I saw on Facebook two days ago that it was the tenth anniversary of the death of one very special parishioner of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Delmar, N.Y.. I wrote a column about Adele after her death. Thanks to the wonders of technology, I was able to recapture the 2007 Word file. Here it is again, ten years later. (The photo to the left is one I snapped of Adele at the Peace Pole at St. Thomas after a parish school event on Oct. 2, 2004.)
Everyone at our parish knew Adele. Maybe they didn’t know her up close and personal, but they knew of her. She was a visible and ever-present fixture at St. Thomas. Her wheelchair with the “Got Jesus?” bumper sticker on the back was parked in front of the first row of pews at every Mass every weekend. When she wasn’t in church, she was praying in front of the Mary statue outside our school or in front of the tabernacle in our chapel or at any number of vigils around the peace pole.
Noah and I got to know Adele when we volunteered to help at the birthday parties our parish sponsored at Reilly House, a residence for people with physical disabilities next door to our church. Once a month we would go over and help residents with their bingo cards or give them a hand with their cake and ice cream. I thought it would be a good opportunity for Noah to learn about serving others, but it turned out to be a good opportunity for both of us to learn about being strong and courageous and joyful in the face of adversity.
Adele was all of those things. Unable to walk and with very limited speech because of cerebral palsy, she never let her physical limitations keep her from doing the things she wanted to do. Through her quiet witness and deep faith – not to mention an unflappable determination to get the rest of us to slow down long enough to figure out what she was trying to tell us — she taught young and old alike what it means to trust in God and keep on keeping on, no matter how much we might want to sit back and feel sorry for ourselves. Adele never seemed to feel sorry for herself, even if others may have felt sorry for her.
Many people in our society — a society bent on creating perfect babies who we assume will grow into perfect adults — probably looked at Adele’s circumstances and figured that hers was not a life worth living, but if you knew Adele, you would also know that her life, with all of its limitations and struggles, was a rare gift.
One weekend not too long ago, we went to Mass and learned that Adele had died. She had been suffering with cancer, something most of us didn’t know because in typical Adele fashion she didn’t want people making a fuss. On the casket at her wake was a Rosary made of pink roses at one end and a barren crown of thorns at the other. That was Adele’s life in miniature: She willingly, perhaps even gladly, accepted the many, many thorns that came with the roses.
Both Noah and Olivia asked to go to Adele’s wake and funeral even though their day-to-day connection to her was confined to little more than a wave or a smile. Olivia took the prayer card and wrote, “I love you. I miss you,” on the back of it. For my children, and most of the children at our parish school, Adele praying in the Mary Garden just outside their classroom windows was a living example of the faith they learned about inside.
Our pastor compared Adele to the prophets. He talked about how prophets usually don’t want to be prophets, how the job is more often burden than blessing, and how a true prophet, no matter how many times he or she is kicked down, gets back up and carries on with the job of spreading God’s word.
Adele was a true prophet, and we all benefited from her willingness to take on a burden that most of us could not fathom. Without saying a word she sent us a clear message about faith, hope and love. A life can’t have more worth than that.
This Life Lines column originally appeared in a March 2007 issue of Catholic New York.