WILMINGTON — Perhaps, when Erin Wendelburg walks to the altar at St. Anthony of Padua Church in May to receive her diploma from Padua Academy, she will hear a voice. That voice will cheer her for reaching a milestone on a journey filled with almost unimaginable hardship, and it will encourage her to continue on to even greater accomplishments.
That voice is one she hadn’t heard in years and desperately wanted back in her life. She discovered it as she found her faith. The voice belongs to her mother, who died in 2004, when Wendelburg was just 8 years old. If that were the only tragedy in her life, it would be enough. But her journey was just beginning.
Wendelburg returned to Padua last February after missing several months while undergoing treatment for an inoperable
tumor in the center of her brain. She had begun experiencing headaches and blurred vision in the summer of 2012 and thought she was suffering from migraines. An eye doctor, alarmed by the swelling of the nerves in her eyes, advised her to get an MRI immediately, and Wendelburg, then 16, heard the sobering news.
“When I went in for my first MRI … doctors are really bad at hiding their emotions, so I knew he was coming to tell me something really bad,” she said a few weeks ago. “The whole time I was having these headaches it felt like something was trying to get out of my head. It was so painful. But I was just thinking, this is my luck. I mean, only I could have chronic headaches and turn out to have brain cancer. That’s just kind of the way that it works.”
The tumor was benign, but every day for six weeks, she traveled to Philadelphia for an hour of radiation. She had to wear a fitted mask that was bolted to a table so she couldn’t move, but steadily her health improved. For the last year or so, Wendelburg has had to take oral “maintenance” chemotherapy for one week each month.
After a recent MRI, she was told that treatment would be over in February. The radiation and chemo didn’t seem so bad. After all, Wendelburg explained, she had already been through so much in her life. Less than five years after her mother’s death, she lost her father as well. Being orphaned before your 13th birthday has a way of making you grow up pretty fast.
A caregiver at 8
“I always felt like I was so much older than people in my grade, and I still kind of feel like that sometimes,” said Wendelburg, who maintains a cheery demeanor when no one could blame her if she was the polar opposite.
Wendelburg has known illness, not just her own, all her life. Her mother, Diane McGrath, had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease while she was a student at Padua, where she was a member of the Class of 1976. She married a lawyer, Allan Wendelburg, and became a paralegal so she could work with him. The couple had three children, two daughters and a son, and lived in Hockessin. Diane Wendelburg was sick nearly all of Erin’s life, and Erin, her youngest child, took care of her mother as much as her mother cared for her.
This year, during an Encounter retreat at Padua, Erin Wendelburg reflected on her parents, and her college essay is about them as well.
“It was just kind of funny to think about, when you really write it out, that when you’re 8 years old, a lot of people are being taken care of, and being fed and bathed by their parents, and when I was 8 years old I was feeding and bathing my mom. I could pretty much take care of myself. I used to make myself dinner and get myself off to school and do whatever I had to,” she said.
Allan Wendelburg did not handle his wife’s death well, Erin said. “My dad, he had always been alcoholic, but just kind of completely went downhill after she died. He lost his license to practice law, and we lost our house.”
Wendelburg’s older sister moved in with their grandmother, while Erin and her brother stayed with their father. The three of them lived in a small ranch house near H.B. DuPont Middle School, which Erin attended. She was very close to her father and remembers how much fun they had.
“We always did things together. My dad was a big motorcycle guy, so I was the girl in seventh grade who would get driven to school on a motorcycle,” she said.
The house was dirty, Wendelburg said, and they never really unpacked the belongings from their old house. And when her dad was in bad shape or yelling at her brother, she sought refuge at night under the train tracks that ran near her house. Not yet a teenager, she was sleeping beneath train tracks. Her friends at H.B. had no idea she was doing this. She’s not sure her father or brother knew.
Then, in March 2009, her father died suddenly, leaving three young people without either parent. She moved in with a friend, but she was not used to having strict rules. Wendelburg then went to an aunt’s house, but, again, it did not work out.
Since last October, she has lived with her grandmother. Ironically, her sister and brother also live there, the first time the three siblings have been together under the same roof since their mother’s death.
Everything has a reason
While Wendelburg was trying to find a literal home, Padua became her refuge.
“I think that everything happens for a reason, even things that are awful,” she said. “If my dad hadn’t died, I would never have come to Padua, and Padua is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. It’s like my home. I never refer to wherever I’m living at the time as my home because it’s not. I spend more time at Padua then I do at my house.”
She appreciates how she was accepted upon her return to school after the treatment for her tumor. In her first class, there were gifts from friends on her desk. The students in her sci-fi literature class, which included boys from Salesianum School, applauded. And no one minded that she had no hair.
Having grown tired of pulling out her hair after radiation treatments, Wendelburg shaved off what was left. She worried about making people uncomfortable, but she had no desire to wear a wig. She preferred scarves, particularly in the cold weather. A teacher who is a breast cancer survivor “brought me all her nice Chanel scarves,” Wendelburg said.
At the school, she is a member of the National Honor Society, music ministry and the Encounter retreat team, as well as the theater program and the dance team. A writer for the school’s online newspaper, Padua360, she aspires to a career in communications and fashion merchandising.
Wendelburg said she had never been very religious while her parents were alive, but Encounter has changed her life. In one way, it helped her mature, but at the same time, it took her back to a part of her childhood she had forgotten and wanted to remember.
“We had this moment at Encounter last year where you just sit and you have adoration in the chapel. I remember I was very doubtful before Encounter. People say that they felt God or heard God or whatever, and I was like, ‘Well, are you supposed to feel a hand on your shoulder or something? I have no idea what that is.’
“Then during adoration … I could finally remember my mom’s voice, which is what I was really hoping for. I really don’t remember her at all. We were not like a home video kind of family. I have pictures. I definitely remember what she looks like, but I don’t remember what she sounds like.
“She wrote my brother, my sister and I all notes before she died. But when I read it, it’s my voice, it’s not her voice. But during adoration I could remember what her voice sounded like. That’s when I really knew that I was Christian. … I believe in God, and I believe in just being a faith-filled person. It’s helped me in my outlook.”
Wendelburg is at peace with how her life has transpired. Her brother gave her a copy of the book “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne, which she has found to be of great comfort. The message of the book and movie is that if you think positive thoughts, positive things will happen to you.
She also has surrounded herself with people she believes will make her life better, and she tries to make every moment count. She has a blueprint for her life, both professionally and personally.
“I look up to my parents’ marriage so much. My dad loved my mom so much that when she was gone, you can’t live without that person. That’s what I aspire to have, someone that I can’t live without,” she said.