His Undying Faith
Ten years after losing his small son to a brain tumor, Jim Boland calls upon HIS UNDYING FAITH as he finds himself facing his own lethal brain cancer.

November 26, 2006

Sunday Beacon News

Story by Angela Fornelli

Jim Boland's eyes are closed, his head leaned back on the pillow. "The body of Christ," the woman said, lifting a wafer of bread in front of him.

Slowly, Jim opened his lips, just wide enough for the bread. He didn't have the strength to say "Amen" before taking his communion. Soon, he will only be able to swallow the tiniest of pieces, and the remainder will be given to Debbie, his wife of almost 27 years.

husband Jim in their home in Batavia. Jim lost his long, spirited battle with cancer in October, two weeks before his 49th birthday. (Craign Watson/Staff photographer) But he would keep receiving it, every morning, just as he has for the past year and a half. It is what has kept him alive. It is his strength, his hope, his everything.

Jim and Debbie know what is to come. They've been through this before, with their 6-year-old son Mitch. The boy, too, was in a hospital bed in that same family room for months as an aggressive tumor slowly took over his brain. He, too, fought every morning to tell Debbie he loved her -- even if it was just with his eyes. He, too, pledged to stay alive.
As Jim's time drew nearer to the end, those memories of Mitch from more than a decade ago began repeating in Debbie's mind. She remembered that night she told her little boy he no longer had to hang on for her, and that God would take care of him in heaven.
Debbie remembered cradling her son for five hours after he drew his last breath -- until Jim told her it would be OK, that it was time for Mitch to be taken away.

This time, Debbie was afraid, Jim would be the one to be taken away, and he wouldn't be there to tell her it would be OK.

'Borrowed Little Angel'

In the year and a half since Jim was diagnosed, the sadness of Mitch's death has felt all too present for this Batavia couple, who had five surviving children. But they also knew Mitch was with them as their angel. They took it as a sign, on the day Jim was diagnosed, when they saw a statue of dolphins in the hospital courtyard: Mitch swam with dolphins shortly before he died, and the family adopted the animal as a symbol for the boy.

From then on, Jim and Debbie knew their "Borrowed Little Angel" -- as was inscribed on Mitch's gravestone -- would continue to be their angel in death. Jim and Debbie believe Mitch led them to Dr. Ramsis Ghaly, an Aurora brain surgeon known for his deep faith in God and his belief in doing everything possible to preserve life. Twice, during Jim's battle with his cancer, Ghaly performed radical procedures that many surgeons wouldn't do: Jim had the most cancerous, most aggressive form of tumors, and they were already showing signs of spreading. By the books, operating would only extend Jim's life for a couple months, at most.

"These two beautiful people always had faith," Ghaly said of the Bolands. "They'd say, 'We're not going to give up.'"

Little more than a year after his first surgery in January of 2005, the cancer spread to the other side of his brain. Those tumors were then removed, and Jim survived for nearly another seven months. In his medical reports, Ghaly repeatedly called it "miraculous." He knew it was not his masterful surgery skills keeping Jim alive; it was Jim's faith.

Messages of support

Jim and Debbie came home after Jim's first surgery to find 43 messages from friends and family on their answering machine. "People from everywhere are just praying, and that's what he needs," Debbie later said.

In the year following that surgery, Jim grew even closer to the God he'd been faithful to his whole life. Every morning, when he woke up, he'd make a sign of the cross over a photo of Jesus, Mary and Joseph that hung in his bedroom. On his way down the stairs, he'd kiss the painting of Mitch that hung in the hallway.

He and Debbie went to 8 a.m. Mass every day. They went to a healing Mass every Tuesday night at Holy Cross Church in Batavia, and said the rosary with a group every Wednesday night.

Much of the time, Jim would focus his prayers not on himself, but on others. "He used to come pray for my son who had cancer," said Mike Riordan of Batavia, a friend from Annunciation Church. "That's the kind of guy he is."

On many days that year, Jim was able to make it to his job as a carpenter -- a vocation that 15 years prior allowed him to build his home in Batavia. He traveled as much as possible with the kids and Debbie, who works for U.S. Airways. Often, Debbie was able to get off work to take care of her husband.

That summer, more than 600 people showed up to a benefit held in Jim's honor.

Health, then new tumors

Every few months, Ghaly checked the progress of Jim's tumors. With each MRI, to Ghaly's surprise, Jim's brain was clear. At least for the first 14 months. But on Ash Wednesday of the next year, Jim found out two massive cancerous tumors now covered the majority of the right side of his brain, and another was growing on the left.

This time, Ghaly told the Bolands not to "waste a lot of time searching for the impossible." Jim could refrain from surgery and live another week or two in peace, or get the procedure -- at the risk of coming out without the ability to read, talk, write -- but live for about a month.

After they learned the news, Jim and Debbie left Ghaly's office to go to Mass at Annunciation in Aurora -- the church they've attended since they moved to the area about 12 years ago. Afterward, they got second and third doctors' opinions, and returned to the hospital in the afternoon.

Jim would have the surgery.

"He made it clear," Ghaly said. "He said, 'Dr. Ghaly, I want to live -- if even for two more weeks -- I want to be with my kids.'"

That night, in the hospital room, Jim and Debbie looked out the window as the sun set on the lake. "God, I'm not ready yet," Jim prayed, the ashes in the shape of a cross still on his forehead from the morning's Holy Day Mass. "Give me another year here."

He turned to his wife and told her he has always loved her and how he looked forward to renewing their vows later that month. "It's you and me forever, and I'll always take care of you," he told her. "Don't ever be mad at God."

Through all of this, Jim and Debbie have never asked, "Why me?" They've never blamed God. "We say so many prayers, and you just feel like they're going to be answered," Debbie said that evening.

By the time Jim was taken for his MRI that Ash Wednesday, the children had arrived at the hospital from Annunciation School. They, too, had ashes on their foreheads. "We can pray for Dad now," said Ryan, 7, as he climbed onto the now-empty hospital bed. Debbie joined him, cradling the child in her arms.

"I'll say the Our Father, you say the Hail Mary," 9-year-old Thomas told his brother.

And so they prayed, the two boys, their mother, and their three sisters. "God bless Daddy," Ryan said when all the prayers were completed.

Renewing their vows

Jim survived the surgery and, two weeks later, the Bolands -- high school sweethearts -- renewed their vows. The couple had grown closer than ever throughout the last year. They knew there wouldn't be much time left, but they tried not to think about it. "It hurts too badly to think about it," Debbie said. "I can't imagine my life without him."

That summer, Jim's memory slowly began to fade. He wasn't able to concentrate, couldn't always get words out. Sometimes he'd stand in front of the mirror and brush his hair over and over. Sometimes he would leave the stove on or the water running when he got out of the shower.

Tumors had now spread to all corners of Jim's brain. But Debbie made sure her husband stayed active. A couple of times, he tried to play catch in the backyard with Ryan and Thomas. "He couldn't get up off his knees," Debbie said. "But he tried; he tried."


As summer drew to a close, Jim talked a lot about heaven.

"He said, 'It's going to be beautiful,'" Debbie remembers. "'I'm going to see Mitch, and I'll give him a big hug and tell him how much his mom loves him.'"

Debbie could sense Jim knew his time was coming. One morning after church in mid-August, while the couple was at the Waffle House in Batavia, she asked Jim if he felt his condition was worsening.

Jim told her, "Just like summer is going to end soon, this is going to end."

Soon after, they visited Ghaly, and together, they decided it was time to bring hospice care into their home. The hospital bed was placed in the center of the family room, where Mitch's once stood. Lying there, his vision failing him, Jim would face the spiritual candles, statues of dolphins and family photos that decorated the fireplace.

On the first Wednesday evening after he came home, Jim was motionless as 30 people from his rosary group gathered in his home. Tim McLean kneeled next to his dying friend and told him how inspiring he has been to everyone, and how powerful an example he set when he came to Mass last Sunday.

With a strong gasp for breath in between each word, Jim replied, "I'm thankful that I can be here."

Debbie sat next to her husband, holding the rosary made from the roses that had been at Mitch's funeral. Quietly, she said the prayers as she twisted the beads between her finger and thumb. Jim remained still, holding the crucifix in his palm, his eyes watching the beads dangling from his hand.

'Lord hear our prayer'

The prayers for Jim continued.

Annunciation Church's annual Luminary Mass, held in honor of all those who've been "a light in our lives," was dedicated to the Bolands. Although Jim was unable to make it to the Mass, hundreds of people gathered around a large, illuminated crucifix that stood between two tall trees in the church's cemetery on a chilly early-October evening. In front of that crucifix was an altar adorned with two candles -- one with Jim's name on it, one with Debbie's.

"We offer this to the Boland family, who have been lights in our lives because of their faith despite their heavy cross," the priest said. "We pray to the Lord."

"Lord, hear our prayer."

Wearing his ring

Eventually, Jim was only able to speak a few words a day: They were always "I love you." On the day before he died, Jim could only squeeze Debbie's hand three times to signify those words.

After he took communion the following morning, Debbie told him it was OK to let go, that she knew he fought hard and she didn't want him to suffer. A few hours later, Jim took his last breaths, just two weeks before his 49th birthday.

Just like with Mitch, Debbie stayed in the bed next to him for five hours before even calling anyone. "I put my arm around his head and just looked at him and looked at him and looked at him," Debbie said.

When it was time to go, Debbie removed her husband's wedding ring and put it on her finger. She planned to wear it forever, just as she still often wears the ring Mitch found for her on the beach of Lake Michigan a couple weeks before he died.

'He wasn't angry'

Annunciation Church was packed to capacity at Jim's funeral Mass. The Rev. Mario Pedi told the story of how, at one of the last masses Jim was able to attend, he knelt and touched the statue of Jesus that sat on the altar. "He knew Jesus suffered more for him and you and me than anyone else," he said. "We need more people like Jim, and we can be, because we heard his words."

Later, at the cemetery, the sun shone brightly despite the weather reports of rain on that mid-October afternoon. "I think all of us know people that help us see God, and Jim is one of those people that helped me see God," said the Rev. Tom Paul, who Jim and Debbie have known since high school. "He wasn't angry even though he suffered and was hurt, but Jim just gave. He gave deeply and sincerely ... He is now our saint."

Debbie wiped the dirt away from Mitch's gravestone, and swiped her hand across the words, "Our Borrowed Little Angel."

"You've got company now," she told her boy as Jim's casket was lowered into the ground.