Family, faith keep LaRosas smiling
Joy Joy and Noel LaRosa both 16, with their mom Jan, at the LaRosa family home in Wilmette on December 13, 2012. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 21, 2013 2:37PM
WILMETTE — Grace is a constant in Jan LaRosa’s life.
The Wilmette woman can see it. Her husband Bob and their children can see it, too.
Their world is nourished with love and rich in miracles, even when others are confounded by their happiness. How, after all, is a family so certain they are blessed when they have experienced not one, not two, but countless bouts of bad luck?
There’s Jan LaRosa’s fragile heart, the discovery of which prompted her at 22 to call off her wedding, until Bob, furious, told her his love couldn’t be stymied by her potential mortality. The heart would pull her into the operating room three times over the next 35 years, and send her to the emergency room more times than she and Bob could remember last week.
Then, there was heartbreak of another sort. They found a home in Winnetka in 2006 and moved there after 26 years in Morton Grove so their two youngest, Joy Joy and Noel, could grow up with good schools. Then they lost it in 2011 after the surgeries, and lightning strike damage to the house and shorter hours at Bob’s work combined to exhaust their savings.
Other families might have grieved or turned on each other in frustration and fear. Yet, Jan’s oldest daughter, Sarah Snodgrass, came to her parents with an offer from son-in-law Michael: Why didn’t all of them live together? They could find a home near Winnetka so that Joy Joy and Noel could continue to go to New Trier High School.
“He found us this home,” Sarah said last week, gesturing around the neat 16th Street bungalow, now brightly decorated for Christmas.
“Isn’t it wonderful to have a son-in-law like that?” Jan asked.
Joy Joy, sitting next to her mother, allowed that she had been a little sad about losing the other house, “but we’re not homeless, and we have our sister and brother-in-law to help us. I’m pretty happy right now.”
After that, even the unlicensed driver whose car slammed into Jan’s car in May as she drove Joy Joy and Noel to school was a minor inconvenience. It didn’t matter that her car was totaled, Jan remembered last month. She was happy that she had let a little voice convince her to wear her down coat that day, because the coat prevented her arm from being sliced open.
“The fireman told me I would have bled to death before they got there if I hadn’t had it on. So that was lucky,” she said. And she was blessed, she added, because her third daughter, Joy, insisted on replacing the car. She had moved to Seattle, but arranged to buy Jan a Ford Freestyle.
Then came the family’s latest brush with misfortune, the day after Thanksgiving.
They’d expected to hit the shops at Gurnee Mills for a little Black Friday shopping. Instead, barely a stone’s throw from their new home, a 60-foot tree inexplicably uprooted, toppled across the street and crushed the Freestyle.
Noel and Joy Joy scrambled from beneath the crumpled metal. Bob, who had changed places at the last minute with Jan so that she could drive and he could sit next to grandson Joshua, escaped with Joshua in his arms.
In the front seat, Jan lay pinned, her head forced to one side by the combined weight of the tree, the roof and the van’s hood. Sarah was in the passenger seat beside her, whimpering, “Mommy, I think my neck’s broken.”
Jan heard her husband scream for Joshua, and could hear him tell Joy Joy and Noel to get out, but she could see almost nothing. She thought a plane had fallen from the sky. She was in pain that eclipsed that of the surgeries, but she forced herself to be calm, and to tell a weeping Sarah that she was Joshua’s mom and she needed to get out of the car because he needed her. When Sarah crawled from the wreckage, Jan could finally see her; holding her head, supported by rescue workers, but alive and trying to reach Joshua.
“As soon as I realized my daughter was going to live, and that everyone was out of the car, this euphoric peace came over me. There was excruciating pain, but no fear. I thought living would be nice, but if I don’t live that will be OK. I’ve done my job. I’ve delivered my kids and they’re safe,” Jan remembered, trying to find the word for how she felt, and finally settling on “safe.”
She thought she was going to die, because blood was pouring from her mouth and she couldn’t move her right arm or leg. Neither she nor the paramedics knew that the bleeding was from shards of sun-roof glass in her throat, or that bits of bone were moving through her spinal cord. Jan saw the paramedics faces, listened to them offer her pain medication, and thought they, too, didn’t give her much of a chance. She knew she had to talk to Bob.
“I told him, ‘I don’t think I’m going to come out of this.’ I told him to take care of the children, and to make sure they know about Jesus. He said, ‘Yes, I know. I promise.’”
Then Wilmette firefighters freed her from the glass and metal and tottering tree. Doctors found that her injuries were painful but comparatively minor thoracic and cervical fractures. It would take a few months, but she would recover. Sarah, despite a monstrous blow to the head, suffered no trauma.
Sometime during the pain-filled interval before she was cut free, Jan remembered asking a paramedic if she was the luckiest or the unluckiest woman in the world. The woman told her she was the luckiest.
“And you know what? She’s right,” Jan said.
RICH IN FAITH
The LaRosas are people of faith. They are looking forward to Christmas Eve, when they will go to candlelight services and sing “Silent Night” together.
Asked last week why he thought his family has come through so many trials unscathed and loving, Noel’s answer was immediate.
“We know that God is on our side and that he will protect us.”
Sarah nodded. “Faith is why we’re still here, and still smiling.”
Jan is fully aware of what doubters might think. God could have stopped that tree from falling, she said last month. He could have caused the tree’s fall to kill them.
“Is God not good and kind if you don’t get a happy ending? All I know is that I know He is there, because of the feeling I had when I didn’t know if I was going to live or die. I was at peace.”
Last week she sat in her rented Wilmette living room, Joshua in Sarah’s arms, Bob smiling at her, Joy Joy and Noel beside her, and said, “this is honestly the best Christmas of my life. I feel rich beyond words.”