At Easter I am always reminded of a very special “resurrection” or “new life” story. This story is one of several writings that we had available as Team Members to read to the participants of the CREDO Personal Growth Retreats. I always tried to be the one to read this particular piece because I found it to be so meaningful and moving. (Unless Chaplain Bruce was on the team, then he got first dibs and I would read my second favorite – a passage from The Velveteen Rabbit by Marjorie Williams.
Jeremy was born with a twisted body, a slow mind and a chronic terminal illness that had been slowly killing him all his young life. Still, his parents had tried to give him as normal a life as possible and had sent him to St. Theresa’s Elementary School.
At the age of 12, Jeremy was only in second grade, seemingly unable to learn. His teacher, Doris Miller, often became exasperated with him. He would squirm in his seat, drool and make grunting noises. At other times, he spoke clearly and distinctly, as if a spot of light had penetrated the darkness of his brain. Most of the time, however, Jeremy irritated his teacher.
One day, she called his parents and asked them to come to St. Theresa’s for a consultation. As the Forresters sat quietly in the empty classrooms, Doris said to them, "Jeremy really belongs in a special school. It isn’t fair to him to be with younger children who don’t have learning problems. Why there is a five-year gap between his age and that of the other students!"
Mrs. Forrester cried softly into a tissue while her husband spoke, "Miss Miller," he said, "there is no school of that kind nearby. It would be a terrible shock for Jeremy if we had to take him out of this school. We know that he really likes it here."
Doris sat for a long time after they left, staring at the snow outside of the window. It’s coldness seems to seep into her soul. She wanted to sympathize with the Forresters. After all, their only child had a terminal illness. But it wasn’t fair to keep him in her class. She had 18 other youngsters to teach and Jeremy was a distraction. Furthermore, he would never learn to read or write. Why waste any more time trying?
As she pondered the situation, guilt washed over her. "Oh God," she said aloud, "here I am complaining when my problems are nothing compared with that poor family! Please help me to be more patient with Jeremy." From that day on, she tried hard to ignore Jeremy’s noises and his blank stares. Then one day he limped to her desk, dragging his bad leg behind him. "I love you, Miss Miller," he exclaimed, loudly enough for the whole class to hear. The other children snickered, and Doris’ face turned red. She stammered, "Wh-Why, that’s very nice, Jeremy. Now please take your seat."
Spring came, and the children talked excitedly about the coming of Easter. Doris told them the story of Jesus, and then to emphasize the idea of new life springing forth, she gave each of the children a large plastic egg. "Now," she said to them, "I want you take this home and bring it back tomorrow with something inside that shows new life. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Miss Miller!" the children responded enthusiastically – all except for Jeremy. He just listened intently, his eyes never left her face. He did not even make his usual noises. Had he understood what she had said about Jesus’ death and resurrection? Did he understand the assignment? Perhaps she should call his parents and explain the project to them. That evening, Doris’ kitchen sink stopped up. She called the landlord and waited an hour for him to come by and unclog it. After that, she still had to shop for groceries, iron a blouse and prepare a vocabulary test for the next day. She completely forgot about phoning Jeremy’s parents.
The next morning, 19 children came to school, laughing and talking as they placed their eggs in the large wicker basket on Miss Miller’s desk.
After they completed their Math lesson, it was time to open the eggs. In the first egg, Doris found a flower. "Oh yes, a flower is certainly a sign of new life," she said. "When plants peek through the ground we know that spring is here."
A small girl in the first row waved her arms. "That’s my egg, Miss Miller," she called out. The next egg contained a plastic butterfly, which looked very real. Doris held it up. "We all know that a caterpillar changes and grows into a beautiful butterfly. Yes that is new life, too."
Little Judy smiled proudly and said, "Miss Miller, that one is mine." Next Doris found a rock with moss on it. She explained that the moss, too, showed new life. Billy spoke up from the back of the classroom. "My daddy helped me!" he beamed.
Then Doris opened the fourth egg. She gasped. The egg was empty! Surely it must be Jeremy’s, she thought, and, of course, he did not understand her instructions. If she only had not forgotten to phone his parents. Because she did not want to embarrass him, she quietly set the egg aside and reached for another. Suddenly Jeremy spoke up. "Miss Miller, aren’t you going to talk about my egg?" Flustered, Doris replied, "But Jeremy your egg is empty!" He looked into her eyes and said softly, "Yes, but Jesus’ tomb was empty too!"
Time stopped. When she could speak again, Doris asked him, "Do you know why the tomb was empty?" "Oh yes!" Jeremy exclaimed. "Jesus was killed and put in there. Then his Father raised him up!"
The recess bell rang. While the children excitedly ran out to the school yard, Doris cried. The cold inside her melted completely away. Three months later Jeremy died. Those who paid their respects at the mortuary were surprised to see 19 eggs on top of his casket, all of them empty!
Jeremy’s Egg by Ida Mae Kempel
Today we celebrated yet another funeral in my parish. I use the word celebrate because in the Catholic faith we chose to say a Mass of the Resurrection in celebration of the deceased being resurrected into new life with Christ.
I am a member of the Ministry of Consolation and so I find myself attending more funerals than the average person. As part of our ministry we prepare the church for viewing services and vigils which usually take place the day before the funeral Mass, and then for the Mass itself. We are on hand to greet family and friends of the deceased as they come to the services and to be of any assistance to them or the priest.
As I stood in the church narthex this morning greeting everyone, I noticed a mother and her son come in to join those already present. The young man carried himself with great care and dignity. He wore a uniform of sorts, some kind of cadet perhaps. His posture was perfect, and even though he walked with a slight limp, he carried himself “tall”. I found out later his name was Teddy.
In all the time they were in the narthex before Mass started he stood quietly by his mother’s side. Every once in a while they would look at each other and smile. I could not help but notice that it was more than just a smile. It was a communication. In that one act they seemed to speak volumes to each other.
Close by them stood another couple with a small girl of about three years old in a stroller. Teddy noticed the girl and stood staring at her as though mesmerized. After some moments, his mother touched him gently on the arm and he looked at her with a huge smile. He then turned his attention back to the girl for a few more moments before turning once more, the smile still upon his face, to gaze intently, lovingly into his mother’s eyes. Again I had the feeling of a long, silent communication between them.
It was time for Mass. We discreetly directed everyone into the church and Mass began. The ritual was beautiful, the songs and readings perfectly chosen for the occasion. Then came the moment for Communion and once again Teddy and his mother took front and center stage of my attention.
I had already received Communion and had just returned to my seat to pray when I looked up to see them returning down the aisle. As before, I noticed how tall and straight Teddy walked. His mother walked beside him and, with one hand resting lightly in the center of his back, seemed to gently guide him. But more than guiding, it appeared to be a sign of reassurance.
It seemed to me that Teddy was totally focused in the moment. He had just received Communion and his hands were folded in front of him in a gesture of quiet reverence. Yet as they walked together I noticed that with a slight movement of his head he seemed to keep his mother in his peripheral vision.
Once back in their pew, they knelt side by side. It looked as though it was difficult for Teddy to kneel, perhaps something to do with that limp. Then he slightly turned his head to his mother and waited. I don’t know how I knew he was waiting, nor did I know what he was waiting for. As I watched, his mother leaned in to him and brought her lips to his cheek in close proximity to his ear.
As if on cue, Teddy inclined his head just fractionally in her direction and she began to speak to him. In that moment I thought that perhaps she was saying some prayers for him, or perhaps suggesting some prayers that he might like to say. No matter what, the moment was precious, just utterly precious, and I felt humbled to have been part of a very intimate act between them.
What made this Mother’s and son’s love so precious and special? Teddy is a Downs Syndrome child. He is now twenty six years old. The unconditional love that flowed so freely between them was palpable. I felt privileged to see the warm compassion that this mother showed her special child. As I was allowed into their space and allowed to share their beautiful relationship,I felt as though I been given a priceless gift.