Share this story

 | By Matt Riedl

Life Despite Disability

Paul D’Angelo lived 41 years with spina bifida, and kept Christ at his center.

The month of September is dedicated to the Seven Sorrows of Mary.

During this month, we honor Our Lady, who suffered greatly throughout her earthly life — particularly as her son, Jesus, suffered his Passion. Those sufferings drew her ever closer to the Lord and inspire us to do the same as we face our own sufferings in life.

Cheryl and Paul D’Angelo, Sr., of Pinckney, have known their share of suffering over the past couple of decades.

Their son, Paul D’Angelo, was born with spina bifida in 1971. The condition is a birth defect that affects the spine and can cause varying levels of physical and mental disabilities. For their son, it meant never being able to walk.

At the time, doctors gave a poor prognosis. “If he lived, he would be a vegetable,” Paul Sr. remembers being told.

Cheryl and Paul Sr. ignored those dire predictions and told the doctors to do whatever they could for him.

Many surgeries later, Paul was able to live mostly as other more neurotypical children were — albeit on four wheels.

“Cheryl’s care for Paul over all those years was so diligent, so dutiful. It gave powerful testimony to the unique love that a mother has for her child. It did, indeed, mirror the love that Our Lady had for her divine son despite great sorrows and, even, to the cross,” said Deacon Dan Hall, who knew Paul for over 20 years as they worshiped together at St. Mary in Pinckney. “Cheryl was totally selfless and joyful in every movement from bringing Paul in and out of church in every type of weather. Cheryl was always making sure Paul had his seat in the front row of the pews to participate fully in Mass.”

Paul Jr. was an avid wheelchair hockey player. One of his life mottos was, “Don’t just sit there … play hockey!” He also loved fishing, euchre, bowling, playing pranks on his family and attending Mass.

In fact, the D’Angelo family was always front and center at Sunday Mass.

Cheryl said praying to Mary, as well as other saints, helped sustain their family during the tough times.

“You never think it's going to happen to you,” she said. “And to watch someone suffer, it's hard. And (Mary) went through a lot more, of course.”

Deacon Hall said Paul Jr. was a joyful presence at the parish over many years.

“We were truly privileged to be a witness to Paul’s great faith. He always sat in the front row of the church, very devoutly and with great joy and exuberance, glorifying and worshiping God despite his handicap,” Hall said.“For all those people who, somehow, find themselves too busy to go to Mass, this was a highly important part of Paul’s life. It was the highlight of his week, every week, to not only be in the presence of God and the Mass but also to be there with his family and the wider parish.”

Throughout Paul Jr.’s life, he had to undergo many surgeries, including revisions to a shunt in his brain and eventually the insertion of a feeding tube for nutrition, as his stomach atrophied away.

“He was in pain 24/7,” said Paul Sr. “But he managed to cope with it, pretty much, until it got bad.”

Paul Jr. died in 2021 after about a year of progressively worsening internal complications.

Caring for Paul was not an easy task, Cheryl and Paul Sr. said, but talk to them today and they speak of nothing but what a privilege it was to help give him the life he had.

“He had a good life for his disability,” Paul Sr. said.

“We miss him,” Cheryl added, noting, however, that she still feels his presence in her life as she goes about her daily tasks.

A memorial stone in her front yard, bearing Paul Jr.’s name, reads: “His spirit will live on forever.”

May Cheryl and Paul Sr.’s unwavering commitment to life and their son’s opportunity to experience it inspire us all to deeper holiness.

Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.