Wayne and Dede Laugesen and their seven children live in Colorado. Wayne is a correspondent for the Register.
The feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, which we celebrate Saturday, had never jumped off the calendar for me as day to cherish. That all changed in the spring of 2016.
For my family, today is a celebration of selfless love we had never experienced before our perfect Catholic lives were sent into upheaval by a shocking health crisis.
In God’s mercy of turning bad into good, we would come to know Our Lady of Lourdes through the ministry of the Order of Malta.
Our ordeal began Jan. 20, 2015. The vivacious Dede Laugesen was on one of her famous weekend “tornado cleanings” of our home. As always, my wife joyfully danced and sang as she mopped floors and dusted furniture with music filling our home. As I began a typical escape to Home Depot, Dede suddenly called to me. Her knees had begun to swell. Within an hour they were the size of grapefruits and she could barely walk.
The mother of our six boys and a seventh we took into the home, Dede had always been the picture of health. She was the gifted taskmaster who could manage the details of a household that once had six kids attending five different schools.
From the moment her knees swelled, our lives would never be quite the same.
A physician triaged Dede with massive doses of steroids that had the unintended consequence of killing bones in her hips, knees, ankles, shoulders, elbows and wrists. A rheumatologist diagnosed the original swelling as one symptom of a rare autoimmune disease. That came with a set of chronic challenges, while the steroid poisoning threatened bone destruction that could cripple her for life. We endured sleepless nights after a physician uttered “amputation” while examining pictures of one of Dede’s ankles.
We spent 2015 in clinics and hospitals, with Dede recovering from a series of leading-edge surgeries to restore life to her joints. A condition associated with the disease has left her in chronic pain from head to toe, but none of it ended “tornado” cleans, Dede’s work as a political consultant or her indefatigable parenting and voluntarism.
Through it all, Dede managed to continue her volunteer ministry as arts and environment director for St. Peter’s Church, across the street from our home in Monument, Colorado.
Our parish is blessed with several parishioners who belong to the Order of Malta, and they quickly took interest in Dede’s health challenges. I was vaguely familiar with the order, but had no knowledge that its central mission was service to the poor and sick.
The order was founded in Jerusalem around AD 1040, and today consists of 13,500 Knights and Dames in 54 countries.
Knight Bill and Dame Eileen Maggio, parishioners in our church, encouraged Dede to seek healing in the waters of Lourdes. The Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in the French village, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in 1858.
We had no idea how the middle-class working mother of young dependent children would up and travel to France. Soon, we learned God – through the hearts and hands of Malta — would turn obstacles to dust.
Dede applied to the order, with letters from her physicians and our parish priest. As we scrambled to finance the trip, the Maggios informed us the order would cover all costs. Dede would attend as a “malade,” along with others patients from our parish, our community and other regions of the western United States. I would accompany as a “companion.” Generous donations collected by our parish’s chapter of the Knights of Columbus paid my portion of the trip.
We traveled from Denver to Los Angeles, where we boarded a jumbo jet chartered by the Order of Malta’s Western Association U.S.A. On board were Knights, Dames, malades and companions from throughout the western United States. The Western Association makes two pilgrimages a year to Lourdes, one in which Knights and Dames care for 50 malades, and another in which 50 young people accompany members of the order to assist pilgrims and the sick at the shrine to Our Lady’s apparitions.
On the plane and in Lourdes, Knights and Dames treat malades and their companions as royalty. Some of the order’s members are physicians, nurses or other medical professionals. Malades are old and young, with conditions ranging from debilitating pain, to amputated limbs to illness threatening imminent death. Medical assistance is never more than moments away, and malades are wheeled around the village and surrounding area in special carts kept in a parking lot at a hotel reserved for the pilgrimage.
In Lourdes, Knights and Dames prayed with us, dined with us, laughed with us, cried with us and frequently escorted us to and from the grotto where St. Bernadette discovered a spring after Our Lady told her to dig in the dirt.
Nothing is expected in return from malades and their companions. It is a debt we could never repay, and one the order refuses to acknowledge exists. When people ask what this is all about, it is difficult to describe. The best I can conjure is “an outpouring of unconditional love.” In Lourdes, I tell them, the sick and dying are treated the way American culture treats the rich and famous. They represent an opportunity to give, which is what Malta’s Knights and Dames crave in trying to emulate Christ.
Since the trip, Dede, I and our children have experienced an outpouring of God’s grace that cannot be adequately described. Dede continues with health challenges, but she has been blessed with the preservation of her limbs and mobility. Her immense faith has grown stronger, and my view of humanity has never been more positive.
Today, we will spend time in front of the Blessed Sacrament thanking God for Our Lady of Lourdes. We’ll also thank the Order of Malta for indulging us in Our Lady’s love, and her direct connection to Jesus and the healing grace of his Father.