In this post, I continue my series of “God-Encounters” – providential meetings with amazing people. This encounter happened two years ago and left a deep impression on me.
Tours of the Vatican
One of my favorite activities here in Rome is giving tours in the Vatican. For me, it is more than a side-job – it’s a rewarding ministry: there is nothing like accompanying pilgrims as they encounter the rich artistic heritage with which the Eternal City abounds. There is something very special about watching someone walk into the Sistine Chapel for the first time and marvel at Michelangelo’s frescoes. I have found that in those moments of wonder, people are made vulnerable by beauty and become more sensitive to spiritual truths: it is a privileged moment to communicate the Gospel.
However, I have also found also that I am not always the one doing the preaching. On some occasions, the people on my tours teach me lessons more profound than anything I could ever offer. This is was the case when I met Mike and Kiara McCoy.
A Green Bay Packer and His Wife
Mike McCoy was a star defensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers. In 1970, he was drafted out of Notre Dame University, the second pick of the first round. He went on to have a successful career with the Packers, as well as with the Oakland Raiders and New York Giants, before retiring in 1980. At 6-foot-5, he still has the commanding presence that accompanied him on the field, so it was not hard to find him in St. Peter’s Square where I met him with his wife Kiara (who went by “Kia”), his son Caleb, and his two granddaughters. Caleb was pushing his mother in a wheelchair since she was suffering from cancer.
After our tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, I accepted their kind invitation to join them for lunch. As I accompanied Kia to the taxi stand, I found out that she was suffering from the same rare form of cancer from which my mother was suffering: leiomyosarcoma. Kia’s had progressed so much what it was necessary to amputate part of her leg, thus confining her to a wheelchair. She knew that her time was probably limited, but she was not letting that stop her from joining her family for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe.
Over lunch, I had a conversation with Kia that left me inspired. When she met her husband, she was a gifted figure skater, but after their marriage she decided to hang up her skates in order to dedicate herself entirely to her children. Years later, with her children grown and out of the house, she decided to take to the rink again. She trained and trained for months, eventually going to compete in the 2012 International Adult Figure Skating Championships where she won first place in her division skating to the music of Amazing Grace.
However, not long after this amazing accomplishment she noticed an unusual lump on her leg. She went to the doctors and discovered that it was cancerous tumor.
As she shared with me the spiritual journey that began with the discovery of cancer, my admiration for her increased all more – I realized that I was not only speaking to a woman of great will power and athletic talent, but to a woman of tremendous faith.
She told me that from the very beginning of her battle with cancer she told the Lord, “Do not let me miss any blessing that can come from this illness.” She determined that she would not spend her last days wallowing in self-pity, but would actively strive to live her life to the full, loving others day-in and day-out with all of her heart. She told me that she wanted to be like Jesus at the Last Supper: even though he was approaching his death, and even though he was fully aware of that fact, he went out of his way to lovingly serve his apostles, humbling himself to the point of washing their feet.
Jesus loved his own to the end, and she wanted to do no less.
Learning from Kia
In many ways, Kia reminded me of my own mother, another woman of great faith who was courageously battling sarcoma cancer. Like my own mother, Kia exuded maternal loved and concern with everyone she met, so, even though I only spent the better part of one day with her, I felt like I had known her for much longer.
This encounter with Kia McCoy took place at the beginning of March 2013. After exchanging contact information, we went our different ways, promising to pray for each other.
Several weeks later, on Holy Thursday, March 28, 2013, I received word that Kia had passed away that very day.
I went to the chapel to pray for the repose of her soul and was there struck my an amazing coincidence: in our conversation, Kia had told me that she wanted to live her final days the way Christ had lived his final day, and Christ had acknowledged her desire by calling her home on Holy Thursday, the memorial of the last full day before his death!
This coincidence touched me deeply, as did Kia’s amazing faith. Her example helped me prepare for a personal trial that would come a year later as I watched my own mother die from the same cancer. In her final weeks, I gained strength not only from my mother’s amazing faith but also from the lesson that I had learned from Kia.
I have no doubt that my mom and Kia have already connected in Heaven. I also have no doubt that both of them continue to help and guide their respective families with the maternal love and care that characterized their lives on earth.
To learn more about Kia and her inspiring life, check out the book written by her son Caleb McCoy: Angel on Ice.