Judy Huber of Greensburg, Pa., went through the stages of grief when at age 29, she was stricken with neuromyelitis optica, also known as Devic’s disease. It’s similar to multiple sclerosis but progresses more rapidly. Within six months, she was paralyzed.
|Msgr. Lawrence Kiniry, retired priest of Our Lady of Grace Parish, speaks to attendees at the annual retreat. Courtesy of The Catholic Accent/Diocese of Greensburg
“It was difficult,” she said about seeing her life change so drastically. “It’s a loss, like having someone die because really, you have lost something and you go through those stages of anger, denial and sadness.”
The losses came quickly. She soon found herself using a wheelchair and trying to be a single mom to two preschoolers. She lost her home and eventually, she had to stop teaching.
But she found hope in her deep faith and a resolve to keep living life to the fullest, even as her health deteriorated.
Now 63, she needs a ventilator 24 hours a day and round-the-clock care. She has only limited movement in her arms, lost her eyesight completely nine years ago and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma seven years ago.
“Bedridden?” she said with a laugh when asked. “No, I am out and about!”
Huber goes shopping and to movies, has lunch with friends and regularly attends Mass. She’s known for her optimism, her genuine caring about others and a glowing spirituality that touches everyone who meets her.
Time for fellowship
Around the Diocese of Greensburg, she’s also known as the founder and the driving force behind an annual retreat, An Afternoon of Reflection for People With Life Challenging Illnesses and Disabilities. The idea came to her when she was visiting clients as a coordinator for a home health services agency.
“I discovered that many people feel isolated and so alone,” she said. “I wanted them to know that there are others in the same situation, and other people to help, and that there’s a support system out there. A lot of times they need to support each other and to keep in touch.”
Huber launched the retreat 15 years ago. She had the enthusiastic backing of her pastor, Msgr. Larry Kiniry at Our Lady of Grace Parish, and a core of dedicated volunteers who believed in what she’s doing.
The annual event has grown from about 15 attendees (including their caregivers) the first time to nearly 70 in 2012. The program includes speakers, a social, dinner and a Mass hosted at Our Lady of Grace, but it’s not sponsored by the parish nor the diocese.
It’s a welcome opportunity for fellowship and to be heard. Everyone can contribute to group discussions on the annual themes, or take the microphone to offer insights and encouragement.
“People really look forward to it,” Huber said. “Friendships have grown over the years and it’s almost like a reunion. We’ve gotten very close, and you feel a real connection with everybody.”
Msgr. Kiniry was retreat master in the early years before he was transferred to another parish. Now 74 and retired, he became involved again three years ago.
“The power of the retreat is in the people talking to each other, and not in anybody who comes to speak,” he said. “They are so receptive to each other, and that humbles everyone who attends. They are the teachers, in many ways, of really what faith is, and how to deal with the crosses in their lives. They don’t even call it a cross, but the reality is that they have struggles, yet they overcome. We are the ones who go away renewed.”
The retreat attendees have a multitude of challenges. Some are in wheelchairs from diseases or accidents, some have life-threatening illnesses like cancer or heart disease, or have cognitive or emotional challenges. Some have visual difficulties or, like Msgr. Kiniry, are hearing impaired.
“I think we all have challenges in our lives, and maybe some aren’t noticeable,” Huber said. “It can even be a spiritual challenge.”
For many, that can be the greatest obstacle of all.
“We know that some people do become bitter,” Msgr. Kiniry said about facing afflictions. “But that’s OK because that’s where you are now, and God wants to meet you where you are, not where you think you should be. God meets you in your bitterness and anger, and who knows where you will be in the future?”
He has seen it go both ways. One parishioner was paralyzed from the neck down for nearly 40 years.
“I was very close to him and I never saw him angry with God,” he said.
But another man, a double amputee, was bitter until the last year of his life.
“I took Communion and anointed him, and something in his life had changed,” Msgr. Kiniry said. “I think he just came to realize that he had no power and no control.”
That can be a turning point, and it was in Huber’s own life.
“You find in that acceptance that God has a purpose for you and he has a reason,” she said. “He will use you, no matter what occurs in your life, what stage you are in and what challenges you have to face. It is then that you realize that you aren’t alone, that God is with you, no matter what, and he will be by your side. It took a while for me to reach that point, but it helped when I did.”
Huber counts many blessings in her life, with family, friends and supportive strangers on top of her list. “They have lifted me up, and the Lord sends them to us when you need them,” she said.
Another blessing is that because of her own challenges, she is more sensitive to what others face. When she hears that someone has cancer, she knows what they’re going through. When she meets someone who is visually impaired, she can reach out from her own experience.
“It’s a way that the Lord works through us, and it becomes a blessing because then we want to help more,” she said.
At one time, Huber “felt sorry” for people with challenges, but now she knows that “we are all still the same inside.
“Don’t treat us any differently,” she said. “We are all God’s children, and God has a purpose for everyone. Everyone is an asset, no matter what their situation. They are assets to their families, to their church and to their communities. We all have something to contribute.”
One of the greatest contributions, Msgr. Kiniry said, is that in the mystery of God’s ways, “They are helping all the world to learn what it really means to love.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.