New York Times Neediest Cases

A Spirit Unbent Through Loss of Health and Home -The New York Times

When Margaret Macaluso speaks of her illness and losses, her voice is unwavering. She is resolved in the face of what cannot be changed.

“I don’t get depressed,” Ms. Macaluso said. “I don’t think about what’s going to be, or what’s going to happen. I just do my best every day.”

Her family’s home on Long Island was ravaged by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011; it buckled completely after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Her ex-husband, whom she loved deeply despite their divorce, died in 2013. And this summer, Ms. Macaluso, 58, learned she had Stage 3 ovarian cancer.

The family’s troubles began soon after Ms. Macaluso’s husband had a heart attack in 2009. He became addicted to pain medications, which she said made him unpredictable and volatile.

“Even though we still cared for him and everything, he still had to leave the house,” she said. “He was very angry.”

The couple divorced, but Ms. Macaluso continued to be a part of his life, often cooking and cleaning for him.

In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene damaged the Macalusos’ home in West Islip. The family stayed with a rotation of friends and lived in a cramped trailer while waiting for their home to be repaired. Then Hurricane Sandy pummeled the house, resulting in structural damage so severe that it would have to be demolished and rebuilt.

She said the loss was difficult for her sons: Salvatore, 22, and the fraternal triplets Gianni, Vincent and James, 18.

“They thought everything was coming to an end,” Ms. Macaluso said. “You have nothing and you’re out there. It was a lonely time, not knowing what the next day is going to bring for you.”

For the last three years, the family has rented a house in Bay Shore for $2,200 a month. Ms. Macaluso also pays a monthly mortgage of $2,037 for a property that is now nothing more than an empty lot.

The NY Rising Community Reconstruction Program, which was created to help areas hit hard by Tropical Storms Irene and Lee and Hurricane Sandy, is paying for the rebuilding, but complications, including lost paperwork, have set back the project.

“I was hoping to be home by December,” Ms. Macaluso said. “For the last four years, I’ve been saying we’re going to be home for Christmas.”

In July 2013, Ms. Macaluso’s former husband died of a stroke. In August this year, after Ms. Macaluso went to a doctor to investigate a pain in her side, she learned she had cancer.

She is undergoing aggressive treatment, including chemotherapy, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Still, she remains winsome, not withered. She was asked on a questionnaire during a doctor’s visit to rate her stress level on a numeric scale. She marked zero.

“The only worry that I have is financially something will happen to me, and my children won’t have a home, something I fought so hard for,” Ms. Macaluso said.

She added: “I’m not saying that I won’t miss them or miss being a grandma. Of course I’ll miss that. Maybe in the next life; this lifetime wasn’t meant to be.”

All of her sons attend Suffolk County Community College, and three of them work part time to contribute to the household. Each month, Ms. Macaluso receives $1,827 in Social Security benefits, $600 in disability benefits from a former job and $1,211.50 in a widow’s pension from her ex-husband’s job.

Her bills for the cancer treatments are covered by a $259 monthly premium for supplemental medical insurance. However, she could not afford to pay the premiums for this November and December. Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, used $518 from the fund to pay for the premiums for those two months.

Aside from her cancer treatment, much of Ms. Macaluso’s time has been spent on the rebuilding of her home, securing permits and negotiating with contractors. What had once been drudgery is now a welcome distraction.

“It’s exciting to be so close to getting the permits,” Ms. Macaluso said. “That’s another job there for me. I’m so excited about that.”

Reality may have its stinging moments, but she maintains a sanguine perspective about her cancer.

“If it does get me, I gave it my best shot,” Ms. Macaluso said. “I did, I really did. And I had an awesome life.”

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