A body and a spirit transformed by faith

 By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary

The first inkling Gilly Charbonnet had that something was wrong with his body came when he began having trouble tying his shoes and buttoning his shirt.

For someone who as an expert “key grip” had spent more than 25 years moving heavy lighting equipment and carefully setting up nuanced shadows for hundreds of New Orleans-based movies, television shows and commercials, it was easy just to shrug it off as life after 60.

But when the warning signs accelerated, Gilly mentioned what was happening to him to Father Herb Kiff, pastor of Mater Dolorosa Church, who had presided at Gilly’s marriage to Rhonda in 2018.

“Father Herb said, ‘You need to get that checked out,’” Rhonda recalled.

Through a process of elimination, medical tests eventually determined that Gilly was suffering from Lewy Body Dementia, a disease that attacks basic motor and directional skills and progresses rapidly.

The news was sobering. Gilly was the rock behind the scenes, the man directors of photography could count on to anticipate their every lighting need before they even voiced what they wanted.

Gilly was so adept at his job that he could take it easy between sets, playing ball with George Clooney and clowning with Tommy Lee Jones.

With a spider web of pipes and sprinklers, he once created a monsoon on Bourbon Street. OK, maybe that’s not so tough to do these days, but Gilly was an acknowledged master of his craft.

But then, as the frustration grew between distinguishing left from right – his coworkers had been covering for his growing mental fog – Gilly literally backed himself into a corner one day on the set.

“It was two days after he was diagnosed, and he went on a commercial job,” Rhonda said. “He pushed this big cart, and he wound up pushing himself into a corner. He was so embarrassed, he literally left it there and walked off the set.

“He’s very independent, and if he couldn’t do it to the level he was accustomed to, he would shut down and feel like a failure.”

Even when his mental acuity was superb, Gilly had struggled mightily in his life. He battled for 40 years with chronic alcoholism but became transformed when he met Rhonda and Father Kiff and went to confession for the first time in ages.

“The doctors said there was no way he would ever get over this,” Rhonda said. “It was through God, prayer and confession. When he came out of this 4 1/2 years ago, he said it was like ‘40 years in the desert.’”

With his disease not allowing him to continue working, Gilly and Rhonda relied even more on their Catholic faith. They began praying the rosary every morning, and on Saturday and Sunday, Gilly especially drew close to the rosary from Lourdes, France, that was broadcast on EWTN.

Gilly suddenly

had a new call: He wanted to travel to Lourdes and experience first-hand what he was witnessing on TV.

In January, Gilly’s neurologist said that would not be either possible or prudent. He could no longer fly.

A month later, Rhonda bumped into a friend, who told her about a group she had never heard of. The Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers regularly make available special needs pilgrimages to Lourdes for the sick and their caretakers. The pilgrimage includes a cadre of doctors, nurses, priests and volunteers who care for the sick person for one week in Lourdes.

Things began to fall into place. Money was tight, but Gilly’s disability benefits were approved, and he was able to sell his 42-foot truck filled with his lighting equipment.

“Everything just opened up,” Rhonda said. “I said, ‘OK, we’re going.’”

What happened in June was nothing less than a miracle, Rhonda said, and it had nothing to do with a cure.

“My one intention was to grow his heart – to get even closer to Mary and to Jesus, because he doesn’t know some of the things that could happen later on,” Rhonda said. “My prayer is for his relationship with Mary to deepen so that when the darkness of dementia envelops him beyond my reach, that the light and love of Our Lady will bring him peace and comfort.”

Cooling waters

On the day he would be assisted into the pool at Lourdes, Gilly, in his wheelchair, prayed the rosary with other men on the bench outside the baths.

When they got to the point in the rosary where they recited the words, “O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary,” Rhonda looked over and saw Gilly beat his chest three times.

“I realized he was praying along when he was striking his breast three times,” Rhonda said. “I saw that, and I thought back to five years ago. What God has done in his life. God was showing me where he was and where he is now, and I could see all that God has done in his life. The Bible says, ‘Behold, I make all things new,’ and that’s what this is.

“And then I thought, ‘God, I’m entrusted with this man. Please don’t let me screw this up!’”

Once Gilly disappeared into the baths, Rhonda didn’t know what would happen. But she found out later from the other men who accompanied him.

“I didn’t tell him how cold the water was – something like 50 degrees,” Rhonda said. “The leader and someone else were walking him down, and then they lay him back into the water and he screams out, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’”

Gilly wants to go back. He met some of the other families, one of whom has an 18-year-old daughter suffering from brain cancer. The teen, Rhonda said, radiated happiness.

“Gilly wants to go back and volunteer,” Rhonda said. “He says he can push people in their wheelchairs. If we do go back, I could see Gilly praying or talking with people. My husband is a witness beyond what people know. He is bringing people back to the faith, just seeing where he was and where he is now.”

Information on the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers can be accessed at lourdesvolunteers.org.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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