It seems like every holiday commercial is playing cheerful Christmas music, selling this year’s latest toys and gadgets, or pulling at my heart strings by reminding me how many people are in need this holiday season. Thanksgiving may be about giving thanks, but, for me, the Christmas season is when I really take the time to stop and reflect on all the reasons I have to be thankful.
I feel inclined to do what little I can with all that I have been given. Whether that is donating the last of my food to the homeless before I leave for break, emptying my coin purse into a Salvation Army bucket, or even just lighting a candle at the grotto and taking a moment to reflect on this past semester.
It is so easy, in the midst of paper writing, to get swept up into my life and my struggles: the stress, the sleep deprivation, and the towering stack of books that is only slowly diminishing. I sat down to dinner with a friend a few weeks ago and she asked how my family was doing. My parents were good, having just finished my grandma’s successful transition to assisted living and selling her house; my youngest brother was doing well during his first semester of high school and had just asked my parents to go to Europe next summer; and my other brother, who is two years younger than me, was doing alright at community college.
The question was sincere, an honest inquiry about my family. But, I hesitated just a moment before I talked about what Marty, my brother at community college, was up to at school. The thing is, I never really talk about Marty, because I never know quite the right words.
Medical professionals have thrown around a lot of words as diagnoses: ADHD, ADD, Asperger’s, Autism…I don’t know that any of them serve as an accurate description. Which makes it harder when I try to explain him. There’s no self-evident diagnosis like Down Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy, instead I have to explain.
After all this time, the best I can do is describe. Marty is 20 years old and looks like he’s closer to 14 years old, though his ability to converse is at a level more appropriate for a 6 or 8 year old. He does not understand proper social behaviors and he can be difficult to converse with. His interests mirror those of a child in elementary school and he cannot sit still or pay attention well. I have watched my other brother, 6 years his junior, eclipse him year after year. I have watched my parents take him to psychologists and therapists and doctors and counselors to help him focus and even properly grow.
Marty will never drive a car, never go to a four year college, never be able to live fully independent, never marry, never have children, never hold a professional job. He will never do most of the things I have done and he will never have the future I am working towards, because he was not given the gifts of health and intellect that I was before I was even born. This year, more than almost any year previously, I am thankful for circumstances and talents I had no influence on.
My brother’s high school graduation was as much of a family celebration as my college graduation from Notre Dame, because the achievements were just as great for each of us. I’m now working on my second Notre Dame degree, which I earned full tuition to complete. I may write and complain about 75 pages of final papers, but I cannot help but be grateful for the opportunity and the ability to do so. I won’t pretend that I feel gratitude while I am writing them, but I do feel it as I walk past the dome, and drive down Notre Dame Avenue. I feel it when I talk about my favorite books and my dreams for the future. And I feel it most of all when I find myself on my knees at the grotto.
I think it was JFK who said, “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” I have been given so many gifts and I try my best to give back as much as I can, whether that is my time, a small sum of money, or my talents. Remember during this Christmas season, and all year long, how much you have been given. If you have health and intelligence and love and a bright future, be thankful. The people in your life have sacrificed much for you to be here, try to give just a little bit of that gift back to the people who need it most. And remember, in this season of joy, how many people have not been as lucky or blessed as you. As I like to say, “Do great things.” I know you can and I know you will.