Joe Mantegna: A Prayer from the Bench
Joe Mantegna is one of the most versatile actors working today. He is a star on the stage, in film, and most recently, on television series like "Joan of Arcadia" and "Criminal Minds." But Joe's role as an actor is secondary to his role as a parent in real life, specifically, as the father of two daughters, one of whom, Mia, has autism.
Twenty-one years ago when Joe's wife Arlene was pregnant with their first child, all had been going well until one Friday afternoon when she became concerned; the baby hadn't been moving much. Arlene had received a good prognosis only the day before so her doctor wasn't sure if he needed to see her again. Luckily the nurse said, "Since it's Friday, come in otherwise you're not going to feel right all weekend."
A half-hour later, Joe got the call to rush to St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank, California. The doctor had discovered the baby was in distress and needed to be delivered instantly or she would die. While Arlene was getting an emergency Cesarean section, Joe headed to the chapel.
On the radio program "Personally Speaking" with Monsignor Jim Lisante, Joe recalled, "I went to the chapel. There was nobody else in there. I knelt and—I haven't been the most devout Catholic in my life, I'll be the first to admit, but we all tap into that which we know. And that is my spiritual connection to God, that's the channel it runs through—Catholicism. But I went in there and said, 'Look, I know I'm not on the A Team. I'm not one of the starters; I've been on the bench for a while. But please, if there's something that can be done for this child to live, I'm prepared to do whatever I must do.'"
Born three months premature and weighing only 1 pound, 13 ounces, Mia was successfully delivered. Though she spent several months in intensive care, her health improved and she eventually went home. Joe and Arlene thought they had dodged every bullet but, at age three, it became obvious that something was wrong with Mia's development. It was then that they received the diagnosis; Mia was autistic.
Recalling that period, Joe says, "I think everybody goes through shock and anger—it's human nature to go through that, but the trick is you have to move past it because you're not doing anybody any good by staying in a state of anger. There's nothing productive about that. So rather than yell at the wind, you try to use the wind you have to fill a sail . . . [my] prayer was granted, but there were obviously some stipulations that came with it. And you know what—it's okay. I look around me and I look at the world and at the suffering that goes on, and I think, 'Why not me?' If this is that thing that we as a family have to deal with, we'll do it. I still feel blessed that we're able to deal with it as best as we can. So I think back on that moment of prayer and I'm convinced that it worked."
Mia is now twenty-two years old, lives with her parents, and is "fairly high functioning." While the autism has brought challenges, it's also brought blessings. Joe says, "My daughter has this purity about her. [Kids with special needs may be] lacking in terms of the things we wish they had—communication, speech, all the behavior that we call normal. The other things they are lacking is—my daughter doesn't understand hate, she doesn't understand jealousy. These abstract kinds of emotions aren't on her radar. So she's pure in spirit. She gets frustrated about things, but she never has a moment of vindictiveness or anger or hatred because it's just not part of her psyche. The magical things about life still exist in her and always will."
Tony Rossi is the freelance producer of the USCCB-sponsored radio show "Personally Speaking." He also serves as host/producer of "Christopher Closeup," the radio show and podcast of The Christophers, a Catholic non-profit that uses media to encourage people of all faiths to live gospel values. You can read his October 2010 interview with Patricia Heaton, here.