“I see more clearly and love more fully today than ever before,” says John Urbanski who is legally blind and lost his wife to cancer. He attributes his life experience and his relationship with God to opening his eyes and his heart, to overcome a life filled with challenge and tragedy.
John was born with Retinitis Pigmentosa, an inherited disease that causes degeneration of the retina, resulting in gradual decline of vision. He wasn’t diagnosed until 1993 when his ophthalmologist noticed a retinal tear and referred him to the Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary. It was there that he met Dr. Eliott Berson, of The Foundation's Research Center, Berman-Gund Laboratory for the Study of Retinal Degenerations at Harvard Medical School. Berson is a pioneer in the field of retinal conditions. John had the opportunity to participate in a clinical trial, but was told that based on the progression of his disease, he could expect to be blind by the age of 30.
“I convinced myself I would halt deterioration and I really believed that I would not lose my eyesight. I did visualization exercises and tried to live a healthy lifestyle.”
John had attended Indiana State University where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology in 1991, and it was there that his relationship with God really developed further. He had a strong devotion to Jesus and to His mother Mary, and attended daily Mass faithfully at St. Joseph University Parish. He attributes his spirituality to solid Roman Catholic roots, a faith tradition instilled in him by his father Ed and particularly by his mother, Mary Urbanski.
While pursuing his Masters degree there, he became involved in a counseling program, and that experience of helping others, prompted him to realize a calling to the priesthood. He stopped his graduate studies and applied to St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, Connecticut. After one semester, he was dismissed by the Archdiocese of Hartford, citing that he could not continue due to his “medical condition”. Upon hearing this upsetting news, he made his way to the Cape Cod area in Massachusetts for a few days respite. He soon found himself serendipitously chatting with Monsignor John Smith, who coincidentally or not, turned out to be the vocation director for the Archdiocese of Fall River. He recommended that John talk with Bishop (now Cardinal) Sean O’Malley. John remembers well what the Cardinal told him during that meeting.
“There is a place for you in the church whether you lose your eyesight today or tomorrow.”
With that, John’s pursuit and passion for a vocation in the priesthood was reignited and he was assigned to the St. Stanislaus Parish in Fall River, MA in January 1995. After living in the rectory with the priest and a seminarian for several months, he came to realize that although he loved the ministry of the priesthood, he didn’t believe he could commit to a lifetime of celibacy. He returned home to Connecticut.
He dated off and on, always looking for love in all the wrong places, but never thought he would get married. But a couple years later, while attending a charismatic prayer group in Manchester, he met Joan Napolatano. He went there in search of emotional healing and Joan was looking for another kind of healing. She had just been diagnosed with a recurrence of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma after three years in remission.
“She was distraught and devastated,” says John. He describes her as a modelesque blonde who was physically attractive and she caught his attention. “She had poise. But I wasn’t looking for a relationship. Prayer group was out of bounds territory for that. I wasn’t there to date people.”
But they started talking and found an instant connection with the initial draw being their spirituality. They had much in common in how they viewed God as a source of comfort and healing during their trials and tribulations, challenges in life that they both knew too well.
“I completely fell in love, like I never had before. It was the first time I had a real understanding of selflessness. I loved her unconditionally,” admits John, who confesses that he had been somewhat self-centered much of his life. His family didn’t approve of his new found adoration. He was young, and had never been married. She was older, divorced, was unemployed, had two teenage kids, and cancer.
“I loved her regardless of all that,” says John. “I would have done anything to support her. And I knew with every fiber of my being that was where I needed to be. As it was with my belief that my eyesight would not falter, I had the same belief that love would cure cancer.”
They married in June of 1999. While most of their relationship was spent at Hartford Hospital, they continued to explore every possible alternative therapy in conjunction with traditional medicine. But in December of 2000, after only 18 months of marriage, Joan lost her battle with cancer.
John is a campus minister and religion teacher at East Catholic High School now, following some version of the vocation that led him to explore the priesthood. While continuing to wear his wedding ring, he dated occasionally but admits he never thought he would find another companion for life’s journey. During meditation one day he sensed Joan telling him to finally take his ring off and when he did, he met a new colleague and they became fast friends. They went out for dinners, attended events and their friendship developed into something more.
“I found love again with her. We have a connection. (John prefers not to mention her name). “She exudes spirituality, intelligence, compassion, and inner strength. I expect I might get married again, but there’s no rush,” says John. “I’m open to whatever God has in store. I don’t need marriage to complete me, but I enjoy spiritual companionship.”
Although he is 43 now, long past the age when he was told he would be blind, he can still see. Technically, he is legally blind. He gets around with the help of his friend Lucy, the pet name he has given to his white cane. Various electronic aids help with his vision in other ways. John Urbanski is a perpetual optimist who believes his faith and his unconditional love for Joan has opened his eyes and his heart toward a new way of being and a new way of loving. Despite contemplating marriage again, he continues to wonder what life might have been like if his relationship with Joan had been longer.
“I’ll always wonder, what if?”