Frankie is a fighter, and her mom is a witness

There’s a fight going on in upstate New York. I don’t mean a match in a boxing ring or a squabble between siblings or a political brawl. I mean an honest-to-goodness fight for life by someone who should not have to be fighting at all.

Francesca “Frankie” Hollenbeck was born Sept. 16 to Rocco and Natalie. She was baptized in early November. A week later, Frankie was diagnosed with leukemia. She completed her first round of chemotherapy on Thanksgiving, for disease doesn’t know holidays.

To say the past few weeks have been rough for Frankie and her parents, who just celebrated their one-year wedding anniversary, would be a severe understatement. As a new mom, it makes me ill to think about. Life shouldn’t be like this, and it’s a great mystery of faith as to why God would allow such a small, fragile, innocent human being to suffer.

But Natalie, a graduate of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and a friend of mine from my D.C. days, has been nothing short of astounding in her positive and faith-filled witness. As both a way to keep friends and family updated on Frankie’s progress, and a way to write through the pain, Natalie has taken to posting regular journal entries online. The messages are written to Frankie, but they are mini-testimonies to what it’s like to grapple with this unimaginable event from the perspective of faith — like this entry from Thanksgiving day:

“I have so much to be thankful for, Frankie. First off, I am thankful for you. Your birth was my miracle and I could not love you any more than I do. So you have leukemia, who cares. To me, you were perfect from conception and you will continue to be perfect. God had bigger plans for your life than I did, and instead of making me angry, it makes me somewhat humbled that God saw your amazing potential before I did. You are a fighter, you are an inspiration, you are an angel; all things you have accomplished before you were 10 weeks old!”

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Or this one, in which she describes how painful it is to watch her weeks-old child receive chemotherapy, but then finds the good:

“More than the pain, is the feeling of amazement at how good people really are. There is a lot of bad in the world right now. So much so, that when I found out I was pregnant with you, I was a little sad at times, thinking of the world you would have to grow up in, and what daddy and I would have to try and shelter you from. But this experience has shown us that there really is still a lot of good out there. You just have to stay open to it.”

I ask myself: Could I have given the same witness? I’m not so sure. I am bowled over by Natalie’s strength and determination, all poured out in a spirit of gratitude and love.

We pray for you every day, Nat. Stay strong. You are God’s messenger in what can be a brutal world. Frankie’s got this.

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