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April 24, 2016 / Kerry Alys Robinson

Choosing Joy: Celebrating the Life of Mary Ann Wasil (May 7, 1964 – April 15, 2016)

Mary Ann Wasil

Mary Ann did not just choose the Scriptural readings for today, she lived them. Every day. With intention.

Years ago Fr. Bob Beloin and I went to Greenwich Hospital to visit Mary Ann. She had been admitted in preparation for a bilateral mastectomy, one of hundreds of informed health decisions she would make in order to extend her vibrant, joyful, meaningful life and to spend as much time with the three people she most cherished, her children, Betsy, Mary, and Eddy. Despite the occasion, she lit up when we entered her hospital room – as though it were one in a string of celebrations the universe had arranged for her. At her request, we prayed with her and blessed her. She beckoned us closer and conspiratorially told us that she had written a note for her surgeon and the surgical team. She wanted us to read the note. Only with Mary Ann’s quintessential flair for the dramatic and penchant for the unconventional, her note, in ink, was written across her magnificent torso. [Well, in fairness, it was an effective way to get her message across!] With characteristic aplomb, she opened her hospital gown so that we could read the note. It said, “For when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong.”

Absolutely central to this extraordinary woman and the inescapably positive effect she had on people (her closest friends and random passersby alike) was her faith. She really believed in the Good News. The good news of Scripture and the Eucharist. The good news of God’s abundant love for humankind. The good news of hope as a living, force of nature. The good news of serving and loving others. The good news of endless miracles in everyday, common, ordinary life.

“For when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong.” This was a life motto for Mary Ann. Like St. Paul, she understood this as surrendering to God all that was beyond her control, rendering herself entirely vulnerable before God in order to draw strength, and confidence, and peace from that primary, loving, relationship.

She would often tell me, “I know I can get through this, Kerry, as long as I don’t take my eyes off of the cross.” This was a hallmark of her faith, a way of being in the world well before any health challenge. She looked outward at the world – with eyes wide open – and genuinely anguished over the suffering of others. She had enormous compassion and solidarity for those bearing the effects of war, gun violence, poverty, inequality, racism, sexism, illness, and loss. Her heart broke a hundred times a week at the privation and sorrows of people around her and around the globe.

But she put her entire trust in that cross. She tied our suffering and her suffering to God’s suffering.

And that was the source of her irrepressible joy.

Because for Mary Ann, the cross was never the end of the story. For Christianity, Christ’s suffering and death is never the final chapter but the herald to the Resurrection and God’s promise of new life.

This faith-filled way of living in the world for nearly 40 years was the reason she was able to take the news of her breast cancer diagnosis and convert it to be a blessing for others. Mary Ann founded the Get in Touch Foundation to change the world one girl at a time and advance breast health advocacy. She had an insatiable belief in the importance of girls and women to be informed and strong. And she believed, as the Gospel reading illuminated, that service was the pathway to joy, purpose, and eternal life.

This way of being in the world was why the cancer center, the most incongruous of places, became the locus for sacred encounter. Her healing team bore witness to the way – in the company of courageous, diverse women with whom she shared a health solidarity that was breathtaking – she turned treatments into occasions of compassion, irreverence, shared tears, uproarious laughter, and sacramental grace. And make no mistake, she was the great priestess.

Mary Ann died during the Easter Season – a liturgical season signified by 50 days of joyful celebration. Its almost as though she scripted it! We talked about her funeral on occasion over the years and each time she said, “I want it to be about joy.” Vibrant colors, fabulous shoes, exquisite music, grace, style, laughter in reminiscence. I begged her to allow for the possibility of some tears. Mercifully, she relented on that point. And then she said, “I know there might be tears. Just remind people that I want them to choose joy when they think of me.”

She had a wild affection for Catholic nuns. Sr. Simone Campbell, of Nuns on the Bus fame, described Mary Ann as “a great missionary for truth and joy.” Mary Ann loved this title and said it was her favorite way to be described…except for one other title: Mom.

With her children, she prayed before every meal, grateful for those who grew the food and who prepared the food. She would always pray for you – her most fortunate dining companion. Always other-centered, she would pray for the concerns of those in want or pain, or those whose dignity in any way was being compromised. And for the last eight and three years, respectively, every single blessing ended with, “And God bless the Obama family and Pope Francis.”

Mary Ann’s favorite line in her favorite musical, Les Miserable, is “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Each one of you present today and the thousands of others all over the world who were positively impacted by her are the reason Mary Ann saw the face of God every single day of her life. How familiar to her must God’s face be when at last their mutual gaze is unceasing.

So what are we to do, we who in this moment bear so much heartache and longing to be in her physical presence again? How can we honor her memory, invoke her spirit, extend her legacy, console each other?

She would suggest that the catalogue of her full and beautiful life is filled with images and memories to make us smile and laugh. We can choose joy when we think of:

Her passion and enthusiasm for her children as she raised them into three of the most remarkable and self-possessed young adults the world has known.

The way she commanded a stage and a microphone.

How she navigated a flying trapeze, literally and successfully, with stage four metastatic cancer, wisely asking for forgiveness rather than permission from her oncologist.

Mary Ann as the most gorgeous cop on the set of All My Children.

Mary Ann as the most gorgeous cop on the streets of Connecticut.

Her passion for food, music, Netflix, travel, her wonderful friends and long soulful walks on the beach.

Her devotion to her dad and her care for him when he was sick.

How pretty she was in pink.

The special bond she had – has -with her sister Diane. Bibi.

Perhaps it will bring us joy to recall how mischievous, eccentric, larger-than-life she was. Political activist and proud feminist. She lit up a room with her smile, her presence, her laughter, her opinions, her shoes. The sheer embodiment of style, grace, radiance and hope.

Once fortified with these and hundreds of personal memories and images each of you has of Mary Ann, take to heart a few of her life’s maxims:

  • Hope Lives
  • Be grateful.
  • Serve others.
  • Never, ever let a great pair of shoes pass you by.
  • Have ice cream for breakfast.
  • Laugh with your whole being.
  • Hug completely and for a few seconds longer than you think is wise or polite.
  • Marvel at your children and light up in their presence.
  • Don’t waste one minute of your time being anything other than fully alive.
  • Smile radiantly.
  • Think big.
  • Be generous.
  • Surround yourself with people who ennoble your spirit.
  • Never complain about getting old. It is a luxury.
  • Be the biggest, best version of yourself.
  • Thank a nun!
  • Know your priorities.
  • Celebrate what is right in order to find the energy to fix what is wrong.
  • Tell the person you love how much you love him or her. Show them how much you love them. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
  • Every day, every single day, choose joy.

And finally, after exhausting the images and maxims of our beautiful Mary Ann, let what she has written, in her own words, take root in our own lives that we might have the faith, the truth and the joy she evinced so effectively and well.

It is a beautiful thing to give of yourself to someone you want nothing from in return.  When their peace of mind, their comfort, or their joy is the only thing that matters to you…you are treading upon life giving and holy ground.

It’s not limited to cancer centers, my friends, find the holy ground in your life…reach out to someone in need of comfort or joy.  Share without wanting anything in return.  Bless others with all you have been blessed with.

You’ve never really lived until you do.

Hope Lives!” – Mary Ann Wasil.



One Comment

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  1. debreen / Apr 24 2016 9:09 pm

    Thank you for sharing Mary Ann’s life and loves!

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