I promised to send a $50 donation to his shrine if he would let my red blood count rise.

The next morning I received another blood test and the doctors were flabbergasted because they had rarely seen a blood improvement such as the one I experienced.  No transfusion was needed.  I was becoming a believer.         

My tests continued to be cancer-free after my final chemotherapy dose and when my cousin's daughter got married in St. Lucy's church, I asked my ex to take me to the wedding so I could thank Saint Gerard in person. He agreed and I went into the shrine room after the wedding to light a candle, make a donation and pray at Saint Gerard's feet. I even climbed a few steps up his platform so I could rub his toes. You could see how the paint on his toes had been rubbed off from all those hands touching him in deep devotion.           

I went back to the prayer cushion to say my final thanks and good byes when I felt my cell phone vibrate in my pocket. I ignored it because it would have been disrespectful to attend to it while praying. When I got into the car with my ex, I looked at my phone and gasped.        

“What is it?” he asked.     

“Look.” I held up the phone for him to see. “Look at who called me while I was praying to Saint Gerard,” I said with tears in my eyes.           

“No way,” he murmured.          

The name on the phone was Gerard. He heard me.

I have an acquaintance in a club I belong to whose name is Gerard, but he has never called me and I have never called him. I dialed his number and asked him why he called me. He said he had not.           

I truly believe that some power I cannot explain sent me that lay priest, made my blood count rebound and made my phone ring with Gerard's name at exactly the moment I was praying to Saint Gerard. It may just have been a miracle in my mind, but having faith in something is better than trying to do it alone. Faith can be a powerful prescription. Now, when asked if I think anyone listens to our prayers, I always reply, “Saint Gerard listens.”


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