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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: Daughter's cancer brings deeper meaning to Ash Wednesday

Sean Kirst

They brought the ashes to Justine Zaworski Morabito last year as she worked as a medical receptionist at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. A priest, on his way to visit patients, stopped by her desk. She has had ashes spread on her forehead at the beginning of Lent since she was a little girl, but this time she paused to contemplate the gesture.

Like so many things, it had a meaning she did not quite see before.

Morabito's daughter Francesca is in treatment for leukemia at Roswell. Last week, the 5-year-old had the last of the many lumbar punctures she has needed to endure over the past 25 months, the trimonthly samplings of cerebrospinal fluid – better known as spinal taps – that have been a regular part of her life for two years.

Francesca is still in chemotherapy, but she is expected to undergo the final round before the end of March. In a few weeks, surrounded by family and friends, the child will ring a "victory bell" at Roswell that signifies the end of her treatment, and then she will walk out the door to again prioritize attending kindergarten.

Morabito is Catholic. She thinks about the ancient theme of humility that accompanies the dispensation of ashes in many churches and faith traditions, the idea that all of us are fundamentally the same in our vulnerability, that money and position and titles and possessions mean nothing when set against the unchanging generational limitations of each life.

If your child has leukemia, Morabito learned, each day becomes Ash Wednesday.

“I’m just one person out of the whole universe,” she said of the prayers she offered when she realized what her daughter faced, an experience that began as terrifying and then became communal, a bonding forged from struggle. She and her husband, Dominic, have changed in almost indescribable ways due to Francesca's journey, Morabito said, revelations that cause every routine within their daily lives to take on a different focus.

Francesca Morabito, during treatment, with her American Girl doll. (Family photo)

If her first reaction was to question why such a thing could happen to her child, she has come to perceive the trial in an entirely new way.

She wonders now, with bottomless gratitude, why her family is so lucky.

It was hard to see it in that fashion when a little girl named for her paternal grandfather, Francesco Morabito – a retired Roswell senior grants accountant who died of cancer three years ago – began looking pale as a 3-year-old, right around Christmas. Francesca started telling her mother and father that she was suffering from headaches.

The doctors thought maybe it was a problem with her adenoids, but antibiotics failed to make things better, and Morabito said lumps formed beneath Francesca's chin and behind her ears. On a February weekend in 2017, a few weeks before Ash Wednesday, they left their Sloan home and drove to Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, where a standard blood test caused Francesca’s pediatrician, Dr. Eric Sickels, to throw on a jacket and show up on a day off.

Francesca had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Morabito spoke of the moment as a terrible pivot. “You just realize that nothing else matters,” she said, that all the quiet burdens and requirements of everyday life – bills and schedules and appointments and plans – are only ideas, concepts, the rules we choose to live by.

What is real is what is happening to your child, beyond your reach.

Morabito slept in her clothes that night at her daughter’s side in the hospital, and in the morning she sat with the doctors at a tiny children’s table. “I said to them, 'I have a million questions,' ” she recalls, and she asked them to be as blunt as they could about the nature of the disease, what it meant, what was probable – and what could be done to beat it.

A doctor said, “If there is a leukemia you want her to have, this is it.” Morabito took it in, and tried to understand what might be coming. Steel yourself to the treatments, respect each step, accept the hardest parts, keep looking toward the future …

And a day might arrive when her parents could stand with Francesca as she rang the bell on her way out.

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Morabito spends a lot of time thinking about the journey to that place. She met Dominic in the 1990s when they both worked at the Walden Galleria, when a conversation on an escalator led to coffee, and that coffee brought together separate trajectories. The couple, at Roswell, made the only choice they could, vowing they would see their daughter all the way to healing.

In the process, they grew into an even greater admiration for their own children. Francesca, their youngest, was born after 31 hours of labor. Morabito said the child finds strength in her brother Gabriel, 13, who relentlessly and selflessly looks out for her.

Francesca Morabito and her brother Gabriel. (Family photo)

They have received support from many organizations and foundations that helped the little girl go to camps and Sabres games and other events, and relatives and neighbors – even strangers – rallied around them.

Yet the greatest revelation has been Francesca herself. “She almost never cried,” Morabito said, despite procedures that would frighten many adults. After she lost her hair, she found both humor and comfort in a bald American Girl doll, given to her as a gift. She plays Lego games on a tablet with her brother and she watches the world with deep curiosity and somehow the child never surrenders her sense of wonder.

Francesca and Gabriel grieved this year when their 14-year-old cat, Phoenix, had to be euthanized. Now they have a rescue kitten, Mewz, running around the house. That is a welcome distraction in these final weeks of chemotherapy, as Morabito and her husband approach a juncture when they will need to choose a day for a celebration they prayed would someday come.

At some point soon, they will gather near the door at Roswell, and the little girl will ring the bell as the place erupts in cheers. They will go home to wait for spring in the same way Morabito has done in Buffalo since early childhood, except every element is sharper, more important, as if somehow brand-new.

After Ash Wednesday, after some cold, hard weeks, she dreams more than ever that the seasons change at Easter.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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