I hadn’t expected her passing to affect me as much as it has. After all, we never met in person. It was her need for me, or what I perceived to be her need, that drew me to her. I think — I hope — that I filled an empty place in her life.
But now I have an empty place in mine.
We would not have met at all if something tragic hadn’t happened to Donna when she was 50 years old, about five years before I even knew her name. What follows is her story as best as I can recall her telling of it. Please let me introduce you, so that you may remember her as well…
A Life in Brief
Donna Marie DeGuglielmo was born on May 3, 1958 in Cambridge, Massachusetts to a proud Italian-American family. She earned a BFA in architecture from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and worked in architectural interior design in San Diego. She was very knowledgeable and concerned about healthy and environmentally safe designs and products. As a very spiritual person living in California, Donna explored different religions, and was even a massage therapist. She never had children and, as far as I know, was never married.
Then, suddenly, on an ordinary day in her apartment where she lived alone, Donna found herself crumpled on the floor, unable to move or speak. It was terrifying for her as she didn’t know was happening to her and couldn’t even cry for help. Eventually, she managed just enough movement to creep toward her phone on a table, attempting to pull it down to use it. But this didn’t work. Over who knows how long a period of time, she was finally able to crawl to the door and open it enough to yell out for someone, anyone to hear.
Donna had had a massive stroke and was suffering from paralysis. She could not talk. It was not clear whether she would survive. What she remembered from that emergency hospitalization was praying the Hail Mary prayer over and over, but the only words that came to her mind were “Hail, Mary.” Throughout her hospitalization and long recovery, the rosary provided her with not only comfort and strength, but also a practical tool for regaining memory and language functions. After being discharged to places where she could still receive care, she had to live dependently in different places, once having a terrible roommate experience that inspired a chapter in her memoir entitled “The Roommate from Hell.” (Sadly, she was never able to complete her memoir and I never got to read it.)
Someone suggested to Donna that she move back to Massachusetts, and your family, so that she could be watched over her. So she moved to Cambridge, near her older brother Danny, and continued the long rehabilitation process. The rosary continued to be a useful modality for her in this process, as well as Red Sox baseball games. She would watch them on television and keep track of all of the various statistics that happen in a game. (These things are beyond me.) By this process, she was able to regain her memory functions.
Unfortunately for Donna Marie, however, that first stroke was not her last.
She suffered from a condition that meant her brain continually suffered attacks. As I understand, she experienced periodic hemorrhagic strokes (like a cluster of brain bleeds) and one time she also had a brain stem stroke, coming close to death. She lived with serious digestive challenges, chronic migraines, and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Later, she would be diagnosed with Lyme disease, which, having been untreated for decades, added to or caused her neurological problems.
How We Met
Because of her MCS, Donna didn’t go to very many places without becoming ill. Being a pretty social person, she sought community online. That’s how I met her, through a small, interactive (now extinct) site provided by the Catholic TV network. I think she joined after I did, and I had seen some of her posts on disability and had commented on them. Then one of the great women on that site, a woman named Joan, reached out to me, expressing concern about Donna who hadn’t posted anything after a post describing how much weight she had been losing because of her illnesses. This prompted my decision to reach out directly to Donna to check on her.
Thus, our friendship began.
It was through our private communications that I learned about Donna’s strokes and also about her loneliness. Her deep and beautiful faith radiated through all of our email communications. She was funny and quirky, which I enjoyed very much. She told me how, when she would feel her lowest and weakest, sometimes so weak she could barely breathe, she would pray and know that Angels and Saints were gathering all around her, crowding around the doorways and above her head in a jamboree.
We discovered that we were both writing blogs and have the same middle name. She called us the “Marie Sisters” because of this. A creative person continually full of ideas, she would come up with blogs that we could collaborate upon, books that we could write, and marketing ideas for our blogs and future books. On her suggestion, we did start a joint Bible study forum on the Catholic site that lasted for a little while. She really wanted to have telephone conversations with me, but I turned this down over and over again. (One fact about me: I do NOT like making or receiving telephone calls.) No matter how many times I told this to Donna, she persisted in her pleas.
Please continue reading about what Donna became to me in my next post!
© 2022 Christina Chase
Although crippled by disease, I'm fully alive in love. I write about the terrible beauty and sacred wonder of life, while living with physical disability and severe dependency. A revert to the Catholic faith through atheism, I'm not afraid to ask life's big questions. I explore what it means to be fully human through my weekly blog and have written a book: It's Good to Be Here, published by Sophia Institute Press.