LIFE’S fragility was crystal clear to Bernice Steele on her first Mother’s Day 40 years ago.
“I didn’t know if I’d live or die,” she said, recalling hospitalisation for the removal of a malignant melanoma.
“Back in those days, there wasn’t the awareness there is today (about skin cancer),” Bernice said.
“Our son was only weeks old when I went to have it checked.
“Mum would say she didn’t like the look of it … (and) in the end, I had a niggling feeling it wasn’t right.”
What was a mole, Bernice said, “turned into a lump” and she proudly revealed the significant flesh taken from her lower right leg, saying, “it’s often considered to be a dog bite”.
“Born and bred” in Stanthorpe, on the Granite Belt in Toowoomba diocese, Bernice, one of seven children to “Irish Catholics” John and Mary Hannigan (nee O’Brien), prayed the Rosary daily.
Her father and uncles were well occupied with an orchard of “stone fruit, apples and pears”.
Bernice recalled Thursday as being “a weekly outing when everyone went to town and socialised”.
“The start of the week was busy as they prepared the fruit for the markets,” she said.
“Thursdays and Fridays were the quieter days and everyone in the district went to town, especially the Italians.
“There was a lot of socialising on a Thursday.”
Daily prayer and Mass attendance was a given, Bernice educated at St Joseph’s parish school before heading into the workforce.
“Everyone left at the end of Year 10 in those days and I too went to work,” she said.
First employed locally, interest in living and working in Brisbane city loomed and Bernice secured work in a stockbroker’s office.
It was on a weekend home visit she met “a gentle and kind” man who stole her heart.
Norm Steele was also raised in Stanthorpe but, being four years her senior and attending a different school, the two hadn’t crossed paths.
Before marrying in St Joseph’s Church in 1974, Norm, a Vietnam veteran, granted Bernice’s request by becoming Catholic.
“There was no RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) in those days,” Bernice said.
“(But) Norm knew how important it was for me to have a Mass when we married and he went along to sessions with Father and became Catholic.”
Shared faith in God continues to be an integral part of their marriage, Bernice involved in liturgy, RCIA and the St Vincent de Paul Society, and the couple sharing a love for home visitation of the sick and elderly.
In August last year, God’s grace prompted Norm to use his marital intuition for his own sense of something not being “right”.
“We’d had a really busy week,” Bernice recalled.
“My 39-year-old nephew had a massive heart attack on the Monday and we’d taken his father to (be with him in) Brisbane.
“On Wednesday, I’d taken people to Mass as I normally do but on Thursday I woke up feeling not so great.
“I wasn’t sick enough to see a doctor or go to the hospital and went to bed early that night.
“Norm came in about ten o’clock (in the evening) and thought, ‘She’s not breathing’.”
Bernice was unconscious and Norm sought immediate help.
From Stanthorpe hospital the helicopter required for hospitalisation in Toowoomba was unable to land due to heavy fog.
Doctors were brought by ambulance themselves to treat Bernice locally and the fog lifted.
With suspected meningitis, she awoke, days later, in Toowoomba Base Hospital with Norm and her son at her bedside and their daughter also summoned.
“Some of my siblings also turned up as they got the call that it could be quite worrying,” Bernice said.
The question of where she’d spend her 67th birthday had been answered and the family waited for news of possible brain damage.
Bernice also had a prompt answer for that.
“I’m a living miracle,” she said.
“People with meningitis can live with a brain injury or at the very least, deafness and I’ve been left with none of that, thank God,” she said, with gratitude for prayerful support.
“I’ve had the lovely support of St Joseph’s (parish), in Stanthorpe, as well as many other local denominations.
“A lot of people said a lot of prayers.
“I really believe in the power of prayer.
“Parishioners say to me, ‘You’re a miracle’.”
The family planned an overseas get-away but life had other plans.
Bernice then required a hip replacement and she ended up “being pushed around Hawaii in a wheelchair, like a queen”.
The kindness of strangers continued.
“In Hawaii, the people were so friendly,” she said. “The first four seats of a bus are reserved for the disabled … (and) I was quite impressed how drivers would help with getting on and off the bus and folding and loading up the wheelchair.”
Resuming normal routines of leading weekly Liturgy of the Word in Stanthorpe parish and assisting with Mass transport, Bernice has renewed vigour to be the hands and feet of Christ, saying, “It’s good to get back to old routines”.
“I’m feeling very well … (and) I have a new appreciation for all the scriptures about not knowing when your time (to die) will come.
“We should be ready at any time.
“I wake and thank God for the new day and my faith. God’s been very good to us.”
After weeks in hospital, Bernice said she was grateful for “the freedom of good health”.
“I’m making up for all the cappuccinos I missed out on,” she said.