Seeing Stars

| February 13, 2014 | 0 Comments
From left, Nina, Rebecca, Denny, Chris and Liz DeNio draw on their faith as they continue to deal with the effects of a stroke that Denny suffered in 2009.  Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

From left, Nina, Rebecca, Denny, Chris and Liz DeNio draw on their faith as they continue to deal with the effects of a stroke that Denny suffered in 2009. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

It’s Christmas Eve and winter is tormenting the Twin Cities.

White flakes are piling up and bitter winds are creating a life-sized snow globe. At 9 p.m., Denny DeNio looks out his window and decides it is time to act.

He makes his way out to the driveway of his Richfield home, grabs a shovel and goes to work. Despite pleas to stay inside — plus offers to help — that come from his wife, Chris, and five children, he chooses to fly solo on his mission of removing the snow from his driveway.

At 1 a.m., he finishes the job. Four hours? Nothing but an avalanche could take this long to clean up, right?

True — for an able-bodied man. But, DeNio has a tough handicap in this case — use of only his right arm and limited function of his left leg.

Such a reduction in limb use would have kept most men indoors. Not Denny. He insists on shoveling the driveway — alone — every time it snows.

Of course, his wife of 36 years doesn’t like the idea. But, she has learned it’s futile trying to talk him out of it.

“He is driven and obsessive about the snow shoveling, probably because he will not be able to do it if he doesn’t keep up with it,” she said. “We tell him to come in, but he rarely does, and says ‘I just need to get the driveway done.’ ”

She cuts him some slack. After all, the reason for his condition, a stroke suffered on May 30, 2009, has taken away so much already, including the auto repair business that he started just a few years before the stroke and operated in his own garage.

Perhaps harder than the stroke itself is the simple realization that he never will regain the use of his left hand and arm. Thus, the 56-year-old lifelong auto mechanic who got his start at a local garage while attending Washburn High School in Minneapolis will never again tinker under the hood of a car.

Yet, all of his tools and equipment remain in the garage of his home on 68th and Blaisdell, which sits just across the parking lot from St. Peter in Richfield and its next-door neighbor, the Academy of Holy Angels.

Finding a reason

And, like a massive oak tree, the roots from the DeNio household stretch deep and long from their home to these two Catholic institutions, which have played key roles in their lives and have helped them get through the dark times of both his stroke and the ensuing depression when he had to face the end of his lifelong career and passion.

“He was very happy and very good at his job,” said Chris, 55, who met Denny — and dated him — while also attending Washburn High. “And, he couldn’t do it any more. The income just stopped, and also his ability to do what he’s done his whole life, which is fix cars. . . . He had a profound depression at that point, and that, for me, was the worst, where he didn’t feel that he had a reason to go on.”

This is the part of the story that draws tears from the female members of the family — Chris and daughters Nina, 30, Rebecca, 20, and Liz, 18. For them, it was hard enough seeing Denny lying helplessly in a bed for five days as doctors fought to stabilize him and minimize the damage done by bleeding in his brain. It was downright excruciating to later watch the joy run out of him like air hissing out of a leaky balloon.

“When it first happened, because our family was so close, I feel like I just strongly believed that there was a reason behind all of this, that something good was going to come out of this,” Nina said. “[But] I had a lot of doubt in my faith when there was the period of time where he was really depressed afterward.”

And yet, despite the pain, the DeNios knew they needed to trust in God and deepen the faith that has grown steadily since Denny and Chris converted to Catholicism from their Protestant upbringings and set their roots at St. Peter and Holy Angels.

All five children, including sons Denny, 35, and Drew, 33, went to grade school at St. Peter (now called Blessed Trinity), and all went on to Holy Angels, where Liz will finish a 20-year-plus run for the family when she graduates this spring.

The DeNios are emphatic in saying these two faith communities played a huge role in getting through the tragedy. A recent event may be the best example of what others around them are doing to show support.

Inspired idea

On Jan. 25, the Holy Angels competition dance team, called the Starliners, hosted a Catholic dance team event that serves not only as a dance competition, but also a fund-raiser. The host of the six-school event, called the Catholic Jamboree, gets to pick the charity to which all the proceeds are donated.

Nina is the Starliners’ coach, so it was natural to have her pick the charity. And, no one would have blamed her for choosing the organization, called Inspire, that has helped Denny in many ways over the last few years.

But, it was not Nina who suggested giving the money to Inspire. Rather, it was the parent of a Starliner who voiced the idea. Unanimous approval from the 27 girls on the team means that Inspire will get a check for more than $4,000 from the school.

The fact that the Starliners stepped up to play a key role should come as no surprise. All three of the DeNio daughters have been on the team, with Liz again bringing the run to an end. She is one of three team captains, with her older sisters also serving in that role during their Starliner days. The State Tournament is Feb. 14 and 15 at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis, and the whole DeNio family will be there, with Liz making her last appearance as a Starliner.

“This year, with Nina, has been such a great year,” Liz said. “I’m really sad about it [coming to an end] because I just love it so much.”

Nina, who graduated from Holy Angels in 2001, started coaching dance at the school in 2002, and worked with the girls, including her two sisters, in the fall during the noncompetitive part of the school year.

She took over as the competition team coach this year and has tried to pass on the faith modeled by her parents to the girls on the team.

“We do pray in the practice room,” she said. “I have a book of daily readings, and I’ll look through and see if there’s a reading that applies to how I feel the team is doing.”

These days, the DeNios are doing much better, thanks to the adjustments they’ve made to Denny’s condition and a faith that anchors not just their own lives, but the lives of those around them.

“The family’s strength and faith remain consistent,” said Michael Kautzman, athletic director at Holy Angels who also has taught theology and worked in campus ministry — and lobbied hard to get Nina on board as the Starliners’ coach.

“I know there were interior struggles and things going on behind the scenes, but the manner in which they continued to love others and be positive and happy and joyful didn’t cease, which is amazing to me,” he said. “It was a witness to me that there is something deeper beneath this family.”

Others have noticed it, too, like long-time friend Ann Garland, who met the DeNios at St. Peter when Nina was just a toddler.

“Often, families break apart as troubles arrive — theirs is the model of how to pull together,” said Garland, who works at St. Peter. Denny and Chris “help and love and pray and serve each other and have modeled that for 35-plus years, and the kids follow suit. Friends see it and it changes them, co-workers see it and it changes them. The DeNios are realistic. The road ahead will be hard and frightening financially, but faith-wise and family-wise, it’s hopeful and strong.”

A new calling

One thing that has encouraged the family is Denny’s sense of humor. Jokes roll fluidly off his lips, even during the toughest days of the journey. A vibrant sense of humor is hard-wired into his brain, and the stroke has not tamed it.

“It was the one thing that never did disappear,” Chris said. “The minute he opened his eyes from the induced coma, the first thing he did was start joking around. The nurse said, ‘My name is Kate.’ He said, ‘What’s your last name?’ She said, ‘Witt.’ And, he said, ‘Do you have a brother named Nit?’”

Thanks to faith, family and friends, there will be plenty more jokes coming out of Denny’s mouth in the years to come, even though he will never hold a wrench in his left hand again.

“It was extremely hard to know that I wasn’t going to be able to do that again,” said Denny, who got his first job at a service station while in high school. “I felt like that was my calling, and so to have that taken away was really, really hard. Now, I have to find my new calling.”

 

 

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