L’Chaim: A toast to life!

By Fr. John Girotti | Special to The Compass | January 16, 2019

One of my favorite restaurants is a hamburger and custard place back in the town where I grew up. As a family, we would often go there to consume one of their giant hamburgers, delicious fries and smooth frozen custard. Recently, I visited my stepfather and we decided to go back to our old haunt and try and relive some of our happiest family memories. I proceeded to order what I remembered ordering half a lifetime ago — a hamburger with everything on it, fries and frozen custard in a waffle cone. Yummy. Alas, my enthusiasm was soon tempered by the fact that my body metabolism had gone on strike recently and the prospect of consuming upwards of 3,000 calories proved to be somewhat daunting.

After I had polished off the burger and fries and was trying to find extra space for the custard, a family came into the restaurant and sat down across from us. I glanced over at them briefly and noticed what appeared to be a mother and father — and their 10-year-old son. As time went on, however, I became curious. The parents were taking turns feeding their child. They were all laughing and seemed to enjoy being together as a family. Yet, why were they feeding him? Wasn’t he old enough to take care of himself?

As my custard started to melt, I observed further and saw the parents care for him, wipe off his mess and engage their son in light conversation. Then suddenly their son turned towards me. I recognized that he had been born with Down syndrome and that his parents were simply caring for him because this was what they had committed to do for the rest of their lives.

Parents of children with special needs or disabilities are an extraordinary lot. Through their grief and worry, they are often forced out of themselves and into a radically unselfish life of care for their children. While some of us preach, speak and write about pro-life things, these parents actually live it. Every day. Day in and day out. For years and years and years. Even though they receive no medals or recognition, their testimony is powerful. And I believe that their reward will be truly great in heaven.

In the growing darkness of our own time, when children with disabilities are often slaughtered in the womb because of their perceived imperfections, I urge all of us to thank God for the often quiet testimony and sacrifices of families that welcome and care for children such as these. And for the blessing that these children are to their families and to all of us.

Speaking specifically of Down syndrome, or as it is often called today, Trisomy 21 (a genetic disorder marked by a third copy of chromosome 21), my life has been sprinkled with interactions with parents who welcomed these children into the world and who have lovingly cared for them. Like the loving family who sat across from me, they are committed to caring for their children — not just until the usual age of 18 or 26, or now it seems 29, but forever. Forever.

One parent told me that when her daughter was born with Down syndrome, she and her husband had to grieve the dreams and plans they had had for their child and what was now not to be. And then she said that they had to embrace God’s plan as to what was to be for their daughter. Another father I know, who had a distant relative born with Down syndrome, once said to me that such children are really saint-makers in their families. They lead their parents and siblings to be completely unselfish in their care and thus the entire family grows in holiness very quickly. Two years after he had said this to me, he and his wife were blessed with a beautiful saint-making daughter of their own. And his earlier statement has indeed come true.

As I continued to watch the couple next to me feed their son, I looked into their faces. The parents had determined and bright faces. Perhaps even radiant? They carried on with their meal, conversation, feeding, as if they had done this 1,000 times before. Because, of course, they had. And they would do so thousands of times more. Their silent testimony to the dignity of human life was echoing throughout the restaurant: to the young couple out on a date, to an elderly couple in the corner having a bit of ice cream, to the quasi-family where all its members were glued to their phones, to a priest sitting with his stepfather, remembering how life had been together as family some 20 years before.

The parents didn’t need to carry a sign or manage a blog. They didn’t need to tweet anything, post anything or wear a special colored ribbon. There are places for these things, I suppose, but their testimony to life was the very action of feeding their son. Spoonful by spoonful, calorie by calorie, was their testimony. They had grieved what was not to be, they had embraced what was to be — they simply loved their son.

As I finished the last bites of my final 3,000-calorie meal, I quietly raised my frozen custard cone in a pseudo toast to these brave parents. L’Chaim — to life! May God bless them. And he has.

Fr. Girotti, who serves as vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia, is author of “A Shepherd Tends His Flock.”

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