Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:24, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” speak of a deep truth of our faith. There is much suffering on this side of heaven, and as disciples, we are charged to offer that suffering to Christ, unite ourselves to Him in His crucifixion, and glorify God through the way we handle it all.
This is a reality Paul DeZeeuw knows all too well. As he walked his wife, Julene, through her battle with brain cancer two years ago, Paul and Julene felt the weight of their own crosses in ways many of us never will. Yet, to hear Paul tell his story, it is clear that the great suffering they endured brought them both closer to one another and to Christ.
Paul and Julene met in college. Paul was a Presbyterian not sure what he wanted to do with his life, and Julene was a practicing Catholic.
“I studied philosophy in college and thought about becoming a minister,” Paul says. “But then I met this Catholic girl, and I fell in love.”
After marrying and having their first child, Paul and Julene found their way to Montevideo, where Paul got his first post-college job as an elementary school teacher. However, after teaching for a few years, Paul decided he wanted a change of pace and left education to pursue a music career.
“I was a talented musician with dreams of becoming a professional one,” Paul says. “But I made some big career decisions without praying on them, and that’s when things started to fall apart!”
Paul had taken a sales job at a music store, and he was also playing music on the side while Julene was working in a school as a paraprofessional. The couple was making ends meet, but barely, as Paul tells it. On top of that, Paul had fallen away from practicing any faith, and while Julene was still taking the children — by then, they had three — to Mass, Paul was watching things crumble.
“There we were, barely making ends meet,” Paul says. “Then, all of a sudden, the business I was working for closed down. I was jobless and I didn’t know what to do!”
And though he was not practicing any faith at the time, Paul turned to the Bible.
“I started reading my Bible and asking the Lord, ‘What do you want me to do?’” Paul says.
Through that prayer, Paul found his calling to go back to school and get his Master’s in Special Education.
At about the same time, Fr. Casey, who was the pastor of St. Joseph at the time, approached Paul and asked him if he would mentor a class of young boys who were preparing to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.
“I told Fr. Casey, ‘You know I’m not Catholic,’” Paul says. “And I remember he said, ‘I know, but you will be!’ I knew the Bible well, and he believed I would have an impact on the young men.”
While that surely was the case, Paul sings Fr. Casey’s praises much more than his own.
“Fr. Casey had a big impact on my life,” Paul says. “He believed in me, and when he invited me to join him for classes on the Catholic faith, I was quick to say yes!”
Not long after that, Paul came into the Church, and then he, like Julene, became an active parishioner.
“I’ve always played music,” Paul says. “So I began playing music for the Church.”
Paul also got involved in Bible studies and served as a catechist. Julene served as a lector and an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, in addition to also being involved in Bible studies and more. Life was good!
And then, in September 2021, it felt like the rug was pulled out from under them when Julene was diagnosed with brain cancer. The doctors told Julene she had three to six months to live, and Paul’s world was shaken like it had never been before!
Presented with a cross heavier than he could fathom carrying, Paul ran to Christ! He found a church near the hospital, and he fell to the ground.
“I laid prostrate, tears streaming down my face, begging God not to take Julene,” Paul says. “It was a deeply emotional experience.”
And then, when Paul brought Julene home where together they would carry the cross of cancer, he again ran to the Lord.
“There were so many prayers offered,” Paul says. “People prayed for us. We prayed together. You know, you pray for healing, you know God can heal, and you hope He will do that. But even as we realized that God was not going to heal Julene, there was a deep sense of peace in knowing God was here, and He was in control.”
What’s more, throughout the months of suffering — which Paul is quick to point out wasn’t so much suffering as it was peaceful pain — the couple experienced little miracles. These small acts of God made His presence known and gave them joy in the midst of suffering.
“We planted raspberries,” Paul says. “Julene loved to garden, and she loved raspberries. She couldn’t get out to the raspberry patch at that point, so it was left to me to water them. I watered them daily for her, and that fall they produced so much fruit! We would have raspberry smoothies together every other night as a treat! They were delicious! It was a little miracle!”
Paul also remembers days when Julene had gotten strong enough to use a walker. She could walk out to her garden and enjoy the beauty of it all. And then one day, she couldn’t! As Paul remembers Julene’s final days, he insists that it was the prayers of others that got him and Julene and their entire family through.
“The support of others in times like these is so important,” Paul says. “We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and we are carrying the cross for one another. I have come to realize that.”
Even today, as Paul continues to live without his beloved bride, he insists that it is prayer that gets him through.
“I want to thank so many people who prayed for us and continue to pray for me,” Paul says. “The Lord has been very good to me, and I thank Him for that.”
Indeed! Even in the hard times, God has carried Paul through, and Paul gives all the glory to God!
“Julene and I had 53 years together,” Paul says. “Our life together brought some trials and tribulations, and we were given tremendous blessings! I thank God for His love that brought us together!”