“When Brad was born, the hospital staff told me to go home and forget about him. He said he would not live longer than six months and that it was best for my husband and me to get over his birth and to have another baby. That was 14 years ago. Now, he is the longest-living child in this country with his condition.”
Liz stared reflectively at her cup of coffee, knowing that it was only his family’s love and care which had made Brad’s survival possible. She continued speaking. “Apparently his disability was the result of my having something like flu when I was pregnant. I was not particularly ill and thought that I recovered quickly. How could I have known that the virus attacked my unborn baby and caused such devastating effects?”
While we spoke, the subject of our conversation lay on a mattress on the floor. Brad rolled his head from side to side, his arms clenched under his chin and a big grin on his face. Even if he could not tell his own story, somehow he knew that we were talking about him. Every so often his gurgled laugh interrupted us. Liz carried on with her story. “My husband Colin is a policeman and has to work shifts. It has been very difficult for him, especially when Brad has been ill and when he has had to leave us to go to work. His sergeant has been fantastic and, wherever possible, has adjusted the rota to help us. Colin’s colleagues have also been wonderful. It has been an amazing experience to have a succession of big, burly policemen coming into the house just to say hello. They have also fallen in love with Brad’s laugh. Without exception, they have left the house, smiling, feeling better about their own day, whilst I have also benefited from their support.”
Liz and Colin had two other children, both born after Brad. How did they respond to their severely disabled brother? “Although he is now 14, Brad has never functioned beyond the level expected of a three-month-old baby. When he was born, his legs and hips were so rigid that we needed to have his hips permanently dislocated. This might sound cruel, but it was the only way that we could change his nappy. We had been advised that he would never be able to sit up, so this really was the best option for him. The children have been wonderful and, right from the start, have been fully involved in his care. They know that Brad is very different from other children, but he has always been the centre of this family. Colin and I have been constantly amazed to see how, when they come in from school or from playing with their friends, Brad is always their first port of call. The children tell him about everything they have done. When they are happy and when they are sad, they go to Brad and talk to him. He can be serious for a few moments, but he always laughs and they laugh too. At a recent parents evening, a teacher commented that caring for Brad has made our other children compassionate and understanding. Even with his limitations, Brad is the girls’ big brother: he has taught them to care for others before looking after themselves. That is his gift to the family.”
With his severe disability, is Brad able to recognise his family? “Colin and I believe he can. Do not ask us how, but there is something different in his response to us and to outsiders. I talk to him and know that he is listening and that he understands. We have always known that Brad has a limited life expectancy. These days, he is ill more frequently than ever. I have told him not to hang on for our sake; that he is to feel free to let go. When I told him that, he became serious and I saw a single tear run down his cheek. That had never happened before. I really felt that he appreciated what I had said and I loved him all the more. I do believe that my words made the difference. We all love him so much and do not want to lose him but I know that Jesus loves him even more than we do. I have always believed that my son is very special to Jesus. That is why I do not think that we will have Brad with us for much longer. He has been our angel on earth. Soon he will be our angel in heaven.”
When Brad died, the local church was filled with people whose hearts he and his family had touched. Somehow, Brad made others feel that they could keep on going when life was difficult. He could not judge and therefore people approached him without any pretensions, becoming gentler and more vulnerable. There was no point in putting on a show before a boy who listened, but could not speak; who heard and responded with laughter to the most serious story. In fact, they talked to him simply to hear him laugh. It was impossible to be with Brad without joining him in his smile. When someone was asked why he was so important to her, the woman shrugged her shoulders and stretched her hand towards him. “I cannot take myself too seriously when I am here. His laugh always makes me laugh and brings the sunshine into the darkest moment.”
When Brad died, his family moved to a smaller house and I lost contact with them. Yet, many years later, I think of that family and see Mary at the foot of the cross. Jesus, fastened to the wood with nails through his hands and his feet, was, in a sense, helpless. It was, however, at the moment of his greatest incapacity that he achieved a miracle beyond all imagining: the resurrection. 2000 years later, a child born with profound physical and intellectual disability changed the lives of his family and of all those who met them. Their quiet faith and heroic care for a child they refused to reject, transformed Liz, Colin, their other children, the local community and its police service. Their GP, himself the father of a child with Down’s syndrome, found the courage to extend a similar all-embracing love towards his daughter and to other families with a disabled child.
Holy Week is, in one sense, a journey accompanying a mother and a son to an inevitable conclusion. Both Jesus and Mary knew that, if he continued challenging the Jewish authorities, they would take their revenge. Yet, through his death and resurrection, we find life and hope. So also, through the most unexpected encounters, perhaps through meeting our own Liz, Colin and Brad, we find a depth of meaning which, without them, would never have been ours.
Perhaps the song was written for Brad, which said,
“He won't ask for your pity or your sympathy,
But surely you should care.
Scorn not his simplicity
But, rather, try to love him all the more.”
This little boy gave as much love as he received.