I am surrounded by death.
Far less dramatic than it sounds, for the last year I have worked as an administrative assistant in a funeral home. (Or as we like to call it on throw back Thursday, I’m the secretary).
In twelve months there isn’t one name I’ve forgotten. Not a single family that hasn’t touched me in some way. I’ve been entrusted with seeing people through the very worst days of their lives. Albeit, in the background. I’ve been a silent witness to others’ pain, fear, and sadness. I’ve watched heart wrenching goodbyes; moments when I wished I could melt into the background to allow the privacy that unfettered grief requires.
I’ve never been particularly frightened at the prospect of dying. As a Christian, I pray that I am welcomed into heaven when God calls me home. As a selfish human, I’d like that moment to come in about 60 years. Only one thing worries me. Abby-the-middle-child, never one to mince words, tackled it head on when she was just eight.
“Mom,” she asked, “who will take care of Brianna when you die?”
In the second it took for that question to register, a cold fear gripped me. She was right, of course. Wise beyond her eight years, she asked the very question that I’d pushed out of my mind for the previous twelve years since Brianna’s birth.
I was young when I had Brianna; barely 21. Despite what you’ve heard, most children with Down syndrome are born to women under 35. In 1998, we weren’t the exception but the norm. In those first days, weeks, and months I concentrated on educating myself, understanding the medical implications. I was too busy raising a happy, sweet baby to think beyond that.
As it always happens, the future became now. Milestones that once seemed a long way off are long past us. Brianna has been in school for years. She learned to swim. She had her first surgery. She started to notice boys. And two months ago, surrounded by 75 of her closest pals, Brianna turned sixteen.
I can’t say it without a lump forming in my throat. I don’t just have a sixteen year old daughter. I have a sixteen year old daughter with Down syndrome. In my head I rattle off the long-memorized stats. The incidence of early-onset dementia. Average life expectancy. What will happen to her if I die first?
Worse, what if I don’t?
I cannot imagine a world where Brianna doesn’t exist. I cannot imagine a day I don’t get to see her smile or listen to her sing Taylor Swift at the top of her lungs. Pope Francis said, “All life has inestimable value, even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”
It seems the world doesn’t give much thought to respecting life lately. From abortion to assisted suicide; we’ve placed labels on these acts. “Brave” for choosing death or “courageous” for playing God. When did we stop valuing the life that God granted us? I suppose when we stopped valuing Him.
Brianna is, quite simply, my masterpiece; an exquisite rendition of God. I can think of no better way to respect life than by being a mother, her mother. Not just because I was there when she took her first breath. And not because I may have to be there when she takes her last. But because I was there for all the rest.
Abby, as usual, didn’t wait for my reply. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll take care of her.”
”The Respect Life Program begins anew each year on Respect Life Sunday, the first Sunday in October. The program is highlighted in liturgies and marked by special events. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities publishes program packet each year to call attention to numerous human life issues. These materials are especially helpful for priests, parish groups, schools, and other organizations.” For more information, visit the USCCB website here.