The text from Sister Diane at St. Ignatius Martyr church was as odd as it was urgent: "A man is going to call. You must answer the phone."
Kerry Ann Troy had just finished her daily "cry time" — that half-hour between dropping the kids off at school and driving back to her gutted house on New York's Long Island, or to the hurricane relief center, or to wherever she was headed in those desperate days after Sandy, when life seemed an endless blur of hopelessness and worry.
Cellphone reception was sporadic, so even if the stranger called, she would likely miss him. Besides, she had so many other things on her mind.
After spending the first week with relatives in Connecticut, Troy, a part-time events planner for the city, and her husband, Chris, a firefighter, had managed to find a hotel room for a week in Garden City. The couple had no idea where they and their three children — Ryan, 13, Connor, 12, and Katie, 4 — would go next. Hotels were full. Rentals were gone. Their modest raised ranch, a few blocks from the beach, was unlivable.
But the Troys faced another dilemma.
The family had been looking forward to a weeklong, post-Thanksgiving trip to Disney World, paid for by the Make-A-Wish-Foundation to benefit Connor, who suffers from a life-threatening, neuromuscular disease. He had lost one wheelchair to the storm. His oxygen equipment and other medical supplies were damaged by water. He was disoriented and confused.
How could they tell their sick child that the storm that had disrupted his life might also cost him his dream — to meet Kermit the Frog?
Yet Chris Troy felt he couldn't leave. And Kerry Ann said she wouldn't go without him.
And then — in the space of a few hours — everything changed.
A school administrator pulled Kerry Ann aside when she went to pick up Katie. She told her of a vacant summer home — a spacious, fully furnished, three-bedroom house in nearby Point Lookout, which the owners wished to donate to a displaced family. The Troys could live there indefinitely, at no cost, while they sorted out their lives.
Kerry Ann could hardly believe their good fortune. The kids could stay in their schools. The family could go to Florida after all.
But that was only the beginning.
The stranger that Sister Diane had texted her about earlier had left a message.
His name was Donald. He wanted to meet the Troys. He wanted to help.
At St. Ignatius Martyr, offers of help began pouring in as soon as the storm waters receded: spaghetti dinner fundraisers, fat checks from churches in North Carolina and Texas, smaller donations from nearby parishes.
For weeks the church had no power, heat or working phones. Masses were held in the school gym. Monsignor Donald Beckmann, scrambling to help his displaced parishioners, was a hard man to track down.
But Donald Denihan, a 51-year-old businessman from Massapequa, managed to find him. He wanted to see the devastation firsthand. And he wanted to help one family rebuild. He would pay for everything, from demolition costs to new paint. He just wanted to make sure he found the right family, perhaps someone elderly, perhaps someone with a disability.
Over the phone he asked Beckmann: "Will you help me choose?"
The priest's heart sank. There were thousands of families in need, people who had lost everything. How in the world could he pick just one?
A few days later Beckmann and Sister Diane Morgan gave Denihan a tour of their battered barrier island town off the South Shore of Long Island. They took him to the West End, a warren of narrow streets named after the states — Arizona, Ohio, Michigan — and crammed with small homes, many of them passed down from generation to generation. The neighborhood is staunchly working class; police officers and firefighters and teachers live here, many of them of Irish and Italian descent.
Now it was a disaster zone. Nearly every home had been flooded, their interiors — kitchen stoves and sheet rock, children's toys and mattresses — spilling out of Dumpsters that lined the streets.
Father Beckmann drove Denihan to a small raised ranch at 103 Minnesota Avenue with a wheelchair ramp at the side. He told him about the family who lived there, the Troys, how they had evacuated to Connecticut mainly because of their sick son, how Kerry Ann's childhood home around the corner, newly rebuilt after burning to the ground six years earlier, had been lost to the flood.
Then he took Denihan to another ruined house, the tiny bungalow where the church's 74-year-old cook had climbed a 7-foot ladder into the attic to escape the rising water. All she could do was pray as she watched her disabled son nearly drown in his wheelchair below.
Both families were in urgent need of help, Beckmann said. Which one would Denihan choose?
Denihan listened intently.
After surviving three near-death experiences — a duck-shooting accident at 16, prostate cancer at 36, and a serious boating accident in 2011 — he had concluded there was a reason God wanted him around.
And so Denihan, who had made his money in hotel and real estate investments, had set up a fund. He called it God is Good. Until now, he wasn't sure how he would use it.
"I can't choose, Father," Denihan confessed, as they drove back to the church. "I'll just have to take care of both."
The priest offered up a silent prayer of thanks.
The nun grabbed her cellphone and texted Kerry Ann.
Nothing had prepared Chris Troy for the sight of his home when he returned two days after the storm. The basement — including his beautifully finished wooden bar, Kerry Ann's office space, the kids' playroom, the laundry and boiler room — were dank and foul-smelling and mold was already growing. The water had reached to the ceiling, seeping into the living room, kitchen and bedrooms upstairs.
Troy prides himself on his stoicism, on being able to cope with anything. But a few hours passed before he could bring himself to break the news to his family.
"The house is a mess, and Daddy will fix it," he told Katie, who burst into tears when she heard her toys were gone. "And the toys you lost you will get back at Christmas."
In reality, he didn't know how the family was going to cope or where they would spend Christmas. Insurance wouldn't cover the basement area. He couldn't afford to pay for repairs himself. And though friends and volunteers offered to help, most could spare only a few hours because they were so busy dealing with damage to their own homes.
"We were in a tough situation," Chris said.
So they gladly agreed to meet with Denihan. Perhaps he would offer to pay for the sheet rock, or a generator, Chris thought. That would be nice.
Denihan showed up with a contractor. He walked through the house. He talked to the children. He seemed kind and matter-of-fact and purposeful.
Standing on their front porch, in the chilly morning sun, Denihan made a promise. He would rebuild their home. They could make any alterations they wanted, like installing a wheelchair-accessible shower and central air, something the Troys had dreamed of, because Connor's disease causes him to overheat.
"I'll take care of everything," Denihan said. "And we'll start first thing tomorrow."
It was a few days before Thanksgiving and the Troys, distracted by the move to the borrowed house and their upcoming trip to Florida, didn't fully comprehend. What exactly did he mean by "everything?"
It wasn't until a moving van trundled up the next morning and workers carted off their remaining belongings and started tearing down walls, and Denihan told Kerry Ann to start picking out paint colors and tile, that the enormity of it began to sink in.
"This stranger walks into our lives and offers not just to rebuild our home, but to build us a better home," said Kerry Ann. "And another family lends us their home. It's absolutely a miracle."
The trip to Disney World was the best of their lives. Connor had never been happier, bright and alert and grinning from ear to ear as he met the Magic Kingdom characters — Mickey and Woody and the Minions and, of course, Kermit. He went on carousel rides specially rigged for wheelchairs, splashed in the pool in his water chair and ate ice cream all day long.
Back home, they marvel at their new accommodations: The house is bigger than their own, with sweeping views of the Atlantic and a backyard with a swing-set that Katie calls her private park.
Still, they wrestle with how to come to grips with their new reality. And how to give thanks.
The Troys are used to struggle, to battling through on their own. Kerry Ann's father died when she was a 19, after seven years in a coma, and she helped raise her younger siblings. They nearly lost Connor a few years ago, after spinal surgery left him in a body-cast for eight weeks and doctors didn't think he would survive. Kerry Ann's mother, Kathy, spent a year living with them in the basement, while her burned home was rebuilt.
So they find themselves agonizing over Denihan's generosity, sure of their gratitude but unsure how to process it.
"How do you thank someone for giving you back your home and your life," Chris asks. "What do I do ... give him a child?"
Denihan isn't looking for thanks — and he has his own children. He said he just feels blessed to be in a position to help, and grateful that others are pitching in, too. His contractors — plumber, electrician and builder — have offered to do the work either for free, or at cost. Perhaps, he says, others will hear the story and step up to help more Sandy victims in the same way.
Denihan hopes the family can move back home for Christmas — a goal the Troys initially thought was wildly optimistic, until they saw how rapidly everything was progressing. Already, new walls have gone up, the accessible shower has been installed, they have light and water and heat.
Most of all, two months after Sandy destroyed their home and disrupted their lives, they have hope. And plans.
They will have Christmas and a tree and Santa will bring the kids gifts. They will throw a party at their sparkling new house on Minnesota Avenue.
And they will celebrate a special Mass at St. Ignatius Martyr to give thanks for surviving the storm — and for the miracle that happened after, when strangers walked into their lives and gave them back their home.
Eds: Helen O'Neill is a national writer for The Associated Press, based in New York. She can be reached at features(at)ap.org.