A mother's entreaties for healing for her paralyzed son are answered by a pair of unexpected visitors.
- Posted on Jan 12, 2012
Another long night in my 15-year-old son Lenny’s room. Another night with worries that kept me awake. I sat up and looked over at Lenny’s bed. At least he was sleeping soundly.
The room was quiet. No equipment beeping here. This wasn’t the emergency ward. It was a rehabilitation hospital where Lenny had been sent to recover from a severe spinal cord injury.
I’d dropped everything–my sixth-grade teaching job, life at home with my husband and our two daughters–to devote full time to Lenny’s care. Lenny had broken his neck while snowboarding with friends. He was paralyzed from the chest down. As always when I couldn’t sleep I was praying.
I’d been praying a long time, ever since that February day when my cell phone rang at the restaurant where I was having a wedding anniversary lunch with my husband, Len. “I’m with ski patrol,” a stranger’s voice said. “Your son’s been in an accident.”
At the emergency room I saw Lenny on a stretcher, his neck engulfed in a huge brace. “Don’t cry, Mom. I’m okay,” he told me. “I just can’t feel anything.”
I’d prayed all through Lenny’s surgery. Doctors took bone from his hip and fused it to the broken vertebra in his neck. I’d prayed for him in ICU and for strength to comprehend the magnitude of what our family was entering into. Medical jargon and forms to fill out and treatments to authorize came flying at us.
“Every spinal cord injury is different,” doctors kept saying, which I realized was their way of tamping down my expectations. Lenny was transferred to the rehab hospital and I prayed for good therapists and signs of progress.
But we’d been in this hospital for months, Lenny enduring grueling physical therapy for hours every day, and he didn’t seem much closer to walking.
He could jiggle his feet–sometimes. He could stand while holding onto bars in the therapy room–sort of. He could make his legs do what his brain told them to do–but not consistently, especially with his right leg.
Early in his treatment I’d overheard someone say Lenny had about a five-percent chance of walking again and making a complete recovery. I held on to that five percent.
I prayed for that five percent. I took extended leave from my job and camped out at this hospital to help Lenny reach that five percent. We were still somewhere in the other 95 percent.
I gazed at Lenny breathing softly in his bed. He was a happy, upbeat kid, fun to be around. He had probably comforted me through this whole ordeal more than I’d comforted him. But even he was getting frustrated and discouraged at his lack of progress.
Most of all, Lenny loved sports and using his body to its full potential. That’s what broke my heart. Baseball, lacrosse, football, basketball–he’d played them all. He had friends from all of his teams.
He looked up to his coaches, really responded to their mentoring. I despaired to think of him losing that side of his life completely.
I thought I had hit on the perfect motivator one day when I overheard one of Lenny’s therapists say, “Hey, Lenny, your last name’s Martelli. Any relation to Coach Phil Martelli?”
He was talking about the basketball coach at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, celebrated for transforming a tiny Catholic university basketball program into a national powerhouse.
Lenny brightened. “Coach Phil? No, we’re not related. But still it would be really cool to meet him.”
Quick as I could I was on the phone to the Saint Joseph’s athletic office asking if maybe Coach Phil could send Lenny a note. Imagine my surprise when an hour later my cell phone rang and the coach himself told me he wouldn’t be sending an encouraging note–he’d be coming to visit Lenny.
“How does Wednesday afternoon at four work for you?” he asked.
“Um, Wednesday afternoon would be great,” I stammered. I figured it was better not to tell Lenny in case the coach ended up not being able to make it.
But sure enough, at four o’clock sharp on Wednesday, Coach Phil strode into the hospital room and shook my astonished son’s hand. We compared family notes. No, we weren’t even distantly related.
“We share a great last name, anyway,” said Coach Phil. Then he turned serious. “Tell me, Lenny, how’s the rehab coming?”
Lenny’s grin faded. “Still can’t walk,” he mumbled.
Coach Phil wasn’t fazed.
“You’re rebuilding, Lenny. That takes time,” he said. “I’ll make you a deal. When you’re walking again–and notice I say when not if–I’m going to have you join me at the Saint Joseph’s basketball arena and we’re going to walk to the center of the court together and wave to the fans. That will be this upcoming season. What do you say?”
Lenny looked at Coach Phil. I knew that expression on my son’s face. It was that determined, “I’m not going to give up” look he wore when one of his coaches asked him to push himself to the next level. “Okay, Coach,” he said, “that’s a deal.”
Lenny worked even harder in physical therapy, and Coach Phil called regularly to check in on him. I searched all over for more exercises to do with Lenny in his room. I made sure he kept up with his schoolwork and got plenty of visits from his friends.
But the five percent I’d been clinging to, the miraculous results I’d been praying for? We were still waiting for that.
What was left for us to try? I wondered. Or did I need to let go of that five percent and face the fact that Lenny was a part of that 95 percent who would never fully recover?
Maybe it was time for me to pray for something else–for fortitude to walk whatever path the Good Lord set for us and thank him for my son’s life.
I looked down at my hand. I was clutching a prayer card that someone had given to us. On it was a picture of Padre Pio, an Italian friar born in the nineteenth century who went on to become a saint. Padre Pio’s simple advice to believers was: Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry.
But how could I not worry? I’d tried everything and my son was not recovering. A bit of light filtered into Lenny’s room from his window and I held the card up to read the prayer printed on one side.
At the end of the prayer I was supposed to state what I was asking for. “I confidently beseech you, Lord, to grant me the grace of healing for my son.” I said those words over and over. The prayer was so short. It seemed tiny compared to the monumental miracle we needed.
I said the prayer until it seemed that I was saying it in my sleep.
I sat up with a jolt. Had I dozed off? Well, I was awake now, because I realized that Lenny and I weren’t alone in the room. A figure stood by the door.
I squinted to try to see more clearly. It wasn’t a doctor or a nurse. It was a man wearing a long robe made of rough fabric and tied around the waist by a rope. Okay, I thought, this is weird. There’s a friar in the room with me. I should have been freaking out. But I wasn’t.
The figure radiated peace and calm. He walked slowly to Lenny’s bedside and stood looking down at my son. He then laid his hand on Lenny’s right leg, the one that always gave him the most trouble in therapy. The hand rested there for a moment, then the figure backed out of the room.
I let out a long breath. What on earth had just happened? I looked at the prayer card again. Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry. Relief began to trickle through me, then surged, as mysterious as the figure of the old friar who had just visited.
For the first time in ages I did not feel worried. I leaned back, closed my eyes and dropped back to sleep.
The next day in the therapy room, two therapists put their arms around Lenny’s waist and shoulders. He stood, able to put weight on his legs. “Let’s try something new,” they said.
“Okay,” said Lenny. “What do you want me to do?”
Lenny took a step with his left foot, then another with his right. All of a sudden, before any of us quite realized what was happening, he was walking. Supported by the two therapists, he made it to the end of the hallway and then turned around.
“Whoa,” he said, looking startled. “How did I get here?” A huge grin and he answered his own question. “I walked!” He headed back up the hall toward me. “Mom!” he cried. “I’m walking!”
Lenny’s progress was rapid after that amazing–dare I say, miraculous?–night. He walked farther and farther, step by step, each day, first with someone supporting him, then using the bars along the hallway and finally using nothing but a pair of canes.
Soon he was back home getting ready to return to school.
A few months later, leaning on his canes, he indeed walked out onto the Saint Joseph’s University basketball court to wild applause, just like Coach Phil promised he would. Not if, when.
Today Lenny is back at school and doing everything he used to do, except sports.
I still can’t say for certain what really happened that night in Lenny’s hospital room. Obviously, God performed a miraculous work of healing. But I think there’s a little more to it than that. Maybe the real miracle is in those simple words of Padre Pio’s: Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry.
I’d wanted healing for Lenny and I’d worried I wasn’t doing enough to make it happen. I’d forgotten God has his own timing and his own way of working.
The doctors, the physical therapy, the visits from Lenny’s friends, the wonderful visit from Coach Phil–those were all part of the miracle of Lenny’s healing. There’s a saying, “Give time, time.” Perhaps time is one of the greatest healing miracles of all.
Maybe Padre Pio did visit us that night not so much to heal Lenny as a reminder from God that healing was already underway. Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry. These days I do all three.
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