One evening while my wife and I were reading, Christine, our three-year-old daughter, came into our room. Moments later, as she was leaving, she walked into the wall; she could not see the door. Startled, she began to cry. We realized at that moment that something was wrong with her. We helped her back to her bed and in the morning my wife Felicia set up an appointment with an eye specialist.
After diagnostic examination, the doctor informed Felicia that Christine had bilateral retinoblastoma — cancer of the eyes — and that the tumors were quite advanced. While everything in her behavior had appeared normal until the night before, we were now confronted with the knowledge that malignant tumors were growing in both of Christine’s eyes, destroying her vision. The doctor told us that Christine had suffered significant retinal damage in her left eye. In the right eye, the retina was completely detached. The trace of good news was that only about ten percent of those diagnosed with retinoblastoma die of the disease. We were told that our daughter had about a fifty-fifty chance of retaining sight in her left eye but that tumor growth had nearly filled the right eye. There was virtually no chance that she would retain any vision in that eye.
An Internal Battle of Faith
The doctor wanted us to act right away, but I needed time to pray, to gather more information, and then to discern how we should proceed. In the next few days, my mind struggled against turmoil. My head was filled with thoughts about how unfair it was for a child to have to undergo such trauma; that all children should have the right to a normal, healthy life.
During the next few days, a battle raged in my mind. “What did my little girl do to deserve such a fate?” I could accept it if this had happened to an older person, to one who had been given a number of “healthy” years, but this wasn’t fair. Deep down, I couldn’t understand how or why God had let this happen. I knew that God has a perfect, loving plan for each person, yet I found myself asking: “How could God have such a plan for Christine? Does he really involve himself with everyone he creates, or are we at the mercy of a God who has stepped away from the world he made? Does God rule or are we subject to a blind fate which arbitrarily decides our destinies?”
As I began to pray, God showed me that he did have a plan, and that even though I did not understand it, he was in control. I recalled the story of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command. Abraham was asked to kill his only son, the gift of God through whom his descendants were to be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Surely, Abraham could not understand God’s plan at that moment.
I struggled, but as I examined God’s many attributes — his justice, mercy, and perfection, his unchanging nature, his omnipotence and omnipresence — I could only reaffirm that whatever God so desired or allowed to happen was for the best; in some way it would advance his plan for the salvation of all people.
At a prayer meeting the following Sunday, while the anxiety and sorrow was still very present in my heart, the Lord spoke to us in prophecy through another person: “My people, who knows what is best for Christine? Is it not I alone? Would I allow her, in all her innocence, to suffer unjustly for even a second? My people, I know what is best for Christine.”
After the prophecy, I experienced a true moment of grace, deep peace and joy. I was willing at that moment to say: “Your will be done, Lord.” Deep inside me I knew that he had Christine in his hands and would not let her go. I could trust his plan (even though I didn’t understand it), even if it meant that Christine would die. As a parent, I wanted to see Christine healed. Yet as a believer, I wanted to see God’s plan fulfilled. His love moved my heart.
A Trip to Boston
The next day, Christine and I flew to Boston, hoping to see Fr. Ralph DiOrio, a priest with a powerful healing ministry. I explained Christine’s situation, but because of an already overextended schedule, he told us, regretfully, that he wouldn’t be able to see us. He prayed for Christine over the phone. I thanked him, left Christine with some of the people there and went into the chapel to pray. A few minutes later, Fr. DiOrio called us back and told us to stay where we were. He altered his schedule to make time to come see us.
When he arrived, he celebrated a Mass for healing. During the reading of the Gospel, Fr. DiOrio felt a burning pain in his eyes and closed them tightly for about thirty seconds because of the intense pain. When he finally opened his eyes, he turned to me and said, “The Lord is going to heal this girl.” After Mass, he prayed over her, anointed her with oil, gave her a toy, and we departed.
Nothing appeared to change in Christine’s eyes. Who can understand the mind of God? Why does God do what he does? When does he heal? Why will he heal? While we like to see physical healing, sometimes a deeper healing takes place. As I was praying on the plane ride home, I felt God telling me that while he grieved over my daughter’s condition, he grieved much more over those who would suffer eternally.
The next month, Christine began radiation treatment on her eyes. These treatments spanned five weeks, five days each week. When we first arrived at the children’s center of Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore for tests, I was concerned for my daughter. But by the time I left that day, I could see how — because of my focus on myself and my immediate family — I had been completely out of touch with all the suffering children who are hospitalized with terminal diseases. My eyes were really opened.
My heart was filled with compassion for these children. They were so brave and I knew God loved them deeply. I talked to, witnessed to and prayed with some of the children. I found myself grateful to God for all that he had done in our lives, including Christine’s sickness, for it had opened my eyes to a world of suffering that I had little knowledge of before.
During the radiation treatments, Felicia went to the hospital four days a week; I took Christine on the fifth. These trips usually took the entire day, most of it spent in the waiting room. We saw the same people in that room, day after day. Most were elderly; many were lonely and brokenhearted. All were undergoing radiation treatment. As we talked with them, we frequently found that they had little or no family, children or friends to support them. Some had not seen their homes or families for months.
Since everyone had something in common, Felicia was able to use this as an opening to share the Gospel. Many received her words with kindness and hope. Often they were as concerned and saddened for Christine as they were by their own difficulties. Christine was the only child undergoing radiation at that time and her situation moved them to sympathy. It also gave Felicia a wonderful opportunity to witness to them about the Lord’s providence, even in trying situations. With each passing week, we grew more grateful for all the Lord had done for us.
Around this time, Christine had the opportunity to attend a healing service. She went with two other friends who were terminally ill. When the priest prayed over them, all three of them rested in the Spirit. Christine showed no sign of physical healing, but when she came home that night she told everyone, “The Spirit laid me down!”
The Results of the Treatments
The radiation caused the tumors in both of Christine’s eyes to shrink significantly. But, as expected, the right eye had been completed destroyed by the cancer and seven months later, it was removed. The left eye, however, seemed to be doing well. Each examination revealed that the tumor continued to shrink and the doctor was increasingly confident.
Nearly twenty months after Christine’s radiation treatment, a periodic check-up exam showed that the tumor in her left eye was growing again. The next month, Christine, at four years old, lost this eye as well. At this time, Christine — an unusually outgoing child — became introverted, fearful and lethargic. Her behavior changed so dramatically that we were worried that the tumor might have spread through the optic nerve into the brain.
If this were the case, it would most likely result in her death. I was in the observation room as a CAT scan was performed to assess Christine’s condition. I remember sitting in the observation room and saying to myself: “If it’s over, it’s over, and I’m ready. If she is going to die, if this is what you want, Lord, then this is what I want too. I want your will, Lord, not mine. If this is how Christine is going to give you glory, then so be it.”
Trusting in God
Happily, the tests proved negative. Within two weeks, Christine stopped mourning over her condition and began to adjust. She soon learned to function with her disability. Christine is now twenty-four years old, and is currently studying in Europe (along with her seeing-eye dog). She enjoys her studies, loves to read in Braille and plays the piano. We feel that Christine is every bit as happy as our other five children. We regularly pray that God will physically heal Christine. We have not lost hope. Sometimes it still hurts me to see my daughter blind. When this happens, Felicia is quick to point out that Christine is exactly who God wants her to be. Christine is one more way that God intends to reveal his love and glory to the world. As parents, we wish and pray that Christine might see again. As Christians, we want God’s will to be done, but please, Lord, do not be too demanding!
We will never be able to understand the mind of God, and yet we must trust him. Many of us know that cancer, or any illness, is filled with anxiety and suffering. It hurts! We do not have answers for why these things happen. Our only answer is to trust God and be loyal to him no matter what.
One day, we will find out all the answers to these and many other difficult questions. On that day, when Jesus comes again in glory, we might not even care. Our minds and thoughts will be directed to the unveiling of a far greater mystery. In the meantime, don’t ever challenge Christine to a race in the dark. She will beat you!
Joseph DiFato is the publisher of The Word Among Us monthly devotional magazine. This testimony is from God Alone, Stories of the Power of Faith (The Word Among Us Press, 2000). Used with permission. For more information, go to The Word Among Us.
Questions for Reflection/Discussion by Catholic Men
1. There is much suffering in the world today. Have you ever wondered why bad things happen to good people? How to you resolve the mystery of human suffering with God’s “perfect, loving plan for each person”?
2. In what way does prayer make a difference when we are faced with our own suffering or the suffering of a loved one?
3. In Romans 8:30, it says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” What is your understanding of this passage? In what ways did God work for “good” through Christine’s illness? Share how God has worked good in your life in the midst of serious illness or other suffering.
4. God’s plan for all of us is to be with him in heaven for all eternity. How can having a heavenly (God-centered) perspective for our lives help us to remain faithful and loyal to him in the midst of suffering?