I was standing in the doorway, looking at the clear blue sky on an icy cold January afternoon, when she came up the stairs. I hadn’t seen Irene in over six years, but I had been thinking about her a lot recently. She was coming up from a diocesan meeting my parish was hosting in the church hall down below, and as our eyes met, she said, "Do you remember me?"
Embracing her, I told her that of course I remembered her and how sorry I was to hear about Timmy’s death. I had seen his obituary in the paper just a few weeks before, but because of the Christmas season and schedule, I was unable to visit the funeral home or attend the funeral. I let her know that not being able to visit, however, didn’t mean that I didn’t care or hadn’t been thinking of them and praying for Tim and for Irene’s entire family. In fact, I was still in a bit of shock over it all.
Irene’s son Tim (or Timmy, depending on whom you were talking to) died far too young—at the age of 31, from pneumonia, on Dec. 22, 2000. I told Irene how fond I was of Tim, and how many wonderful memories I had of him while I was an associate pastor at their parish in the early 1990’s. Tim had an infectious smile, gave the greatest bear hugs and was one of the most faithful, friendly and pious ushers and greeters that parish ever had. I was so glad to see her, and to let her know of my sorrow and shared feelings of loss.
Irene just beamed and replied, You know, I always knew that Tim was a special child, but how special, I didn’t realize until his funeral. She told me that literally hundreds of people came to the funeral home over the three days to pay their respects to Timmy, to console his family and girlfriend and to share their wonderful memories and stories of how Timmy touched their lives.
Tim loved life. He loved people. An athlete with sparkling eyes and broad shoulders, Tim won numerous medals for his prowess in local games and wrestling matches. He loved to be around people, to dance his heart out at parties, cheer for his favorite college team and throw a broad smile across the room through his well-groomed goatee. But Tim’s charm extended beyond himself, as he was involved in the Knights of Columbus and various community events.
Perhaps to many—certainly to any parent who has lost a child—Tim’s life and death are no more and no less important or tragic than those of any other 31-year-old son. But what made Timmy’s life so special is that it took him 21 years to graduate from high school, and his medals and awards were for Special Olympics. Timothy Thomas Wisniewski was born on Jan. 25, 1969, with Down syndrome. Yes, Tim was a special child in ways that no one could have imagined that day.
Irene told me that when he was born, the hospital counseled her not to take him home. At that time the state hospital was still open, and she would be better off sending him there, they told her. Think of your other children, they emphasized. Irene did think of them, and said, And what do I tell them? That I didn’t bring home your baby brother because he was different from us? Didn’t look exactly the same way we did? Was less than perfect in the eyes of many in the world?
What kind of message would that have sent my other children about my ability to love them when they were less than perfect? she asked me.
I just held Irene’s hand and told her how courageous she was, how right she was and how blessed we all were to have known Tim. He taught us so much about what was and what wasn’t important in life. I couldn’t help but laugh about the time when Tim and his friends went to their high school prom. It didn’t seem to matter to any of them that at the end of the evening they all had the wrong tuxedo jackets on. After all, everybody came with a jacket and was going home with one! Jesus would have liked that, I thought.
Tim was a special child, and because of him, the lives of his family, friends and parish were all the more special. At the end of our conversation, standing in the doorway that day, Irene and I embraced once again with a tear in our eyes and with quivering smiles of joy mixed with pain and sorrow. Tim and people like him have so much to teach us about real values in life, the dignity of the human person and what true love is all about. While we have made real strides to accept them, love them and learn from them, we still have a long way to go. From that perspective, we remain standing in the doorway.