At birth, I didn’t start breathing in time. I was dioxide because of a doctor’s error. So since birth, I have had spastic cerebral palsy, and this condition has limited my mobility to my wheelchair. As a child, I didn’t understand this. My wheelchair might as well have been my “pity pot.” I felt sorry for myself and wanted others to do the same. Like a cancer, my attitude affected the whole family. Beyond this, it also affected professionals and others who wanted to help me.
While growing up, I was angry at God and took that anger out on those around me. I blamed God for my disability. This anger was a stumbling block that affected many relationships, including with my oldest brother Walt who died at 42 in 1993. One of my biggest supporters and closest friends, my brother died of a heart attack while on assignment for the Tennessee Water Authority.
Although we prayed the Rosary as a family daily and went to Mass every Sunday throughout my childhood, I was little more than an “obligated Catholic” during those years. Throughout much of my youth I was angry at God and feared God. This was not always with words, but often shown through my actions.
Up to the age of 9 or 10, I felt welcomed in church. Mass was celebrated in our parish’s school gym. When our parish church was completed, however, the steps to its entrance told me, without words, that I wasn’t welcome. For years, our pastor told my parents I didn’t have to come to Mass. The steps were like a megaphone for me.
My parents brought me anyway, but it took years for the anger to ebb.
Finding a new home parish, attending daily Mass and frequently participating in the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist have helped change my perspective.
Since the transformation began during my college years, I have not been the same. I pray for acceptance of my limitations, as well as my willingness to accept the hours I spend in my wheelchair and my hospital bed.
I pray for the acceptance of the fact I need others to help me with my basic needs of daily living.
I have come to understand human suffering in light of the Catholic teaching on redemptive suffering. A part of that teaching is to offer up suffering for the holy souls in purgatory. None of us is perfect, and we all will be in need of some purification at the end of our earthly lives. I pray regularly for my sins, the sins of the whole world as well as the souls in purgatory.
I have come to understand that we need to pray for the dead, and that offering our sufferings and trials for the holy souls is an act of mercy. This teaching is a great source of hope.
I have come to understand it is also a source of great consolation, as this gives Catholics a reason to bear redemptive suffering. It gives purpose to our suffering, sacrifices and joy.
I recall those faith-filled years that Walt rode his bike to 6:30 or 8:00 a.m. Mass to serve as an altar boy. His dedication witnessed to me. It pushed me to continue to believe despite my anger toward God.
I didn’t know that then. But I know it now.
Bill Zalot writes from Pennsylvania.