One of our practices at Portsmouth is for the students to plan and run a church assembly most Thursdays during the school year. It starts with the singing of the Pater Noster in Latin, a brief reading from Scripture or The Rule of St. Benedict, a talk by a sixth former (our term for twelfth grader or senior) and then a final prayer.
Last Thursday Ann Gallagher ’13 was the speaker, and I think you all will like what she had to say. We really have some outstanding young people at this School.
Church Assembly Talk, 5/2/2013
Walk in the front door of my home. For you, the scene is probably utter chaos. For me, this is normal.
Many of you know that I am from a large family. I have thirteen brothers and sisters – we are exactly seven boys and seven girls in total. On a usual day, you’ll find both my parents and about eight kids living at home. What is it like? That’s a difficult question, simply because the chaos is so routine for me, that it is hard for me to recognize how unique my childhood has been.
I wake up in the morning to the sounds of laughter and running feet above my head. From my shared bedroom in the basement, I can count on my younger sisters to act as a trustworthy alarm clock around 7:00 a.m. every day. Sometimes I complain that I can’t sleep in past 7, even on vacations. But when I climb out of bed to join my younger siblings for breakfast, I listen to their amusing stories of first and second-grade drama and I know that I wouldn’t miss that for any amount of extra sleep.
The conversation begins there – at the breakfast table with Kevin, Joseph, Bridget, and Clare. And it doesn’t end until everyone is sound asleep that night. Without a television at home, I spend nearly all of my time with my siblings in conversation. If there is anything about my family that I appreciate most, it is the typical night at home, in discussions about anything you could imagine. Every evening, we gravitate into one room, filling the chairs and couches, and overflowing by sitting around on the floor. It might be Christmas Eve while fourteen of us relax at home, or just a Tuesday night during the school term. I love to sit there for hours as we share the news in our lives, laugh over memories, and debate the news, politics, and even philosophy! With so many people, and nearly always a different group of siblings home every day, our conversations are never the same. My sister Theresa and I still do our homework at the kitchen table where we can listen and contribute to these discussions.
When I think about why these hours with my siblings are so special to me, I realize, it’s because it is in these conversations that I begin to appreciate how much each of my brothers and sisters enriches my life. It’s clear that they all have different gifts that they share with me. You would imagine that with so many siblings, it would be hard for me to recognize which person is missing in a crowd of ten people. But actually, the opposite is true. Every one of my siblings contributes opinions so unique that, in our conversations, it is very noticeable which sibling is not present just by sensing whose opinion is missing!
My siblings each have something special to share not only with me, but with the world around them. Stephen is an architect, Mary, a mother and an editor, William, an marine engineer, Robert, a carpenter and a lieutenant in the Navy, John, a mechanical engineer, Eileen, a teacher, Patrick, perhaps one day a doctor. And I could make some guesses as to what five of my younger siblings will be doing years from now. My parents have given each of us the opportunity to discover and pursue these talents and interests and to share them with the world around us.
My parents also gave that very same opportunity to my sister Katharine. In 2000, before she was born, Katharine was diagnosed with trisomy-18. This genetic disease is caused by the presence of an extra chromosome. Like children with Down Syndrome, who possess an third 21st chromosome, my sister had an extra 18th chromosome. But unlike Downs children, those with Trisomy-18 seldom survive long enough to reach birth. And if they do, their lives rarely last more than a few days. My parents and the doctors understood this long before Katherine was born. I was only five years old at the time. But years after, it seemed strange to me that the only memories I have of the days preceding her birth, and of her funeral and burial one week later, are not upsetting or even very sad ones.
I have spoken much with my parents since then, and have discovered that they had already learned from their experience with their ten children, what I have already shared with you. Despite the natural suffering that they and my older siblings endured, they also experienced a profound joy mixed with their sorrow. This was because they had already recognized that each of their sons and daughters possessed a unique vocation. For that reason, they decided to allow Katharine the opportunity to pursue her own. And it was for that reason, that her birth and her death actually strengthened the joy and faith in my family.
Because my mother chose to give Katharine life, despite the fact that she knew it would be short and that it would be a difficult, painful experience, my family rejoiced to receive a new sister, and Katharine rejoiced in the ability to pursue her vocation. She became a part of our family, and I can recall when she entered the church as well, as my Uncle, Father Timothy, administered Baptism and Confirmation. She shared four days on earth with my family before she was called to heaven. Again, my memory of that day is not a completely sorrowful one. My father assured me that my sister was going to be with God and was going to act as an intercessor for our family. That was, and still is, her vocation. She could not have pursued that vocation if my mother had not chosen to give her life and bring her into my family and into the church. Years later, I learned that throughout the whole service, no one in the family shed tears. We were, and still are, confident that Katharine actively lives her vocation in heaven as an advocate for my family.
The memory of my sister and her short lifetime does give joy to my family, simply because my parents allowed her to live. They accepted her life and the understanding that God willed that life to be short. She is an example for me, just as my other brothers and sisters are, that each of us has a unique vocation and are placed here on earth to discover and pursue that calling. Now, whenever I join my brothers and sisters in that crowded room at home, late every night, I am always moved by a deep gratitude for the gifts that every one of my siblings shares with me. I am always aware of Katharine’s presence among us, and she too, enriches our lives. It is incredible to experience the profound extent to which one life, no matter how deformed and dependent on others, can touch so many people.