The boy who changed my life forever
by Sr. Patricia McCarthy, CND
Rhode Island Catholic -- November 27, 2008
I was 19; Douglas was 13. Far more than six years seemed to separate us. I had just taken my first vows as a religious sister and was attending a small college in New York City.This true story has been illustrated and written as a children's book. To purchase a copy email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I grew up in a large, happy family, had a good education, many friends and seemingly endless opportunities for choices in life. Douglas was in a large state institution, also in New York City, abandoned at birth, severely physically disabled, paralyzed from the neck down, and had spent his entire life in the same institution with little hope that anything would change in the future.
We met and my life was changed forever.
One day while walking to college with a few other equally young sisters, a car pulled over. A priest opened his window and asked, “How many of you are there?” I answered, “27,” knowing exactly what he meant by his question. There was a string of black-and-white garbed nuns walking to the same college. “I need religion teachers for people in the state institution,” he said hopefully.
A few days later the deal was set. Any who wanted could teach on Sunday morning at the largest state institution in New York. Two buses and an hour of travel got us to the site where 6,000 patients lived, many of them Catholic. I volunteered for the boys who couldn’t walk. A consequence of that fact was that while everyone else taught for 20 minutes and then took their class to Mass, I was left in Building 21 with 12 children in 12 wheelchairs for an hour and a half.
It didn’t take me long to arrange for the old men on walkers to leave their walkers and push a chair over to Building 3 for Mass. Life was good and God was better! I never had to teach, since it took me 20 minutes to get the boys to Mass and another 20 to get them back. We went all year, no matter the weather, until a brutal fall rainstorm hit one Sunday. The boys were sad; I was desperate. What could I possibly teach them?
I started, “God is not only in Building 3; God is right here in our Building 21 and in our hearts.” Douglas perked up and in his very halting, slow, measured voice said, “I already know that. I talk to God every day.”
I stopped mid-sentence and looked at this child, who was abandoned at birth, whose only home had been this institution, whose earthly possessions consisted of a few trinkets in a bag hanging on the back of his wheelchair, who needed help for every action in his life, who had neither family nor friends to visit him, who never had a birthday party or a trip outside Building 21 except for the hospital and Mass. I looked at this child and wondered. Hesitatingly, I asked Douglas, “When do you talk to God?”
Again the halting, struggling attempt to speak, “I talk to God every night before I go to sleep.”
I looked beyond Douglas and the other boys and stared out at the dormitory where bed after bed was lined up, all with identical white sheets and bedspreads, about 40 of them in rows. This was where Douglas slept; this was where Douglas talked to God.
“Douglas, if you want, will you tell us what you say to God every night?” The boys and I waited.
Douglas gave me his most radiant smile, tried to hold straight his unsteady head, and then spoke in a clear, steady voice for the first time I had ever heard. Douglas simply said, “I say, ‘Thank you.’”
Sr. Patricia McCarthy is associate provincial for the Congregation of Notre Dame. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.