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WAKEFIELD -- For Wakefield resident Stephanie Nicolo Mother's Day this year was similar to others she and her family have celebrated in the past.
She, her son Eric Daigle and a family friend enjoyed the special day by having dinner at a nice restaurant in Boston. She had no idea at the time that this Mother's Day would be their last together.
Nicolo and her son were so close, she said she considered him her best friend. But then three days following Mother's day, on Wednesday, May 14, her best friend died when he suffered a seizure while in his bedroom.
"I found him," said Nicolo. "We said 'good night' only a few hours before when both of us went to bed, but I never had a chance to say goodbye."
Those who knew Eric knew him as a young man with a hopeful future after graduating from Wakefield Memorial High School in 2006. In the fall of that year, he enrolled in classes at Salem State University but was forced to leave when he suffered his first seizure.
Then, in January 2013 he suffered complications from pneumonia following a seizure and went into a comatose state for five days while hospitalized at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston.
During his enrollment in college, Eric held a job at the Hilltop Steak House on Rte. 1 in Saugus, hoping to gain enough experience that would eventually lead him a job in the hospitality industry.
But Eric's future went with him on the day he died. After finding her son, Nicolo found herself in such deep grief she had nowhere to go but her knees.
Always a woman of deep faith, she turned to the Father Vincent Gianni at St. Florence Parish and Father Ron Barker at St. Joseph Church, where she is a communicant, for grief counseling. More than anything else, Nicolo needed comfort. She needed to know that God was still there for her.
In her despair, she even reached out to the pope for help.
"I was in terrible grief over Eric's death, sobbing uncontrollably," said Nicolo. "I don't even know how I got the number to call the Vatican. In the message I left, I said I no longer believed in God. 'Why did God take my son!' I wailed." Nicolo said she left her phone number but never expected to hear back.
She got what she needed, and then some, when the call she had placed was returned by someone identifying themselves as being from the Vatican.
But while she was not near the phone, the return call was recorded on Nicolo's answering machine. Nicolo believes Pope Francis was behind the call and that he may even have been the voice heard in the background of the message.
"I know he had canceled all his appointments for that day and was at the Vatican," said Nicolo. "He called to offer condolences and a hug as well as a blessing. I was beside myself, simply stunned. I still hope he calls me back."
Nicolo said she considered the call "a good sign" that her faith would one day return. And it has, two times over. She has mustered the strength to continue her life, and she is now looking for ways to help others strengthen their own faith.
Nicolo was raised in East Boston, a community as tightly knit as Wakefield, and always "tried to lead a good life."
"I prayed, went to church, received all the sacraments," said Nicolo. "I never prayed for myself -- my prayers were always for my children." (Nicolo also is the mother of another son, Richard, age 33, who lives in Plainville.)
Her faith started its growth in childhood and it continued to grow even more in adulthood. Then, about 12 years ago, her faith came into full bloom when she experienced an "awakening" at the home of a Lynnfield woman who was in possession of a glove once worn by St. Padre Pio, who became famous for bearing stigmata for most of his life.
One priest to whom Nicolo told her tragic said she was "in a state of grace" because people who suffer great tragedies are often called to bear them to help grow their faith.
"This is your walk from Gethsemene to Calvary," the wise priest said. "Do the best you can because someday when you stand before God and He asks 'What did you do with the son I gave you?' you can confidently defend your case."
Nicolo gives thanks to these priests, her family and friends who have supported her since the awful day she lost her son. She thanks Bill McDonald, owner of McDonald Funeral Home in Wakefield, too.
"I have never met such kind, compassionate people," she said. "And that's what Eric was -- kind and compassionate."
Nicolo supposes she may have purposely taught her son those virtues, but it could also be that they rubbed off on him because of her own faith, her own virtues.
"I found a card in Eric's room after his death," she said. "The card bears a likeness of Jesus. It said, 'Come back to me.' I've now come back. I'm home."
Gail Lowe is a staff writer at the Wakefield Daily Item, Wakefield, Mass.