Last Saturday (April 2nd) my parents, Carl and Kathryn Williams, celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. My sister and her husband, Colleen and Bill Brannon, organized a Mass and party for them. The people in attendance at the party were my parents, their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and some of their friends and relatives.
It all started on April 2, 1951, when they were married. They had their first child on January 14, 1952, and their last child on April 29, 1975. In all, my parents had 17 children, one of whom died at the age of 13 months. Sixteen children are still living, ranging in ages from 35 to 59 years old.
In the hall where we had the dinner, a microphone was set up so that each of the 16 children could say something to honor my parents, or to share some personal experience about what it was like growing up in such a large family. As usual, I ended up talking more than all of my brothers and sisters combined. (I think they dread it whenever I take possession of the microphone.)
When it was my turn to talk, I told everyone that I had come up with a different word for each member of the family. Each word was meant to summarize the primary quality or trait of each individual family member. After I announced the word for each person, I told one or more stories that explained why the word applied to the person. You can see the words I came up with inside the box on this page.
Because of space limitations, I can’t share everything I said with you, but I do want to tell you about the short life of my younger sister Kathryn Mary and how God blessed our family with certain children who had traits that: (1) helped my parents deal with the difficulties that came up with Kathryn; and (2) helped our family to heal after her death.
Kathryn Mary was born on September 13, 1972. She died 13 months later on October 19, 1973. She was the 15th child of my parents and was born with downs syndrome and a serious heart defect. Her doctors told my parents that she was going to eventually need open heart surgery to repair her heart. Unfortunately, she never got to the point where she had the strength or the stamina to go through surgery. She was so weak that my mom was unable to nurse her. She was never able to turn herself over or crawl around on the floor. She gained very little weight during the 13 months she was alive.
Kathryn Mary slept in a baby bed that was set up next to my parents’ bed. One of the many difficulties my mom had was that when she left the bedroom to go into the kitchen (or any other room in the house), she was not able to hear Kathryn when she woke up or cried. Because Kathryn was so weak, she was unable to cry like a normal baby.
My oldest brother Jerry was 20 years old when Kathryn was born. He had all of the best qualities of the four families represented by my four grandparents. He was kind, patient, charming, clever, industrious, smart and in total control of his emotions. My word for Jerry was “Mastery,” because he had the ability to master anything he put his mind to within a short period of time.
Jerry solved my mom’s problem of not being able to hear Kathryn by building a sound system specifically for Kathryn. He set up a small condenser microphone inside Kathryn’s baby bed and ran wires from the microphone (up the wall) to the ceiling of the bedroom, and then down the hallway and into the kitchen where he attached the wires to an amplifier. He then hung speakers on the walls of the kitchen and ran wires from the amplifier to the speakers. (This was years before someone invented the little baby monitors you can now buy at a local store.)
My older sister Mary was the “Guardian” of the family. As a young girl, she took it upon herself to watch over and protect her younger brothers and sisters when mom and dad weren’t around. When I was in first grade, it was Mary I sat next to every day on the bus. She was the one I felt secure with when I was away from my parents.
One evening during the summer of 1973, my mom rushed out of her bedroom and called out to Mary. She was holding Kathryn in her arms and was frantic because Kathryn had stopped breathing. She knew dad wasn’t home and Mary was the only person in the house who could help her out. Prior to that, Mary had taken a CPR course with mom and dad.
Mary was 18 years old at the time and as soon as she heard mom calling her, she ran over and started performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Kathryn. Each time Mary breathed air into Kathryn, her mouth covered Kathryn’s nose and mouth. At one point mom told Mary that she was blowing too hard and was concerned she would harm Kathryn. Mary instinctively grabbed Kathryn out of my mom’s hands and said, “Mom, let me take care of her. Everything’s going to be alright.” This all happened near the front door of our house. My mom handed her baby over to Mary, walked out the front door, and while looking toward the highway near our house called out: “Carl, where are you? Please come home. We need you. Dear God, please help us!”
I saw everything that happened that night because I was standing there when Mary rushed over to help my mom, and I followed mom out the door to the front porch and watched her call out for help. As I stood there at my mom’s side I looked up into the sky. It was dark outside and the sky was populated with stars. One question that was directed toward God kept racing through my mind: “Why are you allowing this to happen to us?”
Fortunately for all of us, Mary was able to bring Kathryn back to life that night and Kathryn was with us for another few months until she passed away in my mother’s arms on October 19, 1973. My dad was with my mom when Kathryn passed away.
Four months after Kathryn died my mom gave birth to Elizabeth, her 16th child. Elizabeth was like a little angel that was sent to us from Heaven. She was filled with charm and charisma and captured the hearts of everyone in our family. Tony, the 17th child, was born 14 months after Elizabeth. He was like another angel from Heaven. Tony was full of life, good natured, playful, and had the energy of a wind-up toy that was always wound up. As toddlers, whenever Elizabeth and Tony were together they reminded all of us of something you would see in a Disney movie. They were like two little bunny rabbits – always hopping around the house, getting into mischief, singing, playing.
It was as though God had heard my mom’s plea for help and sent two little angels to help relieve her and her family of their suffering. Those two angels brought hope and immense joy to our family. With them in our lives, we were able to shift our focus from grief to happiness.
After Kathryn was born, my mom could have said, “That’s it. My hands are full. I can’t take anymore. I’m done having babies.” But she persevered and held firm in her faith. And, as always, my dad acted as her foundation and supported her in her faith and her desire to leave herself open to God’s will.
“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Matthew 16:24. We all have our crosses to carry. Sometimes the weight of the cross can be overwhelming, but our Lord is always by our side. He was with us in the hallway that night. He was with us on the front porch. He is with us now.
Our Lord honors, protects, and consoles those who sincerely and devoutly abide by His teachings. It’s something that we should all seriously ponder as we prepare for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.