5/16/12 | 1529 views
Priest Learns Much From the Sibling He Cares For
Msgr. John Gallagher and his brother, Matt, have a relationship that’s as close and strong as the bond between any pair of brothers who are devoted to each other. In the apartment they share in Yonkers, they reminisce about old friends and old times growing up in the Bronx, and they look forward to Sunday outings. They laugh at life’s funny moments and find ways to cope with challenges.
Matthew Gallagher has been coping with challenges since his birth 80 years ago. He is profoundly disabled, mentally and physically. His body is small and thin, with a twisted spine and spastic muscles. His arms rest against his torso; they are perpetually bent at the elbows. His knees are bent also. He is entirely dependent on others for everything he needs.
“He never walked, he never talked, he never held anything in his hands, he never scratched his nose when it was itchy,” Msgr. Gallagher said.
But Matt is aware of what is going on around him, and he can read the emotions of those he is with. He communicates with them by rolling his eyes and moving his head, by his smiles and other facial expressions, and by the sounds he makes, including soft sighs of joy when he is happy and loud yells when he is uncomfortable or wants something. He loves to listen to Irish music.
Msgr. Gallagher, 82, is his brother’s primary caregiver. A licensed psychologist, he works part time as director of pastoral care at St. Vincent’s Hospital Westchester in Harrison. He also is a Sunday associate at Annunciation parish in Crestwood.
Helping him to look after Matt are caregivers Anne Flynn and Cynthia Molloy.
Though taking care of his brother can be difficult and tiring, Msgr. Gallagher does not consider it a burden.
“It’s part of the joy of my life,” he said in an interview. “I have been with him all these years, and the friendship, the affection, the love are an enrichment…What he gives to me is the capacity to come out of myself and go into his life, and he comes into mine. That’s what love is all about: To be able, in one way or another, to be there.
“I just feel at home with him, and he’s at home with me,” he said.
He acknowledged that “there’s sacrifice involved,” but he added, “This is something I want, even though it might be a little difficult.”
He also said that the reality is not as bleak as observers may think.
“People say to me sometimes, ‘What a tragedy.’ It’s not a tragedy. It’s an experience I grew into in my childhood, and it’s part of my way,” he said.
He and Matt are the sons of the late Mary and John Gallagher. The family lived in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, where they belonged to Sacred Heart parish. Matt was cared for by his parents throughout their lives. Msgr. Gallagher recalled that their father used to take Matt out in his carriage on Saturdays for a three-hour stroll. Their mother cared for him by day and night.
Msgr. Gallagher, ordained in 1955, was assigned to St. Paul’s parish in Yonkers in 1962 and served there for 48 years, the last 25 as pastor until his retirement in 2010. In 1969, with his father in a nursing home, he moved his mother and Matt into an apartment down the street from St. Paul’s Church so that he could help more readily with Matt’s care.
He recalled that when he and Matt were small, his mother loved to pray novenas, and she prayed unceasingly that Matt would be healed. When Matt was 13, she had a change of heart and said that the family would now pray for “a different intention: not for Matt to get better, but for us to understand the will of God.”
“She had a certain kind of peace after that,” Msgr. Gallagher said. “She didn’t worry about him.”
Msgr. Gallagher wrote a book about his brother’s life, “On Becoming a Person: The Story of My Brother Matt” (Catholic Evangelism Press, 1995). It contains an introduction by Cardinal John O’Connor, and it is filled with anecdotes, family history and reflections on Matt and his world. Msgr. Gallagher describes the process of asking numerous questions when Matt signals that he wants something or has something on his mind. Is it about their parents, a neighbor, an event, an object in the room? The effort can be long and tiring, but in a way it’s a gift from Matt.
“As a priest, I have learned a great deal from him…I’ve developed the capacity, when I’m with people, to be able to listen and to try to understand the situation,” Msgr. Gallagher said. “In my own feelings and in any situation, I can tell a great deal about what has happened…because of the training by my brother, the teacher.”
He added, “My brother has taught me patience, he has taught me to struggle with discovering the mystery at hand, he has taught me to presume that he himself, who is totally disabled, has the capacity to communicate, and to be with me on the same level. And this has enriched him.”
Msgr. Gallagher said that he and his brother have formed “a community of love in which the sacrifice that is made is a source of thanksgiving and delight.” At the same time, he acknowledged that any caregiver sometimes faces discouragement and “lack of stamina.” The remedy, he said, is to “take another step,” because “the effect of taking another step is, at the same time, a moving away from discouragement.”
“When we think about the faith that we have, and the relationship we have with Jesus in terms of the mystery of Easter, we have more going for us than we can ever imagine,” he said. “And if the grace of God hits, things begin to change. It doesn’t change the situation, but it does change the person’s attitude toward the situation. That makes the difference.”
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