Making sacraments and memories

So we’re Catholic, right?  On my side, we’re nothing but Catholic thanks to a strong Irish and Italian heritage.  I grew up in an Irish/Italian/Polish neighborhood, where there was a Catholic church every square mile.  My best friend growing up was Lutheran – which I thought was the most exotic religion ever because it wasn’t Catholic.

Because of all this, so many family gatherings growing up revolved around a sacrament – baptism, First Communion, Confirmation.  They were the Big Deal Moments of a typical Catholic childhood, and were celebrated in style, with herds of family showing up at such events.  And if herds of family couldn’t make it, it was still a Very Big Deal requiring new outfits and being allowed to pick out pink champagne and having a very small glass because you had made your Confirmation.

They were our milestones in life, and when I got married, I knew these would be the milestones I’d live through again through my children.  Babies were baptized, little boys picked out suits for their First Communion, special dinners were arranged for the last minute Confirmation the boys had in Ireland (it happened two months after we moved there)  – because while last minute, it was still a big deal.

And then there was Maura.

Maura who we tried to put in religious ed classes before we moved to Ireland, in hopes that maybe she’d catch on to some concept.  She didn’t.  The class was too late in the day for her.  (The staff were wonderful and did their best.)  Maura who didn’t get any of the basic concepts of religion except learning how to say “Amen!” loudly with everyone else.  She also didn’t understand birthdays well, and forget the idea of Santa until she was probably ten years of age.

I don’t know when I sort of packed up the dream of Maura making her First Communion, but I did.  I tucked it away after she passed the usual age to make your First Communion (which is around eight years).  I moved on.  Just another thing she’d never do. I’d see pretty white dresses and sigh, but told myself it was just part of our lot in life.

Until Maura’s Irish school had a class for Confirmation.  I wondered…were they doing First Communion as well?

It turns out the ONE letter home that got lost was the letter about “If anyone wants to make their First Communion or Confirmation, let us know.”  Maura’s class had already made theirs, so it wasn’t on the teacher’s radar.  I asked the principal about it, feeling a bit sheepish because it was something I should have asked about months earlier.  But I had tucked away that dream, and was ready to be told it was too late.

Instead, the principal got right on it, and suddenly, Maura was going to make her First Communion with the Confirmation class.  She’d go to the preparation classes with the Confirmation class, work along side with them to prepare, and was added to all the lists as a First Communicant.  They modified things down to Maura’s level (“Jesus is love – what is Jesus?  Love!”) and practiced taking communion with her classmates.

But most of all, I was able to allow her to pick out a pretty white dress.  We went to the store, I pulled down all the dresses in her size, lined them up for her, and let her choose.  We picked out accessories –  gold shoes, white ankle socks, a flower wreath for her head that she wasn’t going to wear but who cares?

My husband looked at the price tag and joked “Wow, did you pick out the most expensive dress here?”

We had.

But instead of joking back, I started to cry.  Because I had given up on this dream.  I had chalked it all up to yet another experience Maura wouldn’t be able to have because of her disability.  One more thing her disability had taken from us. To have it suddenly handed to us, be told “We’ll make this work.”, and be given that day?  It was suddenly overwhelming.  I hadn’t realized how much I had wanted this until I was given that moment.

Maura was going to get her Big Day, just like the rest of her siblings had gotten.  She would have her pretty white dress, just like her sister did.  She would have a party, and her picture taken, and all the required fuss.

Though in a way, it was more about me than her.  Maura would have gone along happily, never knowing what she missed.  But it would have eaten away at me, just one more thing her disability robbed from us. One more thing that would separate her from her siblings.  One more memory I wouldn’t be allowed.  One more milestone she would never make.

Maura’s First Communion was a gift to me.  It was on a beautiful spring day, at a beautiful church, filled with beautiful people.  Half her school was there, and Maura’s teacher brought her class so they could be there for her. The priest was so very good, and gave the best shortest homily ever.  Most of all though, it was full of joy and smiles and unpredictability in the best of ways. I look back and still smile over it all…okay, and maybe tear up slightly.

It was a gift.  We got to have our day.  We got to have that milestone.  We got to have those memories, and the picture of her on her First Communion Day to add to all the other pictures of family on their First Communion Day.

A friend asked me recently if I’d ever written about a child with limited understanding making their First Communion – and I couldn’t remember if I had.  So I’m writing about it now.  For those of you who are in a similar boat, who have tucked away the dream of First Communion or any other major milestone in your faith like this, I am here to say – it can be done.  Look into it, make inquiries, find ways to make this happen.  Though Maura may not even begin to scrape at the idea of Catholicism, the way I see it, this is how God made her, and if anyone will understand that she may not grasp all of the right concepts, it’s Him. My brother-in-law, who has his doctoral degree in theology, has already told us there is no reason Maura shouldn’t be able to make her Confirmation as well.  Having already seen the older school mates of Maura’s make their Confirmation, I know this is now a possibility for her too.

Besides, we as parents have to give up so many dreams when our child is diagnosed with disabilities, why should we give up on this dream?  We shouldn’t have to, and I’m so glad I asked that sheepish question two years ago, and so thankful that Maura’s principal was so accommodating, and so grateful still to have that day.

Maura on her First Communion
Maura on her First Communion