After losing their mother, three siblings rediscover their faith
When her three children were young, Susan Ann Marrone Nelson asked them each a question: Now that you’ve received your First Holy Communion, do you want to continue your religious education? “We said, ‘Nope, we’re done,’” Jessica Nelson, 28, recalled recently. She and her sister, Melissa Chrystie, 30, married and a mother herself, were 8 and 9 years old when they made their choices. Their brother, Jeremy Nelson, 21, got the same question and gave the same answer. Susan accepted their decisions, the siblings said.
“I think mom always wanted us to get there on our own,” Jessica said. “[As a child] I would ask her questions about her faith and why she went to church and why she believed in Jesus. And she just said, ‘You’ll know. One day, if you want to know, you will.’ And it really wasn’t until we lost her that the three of us decided that we wanted to know.”
On Nov. 3, nearly eight months after their mother’s unexpected death, Melissa, Jessica and Jeremy received the sacrament of Confirmation at St. Joseph’s Church in Oxford. The ceremony marked not only their full reception into the Catholic Church, but also a step toward healing and the fulfillment of a promise made to the woman they call simply “the perfect mother.”
Susan’s kids describe their mom’s life as one of giving: of care and compassion to her clients with Broome Developmental Services, of great hugs, of gifts, and, most important, of boundless love to her family. She was always on the sidelines for their sports events, they said, and every Sunday afternoon found her enjoying a spaghetti dinner and blazing through the Jumble word puzzle with the extended Marrone clan.
The night Susan fell ill, she had hosted another family dinner, this one including her children, their significant others, her twin grandsons and her husband, Jeff, from whom she was separated. It was a Thursday night, an odd evening for a get-together, since Jeremy should have been at school at Hartwick College in Oneonta. He had decided to come home for the night after missing a “date” with Susan the week before, he said. It had been a long time since the whole family was together, and Melissa remembered Susan commenting on how nice it was to have everyone there.
Jeremy woke from a nap on the couch later that night to the sound of the tea kettle whistling on the stove. He found Susan unresponsive in the bathroom.
She was rushed to the hospital, where doctors diagnosed fibromuscular dysplasia. The condition causes arteries in the body to expand and contract, making them look like a pearl necklace, Jessica explained, and Susan had suffered a tear in an artery leading to her brain. The family stayed by her side as they waited for the damage to heal.
Hearing about Susan’s illness, longtime family friend Mary Branham offered her support through prayer. She posted a picture of a lighted candle on her Facebook page, asking for prayers for Susan.
“It immediately set off this chain that was huge,” Jessica said. “You had so many people posting pictures of candles and saying that they were praying for mom. And we did it, too. Every night at 9 o’clock, the three of us or whoever we were with, we lit a candle and said our prayers.” They offered prayers to St. Jude, as their mother often had, along with Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Glory Bes.
After a couple of days, Susan regained consciousness, Jessica said, and though she had lost short-term memory, she remembered her family. “We got to tell her everything we wanted to tell her,” Melissa said. “She was still able to tell us how much she loved us and what great kids we were, and we were able to reciprocate by telling her what a great mom she was to us.”
Between cracking jokes and rattling off movie quotes, Susan continued “taking care of us while she was in that hospital bed,” Jessica said. “The whole time, she was telling us to stay strong or ‘Get in the bed. Take my blanket. Come on, Jess, I’ll move over.’”
As days went by and Susan’s condition went up and down, the siblings came to a decision. “We can’t be sitting here expecting anything from God if we don’t commit ourselves,” Jessica recalled. “So the three of us talked about it. And we went in and told mom we were going to get confirmed. She was happy that we’d made that decision together.”
After nearly two weeks in the hospital, Susan experienced more bleeding. “All her basic functions were gone — breathing, eating,” Jessica said. The family eventually made the painful decision to remove life support. Melissa made sure Susan and the family members gathered around her wore the rubber bracelets she’d ordered: camouflage patterned and imprinted with “SAM’s Collective Soul,” they were a nod to Susan’s favorite band and to the idea that “we are her collective soul, standing behind her,” Melissa said. Susan passed away March 19.
The siblings gave Mary Branham one of the bracelets as she left the reception following Susan’s funeral. Branham apologized for having to leave, explaining she was on her way to teach her ninth grade faith formation class at St. Paul’s Church in Norwich. “I said, ‘I’m teaching Confirmation; you know what that’s all about,’ and they told me, ‘No, we never did it and we promised our mom,’” she said.
She later wrote the kids a private Facebook message: If you’re serious about Confirmation, I’ll help you do it. “Within seconds, I got three responses: ‘We’re in,’” Branham said.
Branham consulted with Cathy Cornue, diocesan director of the Office of Faith Formation, who explained that since all three siblings had been baptized and received First Eucharist, they just needed to be prepared for Confirmation. With special permission from the bishop, they could receive the sacrament from their parish priest whenever they were ready.
Branham and the siblings settled on six months of preparation, with two-hour classes every other Sunday. They arrived on Branham’s porch on May 1. “That first day was emotional,” she recalled. “Every single one of their heads was down. Jessy said, ‘We need this so bad. This has been so hard.’”
Together, they read and discussed the New Testament, learned about the Commandments and the Rosary, went to Mass and confession. As homework, they read the Old Testament.
That’s where Melissa, the self-proclaimed skeptic of the group, started to struggle. Branham reassured her that questions were good, that accepting everything without question would mean she was just going through the motions.
“The [Church’s teachings on some] social issues were hard for me,” Melissa added. “That’s still something I struggle with. It was tough for me to bite my tongue and accept that there could be another answer.”
Branham framed her lessons in terms of souls, not just sins. “We’ve got a body, a mind, but our soul is eternal. We need to work on that the most. That’s the part that’s with your mom and your mom’s way of being with you guys,” she explained.
Melissa said she came to realize “that mom may have started this for me, but it’s become my own along the way…. If I’m going to see mom again eventually, I need to figure out a way to take pieces from this to be able to do that.”
Jeremy agreed. “I think we all believed in God before this, but now it’s cemented it over, a pathway. We have a direct understanding of the afterlife and how we’ll be with her [Susan] again someday,” he said.
With so much talk of souls, it was fitting that the last lesson was held Nov. 1, All Saints Day, and that Branham and the siblings spent Nov. 2, All Souls Day, praying for Susan. The following day, they went to St. Joseph’s to, in Branham’s words, “hook up their souls.”
Before a packed church, Melissa, Jessica and Jeremy were confirmed by Father Gerard Lupa. Family and friends from all over came to witness the ceremony, people who themselves were struggling with faith and loss, Jessica said. “To get them all there on that day was important — as our support system, but to support them, too, in a way,” she added.
Melissa and her husband, Mike — who served as her Confirmation sponsor — also became godparents to their nephew, Joseph, that morning. Mike’s sister, Sara Locke, said she and her husband had always planned to have Joseph baptized but that Susan’s death “was an eye-opener for all of us.” Linking Joseph’s baptism to Melissa’s Confirmation seemed like a perfect fit. “That Missy could be the godmother for our son and start her new experience in the Catholic Church — it just felt right,” Locke said.
What started as a promise to mom became what now feels right to Melissa, Jessica and Jeremy. They grew and learned a lot over the past six months, they said, about their faith, themselves and each other. Melissa said she appreciated the experience more as a 30-year-old with life experiences than she would have as a 14-year-old.
Though nothing can take away their sadness over Susan’s death, they know she is with them always (and not just in the tattoos they each got to memorialize her).
“I believe that she’s watching over us and extremely happy and proud of us,” Melissa said.
“Definitely,” Jessica agreed. “I think that she’s the one who directed us to do this. She’s the one pulling us toward our faith. She’s not just happy about it, it’s her doing.”