Shaming the Wise and the Strong
Remembering My Little Sister Mary
“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27).
Mary Nash was born in Detroit with Down Syndrome on February 24, 1966. She was the youngest of twelve children, including Catherine (third overall, who died shortly after birth), and three other siblings who died via miscarriage. Mary died early July 1, 2008, after a lifelong struggle with health problems. Tom’s mother since died in 2011 and his father in 2015. Today would have been Mary’s 51st birthday. The following is adapted from the remembrance Tom gave at Mary’s funeral Mass on July 3, 2008, at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Doctors told my parents not to expect Mary to leave the hospital after she was born, given her heart and lung problems, and because she needed surgery to correct a serious bowel problem. But with God’s grace, our family’s love, and Mary’s tenacity, Mary not only survived that needed surgery, she went on to live 42 years. She was on oxygen overnight since a seizure in the fall of 1989 and 24-7 since 1995. And yet she continued to witness to us and many others amidst her infirmities. She loved the Lord and exemplified His love to us.
While we are thankful that she suffers no more, we feel the great void of her absence, of the way she was with us for so many years.
And why such a great void?
In talking about those with Down Syndrome, many people say they feel only pity, and basically speak about mercifully saving such children from a life not worth living. Indeed, about 90 percent of unborn children diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome are aborted. Ninety percent.
We pray for their parents—and the medical professionals involved in providing abortions—that they may all be reconciled with God and the parents ultimately reunited with their children in heaven.
In a column last fall (2007), Detroit Free Press columnist and best-selling author Mitch Albom repeated the 90-percent figure, but he did so while writing about a young man with Down’s Syndrome who had touched many lives at a Metro Detroit high school, including through helping with the school’s football team, which had made the state playoffs. And the young man touched many more lives through Mitch Albom’s much-read column.
In any event, Mary Nash also touched many lives, as we saw from the many people who attended her wake and funeral; from those who couldn’t attend but sent condolences; and from the many people she impacted while growing up, such as at St. Mary of Redford in Detroit, our former parish.
Amidst her great infirmities, Mary taught us so much about joy, humility, not holding grudges — so much, in a word, about love. Mary had much to give and she desired to give it. She was very perceptive to those in need, always ready with an affirming smile, or a hug, or a kiss. Or all three.
Mary had an indomitable spirit, whether looking forward to going to school for so many years, or participating in the Just Us Club—which serves special-needs children and adults in the Ann Arbor area—or spending time with her family in various ways. Yes, Mary was always looking forward to life, not wanting to pull back, let alone quit living. Her favorite questions were, “What are we going to do?” after this or that event. Or, “What are we going to do tomorrow?” Or simply, and often, “And then what?”
Hardly the actions of a person who felt her life was not worth living, or someone who was not actively engaged in living her life.
“She Did More for Us”
People will understandably ask why God allows the suffering that Mary and others have endured and continue to endure. Speaking briefly about the mystery of original sin and the fallout from that may not seem too comforting.
And yet we need look no further than the Cross to see that Our Lord’s greatest triumph was borne out of great suffering. Indeed, the greatest suffering.
And, amidst Mary’s infirmities, God preserved her and others who have Down Syndrome from turning away from Him. No small matter when we consider the context of eternal life and how short a time we all have here on this earth. In Mary’s case, she at most could have committed only venial sins, and any time in Purgatory she might need was arguably accomplished in her suffering here on earth. So while I am definitely not one to omit praying for the dead, which happens all too often with the faithful departed in modern times after their funeral Masses, I think we can have great confidence Mary is with the Lord. Still, we nevertheless commend her prayerfully to the Lord, including in thanksgiving for the witness she has given to so many.
We also have the quite tangible evidence of Mary’s life and the lives of others who have Down Syndrome. If you’ve spent any length of time with them, and you have eyes to see and ears to hear, as well as an open heart—which Fr. Chas spoke so well about in his homily today—you can’t help but be humbled by their great joy and love.
They don’t have the mental capacity of “normal people,” and they often have physical impairments as well. And yet they have that joy, that love, despite their handicaps.
It reminds me of the Grinch who stole Christmas, or rather the Grinch who thought he had stolen Christmas. The Grinch realized that the most important things that the people of Whoville possessed were not the things that he could take away.
And remember how the Grinch had a profound conversion when he finally realized that?
Similarly, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, and that important open heart as well, we will realize that Down Syndrome does not deprive a person of what’s most important in being human.
Ironically, and seemingly improbably, God’s love shines all the more through them. As St. Paul reminds us, “There are in the end three things that last: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). Mary loved, and she loved well.
At the wake I saw Jessica of the Just Us Club. We embraced, and we were both in tears. I thanked her and her Just Us colleagues for all they had done for Mary.
Jessica responded simply, “She did more for us.”
No doubt Mary’s advancing illnesses took their toll, and she undoubtedly had her difficult times.
But I’ll always cherish such times as when I’d drive home on the weekends when I worked in Ohio. Mary was already tucked in bed, but she’d wait up for me. She would be on oxygen, as usual, happily enjoying her rest after another long day.
Kneeling next to her bed, I would rediscover that indomitable, joyful spirit as she would hold my hand, and give me a kiss on the forehead and say, “I love you.” And how she could communicate with her beautiful eyes and her playful, dancing eyebrows, and her radiant smile.
Oh yes, Mary could say so much, without ever uttering one word.
Even if she was semi-asleep, I would say, “I love you, Mary.” And she would respond with her eyes closed, “I love you,” and hold my hand.
I will miss that greatly, although I’m glad we got to share some of that one final time, over the phone, less than 24 hours before she died. Amidst her sufferings, the love, the laughter, and the joy came through as always, praise God.
In summary, quite frankly, Mary taught us how to love better, not only in her witness but in allowing us to help her.
And for all of this, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to our Mom and Dad, who said “yes” to the gift of Mary, right from the beginning.
There is a line from the old Catholic marriage rite, the rite by which Mom and Dad were married, that says, “Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy.”
Mom and Dad have given us such a great witness to true love. They have shown that we can do all things in the good Lord who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13). That all things do work to the good of those who love the Lord (Rom. 8:28); that God’s power does reach perfection in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:8–10), if we but say “yes” to our Lord Jesus Christ and His Church on a daily basis.
When we give that “yes,” we can be assured that God will sustain us in His incomparable peace, a peace which the world cannot give (Jn. 14:27).
I commend my parents for their saintly witness. They were there loving Mary when she came into this world, and they were there loving her when she departed. How fitting.
And their witness is ours to take forward in a world that is much in need of it.
Witness to Life
I particularly encourage Mary’s nieces and nephews, the younger generation, in this regard. When questions come up about choosing life or not choosing life, tell people about your Aunt Mary and her love and joy amidst her struggles; tell them about your Grandma and Grandpa, Mary’s loving parents; and tell them about what’s possible with the Good Lord’s help. You’ve seen it all—firsthand.
In doing so, you and all of us will honor Mary. We will also honor Mary by turning daily to the Lord Jesus and His Church whom she loved and who loved her so much. In the process, we can also ask for the help of Our Lady and the other saints in heaven, which I would argue again now includes our own Mary. And Jesus reminds us that He is the God of the living and not of the dead (Mt. 22:32). Any friend of God’s is a friend of ours ... or should be.
In providing such a witness, in responding to Our Lord’s invitation, we hope and pray that one day, when we leave this world, we can all join Mary in that wonderful heavenly reunion, where Mary, freed from all her earthly infirmities, will shine forth magnificently in full bloom . . . forever.
Let us long for that day. God bless you.