It’s Aug. 12, 2019, the day before Paul Guglielmino’s 25th wedding anniversary with his wife Irene.
The loving father of two, Alexa, a soon-to-be senior at Slippery Rock University, and Joseph, is out for breakfast with his children. It is a typical Monday morning, but it is one of the last times Alexa will get to spend time with her family before heading back to SRU for her senior year later that week.
The trio goes their separate ways after breakfast; Alexa heading to a friend’s house down the street while Paul drops his son off at home before heading out for a couple of errands around town.
It is a normal day in Simsbury, Connecticut for the Guglielmino family. Until Alexa gets a call from her mom that afternoon that changed all of their lives forever.
“Something is wrong with your dad; you need to come home.” The worst nightmare has come to life.
“I rushed home — I sped off in my car — ran into my house, and I found my dad on the family room floor,” Alexa said.
Paul is lying on the floor, flitting in and out of consciousness after slumping to the couch, and no one knows what to do besides call for help. Irene frantically calls the police while Joseph runs to the neighbors, begging them to call 911.
“He was lifeless,” Alexa said. “That’s the only way I can describe it. I just remember making sure he was there, and saying, ‘dad, dad, dad,’ over and over again.”
The paramedics arrive within five minutes, Paul had regained consciousness at the time, but while he was rushed to the hospital, his family sits in the kitchen. It is quiet. What could possibly be said that would adequately say what the Guglielmino family was feeling?
Fear, despair and an overwhelming urge to hear Paul’s voice once again, to reassure his family that he was OK. Maybe more than anything, just shock.
An hour later, maybe what felt like a lifetime later, the whole family is crammed in the waiting room at the hospital. Another lifetime later, they are finally allowed to see Paul.
It is truly a nightmare come to life. The doctors tell the Guglielmino family their patriarch has a brain tumor.
Alexa would not be the woman she is today without her father. That much would be abundantly clear if you were to see her on the softball field. Slippery Rock’s starting outfielder, the team’s lone senior, goes 110% every day. That indomitable work ethic was instilled into her by her father.
“He is an amazing dad, and he’s always been there from the start with literally everything,” Alexa said. “I honestly would not be where I am without him. Especially because of the relationship we’ve built — of course, sports are a big thing — but he’s taught me so many valuable lessons that I still think about to this day.”
In three seasons plus a fractured senior season, Alexa started nearly every game for the Slippery Rock softball team. After playing 31 games as a freshman, starting 30, she started all 88 games during her sophomore and junior seasons, batting .280 with seven triples, three home runs and 27 runs batted in.
Through 16 games of her senior season, which was canceled by the spread of the coronavirus in another cruel twist of fate, Alexa wasn’t quite batting to her usual standards, but the team had barely made it out of the Spring Break trip. Conference play was still weeks away.
After the sudden diagnosis toward the end of the summer, Alexa wasn’t sure whether or not she even wanted to return and continue playing softball for Slippery Rock. It was her family that convinced her.
“I was honestly nervous asking them because I wasn’t sure,” Alexa said. “It was a very abrupt diagnosis, and we were just in shock by the time I left, and I thought that shock factor would kind of play into me not wanting to come back. My dad was like, ‘you need to go back. Yes, this is your home, your family is here, we’re here, but that’s your home, too. You can’t miss out on those opportunities and those moments. Seeing what you’re doing at school and seeing how you’re growing and prospering at school with sports and with school work, it’s encouraging to me. It’s making it easier for me to get through this process.’ He says that all the time, ‘it gives me something to look forward to.'”
Without that strong foundation — a love built through shared faith and togetherness — Alexa said she probably wouldn’t have been able to return to Slippery Rock last fall. Her extraordinary positivity would not be possible without her father, or the rest of the family, for that matter.
The desire and drive to not just make her dad but her whole family proud drives her to push the limits of what she previously thought possible.
With life changing for everyone in the household, as Paul really cannot be home alone just yet with his daily medicine routines and how cancer has affected his short-term memory, Alexa said her mom and brother faced the most change. It is an everyday job now, it is sobering, it is not always pretty, but it is family. It is true love.
It has gotten better over time; the progression for Paul has been slow but encouraging. Seven months into his treatment, every day is a small win. Those small wins have begun to sway the tide as Paul has continued to progress toward winning the war. Even away from the family, however, a heart-wrenching decision for Alexa, the family connection runs deep.
“They say, ‘You are an inspiration to us because you wanted to finish, you wanted to finish your job, you have a job to do,'” Alexa said. “That’s what my dad said as well, ‘You have a job to do, and this is what you were born to do.’ It’s cliché, but [he said], ‘You have to finish this out and ride the wave and not worry about us.’ Because there’s nothing to worry about; there’s nothing I can control. It’s not up to me, and we have that strong faith and that strong foundation.”
The grace through which Paul is battling through debilitating illness inspires Alexa every day, inspiring her to strive for the same grace in everything she does. In her heart, returning to Slippery Rock was never not an option. Her heart is in Connecticut, but a part of her soul is still in the little town where she’s forged her own trail.
“I felt like that was my will, that was my journey that I had to finish, and that was also something I needed to do for my family,” Alexa said. “Just to make everything a little bit better.”
Alexa returned to Slippery Rock, and a few days later, Paul’s tumor was officially diagnosed as malignant.
Eight hours away from her family, where most would feel alone. Forced to deal with the pain and agony of being away from loved ones in a time of need, Alexa found comfort in a familiar place.
“I give it to all my teammates, and my coaches and the community — especially The Rock softball parents — they brought me in, and they always made sure I was good with everything,” Alexa said. “They took me under their wing, and I think that’s a testament to how The Rock community is.”
“One of the strongest, most dedicated and humble people I’ve ever met and I’m happy to call her my friend,” Mike Costanzo, a fellow SRU communication student, wrote on Twitter.
“One of the kindest souls ever,” SRU softball teammate Regan Hozak said on Twitter. “A true leader, teammate, and friend. Anyone who knows #10 knows she has the most genuine love for life and God.”
“[Alexa] is the most hard-working, caring, loving and compassionate person I’ve ever met,” former SRU teammate Emily Nagle said on Twitter. “Your presence lights up a room.”
Arriving as an 18-year-old girl the summer before her freshman year, The Rock community has welcomed and embraced Alexa with open arms. Slippery Rock has grown into a home away from home.
After traveling to Florida with the team over Spring Break, Alexa chose to self-quarantine in Slippery Rock for two weeks, doing everything she can to not bring the virus back to her immunocompromised dad. God willing, Alexa said she hopes to finally return home this week.
With the cancelled season effectively ending her senior season before it could truly start, Alexa called it just another bump in the road. Of course, it is heartbreaking after the sacrifice she made to just come back, but she is a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.
There is a purpose to everything in her life, even if it is not what she had hoped or imagined. A cancer prognosis is certainly a process, a long, grueling process, but it is not over yet. Alexa draws hope and positivity from the fact that her positivity is shared by her whole family. One step at a time, just one step, is all the Guglielminos can do right now.
“I’m seeing how it is almost like fate and destiny combining. I’m seeing how my positive attitude and my hard work are finally being brought to light,” Alexa said. “It’s an amazing and rewarding feeling, and I’m so thankful for that.
“It’s going to be okay because, I always think about this, God gives his toughest battles to his strongest warriors,” Alexa said. “And I think that’s always an important note I have going through my head. I always think that He can never give something to someone that cannot handle it. And I think that’s a very important part of my destiny; I can handle this.”
If Paul can handle it, with the support and love of everyone in his life, Alexa can, too.
It was a punch to the gut, a sucker punch. How could Paul, a healthy, active 50-year-old man suddenly have cancer?
“We were questioning a lot of things, but we were just like, ‘we’ll get to the bottom of this one day and we’ll understand,'” Alexa said. “We didn’t know if it was cancerous or not, so we just waited for him to come back to from the coma.”
In a medically induced coma at the hospital, doctors originally told the Guglielminos it could be a few days before Paul was awake. It could be one night, it would likely be more.
Paul was awake the next day. The first words out his mouth? “Let me call my wife, let me call my kids.”
It was a waiting game at that point, Paul went into surgery to remove the tumor, and whether or not the tumor was cancerous would be revealed soon. Alexa said Paul was in high spirits, going as far as joking about the procedure, a terrifying procedure to remove a mass from his brain.
“He was goofing off literally a few days afterward,” Alexa said. “He had his bandages on, and I took a video, and he was like, ‘I just had brain surgery. What are you guys doing?’ It’s just always how he is.”
The results confirmed the family’s worst nightmare: Paul had cancer. An aggressive form of brain cancer called glioblastoma that is a level four brain tumor. The odds with cancer are never certain, but Paul’s prognosis was especially dire.
Seven months later, he is fighting like hell. Alexa said it is truly a testament to her father’s spirit and resolve — a resolve strengthened through an overwhelming faith.
“There are two sides to this story,” Alexa said. “We see it from my side and my family’s perspective, but we heard it from my dad’s perspective, too.”
Often, after serious brain damage or surgery, especially in the wake of losing consciousness, someone’s memory can be damaged. Enough to completely forget the events leading to such a loss of consciousness. Alexa knew it wasn’t the case for her father, even before he told her.
“Before all this happened, I had this feeling that he [did remember],” Alexa said. “I’ll never forget that feeling.
“My dad, I think it was five days after his surgery, he was going through these states because there’s a lot of trauma when it comes to brain surgery,” Alexa said. “We weren’t sure if he knew of anything that had occurred, or if he remembered anything.”
He did remember, he remembered very vividly what transpired just before his seizure.
“How he describes it is he said God led him home,” Alexa said. “It gives me chills thinking about it, and he said, ‘This is what happened, this is what I remember.'”
Alexa was obviously at her friend’s house, but after dropping Joseph back off at the house after breakfast, Paul spent a few hours around town.
He was heading home when he said he started to feel something was off. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it was enough to force him to pull over. That’s when he saw his wife’s car drive by on the way home from work. It was her blue car, he was sure of it. So, he pulled off, following her home.
In a twist of fate, Irene wasn’t actually in front of him. She was behind him, just having pulled up behind Paul as he was pulling back on the road.
As he was driving home, he looked up at the roof of his car. His car doesn’t have a sunroof, but all he could see was blue and gold, shining brightly above him. While Paul didn’t feel pain or discomfort, he said God’s peace came over him and led him home.
If Paul was not in full control of himself, he didn’t show it as Irene said he followed the rules of the road to a T. He stopped at stop signs and stoplights, he allowed cars to turn. It was not a straight shot back to the Guglielmino home, but Paul navigated the whole way home without incident.
Until he got to the street his house is on. Paul pulled past the street, and Irene wondered why he did not turn. It wasn’t uncommon, though, maybe he needed to head to the hardware store.
Paul did not know why he drove past the house either, but he turned around, pulling into his spot in the driveway, right by the basketball hoop.
He walked into the house, where Irene and Joseph already were, and told his wife that he felt tired, he thought he might be dehydrated. But like the drive home, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Except, Paul has no recollection of talking to Irene when he got home. He did not see his house, Irene or Joseph. Paul was having an out of body experience, he was in the presence of a higher power.
Irene got Paul a glass of water while he sat down on the couch next to Joseph. Joseph was watching Battleship and Paul was laughing.
“My dad sat down on the couch in our family room, right next to my brother, and my brother was watching Battleship, which is a serious movie,” Alexa said. “My dad was laughing at the TV, and my brother was like, ‘why is he laughing? this is a serious movie.'”
Irene brought Paul his water, but before he was able to take a sip or explain what was so funny, the glass crashed to the floor. He was having a seizure, but he was home. Against all odds, he was home.
“I find it remarkable how God led him home,” Alexa said. “It’s remarkable with my dad traveling so much with his job, he was actually home this weekend when it happened. He could have and should have died. That’s all he wants is to have everyone know he was saved by God, and that’s why he’s here.”
Paul was transported to the hospital, with the help of wonderful paramedics, and since the diagnosis, he has continued to overcome the odds. He’s responded to treatment and the tumor has shrunk.
But there was one other injury that Paul had sustained that day, and he can thank Irene for that.
“My dad just kept saying, ‘ow, my shoulder, why is my shoulder hurting?’ And the doctor was like, ‘because it’s up here and should be down here.’ And my mom was like, “oh my God, I dislocated your shoulder.'”
When Paul had slumped on the couch, having his seizure, Irene’s instincts kicked in and she quickly pulled him off the couch in order for him to lie on the floor.
“I laugh at this story now. But the first thing my mom thought of was to get him off the couch and on the floor, just to make sure he could breathe and everything,” Alexa said. “While she was doing that, she dislocated his shoulder because of how strong she is.”
Alexa said it was a true testament to not only her mother but to a mother’s will and resolve in the face of such fear and tragedy.
Life is fragile, it is uncertain and there is no guarantee that tomorrow will come. Alexa has seen that come into perspective since Paul’s cancer diagnosis.
But that is okay. If there is one thing Alexa has learned through this ordeal, it is that everything happens for a reason.
“I had these big plans after school with big ideas like, ‘I wanna go work in New York City, I want to do this, do that,'” Alexa said. “But that’s not what my purpose is and that’s not what I was called to do.”
Alexa said she has seen how regardless of bad situations and what we, as humans, expect to happen, it is not up to us. Alexa said she realized that God is bigger than that.
“He has a story for each and every one of us,” Alexa said. “That’s why I’m still here at Slippery Rock, and that’s why I’m going to potentially be here for another couple of years. I want to be able to continue my story and finish it here.”
Alexa is not done with her story, and neither is Paul. That much is abundantly clear.
Aug. 12 is just four months away. Paul’s 26th wedding anniversary will mean that much more.
If you would like to donate the GoFundMe that Alexa set up for her father’s treatment, you may do so here.