Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

My Sister Keelin

Today (3 Apr '08) is the birthday of my sister Keelin. She is 24 years old, though she was a bit younger in the picture at right. I remember being about six years old when our parents sat my sister Megan and me down to talk. They told us that we would have a new baby brother or sister coming soon. We asked if we could hold the baby, and they said that of course we would be able to if we promised to be very careful.

Keelin was born and seemed normal enough, but as time went on it became clear that she had a mental disability. In the mid-1980s in outer suburban Maryland we hadn't heard of autism, and so when my parents eventually received that diagnosis, it must not have meant much to them. Over the last 24 years, though, it has come to mean a great deal to us. You can be sure about that.

Keelin isn't the Rain Man. I say that because for a long time, Dustin Hoffman's acclaimed contribution to cinema provoked that question when people would learn that she was autistic. At first, they usually thought we had said, "artistic," and then, after scanning their memory, they would say, "Oh, like the Rain Man in that movie... what was it called?" One of us would answer coldly, for the three thousand six hundred and sixteenth time, "Rain Man." And then, "Well, not exactly like that." You see, Keelin hasn't any "special skills," like counting toothpicks very quickly. In fact, from the autistic people I've gotten to know through Keelin, I rather doubt that the toothpick-counting variety of autistic persons actually exists. She was reasonably athletic, but her athleticism was of limited application because, for instance at Special Olympics footraces, she would usually veer off the track in pursuit of some grass or a bit of mulch that caught her fancy. She hadn't much use for footraces, Special Olympics, the marks of personal accomplishment, or even other persons, generally speaking.

What Keelin has is an amazing ability to entertain herself. Caught up and cut off in a world of her own by a disorder that nobody really understands, and a severe variety of the disorder for that matter, she has always been on her own, even in a crowded room. Sometimes she seems so inexpressibly sad, and all the more inexpressibly for being unable to express her sadness to someone, anyone. Once in a while, I think I kinda know how she feels. My sister's own bottled-up-ness seems to overwhelm her sometimes. She can become so frustrated that she becomes violent against herself. Her hand is scarred from biting it so much. Other times, Keelin becomes just elated - the sun on her face as we drive through Maryland's beautiful hills and woods can make her beam like nothing else. She usually likes looking for horses while we drive on our country roads, but like other people, sometimes even her normal interests don't interest her. She enjoys a lot of normal things: pancakes and ice cream, car rides and the beach, getting postcards in the mail and exploring new places.

I said earlier that she hadn't much use for other people generally speaking. Generally speaking, that's true, but not always. Sometimes she seems to come out of her bubble, just a bit, or just for a little while. She'll make eye contact, laugh, seize your attention, and give a hug that goes beyond the routine mechanical hugs she's been taught to give. This past Thanksgiving, she was more out of her bubble than normal. She laughed at all the jokes, waited patiently for dessert, was relaxed, and at peace. She suffers unwittingly so much that it was very beautiful just to be with her while she was genuinely enjoying herself. This past Christmas with her was very nice as well.

Keelin has been a blessing. No if's, and's, or but's. She has taught us patience with the frail, love of simple things, and the importance of family. In fact, in the wake of my parents' divorce, Keelin has been at times the only thing that really holds us all (or, at least my parents) together in a practical way, because we all agree that we care for her at whatever cost. She lives in a group home only 40 minutes from the rest of us, and she receives family visitors and excursions with us two or three times weekly. She comes home on holidays for an extra visit, and the staff at her home take her shopping and on vacation. It's not ideal, but neither is the world. Another important point that Keelin has taught me is that we never really know what's going on inside of anyone; so it's best to take it easy on them if we can.

The point of life, those who advocate euthanasia would be well-advised to learn, isn't to eliminate suffering, but to learn to love in the midst of suffering. Love in the midst of suffering stands out in clearer contrast and shines all the brighter, bringing more joy and more life. As hard as it is to say so, given her condition, that I am grateful that God gave her to us, entrusted her to us. Autism and all.

Even though she doesn't read, let alone surf the web, it has to be said:

Happy birthday, Kee-kee!
We love you.


Anonymous said...

Well said Dad

sherry said...

What a beautiful reminder that all life is a precious gift that needs to be treasured. Happy Birthday and much love, Keelin from all the Grenchik's!

Dan B. said...

Thanks for sharing this part of your life with us, Ryan! Life can often be painful and beautiful, simultaneously, can't it?

Brian said...

Thanks Ry, Happy Birthday Keelin!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ryan, for your beautiful heart and words. And Keelin, Happy (late) birthday! I've thought of you many times since I've last seen you.

Dan G said...

Ryan, thanks very much for introducing us to your sister. What wondrous mysteries are these persons that God has made! And how wondrous is the love that he draws us to give and become, somehow, in spite of ourselves.