Saturday, March 21, 2015

Woman embraces the joy of life

After the publication of my weekly Appleseed column in the Southington Citizen yesterday, I received a couple of calls and ran across a few people in town who told me that they were quite moved by the story. This morning, by noon, I was flooded with Facebook messages about it and saw that the story had gone viral. How could I resist the idea then of posting it on Southington Heartbeat. Here it is.  

I met the Brouillard family around 1995. I‘d see Moe, (Maurice), Brouillard on Sundays in a wheelchair next to a front pew where his wife, Margaret and their two daughters, Pamela and Donna, were seated. They’d join others after Mass at St. Dominic, for a coffee, donut and light and lively conversation. Margaret, a dedicated volunteer, was always generous, never allowing herself to be held back by the burden of multiple sclerosis. Neither did Moe ever let cerebral palsy hold him back as an active member of the parish family. 

Pam was the big sister. She ‘looked out’ for Donna, her junior by three years. In college, Pam remained focused on doing things with her family, especially with Donna who since birth had been denied the gift of clear and facile speech.  Their love of children was obvious.  At annual parish picnics, the girls were our faithful face-painters, amusing little ones with fun and laughter. They were an exemplary family who never let their modest circumstances and physical barriers deter their enjoyment to the fullest of community life, just loving being with others.  

In 1997, a new pastor joined us: Fr. Henry C. Frascadore. We launched a parish communications ministry with a monthly parish newsletter, The Parish Pad.  Volunteer writers and staff got it off the ground. It was just the first in a series of many small steps in bringing about closer ties within the parish family and ultimately became the forerunner of some forty-two ministries manned by hundreds of proactive lay volunteers.  The Brouillard family was among them.  One day in 1999, Donna Brouillard approached me with a story she had written about her recently deceased grandfather.  I read it. Amazed at the poignancy of her simply expressed emotions, we published her story. Many loved it, particularly those who knew Donna. Thus validated, Donna continued to write occasional bright and uplifting stories for The Parish Pad.  In 2004, Pam and Donna ’s mom, Margaret, died at the age of 59. In the ensuing years, we stayed in touch, many of us witnessing the deeply rooted spiritual stamina of these two young ladies tenaciously hanging on to the joys of life. Their friendships blossomed. In 2013, Moe Brouillard died at the age of 75. Mourning again, the girls continued to be who they had become, model young women of courage, independent, yet tied as sisters more closely than ever.

Fast forward to January 5, 2015 when I eyed a Facebook post of Donna - I had not seen or heard from Pam or Donna in several months. Opening it, this is what I read:

"This holiday season, I've been reflecting upon what has been the greatest Christmas I've ever had. Was it the year I received that very first bike that introduced me to the love of bicycling, was it the one when I got the giant brown teddy bear that caused me to reconsider the existence of Santa Claus, or was it the handsome little wooden nutcracker that reminded me so much my Cousins Esther and Nick's nutcracker collection that I loved so much as a child? Then I discovered that it wasn't any of those; instead it was the very special gift that I received long before the sunrise on Christmas Day from so many among my family and friends whose love has blessed me throughout my life, especially during my sister's final months. They have given me this great affection through hugs, comforting words, visits, phone calls, outings, e-mails, lots of food, and many Facebook messages. I would like to thank you all for making what might have been the worst Christmas of my life a much more favorable one. Happy Holidays everyone." - Donna Brouillard. 

My thoughts in disarray and shock, my heart sunk. Pam had died. She passed on December 9, 2014 after several months in a fatal battle with Type I diabetes. Shortly after reading her FaceBook post, I called Donna. We had lunch together. We reminisced. But we looked ahead to renewed friendship.  She was still hurting but not allowing herself the option of stepping back from the pursuit of the joy of life.

Donna continues to ride her bike to work at Stop & Shop at the checkout. In terrible winter conditions, when pedaling is unsafe, she bundles up and walks. “I don’t drive, but I’m an excellent pedestrian”, she says. Donna’s has a broad array of interests:  drawing,  music, “classical and all genres,” and she enjoys novels, romance and adventure,  a good movie, loves knitting and spends time on Facebook where her words allow her to communicate readily. Donna’s way with words are a wonderful expression of the simple beauty in the ordinary, everyday life she experiences.  Donna revels in her time with friends and family. Facebook, then, is a great door to the world outside her apartment and a place where her thoughts easily flow with the joy of life that is in her heart.  
Donna quotes Stephen Hawking: 

"My advice to other disabled people would be to concentrate on things your disability doesn't prevent you doing well, and don't regret the things it interferes with. Don't be disabled in spirit as well as physically."

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