Photo: Felix Carroll
Father Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, Bobby Digan, and Maureen Digan pray at Faustina's tomb in Poland in 1981.
By Felix Carroll (Mar 28, 2011)
The following is the first in a two-part series.
When you sit at their dining room table and the earth starts shaking, which it does from time to time, Bob and Maureen Digan don't even blink. The windows rattle. The floor trembles. They're used to it.
You would be excused for thinking to yourself, So this is how life goes when you experience a miracle that leads to the beatification of a Polish mystic whose revelations have changed the world: The earth itself must continually adjust under the weight of it all.
Seeing my perplexed expression during a recent visit, Bob and Maureen calmly explain that the shaking is not the manifestation of a supernatural act of God, but rather from explosives at the nearby marble quarry. Oh, well.
Indeed, the only thing that seems out of the ordinary about Bob and Maureen Digan is how ordinary they seem today. They live quietly in a modest house in western Massachusetts, on a working-class street, in a tiny, old mill town. They drive a minivan.
And yet their lives interlock at the very epicenter of the mission given to St. Maria Faustina (1905-38), the "Apostle of The Divine Mercy," whom the Lord entrusted to "prepare the world for My final coming" (Diary of St. Faustina, 429).
March 28 marks 30 years since Bob and Maureen experienced a miracle through the intercession of this humble Polish nun. Thirty years later, Bob is still "Bob," the guileless, gentle, self-deprecating Marine veteran with the thick East Boston accent and unflappable faith. Maureen is still "Maureen," with the weariness and wisdom of the world, whose no-nonsense manner extends to most things, even her own maladies, even her own miracle.
She's still Maureen, wheel-chair-bound, who quite reluctantly found herself before the tomb of Faustina in Poland on the evening of March 28, 1981, and who said, "OK, Faustina, I came a long way, now do something." Maureen was healed on the spot from Melroy's lymphedema, an incurable disease.
She's matter-of-fact about most matters, except Bobby, their boy who died 20 years ago. The straight facts about Bobby hardly suffice, which is one way of proving that Bob and Maureen are still of this world. They still struggle. They still suffer. Like everyone else.
"Life goes on," says Bob, who's sipping coffee from a mug. The mug is emblazoned with the words, "The Man, The Myth, The Legend" — not far from the mark, any of it. Bob Digan's life does seem the stuff of legend.
Despite the fact he was raised in a highly dysfunctional family, he remained steadfast in his Catholic faith.
Despite the fact he had only just laid eyes on her for the first time, he vowed then and there, back in 1959, that he would someday marry Maureen.
Despite the fact she spent most of her teen years in a hospital bed and eventually had to have her right leg amputated, his love for her only grew. And this was just the beginning.
Despite the fact all would soon appear bleak beyond measure for him and his young family, Bob trusted in God. His trust would eventually give proof to St. Faustina's promise before her death of "boundless action" for the sake of poor souls who turn with trust to God's mercy.
A fixed point of faith
It wasn't love at first sight for Maureen. She's one to weigh the facts. God Himself would have to wait. So would Bob Digan.
"Dixie Digan" was what his buddies called him. His neighborhood bordered Boston's Logan Airport, with its eternal clamor of jet engines and furious movement of humanity. In this atmosphere, to seize a quiet, fixed point could be viewed nearly as an act of rebellion. His quiet, fixed point became the Catholic faith — his parish church, his prayer life.
Maureen Cahill, the child of devout Catholics who immigrated from Ireland, grew up in Brookline, just west of the Boston city limits. Her oldest brother, a priest, served Bob's parish. Maureen was visiting her brother one day, and that's how she and Bob met.
"I was playing drums for the drill team, practicing in the church hall," Bob recalls. "I saw five girls way at the end walking in. And I zeroed in on Maureen. I never knew her. Never met her. And I stopped drumming and said to the kid next to me: 'Buddy, I don't understand this, but someday I'm going to marry that girl.'"
He was 15 at the time. Maureen was still in grammar school. They met that night outside the church. Maureen says it took a few meetings for it to turn into "puppy love" for her.
As Maureen was beginning her sophomore year in high school, she learned she had lymphedema, a condition in which excess fluid collects in tissue and causes swelling. In her case, the swelling was in the legs. Her life would forever change. She would spend long stretches in the hospital. She would undergo more than 50 operations. She would lose her school friends. She would endure countless disappointments.
But Bob was there for her, in a Marine uniform by then. He had become her own unflustered fixed point.
"I had pushed God pretty much out of my life," says Maureen. "I didn't go to confession. I would not go to Mass. I would wonder why the other kids were so happy, and I'm not. Everything was God's fault."
Even as her parents would tell her, "It's OK. Trust in God. God is good. He'll have something special planned for you," Maureen would think, "Thanks, but no thanks."
She fell into depression, then she developed seizures. Her doctors put her on anticonvulsants, anti-depressants, and heavy seizure medications. She became addicted to these prescription drugs. "I began to want to stay in the hospital," she says, "because I felt safe there, and I didn't care if I went home or not because I no longer wanted to face reality."
Bob would come up from Camp Lejeune, N.C., on weekends, an 18-hour drive Friday and then another 18-hour drive back on Sunday. When he was eventually stationed in Maine, his weekend visits continued. During that time, some of the nurses tried to influence Maureen in a bad way. "Let him go," they'd tell her. "Give him his freedom." They made her feel guilty, that Bob only visited her out of sympathy.
She'd begun to think, "He's a good Catholic, and he doesn't want to hurt me." Though she loved him, she broke up with him — "for his sake." She blamed God. And the disappointments continued. She had to have her right leg amputated above the knee. Then, it had to be amputated to the hip.
Bob walked in to her hospital room one day, a motorcycle helmet in one hand and a rose in the other. He bowed his head a bit and said, "You know, there's a girl I'd like to marry, but I'm afraid to ask her because I'm afraid she might say no." Never thinking he was referring to herself, Maureen said, "Well, why don't you ask her, Bob? All she can do is say no." He said, "Okay, will you marry me."
Before the wedding, a meeting was demanded by Maureen's doctor to inform both — but especially Bob — of Maureen's condition. She would never improve from the incurable lymphedema, the doctor said, and she might not ever be able to have children.
"It's OK, whatever God sends, we accept," Bob said. "Whatever God doesn't send, we accept."
Maureen wanted a house full of children. So did Bob.
They wed on June 6, 1970. Maureen strapped on a prosthetic leg for the first and last time. It was painful. But it enabled her to walk down the aisle and to dance to "Daddy's Little Girl."
Bobby is born
She got pregnant a couple months into the marriage. For the first time in years, she tried to trust God, to let Him into her heart. The baby died before it came to term. She blamed God.
"I don't know how Bob stayed so faithful and never complained," she says. "He kept trusting in God."
She got pregnant again. She tried to trust again. Bobby was born March 23, 1973.
For the first time in her life, she required no mountain of evidence to determine reality. Unlike her love for God, it wouldn't require a miracle. Unlike her love for Bob, it wouldn't require his persistence. She loved little Bobby the moment she set her eyes on him.
Still, the facts were these: He had brain damage. At 21 months, he had his first grand mal seizure, characterized by loss of consciousness and violent convulsions. From there, his health was like a runaway train downhill. Eventually, he lost his ability to walk and to talk. Some days his seizures occurred around the clock. On his sixth birthday, he was admitted at the hospital weighing 35 pounds. He was discharged five-and-a-half months later weighing 18 pounds and being fed through a tube. He was not expected to live for long.
Meanwhile, Maureen's limphedema worsened in her left leg.
Bob's family was falling apart.
"We had no social life. No life," Bob recalls. "I said to myself, 'What's going on here? You have two innocent people here, and they're suffering like that. Why?'"
Occasionally, they would have a reprieve from the pain. Bob would pack Maureen and little Bobby into the car and drive them to nearby Needham where they would watch the trains go by. He'd take them to have ice cream. But, for the most part, they were prisoners in their own home, or prisoners in a hospital room.
"All the while," says Bob, "I felt God must be calling us for something. I felt He had a plan for us."
Yes, God certainly did.
To be continued ... Read part 2 of Life After the Miracle.