WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
MaryJo Gariano called on the Lord's help when faced with her children's disabilities.
Through her five daughters, MaryJo Gariano and her family have learned what it takes to live in community with people with disabilities.
Gariano has two daughters with a rare neurodegenerative disorder, which causes them to have multiple disabilities.
Born and raised in Edmonton, Gariano is the eldest of four daughters of parents who emigrated from Italy a few months before she was born. Her third sister died in 1991, at age 27, from cystic fibrosis. Her father had a chronic blood disease for most of his life, of which he died in 2002.
"I grew up with a lot of people in my life having chronic diseases," she said.
She and her husband Tom, a realtor for most of his career, have been married for 37 years.
"We had dreams like most young couples to get married and have children and buy a house and live happily after. However, it was not going to be that way for us," she explained.
Gariano was the guest speaker at the monthly Edmonton Catholic charismatic prayer breakfast, held June 8 at the Chateau Louis Conference Centre.
Gariano's first daughter, Angie, was born in April 1977. She initially appeared to be healthy, but Gariano grew concerned when, at 22 months old, her daughter's speech was a bit slow. By this time, a second daughter, Theresa, had been born in March 1979.
"Once I had my second daughter, I thought to myself, 'How perfect, two girls.' Life couldn't get any better than this," said Gariano.
But upon returning home from the hospital with Theresa, Angie did not seem herself. Her altered behaviour was chalked up to jealousy of the new baby. Later that day, however, Angie went into status epilepticus, a medical emergency in which the brain is in a state of nonstop seizures.
"Having just gotten home with a beautiful new baby and then to have my precious oldest daughter rushed to emergency was quite traumatic to say the least. I prayed at least that God wouldn't let her die - and he didn't," said Gariano.
The fact that God responded to her prayer was the first indication that the Lord was intervening in her life in a big way.
While she adjusted to her new baby at home, Angie underwent a battery of tests. The distraught mother was diagnosed with postpartum disorder, as well as dealing with the distress of having a daughter with an unknown neurological disorder. It was a double trauma. As well, Angie developed red measles.
"In addition to my depression, I was dealing with quite a bit of anxiety. The doctor tried me on antidepressants but I stopped them after a few doses due to bad side effects. I became increasingly tired and anxious, and even feared to go to sleep at night for fear that I would die," said Gariano.
The Lord intervened a second time. She dreamed that she had died and met Jesus at the end of a tunnel. In the dream, Jesus wrapped her in a blanket, and said, "See? That wasn't so bad." The dream indicated to her that dying was bearable, so she should not be afraid of death.
"After that dream, I was no longer afraid to go to sleep at night and haven't been since. The Lord gave me rest," she said.
In August 1979, after watching the Christian TV program 100 Huntley Street, she decided to dedicate her life to the Lord. Despite being raised Catholic and attending Catholic schools (St. Andrew's and Archbishop MacDonald), she had never committed herself to a closer walk with Jesus until then.
Doctors diagnosed Angie with encephalitis, an acute inflammation of the brain, and said she would always be "slow but trainable."
In 1981, their third daughter Sarah was born. She was a large, healthy baby.
"When Sarah was born, there were rainbows outside of the Charles Camsell Hospital two days in a row. This was quite unusual as it was mid-December. I thought it was a sign of promise from the Lord, just like the rainbow that he gave Noah after the great flood."
When Sarah was 13 months, the couple had a fourth daughter whom they named Gina. Five months after Gina's birth, Sarah started showing signs of ataxia, a slight tremor to the upper body. Her unsteadiness was similar to what Angie had experienced years before.
In October 1983, both girls went to a children's hospital in Toronto for further tests. Rather than encephalitis, the tests confirmed that Angie and Sarah had a rare neurological disorder that was genetic. Doctors told her the girls would not live beyond 20 years of age.
Sarah is now 31 and Angie is 36. Gariano referred to this as the Lord's third intervention.
Both girls lost the ability to walk and require wheelchairs.
When she was pregnant again, MaryJo and Tom worried that their fifth child in eight years would have the same neurological disease. They had another daughter, Anne, who was born healthy and without the same condition. Anne was a blessing right from the start, and completed their family – the Lord's fourth intervention.
"It shows to us how we really have to hang onto the Lord when we're going through these really hard times with these unexpected pregnancies," said Gariano.
While her husband does not share in her faith, he does not prevent her from attending prayer meetings and church. He has remained a support and strength for his wife and five daughters.
Gariano has managed a group home where two of her daughters with disabilities have resided for the past 20 years.
"I give all of the credit to the Lord. Without him, I wouldn't be here today. We have been so blessed to have Angie and Sarah in our lives, and also to be able to share their lives with others," she concluded.
"Someone once said that success is doing what you're supposed to do. I believe that I am doing what the Lord has called me to do."