As a child, my siblings and I eagerly anticipated Christmas. Poring through the Sears catalogue, we wrote our letters to Santa and composed our lists to give to him when we sat on his lap at the department store. Coming down the stairs on Christmas morning we spotted our stockings hanging at the fireplace and saw the gifts scattered around the living room—piles for the six of us! Although some of us would count the number of gifts in the piles to judge if there was a fair distribution, generally those concerns were lost amid the noisy ripping of paper and excitement over an unexpected toy or groans bemoaning clothing.
These were the days of gifts easily defined by boxes and wrapping paper.
But there were other gifts we received over the years that, in the moment, we never would have described as gifts. As children, the gifts we receive are ours even as our delight also brings joy to the giver. But what if, even though we are the recipients, the gift is meant for others?
As a child in the third grade, I developed a stutter that worsened in subsequent years. I remember as an eighth grader being sent with a message for the fifth-grade teacher. As I struggled to get the words out, I remember all the fifth-grade kids laughing at me. The teacher yelled at me to “spit it out” and scolded the children for laughing. It was horrible. Later the seminary threatened to put me out, even though I was an honor student, because my stuttering would cause “mockery” of the Eucharist. While in the seminary chapel I poured out my heart to God asking why I had to suffer in this way. Fortunately, I met a speech therapist in the seminary and three Missionhurst missionaries at my deacon assignment in South Philadelphia who helped me.
Years later I realized how fortunate I was to have the stutter. It made me more sensitive to people who suffered, who hurt, who felt left out. I could sense people who were in pain. Without the stutter I would never be the person I am now. It was a gift, even though I never recognized it at the time.
Now I’m facing a similar situation. I’ve been given a gift, but I don’t want it. There’s a blessing somewhere, and I suspect it’s meant for others. In May 2018 I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. My doctors told me that most people die within a year and a half of the discovery of my type of tumor, and few live beyond five years. A craniotomy left me with mild aphasia, so I have some difficulty composing sentences or remembering how to pronounce words. Even as I type this, I have to read it multiple times to be sure I haven’t left out any words. As with the stutter, I ask God, “Why? Why me?” and eventually, “Where’s the blessing? Where’s the blessing for others?”
As of this writing, I’m still here, still celebrating the Eucharist at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in South Chicago every weekend, still going to the office Monday through Friday, still driving. I post any health updates on Facebook to let family and friends know my progress. My tumor is a gift that enables me to share my journey and maybe help others face their own journeys with courage, yes, but also with trust in God. In the June issue of U.S. Catholic, I wrote of surrender. I see each day as a gift from God; I see my tumor as a gift to you. As we approach Christmas, remember St. Paul’s words in Colossians 3:17: We are called to be grateful for everything.
Life is a gift. Health is a gift. Relationships are gifts. Crosses are gifts. In the sharing of these gifts, others can find strength, hope, and courage. We may not recognize the wrapping—and it may even seem strange—but with time and a willingness to open our heart to share the gift with another, grace is born.
This article also appears in the December 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 12, page 7). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Pexels/Markus Spiske