Saturday, October 30, 2010

Remembering Leona

This morning we attended a memorial service for a 13-year-old girl who had been part of our church community nearly all of her life.

Leona was born several weeks prematurely and spent 3 months on a ventilator. She suffered from myotonic dystrophy, which is a form of muscular dystrophy. It affects the muscles and many other organs in the body. She also had scoliosis and had to wear a large body brace.

She wasn't able to live with her birth parents, but instead was raised by her loving foster parents, Nick and Val, who have foster parented 65 medical needs children in the past 14 years (after raising five children of their own). Most of them either moved onto adoptive families or returned to their own family members, but Leona stayed with Val and Nick nearly her whole life.

The memorial service was one of the most touching ones I've been to for awhile. Many young people in our community gave tributes, including two young women who read pieces that Nick and Val had written about Leona's presence in their lives.

Leona with one of her prized dolls (Kieran in the background)
As many people commented, Leona had many limits. She couldn't read, couldn't eat very well, and had difficulties walking and moving. She never seemed to see her limits as obstacles. Instead she just plowed through life, welcoming each challenge that lay ahead of her. She will be most remembered for singing off key at the top of her lungs, loudly voicing "The Lord's Prayer" and all the eucharistic prayers, and pretending to be the pastor, priest, or presider. She made sure that visiting priests knew what they were supposed to be doing, and she made sure they always had a hymn book. I don't know what heaven is like, but I'm sure Leona is there, making sure everyone is organized and knows what they're supposed to be doing.

One day Val mentioned to Mike that Leona would LOVE to be the presider someday (the layperson who opens the service at our church). Mike told her that he would have Leona be co-presider with him. They practiced for quite a bit of time (as Leona also loved to have the spotlight and would expound on any topic at length if she had a microphone nearby), and the day finally arrived. As Mike said, Leona was giddy with delight. I think it was one of the highlights of her life. Nick and Val asked Mike to be the presider at the memorial service today, a fitting tribute to the honor they shared together.

As I often feel at memorial services, I wish I had gotten to know Leona better. Many adults in our community had very special relationships with her. As she was very close to Christopher's age (just 3 months apart) and I have been busy with my own children, I didn't get to spend much quiet time with her as did many others. One young college graduate spoke today about taking long walks with Leona on the church campout. And how when she taught the first communion class, Leona not only knew all the proper responses during the eucharistic prayers, but she also knew all the priest's parts.

Many spoke about how Leona taught us acceptance and unconditional love. And as Val and Nick so eloquently wrote in their tributes, she taught us that we don't have to have perfect pitch to sing at the top of our lungs...and we don't have to be graceful to dance to our heart's content.

Leona was a true daughter of our community, and her spirit will continue to live on in our midst.


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