Integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do. These are the three core values of the United States Air Force. But I added a fourth, dedication. Without dedication none of the other core values would be achievable. I enlisted in the USAF fresh out of high school in 1999. My first assignment was at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. I turned 19 years old in Basic Training.
In 2000, the world changed with the attacks of 9/11. I remember being gathered in the common area of the dorms and being briefed by First Sergeants on what to prepare for and who was going into combat. There was an eerie silence on what was normally a rambunctious base filled with F-16’s and the crew that came with them. But those F-16’s left and so did I. We were in combat.
Over the years I have never forgotten those years of service. For the past 13 years I have been married to my amazing husband and we have three children who are 11 years, 8 years and 3 years. I credit my years of service during combat to being able to serve and fight on behalf of my family. God blessed me with a steadfast heart. Over the past 21 years, I have known that Jesus stands right next to me as we battle storm after storm. Each and every time, there is always tribulation after the storms. And I am thankful for this.
When Andrew was prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome, I viewed it as a storm to navigate with Christ at the helm of the ship. But, oh! Andrew having Down syndrome was NOT the storm! Instead, it was the doctors that wanted to abort him JUST because of this prenatal diagnosis. When Andrew was born, it was another storm to navigate because he needed to have surgery on his intestines when he was a mere 15 days old. But the tribulation was his recovery.
Now, Andrew is a hurricane running around the house and tearing it apart just like any other toddler would do. He delights in going to school each morning and his days are made brighter when his brother and sister come home from their school days. (Sometimes I think that Andrew likes Alexander and Abby more than his mom and dad, and that’s totally okay!)
Integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do and dedication. These core values that I learned during my years in the USAF certainly still apply. If I could go back in time and talk to my 19-year-old self, I would tell her that these core values will continue to play a role in the vocation of being a wife and mother. Without integrity, I would fail to raise my children in the image of God. Without having learned the value of service before self, then our days would have been incorrectly centered. If I don’t strive for excellence and teach my children to do the same, then I am not serving them well. If I am not dedicated to these values, then our days would unravel.
As special needs parents, we hold onto various values to fight for and defend our family in the best way we know how. But we are not fighting alone. I didn’t serve in combat by myself, I served with others. Now, the Down syndrome community and my parish community are my new “brothers in arms.” Christ was at the helm of my ship 21 years ago and he will remain there. He is there for you, too. Let him take control.
Happy Veteran’s Day to all the veterans who have paved the way to the freedoms that we now enjoy.
I watched as my 11-year-old son took away a small piece of napkin from his little brother so that he wouldn’t choke on it. Little brother is Andrew. Andrew is 3 years old and has Down syndrome. Andrew did a fake cry when Alexander took the piece of napkin away from him. He then immediately smiled and hugged his big brother tightly around the neck. It was pure joy to watch my two sons smile out of love for each other.
This interaction reminded me about Dia de los Muertos. We are not from a Latin American family, but I greatly admire their customs and culture. Dia de los Muertos celebrates the feasts of All Saints Day and All Souls Day by teaching about the communion of Saints and the souls in Purgatory. On All Saints Day and All Souls Day, families will place photos of loved ones on a small altar called an offrenda. The deceased loved ones are honored when their photo is placed on an offrenda. So, what does Dia de los Muertos have to do with my two sons hugging after big brother rescued little brother from choking on a napkin? Plenty.
Dia de los Muertos encompasses honoring the saints and praying for the souls in Purgatory. But what if every day was Dia de los Muertos? When we celebrate this great feast, we celebrate the love of deceased loved ones. In doing that, we can also honor our living relatives. When my children hug each other and smile out of pure love, then they are honoring each other and the God that created them. The saints that have gone before us consistently preached the message of the importance of love in the family.
On All Saints Day, we remember and honor the triumphant saints in Heaven. It is trouble that always proceeds triumph. Each saint had their own bit of trouble to overcome, leading to their triumph in Heaven. Alexander stopped Andrew from choking on a napkin. This was the trouble that led to the triumphant hug between brothers.
On All Souls Day, we pray for the souls in Purgatory. We remember that our prayers and participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the sacraments can be used to help the poor souls in Purgatory. By consistently doing a daily Examination of Conscience, we recall our words, thoughts, and actions in hopes to make reparation with God and thus join him in Heaven when our time on Earth has come to an end.
As Catholic special needs parents, we know that our patience can be tested at great lengths. May we make a good Examination of Conscience at the end of each day and participate in frequent confessions so that we can find internal peace. May we be strengthened and renewed by the saints who have gone before us, paving they way in overcoming lack of patience while setting the example of overcoming trouble with triumph. May we remember our deceased relatives and honor them with fervent prayers during these days of Dia de los Muertos, all while never forgetting to pray for the souls in Purgatory.
In one month, this little angel will be three years old. Oh, what a journey it has been and continues to be. I have shared our story countless times bringing awareness to the medical community that pressures women to abort just because of a diagnosis of Down syndrome. Now, we leave that story behind and look towards the future with full hearts.
Almost three years ago, I was heavily pregnant in the summer heat that Northern Virginia is known for. I was preparing a nursery with Alexander and Abby. Alexander helped to assemble most of the furniture and Abby designed the layout. Jason and I had our hospital bags packed.
Looking back, so much has happened. Our lives pivoted. I left my beloved teaching job only to find that God had an even bigger audience to share my story with. No… to share HIS story with. For it is in living as one with Christ that we realize our true freedom and our true joy.
Andrew taught me that. Yes, he has limited vocabulary, but his smile, hugs and snuggles says it all. I wouldn’t change a single thing about the past three years.
I am working on a great-big writing project right now and the blog will be on the back burner for a little while longer.
However, I am STILL available for speaking engagements and am booking into Spring of 2021. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Please know that I continue to pray for all of you. Please keep me in your prayers as I endeavor on this writing project. I hope to see you at speaking events in the coming months, be it virtual or in-person!
May God bless each of you.
The other day, I was giving a practice spelling test to my 10 year old. He had to spell the words, "cease" and "seize." To differentiate the sound, I used them in a sentence. "Seize the day!" and "Pray without ceasing." Alexander asked, "what does it mean to pray without ceasing?" I embraced the parent teaching moment! (I love these moments.)
However, I was stumped. How do I explain what it means to pray without ceasing? I began by explaining how we had already built prayer into our lives: before meals, on the way to school, and praying a Hail Mary every time we go up or down stairs. Then we brainstormed ideas on how we could add more prayer into our lives. I told him that this meant we would 'pray without ceasing' because we prayed throughout our day.
"Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus." -1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
When I look at this verse, I am struck not just by the constant necessity of prayer, but by the emphasis on giving thanks. I graduated high school over 20 years ago, but I still remember my high school teacher teaching us to pray in ACTS.
A - Adoration (praising God),
C - Confession (confessing our sins/admitting that we are a sinner),
T - Thanksgiving (giving thanks to God), and
S - Supplication (asking God for what we want/need in accordance with His will.)
This form of prayer is one that can guide even the weariest of souls to build prayer into their days. In Luke 11, one of the disciples asked Jesus how to pray. This is when Jesus taught the Our Father. "Praying without ceasing" can seem daunting, but if we build it into our routine, then it will become manageable and bring an unparalleled sense of joy and peace, removing anxieties.
During this time of Advent and Christmas preparations, let us not forget to acknowledge our established routines of prayer - even if it is only praying before meals. I challenge you in these last weeks to brainstorm new ways to add prayer into your day. Joy and peace will come out of prayer, and isn't that what we all need a little more of these days?
One of my favorite parts of Advent is celebrating the lives of the saints! Below is a list of some of the saints - we celebrate them in just one week! - that help to enrich our time of preparation and inspire us to live our lives in a holy way to bring honor and glory to the coming of the newborn King of Kings!
December 6th - St. Nicholas Feast Day. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children and merchants. One of his legends is that he had heard of a family with three daughters and no money to pay for their dowry. Around the time of 300 BC, this means that the daughters would have been sold into slavery. St. Nicholas didn't want to see the girls sold, so he tossed bags of gold coins through the window of their home - legend holds that the gold coins landed in their shoes or stockings! Now, we lay out shoes the evening of December 5th. Children will frequently find gold (chocolate) coins and candy canes in their shoes the next morning. This is a wonderful and fun way to celebrate the virtue of generosity!
December 8th - The Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This is the day that we recognize our Blessed Mother as having been conceived in the womb of her mother, St. Anne. Mary was conceived without sin and we celebrate her Immaculate Conception nine months before we celebrate her birthday in September. We honor Mary's conception because we honor the life that she led and the "yes" she gave to the Archangel when she agreed to be the mother of Jesus. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is a Holy Day of Obligation.
December 9th - The Feast of St. Juan Diego. Juan Diego was a Mexican convert to the Roman Catholic faith. In fact, he is the first Roman Catholic indigenous saint from the Americas! Juan Diego would walk long distances - over Tepeyac Hill - to receive religious instruction from Franciscan missionaries. On his hurried way to Mass on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, he had a vision of a radiant woman. In native tongue, the woman explained that she had the honor of being the mother to Jesus and would like a chapel built on Tepeyac Hill where a pagan temple once was. St. Juan Diego went to the Bishop and relayed Our Lady's message. The Bishop was hesitant and asked for a sign. Days later, St. Juan Diego appeared to this Bishop with flowers in his tilma (cloak). When he opened his tilma to present the flowers to the Bishop from Our Lady, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was reflected on his tilma as the flowers dropped to the floor.
December 12th - The Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was the evening of December 11th St. Juan Diego delivered the flowers in his tilma as a sign for a new chapel to be built in honor of Our Lady of Tepeyac Hill. It was the same evening that the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is recognized by over 8 million Native Mexicans. Her gown is adorned with stars and at her feet is the crescent moon. Millions of Native Mexicans converted to Catholicism because of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Millions of pilgrims from around the world travel to Tepeyac Hill to honor Our Lady at this Marian apparition site. On October 12, 1945, Pope Pius XII declared Our Lady of Guadalupe to be the Patroness of the Americas. Fun ways to celebrate our Lady of Guadalupe are to listen to Mariaci music or Mexican Christmas music, feast on Mexican food for the day and celebrate with a piñata and Mexican hot chocolate.
December 13th - St. Lucia's Feast Day. This day has always been a special day to me, but it became even more special just over two years ago when my little niece, Lucia, was born. Happy namesake day, Lucia Kathleen! St. Lucia, also called St. Lucy, lived in the early 4th Century; she was a martyr due to the persecution of Christians in Syracuse. There are a lot of legends surrounding St. Lucia. One thing, however, remains constant. She loved God more than anything and was burned at the stake because of this. Lucia means "light," as such, she is known as the patron saint of light. Some traditions are to have the oldest girl in the family deliver breakfast to her family, while wearing a wreath of light. This is because it is told that St. Lucia used to wear a wreath of candles around her head so that she could see as her arms were loaded down with supplies for the poor Christians hiding from persecution in the dark catacombs. My family celebrates St. Lucia's feast day by waiting until this day to light some of of Christmas lights. It is also a day that we donate food to the poor and deliver gifts to our neighbors, all in honor and remembrance of St. Lucia.
On the way to Daily Mass today, I was listening to the version of "Miracles" on the Pentatonix Christmas album. The line of the chorus that always tugs at my heart is, "there can be miracles if you believe, though hope is frail it's hard to kill." During the infamous year of 2020, we have seen many instances of hope showing its fragility. However, hope still thrives and lives on.
One of the ways that I have seen hope is in my neighbors who have started a local grass-roots initiative to provide food and hope to our community. It started out as a large plastic box in their front yard where people could donate non-perishable food for the community. This donation initiative garnered the name, "Be the Good Project" that has grown into a collection of food donations, thousands of sandwiches for Martha's Table, thousands of pounds of food for our local community and has now been established as a non-profit with a new website. Be the Good Project is an example of the miracle of hope in an uncertain world. You can learn more about them by visiting www.bethegoodproject.org
Another miracle that we cannot forget today is the miracle of Saint Maximillian Kolbe. I remember this saint today while I reflect on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Raymund Kolbe was born in 1894 in the Kingdom of Poland during the Russian Empire. In 1910, Fr. Kolbe was given the name Fr. Maximillian Kolbe. During the Nazi invasion in Poland, Fr. Kolbe hid over 2,000 Jews from Nazi capture. Fr. Kolbe was captured by the Nazi's and sent to Auschwitz where he was tortured for his religious views. During the time of his incarceration, Fr. Kolbe was part of a group of men who could choose death by starvation. Fr. Kolbe was chosen and volunteered the place of a man who was a husband and a father. Fr. Kolbe performed the ultimate sacrifice in giving his life for another. Fr. Kolbe later died by lethal injection. Among other patronages, he is the patron saint of journalists and the pro-life movement. It may be strange to reflect on Pearl Harbor, St. Maximillian Kolbe and death under Nazi regime during the time of Advent, but what these events show is that hope can, and will, always flourish, no matter the chaos of the world. People will always choose to do good.
In today's Gospel, we read Luke 5:17-26. This Gospel passage tells of a time when Jesus was teaching and healing large crowds of people. There was a group of friends who lowered a paralyzed man on a stretcher through the roof of where Jesus was, hoping that the ill man would be healed. Jesus knew that the Pharisees were accusing Him, in their hearts, of blaspheming. As always, Jesus knows our hearts. Jesus says to the crowd, "What are you thinking in your hearts? Which is easier to say, 'your sins are forgiven' or 'rise and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on Earth to forgive sins' - he said to the man who was paralyzed, 'I say to you, rise, pick up your stretcher and go home."
During his homily this morning, my pastor reminded us about the virtue of hope that we see in the friends who lowered the paralyzed man down through the roof on a stretcher, removing the obstacles of the roof shingles and the large crowds. There are always obstacles in life that can sometimes make it hard to confess our sins in the Sacrament Reconciliation, but we must move past the obstacles and take part in the miracle of Jesus' forgiveness. We can always find our hope in the Lord, in His mercy and His forgiveness. I can't think of a better way to prepare our hearts during Advent than by partaking in confession and reconciliation. As we clean and prepare our homes, let us not forget to give Jesus the perfect gift of a clean and contrite heart.
We can always find miracles and signs hope if we look for them- be it in our neighbors, in the saints, or in Jesus' miracles that are still relevant today. Miracles can be found and hope truly is hard to kill. As history has shown us time and time again, hope will always persevere.
"We put our hope in the Lord. He is our hope and our shield. In Him, our hearts rejoice, for we trust in His holy name. Let your unfailing love surround us, Lord, for our hope is in you alone."
-Psalm 33:20-22 (NASB)
We recently had our kitchen renovated. Our project manager, Mike became quick friends with little Andrew. I learned that Mike is a strong Christian and loves people with Down syndrome. During the course of our kitchen renovation, I had mentioned to Mike about my concern of being able to keep up with Andrew and take care of him when my husband and I grow older. I realize that this might fall on the shoulders of Alexander, Abby and their future families. Mike asked me which of Andrew's two older siblings takes the most interest in Andrew now. My response, both Alexander and Abby - they play with Andrew, love him, read to him, take care of him and defend him. This is what family is all about. Let's explore the importance of another family, one that ruled the nations.
In the daily Mass readings for this week, we read a lot about the foreshadowed genealogy of Jesus. On Tuesday of the first week of Advent, we read Isaiah 11:1-10. This reading talks about a "shoot rising up from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud will blossom." Jesse is the father of King David. Jesus is called "the Son of David" in Matthew's Gospel. What Matthew is doing is establishing a royal lineage for Jesus. When we read about a "bud" blossoming from the root of Jesse, we know that the "bud" is Jesus. Isaiah goes on to explain that the "Spirit of the Lord will be upon Him." As we know, this Spirit is the Holy Spirit, one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Establishing Jesus' genealogy is important because it shows His royal succession. Jesse, too, has an important genealogy - that of Abraham, who was promised that his children would "be beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore." (Genesis 22:17) Because Abraham is an ancestor of Jesse and Jesse is the father of King David who is the ancestor of Jesus, we see how Jesus' lineage was established from the very first book of the Bible. The Old Testament foreshadows the New Testament and the New Testament answers the anticipations of the Old Testament.
As St. John Paul II said, "As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live." Family is the backbone of society. My husband and I are raising a child with Down syndrome in a town where we don't have any extended family. We rely greatly on our 10 year old, Alexander and our 7 year old, Abby. This has made Alexander and Abby stronger in character- a strength that will carry them through their lives. When I watch Alexander and Abby care for little Andrew, I am reminded of another family where a young mother and father were taking care of a newborn baby. In this family, the mother was about 13 and pregnant before she married her husband, who became the baby's adoptive father. Of course, I am talking about the Holy Family - Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus.
The Holy Family set the example for families to follow in future generations. From them we learn to defend and protect our family. We also learn of forgiveness and fortitude. We learn to teach and to have patience and love for our families who are knit together by God's design. The actions that we take today and the decisions that we make will teach our children how to cope with life's blessings and disappointments. We must be intentional in loving and instructing our family, just as the Holy Family showed us.
"The first blessing that God gave was for the wellbeing of the family." -St. John Vianney
"If you want world peace, go home and love your family." -St. Teresa of Calcutta
"Families must have the courage to set before young people the radical decision to follow Christ, showing them how deeply rewarding it is." -Pope Benedict XVI
Today's Gospel reading is Matthew 15:29-37. This is a reading where Jesus performs many miracles for three days. He tells His apostles that He is concerned for the flocks of people who have been listening to Him. He is worried that they will collapse on their journey home. The apostles reply that they had seven loaves of bread and two fish. But how can they possibly feed the multitude of people who are there?
We see the same story in John 6:1-5. In this version, St. John tells of a boy who had the seven loaves of bread and two fish. The boy offered them to the Apostles. How tentative this offer must have been. If the boy gave away his food, how would he eat? How would he help his family eat? Yet, the boy trusted in Jesus and His miracles. Sure enough, Jesus turned these seven loaves and two fish into many more, so that two basketfuls were leftover. Let's not forget about this boy.
If the boy had not said "yes" to offering his bread and fish, then the miracle wouldn't have taken place. So many people read these Gospel stories and focus on the miracle, as they should. But the boy is often overlooked. He trusted Jesus, he shared his bread and fish, and he was part of one of Jesus' most famous miracles. All he had to do was say, "yes." He helped to feed thousands of hungry people.
Recently, my family all had COVID. Praise be to God, all of our symptoms were fairly minor and we are thankful that we now have antibodies. On the last day of our isolation, I was cooking dinner and the stove caught fire! I ripped Little Andrew out of his high chair and dialed 911 as I yelled at Alexander and Abby to grab their shoes and run outside. My husband stayed behind and used TWO fire extinguishers to put out the fire right as three firetrucks pulled up. This all happened in our newly renovated kitchen. Ever so busy, our guardian angels made sure that we were all safe and that the only damage was a little smoke damage on the ceiling. We need nothing more than a fresh coat of paint.
While my children and I were huddled outside under a thin blanket, neighbors came over with armloads of blankets. We told them, "don't come near us! We have COVID!" Ever the good Christian, one of our neighbors brushed our sentiment aside and bent over to wrap us in warm blankets. (Thank God it was the last day of isolation and our chance of spreading the illness was very slim.) My neighbor trusted that it would be okay to share her blankets with us. She wrapped us in love. She participated in the miracle of keeping us warm while we waited for the firemen to get the smoke out of our house and make it safe for re-entry.
Isn't this what the Advent season is about? It is about sharing, trusting and caring. We busy ourselves trying to find the perfect gifts. We shop on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. We donate on Giving Tuesday. In all of the business, let us not forget to share something else- our time. All that God wants from us is our hearts and our time. Be sure to carve out a few minutes a day reading Sacred Scripture. Remember to pray throughout your day. Trust in God and share your time.
"And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for which such sacrifices God is pleased."
- Hebrews 13:16 (NASB)