Over the past nineteen months since Nathan’s birth, I’ve read many stories of moms who were devastated when they found out their children were (or would be) born with Down syndrome.
My story is a little different.
Someday I plan to tell it all, but for now I’ll summarize it in this way: before Nathan was born, I’d had one first trimester miscarriage, lost a second child to triploid syndrome at 20 weeks gestation, and gave birth to a premature daughter with cerebral palsy. From the time I learned I was pregnant for a fourth time until I heard Nathan’s cry in the delivery room, I never believed I would give birth to a healthy, typical baby. The diagnosis of Down syndrome was, in some ways, a relief.
Mr. Andi, on the other hand, was ecstatic from that first moment – giddy, even, when the ultrasound tech told us we were having a boy. For years, Mr. Andi had always dreamed of having a son that he could take fishing and hunting. He was over the moon with joy, and even more so when he witnessed the birth of that son – on his 40th birthday.
While I was being stitched up and then wheeled to recovery, Mr. Andi followed the baby to the nursery. It wasn’t long before he noticed the nurse on the phone and overheard her quietly say “…and a few other things…” and knew immediately that something was wrong. Moments later, he sat down in recovery with a distant look on his face – he wouldn’t look me in the eye. Shortly thereafter, the pediatrician came in and told us that she suspected Down syndrome.
The next 36 hours were painful for me. Mr. Andi barely spoke and withdrew into a dark place inside himself. I didn’t worry about the baby – I worried about Mr. Andi. His heart was breaking, and there was nothing I could do. Late at night, while he was sleeping, I emailed a few close friends and begged them to pray for him.
I was fearful of what might lie ahead.
We are raising our children Catholic, although Mr. Andi is not Catholic. He attends church regularly, but he does it largely out of a sense of duty. I wasn’t sure how he would feel about me calling in a priest to talk to him, but eventually I began to worry so much about his mental state that, when he was out of the room for a moment, I called the nurse’s station and begged them to call the church for me.
When Deacon Hank O’Brien came into the hospital room, I was a little bit disappointed, as I had hoped for either Father Steve or Deacon George (I felt Mr. Andi would be more receptive to one of them, because he likes Father Steve and has talked with Deacon George about faith matters before). Mr. Andi politely acknowledged Deacon Hank, but he was distant and quiet.
I quietly whispered the bare minimum of details about Nathan and Mr. Andi to Deacon Hank, and begged him to pray for us – for him. Deacon Hank promised that he would, and left. A short time later, he returned with a wooden Tau cross – a symbol of the Franciscans, which Deacon Hank was – and told me that he was giving it to me. He said that it would be a constant reminder to me that he was praying for my family.
Within an hour of Deacon Hank’s visit, Mr. Andi stood up and said, “I’m going to work.” At first I didn’t know how to respond – was he really leaving me here in the hospital? What he said next surprised and pleased me: “I always tell my guys that you can’t change what happens to you, you can only choose how you respond. I need to walk the talk.”
From that moment forward, Mr. Andi never looked back.
He’s never again been sad, or disappointed, or even a little melancholy about Nathan’s diagnosis of Down syndrome. If he were the one writing this post instead of me, he would tell you that he’s not a religious person, but that Deacon Hank’s prayers are what changed him. Deacon Hank may have even saved him.
Nathan’s first Mass was on Easter Sunday 2010 when he was only eight days old. For the next several months, whenever we went to Mass and found ourselves in Deacon Hank’s communion line, I was happy. Even if Nathan was sleeping in Mr. Andi’s arms, I would take him up because Deacon Hank gave the best blessings to the children, and always referred to Nathan as “special child.” Other than the two visits in the hospital and the communion line, however, I never had any other interaction with him.
I didn’t see Deacon Hank at Mass during December and January, but I assumed it was because of the chaos of the holiday season and my travel schedule at the beginning of the year – I attended Mass regularly, but not always at my “regular” times, and not always at our parish. A few weeks into the new year, I went to Sunday evening Mass with the kids and learned that Deacon Hank had died. I sat in my pew near the back of the church throughout Mass that evening and cried quietly for a man that I barely knew, but who I believe changed my life.
November 1 is All Saints’ Day and today, November 2, is All Souls’ Day – these days are set aside by the Church to remember the faithful departed. I thought it was only fitting that the first post here following Down Syndrome Awareness Month would be a tribute to this man that helped bring Mr. Andi out of the shadows and into the light.
Thank you, Deacon Hank. Though we didn’t know you well – at all, really – your absence is felt each and every time we enter God’s house.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
You can read more about Deacon Hank O’Brien here.