A Wish For Death Becomes Gratitude For Life

ABOVE: The Gary Family; BELOW: The Mahala Family
ABOVE: The Gary Family; BELOW: The Mahala Family (photo: Multiple)

Being prolife means abortion is not an option. It does not mean, however, that you can’t hope your baby will die. It sounds harsh. But when the doctor says, “I’m sorry, but your baby will not have a normal life,” happy anticipation can dissolve into fear. 

When the discovery that health, beauty or intelligence will not be a part of their child’s life, a death wish may arise. Dear God, please take this child—it will be easier that way.  Don’t we pray for all our fears and problems to go away?

As shocking as a death wish sounds, it belies a faith in God as the Creator and the understanding that life and death belong to him alone.  It includes an understanding that heaven is part of the deal.  But many parents begin with death wishes and find love and perfection in their babies. Below are two of my favorite stories.

Baby Dustin

When Liz Gary was pregnant with their third child, she prayed that God would take him before he was born. “My husband Mike and I had two adorable children: six-year-old Abby-Lynn and four-year-old Cameron,” Liz said.

Amniocentesis revealed that the little boy she carried had Down syndrome, a heart defect, and other possible anomalies.  “I’m ashamed to admit it but I feared Downs children,” she said.  Liz believed it was beyond her ability to cope.  She prayed for God to take him to heaven. And soon.

At thirty-one weeks two different neonatal specialists told the Liz and Mike that fluid was swelling their baby’s major organs causing "non-immune hydrops," a disorder that was "incompatible with life."  The baby would likely die in utero. Mike, who had already accepted Down’s syndrome, was devastated.  Liz, however, was relieved that God would call their baby to heaven.

But three weeks later, when the baby remained strong and his movement’s constant, Liz wondered why he wasn’t dying. As her baby made himself known to her, she began to fall in love with him.  Suddenly, Liz desperately wanted her son.  But had she prayed his life away?  Liz begged God to let her son live or at least give her peace over his death.  Yet, the diagnosis remained: he would not survive once he was born. 

When Liz went into labor, she and Mike sobbed together, waiting to say hello before saying goodbye to their son. Only comfort care would be given until he passed. “I cried more in that hour than I cried in my lifetime,” Liz said.  “I prayed, ‘Just give me five minutes with him.'"  

Dustin Raphael Gary, 7 pounds, 10 ounces—kicking and screaming. Mike baptized him immediately while he was still alive. When he started making a gurgling sound, Liz expected his time to die had come.  A nurse syringed out the fluid, his eyes started opening and he started rooting.  Finally, a pediatrician was called to examine the baby. He looked at the file and then looked at Dustin. “This file and this child are not the same,” he said. “There's no way.”

But there was God’s way.  Baby Dustin would live.  And he transformed his family’s lives in ways they never could have imagined.  Today, Dustin is 13 years old.  Liz told me that it’s been a beautiful road even with challenges along the way.  Because of Dustin, she has been very involved in legislation at the state level in her home state of Louisiana for people with disabilities. Liz shared this story in Amazing Grace for the Catholic Heart.  And in Amazing Grace for Married Couples she told the rest of the story—how their love for baby Dustin renewed their marriage in a big way.

Baby Grace

“It’s a girl!”  The nurse announced. After the birth of seven healthy sons, those words should have brought great joy. Under different circumstances, Tom Mahala said he would have done back flips.  Instead, when he saw her almond-shaped eyes, his heart froze—Down syndrome.

Tom’s wife Bonnie was 46 years old. They knew that the likelihood of a baby with Down’s increases with maternal age.

Tragically, nine out of ten babies with Down’s Syndrome are aborted, but Bonnie and Tom’s Catholic faith and passion for life ruled out such a possibility. They were already the parents of 7 handsome, intelligent, and athletically gifted sons: Thomas (15), Kevin (14), Jack (10), Michael & Patrick (8’s), Luke (5) and William (2). 

Beset with fear and disappointment, Tom and Bonnie wept at the realization their daughter had Down’s syndrome. They soon learned that half of Down’s children are born with cardiac conditions, and Grace would need open-heart surgery in a few months.  They could not help themselves imagine that perhaps if the surgery was not successful it would be for the best.  The thought became a desire. When Tom shared his story in Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories From Everyday Families, he said: “It felt as though God had played a mean trick on us. Be open to life, accept seven sons, accept a pregnancy later in life and then, I will give you a daughter, but she will have a disability.”

He explained that along with the anguish of a disabled daughter was the anguish that he felt such little love in his heart for her.” Thus began a relentless pursuit to learn to love like God loves. “Lord, please help me to love my daughter the way you do,” he prayed.

When Tom broke the news to his boys, he told them: “Maybe God knew our family wanted a girl, so he is telling us, ‘I didn’t want to send just any girl.  I saved the ‘perfect’ girl for your family. This little girl has an incorruptible soul….You see, God knows what is best for all of us!” But he could not convince himself of that.

As Grace approached her five-month birthday, Bonnie had already fallen in love with her daughter.  For Tom, it came on the way to her surgery. As he looked down at his 10-pound daughter on the way to life-threatening surgery, a wave of love for her overcame him. “Suddenly, I couldn’t imagine losing my little baby girl and my heart ached for the pain she would have to go through,” he said. “When I laid her on that operating table and they began to administer anesthesia, I prayed and cried for my little angel!  I didn’t want to lose her!”

Grace emerged from the surgery with a seven-inch scar down the center of her chest. The holes in her heart were repaired. When she came home and began to emerge as the heart of their family, Tom said the hole in his own heart was also repaired. “Her little personality began to captivate us and all the boys fell deeply in love with their little sister,” he said. “Through Grace, our hearts have grown. The boys were gifted athletically, while Grace, who cannot even run or jump is gifted in love.”

The Mahala Family
The Mahala Family