Hi, my name is Tom Braeger and I would like to tell you a little bit about myself and my walk with the Lord, thus far. I say thus far because I am still on his path hopefully, although I stumble at times, he is there to pull me back. And obviously He has not called me home yet as I am here today to give witness.
I was raised Catholic or what we like to call a cradle Catholic. Church every Sunday with my 2 older brothers and if we misbehaved we would see the wrath of God when we got home, not just during the sermon. I remember one of the regular visiting priests from my youth, not naming any names, would lean hard into the fire and brimstone vision of God in his homilies versus the “loving and forgiving” version. Luckily I was able to form my own opinions and my father would always support the loving and forgiving version of God.
This was especially true when we would get the Advent talk about “Christmas is not for Kids”, my dad would shake his head in disbelief sitting in a church filled with little ones while he described with loud passionate banging on the podium. I wondered if maybe Santa was not good to him but he was right about how we have gone off the rails with materialism in general, but it was way over the top at Christmas.
Fast forward several years and I was in college at Gannon University in my home town and believe it or not I still made the effort to alway get to Mass even as a crazy college kid. There was always the Catholic guilt, can’t miss Mass, can’t miss Mass, can’t miss Mass. Holy days other than Christmas and Easter were a bit of a blur in those days of my youth as I would recall, when was that? Oh crap, I had class or forgot or they always fell on a weird day that was not Sunday, so easy to forget… oops!
I met my wife, Analida in college during my junior year. She was an international student from Panama. She pledged my professional co-ed fraternity, we hit it off and were inseparable. I asked her, how did you find Gannon University in Erie, PA while sitting in the tropics of Panama? Her answer: She had taken a year off to make some career decisions and when her mom heard “Catholic College”, well, she was buying her the ticket to go.
To say that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach is an understatement. This girl could cook and she was amazing with her Latin food and I had never experienced anything like it.
We met in 1985, married in 1988 and raised two kids. We had our struggles parenting as most do as young parents but we alway had our faith and each other.
Around 2010 my wife began taking cooking classes at some local venues to expand her culinary skills and struck up conversations with the organizers about offering some classes on Latin food, where she had the most experience, and she started to teach her own classes. She had a keen interest and loved the connection between food and cultures. So if you met a stranger on the street, who may be foreign, as she was, you could immediately strike up a conversation about their particular traditional food that you have made or tried. What a bond or connection you feel when you can meet a stranger and have something in common!
While she was preparing her cooking classes she would write up all the recipes she was going to present in a document, print them out, then take them to the students to keep after the class. I saw her doing this work and I made a suggestion. Why don’t we put the recipes on a website so the students can just go there and just share them with family and friends? I have a professional background in ecommerce and website technologies.
She liked the idea so we began to research and we discovered this whole world of online publishing. We could turn the recipe site into an income stream, via online advertising. We started a business and in late 2013 we launched ethnicspoon.com with a focus on ethnic foods and background stories of the dish. We dug in hard to research to recreate recipes. I studied food photography to present the recipes and she wrote new content for the site nearly every night. On weekends we cooked, shot photos and published. We even changed parishes so we could get to the 4PM Mass on Saturday night and then come home and cook. I was still involved in our old parish, as I still am.
We then planned to retire a bit early, maybe early to mid-fifties if the site did well, then we could then travel to countries to get an in-depth understanding of the culture, capture the essence of the foods and then come home to publish. We had a site motto which it is grounded in love: “Bringing the world closer together one recipe at a time.”
She worked at Mercyhurst University for over 20 years and we would frequently invite international students or visiting professors to our home to share a meal. She and I loved making those personal connections and bonds you build while sitting down and sharing a meal.
She was once an international student and knew no one when she arrived, but had this energy and outgoingness to connect with people. She especially wanted those far away from home to feel at home when they were with us.
By 2018 we had published nearly 300 recipes and our traffic and revenue was growing. Analida had a growing following. During the winter of 2018 she started to have some stomach problems, not much appetite and food tasted strange. She saw her Dr. and went through many tests of her stomach etc and she pushed on.
We travelled to Ireland on a tour for our 30th wedding anniversary. At the time we thought she needed her gall bladder out, which in most cases is a piece of cake. Upon returning from the Ireland trip she started to get dizzy and fell a couple times. We were lost as to what to do. My brother who works for a large health system in our region told me to put her in the car and drive two hours to the ER at the University of Pittsburgh’s medical school’s Presbyterian Hospital. We needed some answers. This was June of 2018.
They ran some scans and found a brain tumor. The biopsy came back as cancer in the brain stem. I jumped into research and discovered that what she, we were facing was, inoperable, incurable brain cancer with about a 3% chance of 5 year survival and likely 18 months was all she had. I never told her this as we went into battle mode, whatever it took we would face it. It was in God’s hands and we had to trust.
I started my rosaries each day. I prayed the rosary from time to time but knew I would need strength to take care of her and that was my way to get it. I prayed it everyday without a miss and still do to this day.
Our daughter Erika was working in Vietnam at the time, moved home and our son Adam moved home. We pulled together as a family and were with her in the hospital as well as family from Panama who flew in.
Initially she was rapidly deteriorating, 89 pounds at 5' 2” (from 130ish pounds) and at one point, before she had started any treatment with chemo or radiation I got the call that they did not think she was going to make it as the pressure in her brain was growing. They wanted to do surgery but that would delay any chemo or radiation treatment by about 6 weeks.
I said, no surgery, she could not survive it at 89 pounds as she was withering away and how could she muster the strength to heal? She had declined so far over a week how could she wait 6 weeks? When you literally face that “life and death” decision it hits you hard and you never forget it. They told me she would likely pass in the night so we held her and I prayed to Our Lady. She made it through the night and when her doctor made his next visit to her room he used the word “miracle” in his conversation with all of us. She was then hospitalized for radiation, chemo and then transferred to a nursing home for a total of 37 days in medical care.
I lived in Pittsburgh for that entire time with Erika while we boosted her with high calorie smoothies to get her weight back up.
She finally came home on July 27th and a few weeks after she came home she told me that Our Lady came to her in a dream. She said she saw her and she was silent. A short time later she saw Our Lady again and she spoke to her and said “You need to keep fighting, there are lots of people who love you!” She shared this vision with everyone who came to visit her. She was getting better and continued to receive two types of chemo, an IV chemo at the hospital every 21 days and a pill chemo. Mostly she was tired a lot, wheelchair bound and needed help dressing, bathing but she could continue her hobby of jewelry making and gave away tons of jewelry to friends, family and health care workers who touched her life.
We prayed to Our Lady each night with the Lourdes prayer, made the sign of the cross with water from Lourdes on her forehead then finished with the Memorare prayer. I carried the Lourdes water with me when we travelled to Pittsburgh for overnight appointments as well as my rosary.
We asked for healing and strength. I brought her the Eucharist each week when I was attending Mass. Sometimes it was very difficult to leave her to go to Mass but I could usually get her settled for one hour. Sometimes my mom or a friend would stay with her while I was away from her. I asked for strength each night as I prayed the rosary and it was very difficult to juggle work, her care and run the house but we had lots of support from family and friends.
The website we had created to retire early, travel and embrace people of other cultures in a loving way now provided an income to allow me to work less at my day job and spend time at home caring for Ana. God had a plan for us, we did not know but we had to trust.
She continued to tell everyone about her vision, even her doctors and I think they marveled at her attitude and faith. She said she wanted to write a book when this was “all over” entitled “My Cancer Battle, a Journey of Faith and Hope”.
During the remainder of 2018 and until about August 2019 she was mostly on the upswing but then we started to see a decline in her neurologically. We had to travel to Pittsburgh for an MRI and appointments with her oncologist every 8 weeks. With each visit there was improvement in her tumor or it was stable. She carried the hope as she was going to beat this and I gave her all the positive support I could.
It was about February 2020 we started to notice more difficulty swallowing, using her hands and jewelry making was getting more difficult each day. We had a trip to Pittsburgh on February 3 so we had our pastor, Father Tom, come to the house before the trip to anoint her. She had been anointed while in the hospital initially back in 2018 while what her Dr called the “brink of death”.
Later in February we sat down with our two children as a family and discussed the changes we were seeing. We told our two children that we don’t know how things will progress but that it will be hard and if mom was called home to know that we want them to move their lives life forward in a positive direction.
There would be pain and I told them, “Look, I could be hit by a bus tomorrow but would I want you to have your life mired down in pain and grief? Absolutely not! All I want you to know while we are discussing this topic is to be happy, move forward in love. Have no regrets, you are great kids and we love you.”
When covid hit I stayed home, worked remote and continued her care and the timing was uncanny for what her needs were at the time as she was declining. She started hospice care at home over Memorial Day weekend 2020. Another priest friend, Father Mike came to visit us on May 28 to bring us the Eucharist and anoint her. Imagine at that time it had been 10 weeks with no public Masses due to covid so I had been unable to leave her or even have a friend bring her the Eucharist. I was streaming Mass on Facebook.
We continued to pray each night as we always did. She had a clear mind but at times she would just call out “Hail Mary”. This started many months prior as she was in constant praise of Our Lady and was always on her mind. She would call me to her room, then forget why she called me and would just say “Hail Mary”. This happened frequently.
On the evening of July 9 she was very weak and I got her settled in bed, she spoke very little but knew I was there. I prayed with her our evening prayer with the Lourdes water on her forehead. I went to bed and wondered if she would improve.
At 4:45 AM I was awakened and went to her. She was breathing fast but shallow so I called the nurse to come that morning. I called our children to come to her. I lied with her, prayed with her and placed my scapular around her neck. We were all with her and told her we loved her and I know that an angel woke me up to go to her. We were all by her side as God called her home.
She didn’t get healing but healing is for this broken world, she had love. Love is eternal as Saint Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians: “For faith, hope and love remain these three but the greatest of these is love”
She had love, all the sacraments and all the grace of God we could bring to her bedside.
Love is eternal and what more could you ask for as we all have to face the end?
She never got to write that book but I am here to tell you her cancer story, our cancer story: A journey of faith and hope.
She never had the appointment where the doctor tells you the tumor is worse, it was never seen getting worse on the MRI, she never gave up hope or her faith.
I could have gone the other way, ran from God, been very angry with God but instead I went very hard and deep into my faith to be the best caregiver I could be. I asked Our Lady for strength and she gave it to me. I could not have cared for her day after day, lifted, bathed, fed, cooked clean, and all that a caregiver has to deliver on a day to day basis over and over without help!
A number of years ago Ana and I attended a wedding and during the homily the priest said “the goal of marriage is to get each other to heaven”. This stuck with me. I made this my mission, I had to get her to heaven as she could not get to church but I could bring Jesus to her each time I went to Mass.
I had to go hard into my faith with my rosary each day and praying with her at night. After she was called home I discovered a priest from Minnesota on YouTube who talked about something called "anti-fragile faith" so I watched the video, then I watched it again and again. Look it up on youtube - you will love it. (See his videos below.)
So, what he describes in the video is a concept of how our faith helps us handle life’s difficulties. If your faith is fragile, you crumble when you hit an obstacle. If your faith is durable you get through a difficulty and come out the same but when you have anti-fragile faith you come out stronger.
Think of your immune system when a virus hits your body or you get a vaccine, it learns it, right? You become stronger, right? I think I shared this with over 20 to 30 friends and family to watch it and told them, "Hey I lived this!" Watch this and share it, it is real!
When my life settled down about a month after she was called home I started attending daily Mass as I felt very close to her when I was at Mass, after-all she was in Heaven and Heaven comes to us during consecration.
One morning as I pulled into church, I parked the car and before I opened the door it hit me like a wave had come over me - Ana’s message from Our Lady was not just for Ana “You need to keep fighting, there are lots of people who love you”, it was a message for ME!
We all need to fight through the obstacles in this broken world, why? Love!
Do everything in love.
Ana’s message from Our Lady was for ALL of us! “We all need to keep fighting, there are lots of people who love us!”
Don’t think that life will be smooth sailing in this broken world, you will hit obstacles. They are everywhere.
When you think about evangelization you might think of a preacher reading the bible out loud to an audience and sure, that is one way. If you want to hit people on a personal level, just tell your story.
So this is my story about Ana’s message from Our Lady, we need to keep fighting for love.
This is her story, my story, it can be your story if you go deep into your faith when it gets hard.
Tell your story.
Be a living witness to the power of God in your life.
(Scroll down, there is more below the photo plus 3 videos I would encourage you to watch.)
Adam has a flourishing career as a culinary professional and continues to contribute to our site’s recipe development.
Erika is a talented content strategist and marketing professional bringing together our site’s direction and growth path.
I am continuing to increase my skills as a photographer and site administrator.
Analida is smiling down on us and inspires us each day as we continue to “Bring the world closer one recipe at a time”
God has a plan for us, that we must trust.
Watch the "Anti-fragile Faith Talk" with Father Mike Schmitz:
Watch the "Hour That Will Change Your Life Talk" with Father Mike Schmitz:
Learn about the power of the Rosary and Our Lady: