Your dreams might have shattered, but there’s still hope.
When my wife and I married, we couldn’t wait to start a family, but month after month, we were saddened to find that Johanna hadn’t fallen pregnant. After a year or so, we visited a doctor who ordered some tests. Johanna had an operation to check and it confirmed she had medical issues which would make falling pregnant very difficult. I was also diagnosed with sub-fertility.
Although we lived in Darwin, we crossed the continent at least once or twice a year to visit my eye doctor in Melbourne. Since his clinic was just across the road from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, we would always go there to pray. As we knelt in front of a statue of Our Lady, we prayed for God’s will to be done, but we prayed, with hope, that His will would be for us to have a child.
After many years of trying different treatments, Johanna finally fell pregnant with Gabriela. We were overjoyed and gave thanks to the Lord for answering our prayers after eight years of heartache. On our next visit to Melbourne, we lit a candle in front of Our Lady’s statue and prayed in heartfelt thanksgiving for her intercession.
When Gabriela was born in perfect health, we delighted in God’s generous blessings. Then at four months, we were shocked when she had a convulsion during a swimming lesson. Although the doctors initially thought it was just a febrile convulsion, Gabriela kept having seizures whenever she had the slightest cold. Eventually, she was diagnosed with Dravet’s syndrome—a type of Epilepsy with seizures which are difficult to control. We should have been shattered when we received the diagnosis, because the possibility of receiving a severe brain injury was quite high, but we felt that the hand of God was never far from us, even in this moment. As she grew, she began to run, dance, sing and play, snuggling up to us to say, “I love you.” Her laughter as she told me, “Daddy you’re funny,” still resounds in my ears.
We had hoped that Gabriela would not be an only child, but we hadn’t fallen pregnant naturally. So we returned to the doctor to seek the same fertility treatment which helped us conceive Gabriela. To our surprise, we discovered at the appointment that God had already blessed us. We didn’t need to start the treatment since Johanna was already pregnant with Sofia! We call Sofia our ‘miracle baby’.
In the midst of our trials, we felt so blessed to have conceived her without any intervention. After reading Pope John Paul II’s beautiful explanation of the unitive and procreative purposes of marriage in his Theology of the Body, we had taken our wedding vows seriously and been open to the life that God wished for our marriage. However, Gabriela and Sofia were the only children that God chose for us to conceive.
Since Gabriela kept bouncing back from her seizures, we were hopeful. But when she was 3 ½, while we were still in the midst of the excitement and hard work of cherishing our new baby, Gabriela went down with gastroenteritis. We were accustomed to her suffering seizures every time she became ill, but this time the seizures continued for four days. Placed in a medically induced coma in intensive care, we weren’t sure whether she’d make it through. We were in shock, but God’s love sustained us through the long hours at the hospital and the sadness at seeing our bright, beautiful child deteriorating. We saw every moment, each day as a blessing.
If we could only have her with us for another year or two, then this moment was good enough and we would surround her with our love. Supported by prayer, she surprised her doctors by her will to survive, but the ongoing seizures had caused a severe brain injury which would eliminate her ability to walk, talk or eat, so she ended up spending 3 months in hospital.
The next challenge was bringing her home in a wheelchair, totally dependent on us for everything, while we had the baby to care for as well. Gabriela cried all the time, day and night, but when she received medication to ease her constant crying, she would sleep all the time. We weren’t sure what to do with this child that was either crying or sleeping all the time. It’s hard to see an innocent child suffering so much when she’d done nothing wrong to anyone.
How was it possible? Why her? And why us? We were on an emotional roller coaster, seeing her so unwell and not being able to help her. So, we entrusted her to God who answered our prayers with love. We felt Him saying, “I am your Father. I am the Lord that leads your life.” Although it is was well beyond us, He gave us the strength to travel this journey with her.
We felt assured that if God wanted this from us, He would stay and fight alongside us. It was difficult, but having this child with a disability enabled us to rely on one another and move our focus from our own problems and weaknesses, so we could put all our energy into this child who needed us so much. We could never have done it without each other and the support of our community. When we made the big move to Brisbane to have access to the therapies that have helped Gabriela, we were supported by our Neo- Catechumenal community.
Their help, and the fundraising support of the wider Catholic community was critical to the challenges that lay ahead. Gabriela has 100% reliance on other people to be able to complete tasks and cannot be left alone. She is unable to brush her hair or teeth, feed herself or go to the bathroom. She is non-verbal and unable to walk. Johanna and I are grateful that we get some assistance with her care and therapies through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Besides the therapies, Gabriela needed operations to realign her hips. When she was seven, heart failure after an operation left her battling for her life again. The doctors told us to get our family to come down to say goodbye.
We were heartbroken. Once again, we weren’t ready to give up our long-awaited daughter. I asked St John Paul II, St Mary of the Cross (MacKillop) and Our Lady for their intercession. It was a moment of intense and unceasing prayer—praying for God’s will to be done, but also praying for a miracle. Through God’s grace, He had sent us messengers in the form of our brothers and sisters in our Neo-catechumenal community. It was like Isaiah 50:4 “Lord you have given me a disciple’s tongue, so that I may bring to the wearied a word of relief”. Our brothers and sisters in Christ prayed the Liturgy of the Hours and the Rosary with us. As we commended her to God, we also prayed with trust and hope.
We had been told at the start of that day that Gabriela’s life was ‘hour by hour’. Evening Prayer that night was poignantly accompanied by the short reading from Job 1:21 “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away”. I was struck by the meaning of those words right in that moment, asking God to have mercy on us and to prepare our hearts. Our priest joined us at the hospital to anoint her and pray with us by her bedside.
He advised us to pray, each hour, a word that the Israelites had prayed in the desert—”Dayenu”. This word, linked with the Passover and the History of Salvation, says ‘God, you are to be praised for everything you do…if you had only taken us out of Egypt, it would have been good enough…if you had only brought us through the sea, it would have been good enough’. This is the song that I sing at the end of the Shalom World TV interview and it was a powerful word for us in that most difficult moment of our lives. About 3 AM, she suddenly began to improve and continued her recovery until she was well enough to leave hospital. I believe it was a miracle that Gabriela survived. None of the medical staff in the intensive care unit had expected her to live.
Despite her disabilities, Gabriela loves life. She delights in joining her friends at a Special School with a great sense of community, where she enjoys activities such as painting and switching—by lifting her right hand to press a switch, turn pages on an e-book on iPad. She communicates with a blink and slight nod of the head for ‘yes’, and looking away for ‘no’. Specially structured questions assist this process.
Gabriela revels in activities with her sister, cousins and friends. Her favorite things include music, movies, musical theatre, bright lights, colour and food. She can eat thickened soups, icecream, sauces and chocolate. She really enjoys going out into the sun and visiting the herb garden at the Botanic Gardens where she can smell different scented plants. Gabriela loves to dance and has been part of Superstars, a mainstream dance group, for over six years. They help her participate by moving her arms and moving her around. The other girls dance around her to include her in the dance routines.
Gabriela knows that God loves her and helps her with the many crosses and difficulties she faces. One of the biggest highlights of her week is going to Mass. She adores receiving Holy Communion and participating in the music at children’s liturgy and in our prayer at home, with her sister helping her play percussion instruments, like the drums or xylophone.
Prayer is a big part of Gabriela’s life. She has a photo of St John Paul II at the end of her bed, alongside icons and a colourful traditional cross from El Salvador. Gabriela knows many prayers off by heart, such as the Lord’s prayer and the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-10) which we recite with her before she sleeps and when she wakes. Even though she doesn’t speak, her eyes light up with acknowledgment.
If a family is struggling with disability, they can still praise God, and keep walking towards Him. Because of all we’ve been through, we’ve been able to counsel and guide couples having problems in their marriage. Despite our struggles, we didn’t abandon God. Daily prayer at home and with our church community has helped us to put God first and trust that there is a purpose for everything in our lives.
Throughout our lives, there have been many crosses, but Jesus said, “Take up your Cross and come, follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) It’s been possible for me to see the difficulties in our life—such as Gabriela’s frustrations when her brain injury prevents her from doing things she used to do—as opportunities to carry the Cross.
We don’t know what God has planned for our future, for her or for us, but we can see each day as a blessing. I see Gabriela’s purpose in her connection with God. She is very aware of God in her life and her role as a messenger to witness God’s love for her. People are drawn to her, wanting to know more about her story and He continues to answer her prayers in profound ways.
Kevin and Johanna Caldwell live in Brisbane with their daughters, Gabriela and Sofia. Article is based on Shalom World TV program “Triumph” featuring Gabriela and their personal testimony. To watch the episode visit: shalomworld.org/episode/gabriela-elizabeth-caldwell-triumph
As a part of my son’s 3rd grade curriculum, he was to learn about the life cycle of a butterfly. So, I did a bit of research so we could talk about it together. Even though I knew the four stages of a butterfly’s life cycle, I had never probed into it deeply. As I searched for videos and pictures about the different stages of this tiny, beautiful creature, I became fascinated by the 3rd stage of its growth when it’s in a pupa or chrysalis undergoing metamorphosis. The caterpillar has to remain in the pupa for few days to be transformed into an adult butterfly. If you open the chrysalis in the middle of the process, you would only find a sticky liquid substance, instead of a caterpillar having a cosy nap inside the shell until it gets its wings. In fact, during this stage, the caterpillar’s old body dies while a new body begins to form. The caterpillar has to fall apart completely. Only after it has completely liquefied, does it start to become the beautiful being it was designed to be. Another amazing thing I discovered is that the word Chrysalis is derived from the Greek for “golden” because of the golden threads surrounding the green chrysalis. You have probably heard some spiritual analogies about the chrysalis stage and how the tough times of our lives are actually those which transform us. However, when we actually find ourselves in crisis we often devalue the suffering, assuming that this isn’t meant for believers in Christ. We keep on asking God to remove the uncomfortable and ugly shell of hardships and grief from our lives. We want Him to change our circumstances, but He wants us to be changed in the process of it. Because, the deeper work within our souls takes place in the chrysalis. Our faith is strengthened by being inside the chrysalis. The most essential life lessons are learnt in the chrysalis. Our relationship with our Master Creator is deepened as we metamorphose in the chrysalis while the parts of our character that are not essential are stripped away. Just as the caterpillar is transformed into a beautiful butterfly in the darkness, solitude and repose of the chrysalis, such a time can reveal and prepare us for the purpose of our being. I don’t know which metamorphosis stage you are in at present. If you have got your wings, praise God but if you find yourself stuck in the chrysalis, the place where you feel nothing is happening, where you see the darkness of your pain and hardships, where you feel like you are falling apart each day and where everything feels so stuck, dead and inactive, I want to encourage you to trust the process, surrender to it, embrace it and wait until the process works its best, transforming you into everything you are meant to be, giving you the glorious wings of your purpose and reflecting the majesty of your Heavenly Father. No matter how your chrysalis feels, remember it will always be covered with golden threads of strength, assurance, love and grace from your Master Designer. He will be watching you throughout the process. Trust Him to protect and reconstruct you as you pupate in your chrysalis. Then your metamorphosis will astound you.
Here’s a scale to test your courage… Before entering a monastery hidden in the high desert of California, I lived at 5th and Main street in downtown Los Angeles, the border of Skid Row. Rampant homelessness is one of LA’s not so amiable qualities. Individuals down on their luck come from far and wide, often by means of a free one-way Greyhound ticket, to wander streets where winters are less hostile, begging for a means to rise above their circumstances. It is impossible to traverse a couple blocks of downtown without being reminded of the hopelessness that marks these individuals’ daily lives. The sheer magnitude of L.A.’s homelessness often leaves the more fortunate feeling as if nothing they would do could ever make the problem go away, so they resort to a strategy of avoiding eye contact, rendering invisible a population of 41,290, and counting. Man on a Mission One day I was having lunch with a friend at Grand Central Market. During our meal he unexpectedly handed me the key to a room in the luxurious Bonaventure Hotel, telling me it was mine to enjoy for the next couple of weeks! The Bonaventure, with its revolving sky restaurant, was the biggest hotel in LA, and only a ten minute walk from my studio apartment. I had no need for a fancy hotel room, but I knew 41,290 individuals who did. My only dilemma was how I should go about selecting the single person who would receive shelter? I felt like the gospel servant who was commissioned by his master to “Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (Luke 14:21). It was midnight when I got off work. Emerging from the metro station I began my “hunt,” asking God to select the person He wished to bless. Peering down alleyways, I glided through the city on my skateboard, trying not to appear like a man on a mission. I headed for the L.A. Cafe, confident I would find someone in need there. Sure enough I spotted a man sitting on the storefront sidewalk. He was old and thin, showing boney shoulders through a stained white T-shirt. I sat down a few feet away. “Hello,” I greeted him. “Hi,” he returned. “Sir, are you looking for a place to sleep tonight?” I asked. “What?” he said. “Are you looking for a place to sleep?” I repeated. Suddenly he became irritated. “Are you trying to make fun of me?” he said, “I’m fine. Leave me alone!” Surprised and feeling sorry for offending him, I apologized and rolled off dismayed. This mission would be more difficult than I expected. After all, it was after midnight, and I was a total stranger offering what seemed too good to be true. But the odds were in my favor, I thought. My offer might get turned down, just like the servant in the parable of the great banquet, but sooner or later someone would be bound to take me up on it. The only question was how long would it take? It was already late, and I was tired after a long shift at work. Maybe I should try again tomorrow, I thought. Unknown Realms Skating and praying, I continued to make my way through the urban jungle, eyeing various candidates. Sitting on a nearby corner, I spotted the silhouette of a man alone in a wheelchair. He appeared to be half asleep and half awake, as many do who are accustomed to sleeping on the streets. Hesitant to disturb him, I approached cautiously until he looked up at me with tired eyes. “Excuse me sir,” I said, “I have access to a room with a bed, and I know you don’t know me, but if you trust me I can take you there.” Without raising an eyebrow, he shrugged his shoulders and nodded his head. “Great. What’s your name?” I asked. “James,” he replied. I asked James to hold my skateboard as I pushed him in his wheelchair and together we made our way to the Bonaventure. His head became increasingly alert as our surroundings gentrified. While pushing him along through the darkness, I couldn’t help but notice what appeared to be sand covering his backside. Then I realized the sand was moving. It wasn’t sand at all, but thousands of tiny insects. Entering the five star hotel lobby, James and I were met with expressions of shock from every onlooker. Avoiding eye contact, we passed the posh fountain, boarded a glass elevator, and arrived at the room. James asked if he could take a bath. I helped him inside. Once clean, James slid himself comfortably between white sheets and fell immediately to sleep. That night James taught me an important lesson: God’s invitations often come unexpectedly, demanding a measure of faith that usually makes us uncomfortable. Sometimes we must find ourselves in situations with nothing to lose before we are ready to accept His invitation to us. And more often, it is in bringing blessings to others that we are truly blessed.
The irresistible goodness of Christmas lasts more than just a day, if you put your mind to it... The magic of Christmas has never failed to enrapture me no matter the circumstances in the lead up to the season. Some years, the awe and wonder kick in later rather than sooner, but once the Christmas spirit conquers me, there is no turning back. The joy we experience from receiving God’s gift of His only Son sets the tone of this wonderful season. Being good almost becomes second nature for this brief but lovely time. While Santa’s list might be an obvious reason for the little ones, I’ve wondered what it is that makes us grown-ups feel this way and how might we bring to the rest of the year this inclination to goodness that we experience during the magical Christmas season. A Stark Reminder Last year my husband and I undertook a trip to regional Victoria. We visited a berry farm and while picking organic produce to take home, I had a chat with the owner. It was a pleasant cool day for summer, and we discussed how it had been the opposite a year before, with raging bushfires and drought conditions severely affecting crops and lives. As a volunteer firefighter, she had suffered the loss of a couple of her close friends while fighting those fires. Saddened to hear this, I was moved even more when the farmer said she was “prepared to fight when called” should the bushfires strike again. As we left the farm, she picked up her little one and they waved us goodbye. The farm was undoubtedly the most memorable part of the trip and the resolute determination we witnessed was a stark reminder of how we all need to be willing to do good when it is required of us—no matter what the time of year. Stepping Stones Once we are past the Christmas joy of December and well into the new year, it might take a bit more effort for us to act on inclinations to do good. I usually find that busyness can abruptly take the steering wheel with no comfortable stop in sight. As various professional and personal priorities take over, I wonder if I can be as attentive to the Lord’s prompts as I had been while wrapping gifts and singing carols. Our Lord, however, never slows down His pace—drawing our attention to a struggling local business, reminding us to call someone who is lonely, encouraging us to forgive, and inspiring us to give. My husband calls these God’s ways of helping us draw nearer to Him. I think of them as little stepping stones to God that we are blessed to receive. Even if we manage to look past the busyness, there are often other deterrents that discourage us from responding to God’s prompts. For instance, when we see a call for aid, we might rationalize that our contribution wouldn’t make much of a difference or might not be well-received by the person in need. Or an inclination to make amends with someone who offended us might be deterred by a new trivial offense. Fight the Good Fight Despite the possible deterrents, those little tugs at our heartstrings never stop. Why? Because Jesus has overcome the darkness within and around us. His love and light are blazing bright, forever creating sparks of goodness. Acting on these prompts is up to us if we want to draw closer to His goodness. As our Lady of Fatima reminded us, our future is in God and we are active and responsible partners in creating that future. If we remember that all the good that has ever happened to us, including our talents and blessings, are from the Lord, then we can respond willingly to even the slightest inclination to goodness that comes to mind. It is even more imperative today that we fight through the darkness, praying to our Lady for help to stay focused and strong to fight the good fight when called. It doesn’t take much to light up someone’s life, to bring Christmas hope and joy to them when they need it most, no matter whether it's Christmastime… or any other time of year. “Glory to God who shows His power in us and can do much more than we could ask or imagine; glory to Him in the Church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:20
I was 65 years old and I was looking into changing my life insurance policy. Of course, they required some lab tests. I thought, “Okay, I’ll go through the motions.” Up until then, every lab test I had ever taken, had been normal, including chest x-rays, EKG’s and colonoscopies, all normal. My blood pressure was 126/72 and my BMI was 26. I exercised four times per week and ate a fairly healthy diet. I felt good and was totally asymptomatic. All my lab results came back normal…except my PSA, it was 11 ng/ml (normal is less than 4.5ng/ml). Three years earlier it had been normal. Bummer! So, I went to see my PCP. During the rectal exam, he found my prostate enlarged and indurated. “I suspect cancer, I’m going to refer you to a urologist,” he said. Bummer, again. Eleven out of eleven prostate biopsies were positive for cancer. My Gleason score was 4+5 which meant that it was a highgrade cancer and could grow and spread more quickly. So, I underwent a radical prostatectomy, radiation therapy and hormone therapy with Lupron. Ooh those hot flushes! Ladies believe me when I say, I know what you’re going through. Bummer once again. So why only “bummer” and not “I don’t believe it, it can’t be, I’m going to die. God is punishing me”? Well, let me tell why. Before my mother’s kidney failure required at-home peritoneal dialysis, my parents traveled quite a bit, especially to Mexico. When daily dialysis brought travel to a halt, they spent more time working on puzzles, reading and studying their Bible. This brought them much closer to God. So, when her doctors told her there was nothing more they could do for her, she was okay with that. She told me, “I’m tired, I’m ready to be with my Father. I am at peace with family and friends, with myself, but most importantly, I am at peace with God.” A few days later, she died peacefully with a smile on her face. “I am at peace with God”. That’s what I wanted. I no longer wanted to be just a Sunday-Mass Catholic. It was then that I started on the path that has led me closer to God: reading and studying the Bible in both English and Spanish, praying, saying the Rosary, giving thanks for my blessings, and volunteering as a Catechism teacher. Soon, I hope to finish my internship as a volunteer hospital chaplain and I am about to complete my spiritual guidance course. So, yes, having prostate cancer is a bummer, but that is all it is, because I am at peace with God.
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