From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2

Altar Boys

When they were young, life with my two sons was what would tactfully be called “challenging.” For years, broken bones, stitches, notes from the school principal, torn jeans and numerous unusual pets hidden under their beds were part of our daily family life. But sometimes I would get a comforting glimpse of the fine young men Kevin and Eric would one day become, and suddenly the world would seem right.

One such glimpse came when Kevin and Eric befriended a new boy in the neighborhood. My sons were about ten and twelve that year, and Danny was somewhere in between. Danny was an intense child, thin and slightly built. But he couldn’t run and jump and climb like the rest of the neighborhood children. Danny spent his days in a wheelchair.

Although there were dozens of children for blocks around, only Kevin and Eric took the time to meet Danny and spend time playing with him. Usually, they would go around the corner to his house. And once in a while, they would help Danny navigate the streets and sidewalks and bring him to our home.

As the boys’ friendship with Danny blossomed, I was gratified to see that they accepted and loved Danny without seeing him as physically limited. More than that, they realized that Danny both needed and deserved to experience, as much as possible, all the things “normal” children could enjoy.

One Saturday, several months after Danny moved into the neighborhood, Kevin and Eric asked if he could spend the night with us. My husband and I said that was fine, and we reminded them that we would attend church as usual the next morning. Danny was invited to sleep over, and to accompany us to church.

That night, the three boys had a great time playing games and watching television. When it was time for bed, my husband carried Danny upstairs to the boys’ room, and we made certain he was comfortable for the night.

Dealing with a child in a wheelchair was a new and very humbling experience for us. Suddenly, a few scraped knees and broken arms seemed to be blessings—products of having healthy, active children. They were reasons to give thanks, rather than the purple hearts of parenthood we’d thought them to be.

The next day, with help from all of us, Danny was soon dressed and ready for church. Kevin and Eric helped Danny into the backseat of the station wagon, and we loaded the wheelchair into the cargo area. Once at the church, we unloaded everybody, and the boys happily wheeled Danny off to meet their friends.

At the time, our church had a rather pleasant tradition of letting the children in the congregation take turns each week being unofficial acolytes. Invariably, the children were excited when they were chosen to walk down the center aisle of the church carrying a long brass taper used to light the candles. We adults always enjoyed seeing how seriously the youngsters took their job, how slowly and tentatively they climbed the stairs to the altar and solemnly touched each candle, ever-so-lightly, until it caught flame.

After church school, we were preparing to enter the sanctuary when the minister approached us. Kevin and Eric had asked him if Danny could light the candles this week.

Concerned about the logistics of Danny navigating the stairs, the minister had tried to persuade them otherwise and had pointed out the obstacles. But my sons had insisted that Danny perform the honor, he said, and had assured him that they had figured out a plan. Wisely, the minister had given consent and left the situation in the boys’ hands.

As the opening music began, I turned in my seat to see how my two unpredictable sons would make this miracle happen. Kevin and Eric stood behind the wheelchair, beaming from ear to ear. In front of them sat Danny, proudly and nervously holding the long brass rod that would set the candles blazing. Slowly walking to the music, the boys pushed the wheelchair down the aisle. Soon, all heads were turned to follow their progress. The entire congregation had just became aware of the challenge ahead: the series of steps Danny would have to climb to reach the altar.

As the wheelchair neared the altar, every breath in the room suspended. We had no idea how they were going to pull this off. Did they plan to carry that heavy wheelchair up those stairs? Would they try to pick him up and carry him? Was this fast becoming a disaster?

Kevin and Eric rolled Danny’s chair to the foot of the steps and stopped. Every eye was riveted on the three boys and the wheelchair at the front of the church.

Slowly, and with a dignity beyond their years, Kevin and Eric ascended the stairs while Danny remained in his chair. Each boy grasped a candlestick and carried it back down the stairs. Reaching Danny’s wheelchair, they leaned forward and offered the altar candles to their waiting friend.

Danny proudly raised the golden wand and gently lit each candle. Kevin and Eric carefully guarded the flames with cupped palms as they carried the candles back up the stairs and placed them back on the altar. Then they returned to Danny and rotated his chair to face the congregation. Slowly, they wheeled him back down the aisle.

Danny’s face was a joyous thing to see. His grin blazed through the sanctuary and lit the very rafters of the church, sending a thrill through every heart. He was visibly elated and held the brass candle lighter as though it were a royal scepter. A soft glow seemed to surround the three boys as they walked to the rear of the church. I noticed it took a few minutes before the minister could trust his voice to begin the service.

I’ve often been proud of my sons, but seldom have I been so touched. I had to blink a bit to see their smiling faces as they passed my pew on their way to the rear of the church. But then, my eyes weren’t the only ones in the congregation blurred by tears from the pageant of love we had just witnessed.

Marcy Goodfleisch

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