Our youngest sister, Dee developed normally until the age of two, when my parents recognized that rather than continuing to grow, Dee seemed to be regressing. Following many visits, to the medical community and eventually a trip to Illinois Research, the doctors told my parents that Dee was “profoundly mentally retarded”. We probably have a “nicer” term for that today, but those were the words my parents and eventually all six of her siblings heard and ultimately learned to live with.
Dee needed twenty-four hours–a-day, seven days a week care and as you might expect, became the center of attention in our home. As a seven year old at Dee’s birth and throughout her life up to her early death at twenty-two, I questioned God why Dee was born.
Fr. John Morton, C.Ss.R. gave the homily at Dee’s funeral Mass. I don’t remember the readings, but I’ll never forget Fr. John looking directly at all of us gathered in the front row of the church and saying something to the effect: “One day God looked down from heaven at Marion, Joe, Terry, Maryanne, Rog, Dan, Dave and Tim, the O’Donnell family, and said they are such loving persons—I going to send them someone they can shower all that love on, I’ll send Dee.”
After twenty-two years, I got it! Dee was a gift from God. I thought she was a burden. Dee was my teacher. She taught me what it means to love. Dee taught me in the words of Winston Churchill, “You make a living by what you earn; you make a life by what you give.” I suspect maybe that’s what St. Paul is trying to tell us in the first reading for today when he says: “…do not be haughty but associate with the lowly.” (Rom 12:16)
Dan O’Donnell is a Passionist Partner and a longtime friend of the Passionists. He lives in Chicago.