The first of April, 2011. That is when it began.
I have always been taught and perceived that miracles were more of an instantaneous happening. An event that defied the laws of the secular world, of science, of common sense… and relatively instantaneous in nature. The first of April, 2011 and subsequent events changed all of my thinking on the subject and the nature of miracles.
My wife of nearly 43 years, Linda, spent Christmastime of 2010 in a hospital bed, waiting for a diagnosis of severe intestinal pain. We were confident that this was not serious. Mainly because she had already beaten breast cancer, put her non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma into total remission, survived and overcame endometrial cancer, as well as colon cancer. Intestinal cramps were, in our estimation, minor league matters. And so, we were relieved to hear and ready to accept the analysis of the head of hospital surgery: “X-rays show nothing serious; it looks most probably like a food blockage; you can be discharged in the next few days. The pain pills we’ve prescribed should help you through this.”
A miracle? After so many death threatening diagnoses in the past, we were feeling finally blessed by what we deemed a small miracle. But we were greatly mistaken. After subsequent re-admittance and 59 long days in two different hospitals and several surgeries, Linda was taken from me by God.
While Linda and I had not attended church in over 30 years, after a fall from our lifelong Catholicism, we asked the hospital for a chaplain to help Linda, me, and my family through those final hours. Our assigned chaplain then, and now forever friend, was a Presbyterian Pastor named Laura. Thus, on the first of April, 2011, the miracle began.
I spoke to Laura after my kids and I watched Linda take her last breath and leave us physically. Afterward, I thanked Pastor Laura and admitted I knew nothing of the Presbyterian faith, though realized through her, that it must be a kind, compassionate branch of Christianity. All I knew of the Faith was a Pastor in the upstate village where Linda and I had a summer camp. There, we occasionally encountered but did not really “know” the young Pastor, Kirianne. But even with these occasional encounters from afar, my late wife often remarked that she had never seen a more joyous, happy, smiling individual. Laura knew Kiri, and urged me to tell her that. “Write a letter, if you don’t feel ready to speak to her in person,” she counseled. “She would love to hear that, I’m sure.”
I did write Pastor Kiri, and included a donation in Linda’s name, along with the background. Several weeks later, being more brave and clever than I really was, I ”snuck in” late for Sunday services, slouching in the farthest row back, absorbing the warmth emanating from not only the Pastor, but from each smiling face that noticed the stranger in their midst. Holding back sobs, but unable to fully hold back tears, sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb.
I snuck in all right, but it was a bit more difficult to sneak out. After “mass” (I still slip up and use my old faith’s nomenclature) a line of congregants filed by Kiri at the exit, exchanging warm hugs, inspired faces, and wide enough smiles to get them through the week… or perhaps much longer. As one of the last ones to leave the church, trying to just brush by with a smile, I heard a cheerful “Hi! You’re new, here, aren’t you? Is your name Frank?” I admitted my identity, and Kiri gave me a hug which I will never forget. She added, as I recall, the obligatory, (but non-perfunctory) condolences and asked about how I was dealing with my grief, in the most sincere and caring manner. I forgot how I replied, but she then asked me if I would like to join a small group of congregational members who were going to spend the afternoon in Schoharie, to help clean up the church properties victimized by Hurricane Irene. “Perhaps you can make a new friend or two, and the work will help you keep your mind off of your grief for an hour or two,” she smiled. “Bring a shovel or any other tools you think might help and meet us here at noon or at the Schoharie Presbyterian Church at 1 o’clock if you wish. See you then!”
That afternoon, I showed up, sort of to my own surprise, as it were. Met some good people: Schoharie Pastor Bebb, Kiri again, Chris, Bill, Carol and her young kids, Karen, I think, and other folks lost now in my blurred memory. It was the first of several work-trips I would make to that clean-up site, as well as other flood devastated sites in the area. But that work-trip turned out to be rather special.
Totally exhausted, when the sun became low in the sky, I was one of the last ones to leave, having lost track of time. A part of me broke through my armor of grief that day, as I felt the warmth of meeting new folks with a common, selfless mission that day. As I gathered my tools and shuffled for the exit, I noticed a figure still at work in a side closet area, as I remember, ripping saturated drywall from the room’s wall studs. The miracle progresses: the afternoon of Sunday, September 4th, 2011, I met Liz. The following is what I can fully remember, not verbatim, but true in spirit and context.
Me, shyly, “Hi, we haven’t met, have we?”
She, somewhat startled, “No, I don’t’ think so.”
Me, fumbling, “My name is Frank, and you are?”
She, grinning, “Liz”
Oh, how I loved that grin! And how terrific she looked right then, crowbar in hand, covered in mud, sporting a pink baseball type cap with paint stains and caked-on dirt emblematic of much earlier volunteer demolition and/or construction work. Some small talk then ensued, revealing a bit too much, it seems now, of our personal situations. Me a recently retired engineer, and she, an engineer as well, worrying a bit about her job situation with rumors of possible NYS cutbacks. I then did something I never would have thought I was able to do, being as introverted as I had always been: I wrote down my name, phone number, email address, and two home addresses, and told her that if she needed any contacts, should her job be in jeopardy in the future, that I had several good contacts in the energy conservation and environmental areas of NYS government. I believe I added that I would like to read her resume! Demeaning? Presumptuous? Ultimate pick-up line as we later joked? (Spoiler alert! She still has that note in her address book!) Many emails later and several dates, some awkward, but all memorable, we realized that we had fallen in love. Unsuspecting, not intending to, but truly ordained to.
January 4th, 2014, our miracle was formally consecrated by Pastor Kirianne, in the Northville United Presbyterian Church. Our wedding took place between two major snowstorms and in frigid weather, but our two souls and our two families warmly became one that day.
I am currently an Elder at the Northville United Presbyterian Church, under the guidance of Pastor Becca, having served as a Trustee, Session member, and transitioning to serve as Deacon in the upcoming year. Liz, having been an Elder at Union Presbyterian Church in Schenectady, is now a member of the First Reformed Church, with which it had merged.
If I didn’t know any better, I would believe that the path through my late wife, through my intolerable grief, through Pastors Laura and Kirianne, and now to Becca, as preordained? Dare I write this, believe this, or even think this? In any event, I am now totally positive it was a form of a miracle from God, and I thank the Lord for it every day and every night.
Frank Ralbovsky Feb. 2021