Brother James A. Petrait, O.S.F.S.

It was Christmas morning of 1993, a time to celebrate the joyous occasion of the birthday of Jesus our Lord and Savior. But, for me, it was also a time of sadness, for it was the time when my mother, Antonina, my dearest mom, passed away into eternal life. However, in the sadness there was given to me a profound message of joy, my mom's wonderful Christmas present to me. Hopefully, I will be able to explain that paradox to you.

Mom's health had been failing for the past several years mainly from a progressive case of degenerative arthritis with complications of broken bones caused by several falls. Dad passed away from cancer on New Year's Eve of 1983, so my brother and I made sure that she had the best of care despite the poor health care system that we have in United States.

During early summer of 1993, mom developed another complication which had the symptom of frequent nausea. After a miserable stay at a local Philadelphia hospital which was staffed by many doctors and nurses who cared more about their pocketbooks than their patients, it was determined that they could not do any more for her even though she really was not any better. Luckily, we were able to find one caring doctor who was able to have mom admitted into a physical rehabilation hospital since our inadequate health care system has no rehabilation programs for patients with nausea.

At the rehab hospital, mom did well with the exercises and the care given to her from most of the staff. However, her nausea would not stop. It was around early August when during one of my visits to mom in the hospital, I bought her a copy of the Catholic Digest magazine to read. On the back of the magazine was an ad for a rosary bracelet which was available from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate for a donation. Mom asked me to send for it for her. I asked her why and she said it was because she was going to die by Christmas and she wanted to be laid out with the rosary bracelet on her wrist. Telling her not to talk like that, I did send for the rosary bracelet not even thinking that my mom's prediction would come true.

Mom recovered enough to return from the rehab hospital and for a while her nausea seemed to stop but then it started up again around the same time that she had another fall. So she was again eligible for a stay at the rehab hospital.While there,a nurse indicated that there were signs that the nausea was due to a serious condition which required other medical tests. The tests indicated the presence of an obstruction in mom's intestine. It was determined that an operation would be necessary and it took place on the feast day of our Lady of Guadalupe. After a few days, mom was able to eat and it looked like she could recover but then the nausea started again, and it was determined that the cancerous growth removed from mom's intestine had continued to grow and to spread into other organs of her body. Nothing else could be done, her condition precluded any more operations.

A week before her death, my new Bishop had his first Mass at my parish on St.Croix. I was invited to give one of the offertory intercessions. I included a prayer that my mom would find peace and that her suffering would end. On Monday, December 20,my brother called and said that Mom only had a few days to live and that I should come to Philadelphia as soon as possible. So on Wednesday morning, I was able to visit my mother in the hospital. She was suffering greatly and could hardly talk but she was able to recognize me and say hello. So I spend the next 2 days saying many rosaries and other prayers for my mom while trying to keep my tears away. To keep her mind occupied, the TV was on much of the time and while I was there, the song, Silent Night, was sung during one of the programs. I know that my mother heard it and I knew then that she was going to die on Christmas day. As the hospital closed on Christmas eve, I told my brother that mom would die on Christmas making her prediction come true.

On Christmas morning, I went to the 8 AM Mass at my mom's parish Church. I prayed for mom during the service which was held in the beautifully-decorated upper Church and afterwards stopped at the manger scene and picked up some straw, following an old tradition, to give to mom. After Mass, I stopped and visited the parish priests and updated them on mom's condition. Then I walked back to mom's house by way of the main avenue. Sitting on the steps of an abandoned house was a "bag lady" shivering in the cold. I could not pass her by without wishing her Christmas greetings. I also gave her some of the straw from the manger and asked her prayers for my mom and urged her to get the help that was available to the homeless. The joy in her smile was unforgetable. Then I walked another block down the avenue and my brother was waiting for me in his car. Mom had passed away around 8 AM at the hospital. Although I was overcome by sadness at mom's departure, she left her best Christmas present for me by receiving the privilege of being born to eternal life on the same date that Jesus was born to His earthly life. She also reaffirmed my faith in Jesus and the afterlife by all of the events surrounding her death.

Mom was buried a few days later with her rosary bracelet after the Mass at the same, beautifully-decorated parish upper Church where the manger scene was still set up as it was on Christmas morning. I selected Silent Night as one of the hymns that was sung at the liturgy and after being buried with my dad, the first snowfall of the season covered up their grave in silent flakes of peace. Later the Bishop of my diocese told me that mom is in heaven and I know she is and I hope to be with her someday. Meanwhile, the "bag lady" of the avenue took my advice and I never saw her again. But I will never forget her smile and I will never forget my mom's last Christmas present.



Antonina Petrait

© 1994-2002, James A. Petrait