Alla J. Wheeler, 52, wife of Protodeacon Eric Wheeler of Saint Sergius Chapel, Oyster Bay Cove, NY, fell asleep in the Lord on Tuesday, June 22, 2010, ending a two-year battle with cancer.
Protodeacon Eric and their two children Jack (John) and Azure (Alexandra), together with many members of Alla’s family, were at her bedside at home when she died after weeks of palliative care, much of it given directly by Protodeacon Eric.
Alla was diagnosed with “Adenocarcinoma of unknown origin” in June 2008. It attacked her liver, bones and brain, but the oncologists could not pin down the primary site. She underwent a barrage of treatments, including radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery on her back to insert steel plates and screws to prop-up her crumbling spine. Finally, on Holy Thursday 2010, she received a diagnosis of “carcinomatous meningitis,” an aggressive cancer that spreads through the spinal fluid attacking the central nervous system, causing seizures and distorting muscles. Her beautiful face was now twisted out of shape, her voice took on an odd higher pitch, her eyes didn’t look in the same direction, and her body became a skinny ragdoll. Now, may God give her rest, where there is neither sickness, sorrow, nor sighing.
Alla was born on April 28, 1958 in Montreal, the third of five children. She and her family attended Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Montreal and, during the summer, Saint Seraphim Chapel, Rawdon, Quebec. When the family moved successively to California, Connecticut, and New Jersey, they attended Saint Andrew Church (ROCOR, Glendora, CA), Saints Peter and Paul Church (OCA, Springfield, MA), and Holy Trinity Church (OCA, Randolph, NJ). Alla met Eric at the Saint Vladimir’s Seminary College Student Christmas Retreat in 1977 and they were married at Holy Trinity Church after Eric’s graduation from seminary in 1980. They went to Alaska that summer to run tours at Saint Michael Cathedral, Sitka, where they lived with the late Bishop Gregory (Afonsky). Eric worked at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary and the OCA Chancery in important administrative and leadership capacities. Since 1999 he has served as Director of Finance at Old Westbury Gardens in Long Island, NY.
Eric was ordained deacon in 1986, and throughout his ministry Alla was a deep friend, companion and supporter, especially during the difficult days of the OCA’s crisis in administration (1999-2008), in which Protodeacon Eric had such a crucial role uncovering. Although those years were very painful for Alla and led to a sense of alienation from the Church for a period of time, in the last few years she was reconciled to Church life and the family once again became part of the Saint Sergius Chapel community at the OCA Chancery, where Archpriest Alexander Garklavs is their pastor and friend. She said at one point, “You peel off all the outer layers of the Church’s troubles and failings, and there in the middle is something so good.”
Professionally, Alla was a dental hygienist. After many years in clinical practice, she completed a Masters in Health Care Administration and was appointed Clinical Instructor of Dental Hygiene at New York University (2002) and then Assistant Professor (2004). This was a new vocation for which she was deeply grateful, because she felt that all her talents, expertise, and experience were coming together. She had the opportunity to do research as well and was collaborating with a team to detect diabetes through blood testing as part of normal dental hygiene practice. She was most impressed by the humanity of her colleagues, many of whom were not religious at all. “There was so much kindness, especially after this terrible illness started,” she said recently. “They were such human beings, and it never stopped.” Then she corrected herself, “I said they were ‘human,’ but no, it’s not just that. These are human beings who have been touched by God, only they don’t know it.”
Just before Paschal Vespers 2010, a brief prayer service for Alla was held at Saint Sergius Chapel. She stood in the center of the tiny chapel, surrounded by family and friends. She was frail and everyone knew this would be her last Pascha with us on this earth. But Pascha is such a defiant celebration, so the words “trampling down death by death” took on a very personal meaning. At the end of the prayers, Alla said goodbye to everyone, thanked us, and asked forgiveness. There was not an ounce of self-pity or sentimentality, only radiance and gratitude. What a strange mixture it was then—and now—of grief entwined with joy and peace.
In addition to Protodeacon Eric, Jack and Azure, Alla leaves behind her mother, Alla Jillions, 91; her siblings, Archpriest John Jillions (Denise), Tania Kerno (Ivan), Tamara Carson (Michael), and Andrew Jillions (Kathleen); and numerous aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.
Visitation will be held at Holy Trinity Church, 369 Green Avenue, East Meadow, NY [516-483-3649] on Thursday, June 24, where the Parastas will be celebrated at 7:00 p.m.. Funeral services will be celebrated at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, June 25, with interment at Saint Tikhon’s Monastery Cemetery, South Canaan, PA that afternoon.
May Alla’s memory be eternal!