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.