By Robert R. Schwarz
An update to this interview , originally posted Feb. 10, 2012:
At a weekday Mass held in the St. James church on April 29, 2013 , unexpectedly, Fr. Joji asked that prayers be said for Phyllis , who had died the night before in her home after Fr. Bill Zavaski had given her last rites. Husband Matthew had been at her bedside. As the congregation sang "Morning Has Broken , " he now sat in the couple's usual pew . As he often did with Phyllis when the Lord's prayer was said, Matthew linked hands with other worshipers . This morning, it was one worshiper behind him and two at his sides, one being Bonita ( Bonnie ) Preiss . She was a close friend of Phyllis and Matthew who often sat next to the couple. At the end of the Mass, Matthew was heard to say, " She has made it. She's with Jesus. "
In his eulogy of Phyllis, Fr. Zavaski referred to her as a "courageous woman of incredible faith who was salt and light. "
On June 21, 2014, Fr. Bill married Matthew and Bonnie .
Last April, Phyllis Shields—you see her in a St. James pew nearly every morning—was diagnosed with lung cancer. This came after a life of tragedies including early deaths of two husbands and the ensuing burden of being a single mom to nine children, one with Down's Syndrome. With characteristic stiff upper lip, she refers to all of this as "disappointments." Then, a little more than five years ago, Phyllis ,at age 72 , fell in love with a retired Palatine dentist two years her senior. They married.
As we talked recently in her eighth floor condo overlooking downtown Arlington Heights—her husband Matthew Lombardi was at her side—Phyllis chose not to wear one of her tastefully designed hats she wears at mass to cover a head of missing hair, a casualty of six chemo therapy treatments. "My hair had been salt and pepper the last few years," she said. "I hope it comes back, and I'll take any color." She smiled and so did her dark brown eyes. She then turned serious , recalling her exodus trek of "disappointments." Matthew added a footnote now and then.
The big ones began nine years into her first marriage; she was then 25 and her husband a 29-year-old electrical engineer, when a brain aneurysm fatally struck him . She was left with with their two children and now forced to find a job. For eight years she worked as a nurse's aide at the Lutheran Home, doing the kind things for the elderly most people would flee from. "My biggest problem was seeing just how sick some of the residents were, and you had to do everything for them." When the beauty salon there lost its manager, Phyllis was hired and held the job for 12 years. "I didn't know how to do hair but I felt I could manage," she said.
Her second marriage was to a quality control manager, a widower with four children. One was Daniel, a three-year-old with Down's Syndrome. She and her husband, Bernard, taught Catholic doctrine classes at their home. During their 13 years together, she bore him three children. Then Bernard died of lung cancer in 1976, making Phyllis a single mom, now with seven children at home; two other children were living on their own. "It tore the family apart," she said, then added, "but they were good marriages."
Daniel, the oldest child, lived at home until age 25, getting a high school diploma after attending special education classes at Kirk High School in Palatine. "Daniel was a blessing to all my children," Phyllis repeated. "Everybody loved him. He was patient with them and helpful and corrected them when they misbehaved."
But although Phyllis' mothering was aided by her teenage son and younger daughter and by friendly neighbors, she had to return to work for income, yet knowing she couldn't leave Daniel alone. She placed him in Little City, a community-living shelter for children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities. Now 57, Daniel shares a condo with four other men and works in a Little City shop. Phyllis and Matthew used to have Daniel visit them on holidays but now, his mother explained, "He has become a homebody there. I visit him every six weeks or so and call him on the phone a lot. "
Her Catholic Faith Got Her Through It
"After my second husband died, I couldn't go to church because I cried all the time I was there," Phyllis recalled. "Father Laramie [ then the St. James pastor ], who was my second husband's uncle, helped a lot. He visited me every Sunday. And Father Bill Zavaski [ then a new priest and now pastor ] was quite an instrument in helping me. I'd call him and we would talk and pray together. He would always listen." She reverently remembers how she was encouraged by particular words Fr. Zavaski often said to the congregation. "He'd say 'God is good !' and the congregation would reply, ' All the time ! ' "
"I knew that if I wanted a life, I had to make life come back," she continued. "You just can't bury yourself, I told myself." Her comeback came at a Grief Support meeting she attended. There she encountered a woman who had lost her husband 25 years ago. "All she did was cry, and to the point where all the widows there were shaking." Obviously reliving that moment, Phyllis gasped as she spoke: "I suddenly realized I didn't want to live like that. I told myself, "you're not dead ! "
But early in 2011, she had to face perhaps the most difficult challenge of all. It started with a bad cough that lasted three weeks and which was eventually diagnosed as lung cancer. "'I had smoked for a long time, but had quit," she said.
Tears now came as she grabbed Matthew's arm. "But Matt brought me through it. He was a very positive thinker. I begged the Lord to leave me here on earth. I had work to do for Him as well as for myself. I tried to believe in prayer but found it very difficult."
Her husband interrupted: "Everyone was praying for you: the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Baptists."
"I leaned on Matt for everything," Phyllis went on. "He made it bearable for me."
She said she lived her Catholic faith night and day .
Phyllis' and Matthew's courtship began in early 2005 in their current condominium building home. They hardly knew each other . One floor separated them; she lived on the eighth and he on the seventh. A few days before New Year's Eve, Matthew, who had been widowed, asked a friend to recommend a date for him for a holiday celebration he didn't want to attend alone. "Ask Phyllis," came the friend's advice. Matthew did.
"I hadn't been on a date in 15 years," Phyllis said.
A year later, on December 28, 2006, Fr. Zavaski married them; six other priests and two deacons co-celebrated the sacrament. Quipped Fr. Zavaski, "Their marriage reaffirms the fact that love and marriage is timeless."
Today their family includes 25 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren. "Matt loves all my children and they love him," Phyllis said. She admits that Matthew "took on a lot when he married me." The couple take several family visiting trips each year, and the highlight—Phyllis' happiest event —is the annual family reunion at the end of July in Louisville, Kentucky.
Matthew had a few emotional words about attending his first family reunion in Kentucky. He was overwhelmed by his wife's 150-member family. "I'm not a hugger," he said. "But in Kentucky they hug you to death."
Missing from a recent reunion was Phyllis' brother, Kenneth, who died at age 71 from complications from Alzheimer's. He had been a Chicago policeman for 25 years.
Nowadays, Phyllis and Matthew reflect on their many past volunteer efforts which involved them as a twosome prior to the cancer treatments. The list includes the St. Vincent de Paul Society, PADS, Foundation for Children in Need, and various church duties which assist the mass. Meanwhile, they enjoy their usual diversions of "experiencing different restaurants," checking out a movie from the public library, or simply laughing at silly stuff on television reruns of "Everyone Loves Raymond." They also keep adding to the wide assortment of Nativity scenes which grace their living room and which they have decided not to pack away this year. For a private getaway, there is that land they own in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
But if you want to see Phyllis and Matthew fully alive, drop in on any weekday morning at McDonald's on Arlington Heights Road near Rand Road. There, from 8:30am to 9:30am—and maybe a bit longer-- you'll see these two in the company of five or six others who have just left the St. James mass. You'll recognize the group by the roar of belly laughter that truly fills the room, from the food counter way back to the kid's playroom. "Phyllis is the kingpin of our group," says Tom Adam, an octogenarian and often provocateur for the group's outbursts of laughter. "Nothing bad comes out of her mouth. But she can also give it back. She makes me happy when I go home."
But the happiest outburst came from Phyllis when asked that delicate question. With sparkling eyes, I heard her announce to the world: "I am free of cancer!"
© 2012,2013,2014 Robert R. Schwarz