On December 10, 1958, our brother Michael was born. His coming was his going. Michael Gerard, second child of John Joseph (Jack) and Mary (Sweeney) McGinty, was born with Downs Syndrome and Spina Bifida. The second of those, in terns of the medicine of that day, guaranteed that he would not survive in this world.

I do not know at what time of day he was born. I suppose there must be a birth certificate on file at Salem, Massachusetts. I do not know what he looked like, or who he looked like. Only our Dad would have known, and perhaps Nana and Papa, Dad’s parents. Mom would not have known. As she told the story of that moment, when labor was complete and the baby born, the doctor and nurses recognized the conditions that he carried with him into the world. They determined that it would be better or easier if a bond between mother and child did not begin or develop and Baby Michael was whisked from the room. Mom never held him. His life here on earth was 10 days in length. She was not allowed to see him. And then, he was gone.

Our family grave is at Saint Joseph’s Cemetery in Lynn. The stone on the grave is a depiction of the Holy Family of Baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Most of the back of the monument records in stone the entire story of Michael’s life. Since 1958, his little body has been joined there by our grandparents, John Hugh McGinty (+1971) and Beatrice (Kelly) McGinty (+1982), and by his parents and ours, Jack (+2000) and Mary (+2020). All the near witnesses of his brief life are there. And all of them also, faith assures, are together in the Kingdom of God.

Our mother was a hardy Irish farmgirl. She was challenged by many forces in life – physical and emotional – and she withstood them all. More than that, she had enough strength remaining to help many others bear their challenges as well. I am the oldest of the seven children she bore into this world full-term and I can rarely remember her crying. When heavy emotion shook her, it most often emerged looking and sounding like anger. When I was chosen to travel overseas to Rome for seminary studies beginning in the fall of 1979, I remember clearly her voice, “You can’t go there! What will we do without you?” There was determination and pain in her voice. But I did not see her cry. Perhaps I could not see her tears through my own.

There is an exception. In her later years, in her 80’s and coming to 90 years, if I reminded her on this day of Michael’s birth, there would be tears in her amazing eyes, and sometimes the recollection that she had never been able to hold her son in his first moments, and in his need.

When Mom’s own dying day came, early on the morning of December 12, two years ago this coming Monday, I was blessed – thanks to the loving kindness of the night nurse – to go to her bedside at Little Sisters’ Jeanne Jugan Residence in Somerville and to sit by her side to pray, to thank God and her for her life and untiring love, for an hour in the silence. As I sat there, and many times since then, the image came to me of Mom, as she was in 1958, holding Michael in love and singing him to sleep, his eyes alert to her face and his ears to every note of her song for him. At last. Holding him. With no limit of time at all.

That same birth scene, with those same diagnoses or the link taking place today, would look so different. They could treat the Spina Bifida, and he could become all things possible as Downs Syndrome child, teen, and adult. She could hold him numberless times and laugh and sing and hope and live. Thank God for that.

As I write these words this evening, I am moved to urge any who may come across these few paragraphs and read them, not to accept with ease the restrictions, the rules put in place by any of the human systems we put in place as a species. They are never infallible. They may seem justified for a time, but in terms of the eternity of God, they may be quite limited. When you come across a human judgment that restricts or bars the expression of real love, in the name of the God of love, contest it. Push against it. To say it in terms of that labor and delivery room back in 1958, hold the baby. Protest until you are enabled to hold the baby.

Rest in peace my little brother. Give Mom and Dad and Nana and Papa and all the others a big lasting hug from those of us still along the way.

On celebrating life and facing death

There is Irish folk music playing in the next room as I begin to write this morning. This is the heritage of my childhood and adolescence. Every Saturday our home (and the yard outside through Dad’s ‘transistor radio’ (!) was filled with the sounds of traditional instruments and familiar voices singing songs that had become part of the DNA of the household.

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day. Today also marks 93 years since the birth of our mother, Mary Sweeney. She opened her eyes to the world in the very rural world of the west of Ireland on March 17, 1929. Her earthly life, of 91 years, formed her as a strong woman, faithful to the end to her family, and marked by what can only be called a fierce love. Fiercely aware and constant and independent. It was a teaching love as well. As in: this is how you live a human life. And so today, we celebrate her life as a family and with her remaining circle of friends. We celebrate with thanksgiving and joy.

It is also fifteen months ago since the conclusion of that remarkable life of emigration/immigration, marriage and childbearing, work and music and creativity; a life of attention to events the world over, as well as the range of emotions brought on over the years by her beloved Red Sox, Patriots, and Bruins (the Celtics were a late addition!). It is fifteen months since the very early morning I sat by her bed for an hour and more, the body that had birthed us into the world lying still before me in the hours since her death. The silence of that hour was filled with what must have been a deeper prayer of sorrow and of gratitude than I had ever known. United with the initial emotions around Mom’s death were the soul-stirring remembrance of other like moments, stretching back to my paternal grandparents’ deaths in the 70’s and 80’s and through the passages of letting go of the company and conversation of our neighbor Hazel (like another grandmother) and our aunt Nonie (irreplaceable), and to the memory of the August morning at the beginning of this century, shrouded in thick fog, when our Dad was taken from us by cancer.

All these personal memories of what we often call loss are housed within a world which experiences the same on a planetary scale in every generation. To only concentrate on the months immediately prior and since Mom’s death is to recognize a landscape of loss in a worldwide pandemic, and now in the suffering of the people of Ukraine. And these in turn are in relationship to other massive seasons of grief around the world.

Those who struggle with grief – ultimately 7 billion of us – know that the struggle does not have an expiration date. That struggle does not even carry a worst by date that might correspond to the best by dates we became familiar with, labeled on the nourishment we buy to maintain life. Grief remains active and pushes above the surface of everyday life at various moments; sometimes we can recognize an immediate cause for the renewed sorrow, but oftentimes it is not evident.

Over this year and a quarter I have come to see that, within the grief that is a part of this world’s story (but not its whole story by any means), there are those losses that shift the personal landscape, our understanding of life, more than others. In lasting fashion. In the midst of a life which embraces meeting new people, appreciating old friendships, searching creatively for new ways to carry on, there are losses the weight of which cannot be measured on any scales usually provided.

When that happens, it is hard to admit. Hard to admit because the changes such an experience brings cut in both apparently positive and negative directions. In other words, in every life some friends, some family members, some mentors have an influence on us that does not end. Rather, it changes.

I have heard the assertion argued that it is possible to love a person too much. I understand and appreciate the argument. I would only respond that if that is true, it is at the same time not possible to love a person too well. When you have been loved very well (and been moved to love in return) in a manner that does not admit of measure at all, you have been changed. In that experience you have become more than you had been, and more than you otherwise might have been. More wise. Steadier. More loving yourself in relation to others.

That is the gift. There is an accompanying burden. It is this. From the morning or evening when that love is no longer accessible in earthly terms save in memory (a precious gift), the price to be paid for the gift given is a sorrow borne. Borne from then forward through all the days remaining. Parents who have suffered the death of a child know this truth. Soldiers who have lost compatriots at their side in the midst of battle know this. Medical professionals who have carried for us all the heaviest weight of pandemic know this. Spouses who have lived and loved side-by-side for decades and are then widowed know this. Adults whose lives have been embraced by the indefatigable unbreakable love of wonderful mothers and fathers know this. I know this.

To be loved well is to receive one of the best gifts possible. And in a passing world, that gift always comes with a price due. It is at last only the overarching love of God, the source of all love, that guarantees both the gift and the possibility of paying the price for the rest of life. And doing it with a grateful heart.

Happy Birthday Mom! And always, thank you.