When I hear about a baby born with a severe handicap, of course I feel sorry for parents and child,” says Sandy Maichen of South Bend, Ind. “But I'm also happy God has sent another angel into the world. I know God can use that child to bless the family and many others.”

Sandy never babysat as a teenager. As a student in Catholic schools, she loved “Church things” and dreamed of being a missionary nun or a physical therapist. Her mother discouraged these aspirations, but Sandy feels her vocation to a heroic life has been fulfilled as a mother to children with special needs.

Sandy and her husband Charlie began their family 36 years ago after a priest told them having a child would improve their marriage. In spite of all the hardships that followed, they say the advice worked.

The birth of their first son, Tony, was followed quickly by the premature birth of Melanie, 13 months later. Melanie was profoundly retarded, with obvious physical deformities including club feet, dislocated hips and a partial cleft palate. Seizures soon followed.

Just over a year after Melanie came, their third child was born—Maureen, who is now 32 years old and still has very limited speech, along with the mental capacity of a 7-year-old.

Caring for her three children was often overwhelming to Sandy; she would sit in her pediatrician's waiting room looking wistfully at “normal” children. “I cried regularly for about 10 years before I was able fully to accept God's will and find joy in it.”

There was never any doubt, however, that the Maichens would love and care for each child. After Melanie's birth, a physician predicted she would never sit, speak or feed herself. He advised institutionalizing her, but Charlie tore up the paperwork right there in the doctor's office.

No Brooding

After Maureen was born, Sandy realized she couldn't sit around feeling sorry for herself. She had to put all her energy into meeting her children's needs. “These children were totally dependent on me around the clock. I couldn't ask, ‘Why me?’"

There were many years when Pat Kaiser, who lived near the Maichens and has been Sandy's friend since those early days, helped with the overload of practical problems that came with the special needs of Sandy's children. At the same time, it was surprising how much Sandy did in return to help Pat. Pat marvels at Sandy, calling her “a totally dedicated mother.”

The Maichens’ pediatrician, Dr. G. Walter Erickson, is also quick to say that Sandy and Charlie were extraordinary parents. He observed that Melanie was “meticulously cared for by her parents,” who sometimes stayed awake through the night to make sure she didn't stop breathing. For Sandy, deciding to make these kinds of sacrifices was simple: “I asked myself, if I were Melanie, how would I want to be accepted and cared for?"

A ‘Normal Life’

On the other hand, Charlie points out they tried to live like a normal family as much as possible. They didn't allow a demanding therapeutic program to totally dominate their life together, preventing all the usual household activities.

Melanie was in and out of hospitals with pneumonia, or when seizures were dangerous. Her pediatrician, however, quickly learned to send her home as soon as possible because he saw that the child would improve rapidly in the familial setting.

Although she could barely see or hear, Melanie responded to loving touch and even learned as a teenager to say “Mama” and to crawl into Sandy's lap and snuggle. Such moments are treasured memories for Sandy, especially since Melanie went to be with the Lord in 1993, at the age of 26.

Sandy never had the usual reasons for parental pride—an A on a report card or a softball trophy—but she diligently sought causes for celebration. She rejoiced in every little success that so many others would take for granted: Melanie learned to hold a cup, to stand alone, to walk with assistance.

Maureen's successes, though limited, have been more numerous than Melanie's. First of all, she was very devoted to her sister and assisted in her care. She now works in a sheltered workshop and proudly takes her parents to a fast-food restaurant on each paycheck. Sandy continues to teach her practical household skills.

A tireless advocate for her children, Sandy has given Maureen opportunities to excel and stay active through Special Olympics. Maureen swims, bowls, skis, rides a horse and plays basketball. Her coaches set realistic goals like scoring a single basket, and join her parents in exulting when she succeeds. Her hobbies include weaving and working jigsaw puzzles.

The Avon Lady

An x-ray technician before her marriage, Sandy looked for work that she could adjust to her children's needs. Working has helped her keep a balance in her life. She sold encyclopedias and Avon and Tupperware products before starting a business out of an office in her home. She uses the phone to schedule workers to go into grocery and department stores to distribute sample products.

Sandy's most important secret? “Our faith keeps us going. We know we can't do it alone, but we also know God gives the grace we need.”

When it was difficult for Sandy to pray herself, she was grateful to know that others, like her mother-inlaw's Legion of Mary group, were praying for her. God provided the means for the family to journey twice to Lourdes, where Sandy believes they received strength to carry on.

Her Christian friends saw Christ in her children and Sandy says that nourished her faith. The girls received the sacraments and developed their own spirituality. Their pastor, Holy Cross Father Joseph Payne, told her, “Those children have a job to do. Even if it looks like they can't do anything but sit there, every person on earth has a God-given purpose.”

It was often a struggle to take them to church on Sunday, but Sandy is glad they made that commitment. Despite her extremely limited hearing, at the last Midnight Mass of her life, Melanie calmed down when the service began and kept her head turned toward the soloist throughout the singing of the Ave Maria.

When Melanie was 13, Sandy began praying for the grace to give her back to the Lord whenever he called. Thirteen years later, the time came. She is grateful that God let her know when Melanie's death was imminent, due to kidney failure. Now she looks back on Melanie's life with thankfulness—happy that God gave her daughter the chance to live and to return to him.

Sandy is quick to say she has learned a great deal from her children. “Maureen faithfully calls our family to right order. If anyone's voice is raised, her non-verbal reaction expresses her outrage. She quickly accepts our apologies, says ‘I love you’ and moves on without holding grudges. Because her love is unconditional, I can be myself with her. She helps me be senstiive to others’ needs.”

She continues, “Through my children, I've gotten to know God more personally. When I'm really hurting, Jesus seems closest. Once when Melanie was in the hospital, I didn't have the strength to go see her. I felt the Lord inviting me to hold his hand and I was able to get up and go.”

Sandy Maichen continues to pray to be a good mother—one day at a time.

Jill Boughton writes from

South Bend, Indiana.

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