An urgent trip to New York soon was fortified by love

I wasn’t supposed to be there.

But when we got the call on Friday, Nov. 17,  my husband and I dropped what we were doing, and cobbled together plans to deliver our hugs in-person. My older brother Michael had been taken by ambulance to Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. 

A million fears and a million memories flooded my heart. Among them, a Christmas memory from when I was in high school and my brother was home from college. One evening, after the rest of the family went to sleep, Michael invited me to watch the movie White Christmas with him — which I hadn’t seen before. As we watched, I marveled at how he knew all the lines and lyrics. I fell in love with the storyline and the music which, to this day, remain my favorites.

I told Michael that he contributed to my juvenile delinquency that night because, along with our bowl of popcorn, he prepared hot toddies for both of us. It mattered little to him that I hadn’t seen my 18th birthday, and I felt like I was really getting away with something. 

As I continued to reach back into the archives, another memory bounced forward. All of a sudden, I was sitting in a darkened Shubert Theater watching A Chorus Line that had just opened that July of 1975. To say I was riveted doesn’t begin to bring words to the emotion it stirred within me. It was a once-in-a-lifetime unforgettable experience. 

Michael was the reason I was there. He had been performing that summer in Half a Sixpence and Destry Rides Again at Club Bene in nearby Morgen, N.J. He knew Crissy Wilzak, from our hometown of Elyria, Ohio – who was in the Chorus Line production and was able to glean “house seat” tickets from her. At the time, ACL was selling out every performance.

Growing up, Michael and I were part of something pretty wonderful. We, along with our siblings (six of us in all) have a Mary Poppins-size bag of memories we can retrieve at will. And at times like this, it helps to do so.

My husband John and I flew out of South Bend, landed at LaGuardia Airport Saturday morning, and drove straight to the hospital where Michael was in the ICU. His partner, my two sisters and niece arrived before us. Our daughter Andrea flew in the next day as did our brother in-law Ray. Before words were even spoken, deep gratitude, the kind that starts in your toes and rises to encompass every fiber of your being, was detected in my brother’s eyes.

When we had a chance to visit with Michael, two at a time, he told us of the dream he had the night before in which our beloved (late) great aunt Ruth appeared to him. She told him that our sister Carol, who had never visited the city, MUST go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center. All of us, aware that messages are often delivered in mysterious ways, listened and honored this fervent appeal without knowing the why.

Early that Monday morning, before we headed to the hospital, all seven of us stepped into the piercing Manhattan chill and walked from our hotel to the Cathedral. Once inside, we lit votive candles and offered our prayers, which in this case were packaged as pleas for healing.

It was then my sister noticed a small sign behind the votive candle station: St. Killian’s Candle Burning System – Ireland. Of course, the first thing my sisters and I thought of was our mother who passed in 2021. Killian’s Irish Beer was her favorite. What are the chances?! We felt we had uncovered an Easter egg of sorts.

If you have ever visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral, you know of its sacred beauty and serenity. I wondered how many prayers had been prayed and answered there. Surely, only heaven knows.

Bob Marley’s voice soothed us at Rockefeller Center.

Our next stop was Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan. As we neared the railing that overlooked the ice rink, the first thing we heard was a song over the sound system. It was Bob Marley’s voice, “Don’t worry about a thing, ‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right …”  Let me just say there were plenty of tears and goosebumps to go around.

We thought we might be able to see the grand Rockefeller Christmas tree lit in all its glory, but discovered it was in the process of being prepared for its official lighting the Wednesday following Thanksgiving. The 80-foot Norway Spruce was shrouded behind a giant green wooden panel that floated over several stories. Below was the famed gilded bronze statue of the Greek mythical figure Prometheus.

Beyond the barricades were piles of discarded branch trimmings and we asked one of the young security guards if we could have a pine cone for a souvenir. The gentleman responded gently, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that.” A moment later, he quietly lifted one of the branches, tugged a pine cone loose, and gave it to us. I couldn’t help but wonder if our dear Aunt Ruth gave him a big nudge to do so. I cradled it in my hand as if I held the first gift of Christmas.

A souvenir cone from the grand Rockefeller tree.

With our assignment completed, we took an Uber across town to the hospital and shared our pictures and stories with Michael. He was pleased that we had honored the message he was given in his dream and seemed to rally. Two days later, he was strong enough to go home for Thanksgiving. He still has medical challenges ahead, but seemed fortified by our love.

As we flew back to South Bend, I thought about how things can change on a dime – and what wasn’t, becomes, what is. We all have an opportunity to embrace the gift – and the myriad treasures that fit into that box.

When I hold the Rockefeller Christmas tree pine cone in my hand, I will remember how I wasn’t even supposed to be there in the first place, and I will let the blessings wash over me. 

I will choose to remember the love.