In the early 1950s a baby was born in a hospital in Milwaukee, a baby who seemed to have everything against him: he was blind, mentally retarded, and suffered from cerebral palsy. He didn’t respond to sound or touch, and his parents abandoned him. Not knowing what else to do, the hospital called a nurse named May Lemke, a remarkable woman who, with her husband, had already raised five children. The couple agreed to take the baby, even though they were told “He’ll probably die young.” May and her husband adopted the infant and named him Leslie. May cared for him, massaging his body every day, praying for him and crying over him; never giving up, she did everything possible to coax some response from Leslie, but nothing seemed to help. Some people said all her efforts were worthless, and that he’d be better off in an institution, but May and her husband persevered. It wasn’t until Leslie was 16 that they were able to teach him how to stand up on his own. Even though they continued to love him and care for him, Leslie made no response; May told him stories about Jesus, but he didn’t seem to hear her. One day she noticed his finger plucking a string tied around a package; May wondered if Leslie might be sensitive to music, so she played every type of music imaginable on the radio and phonograph, hoping he’d respond. She and her husband bought an old piano and placed it in Leslie’s room, showing him how to push the keys—but he didn’t seem interested.
Then, one night in 1971, May was awakened by the sound of someone playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. She awakened her husband and asked him if he’d left the radio on; when he said no, they both got up to investigate. What they discovered was beyond their wildest dreams: Leslie was sitting at the piano, smiling as he played it by ear. All the music May had played for him was stored in his brain, and he played it beautifully and perfectly, even though he had never done the slightest thing on his own before. Over the coming months Leslie spent hours at the piano, playing every type of music imaginable; he also began to talk, very slowly and simply. Before long he was playing for church groups and civic organizations, and for retarded children and cerebral palsy victims. Leslie also appeared on national television and was written about in newspaper and magazine articles, and his life was even the subject of a made-for-TV movie. Though retarded from birth, Leslie proved to be an immensely talented person. Doctors described his condition as autistic savantism; May Lemke described her son as a living miracle (Link, Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year B, Series I, p. 41). May’s untiring efforts and dedication on Leslie’s behalf, supported by her husband, illustrates an important point: love can work miracles for those who believe in and practice it.
Sometimes people wonder why there’s so much suffering in the world, and so many problems and disappointments in life; why doesn’t God work more miracles on our behalf? There’s no one answer to this question which would satisfy everyone or apply to every situation, but today’s readings suggest a partial response: our failures to love place limits on what God can do in our lives. St. John tells us in that “whoever is without love does not know God.” Closing ourselves off to God’s grace makes it impossible to experience His peace. Selfishly thinking only of ourselves almost guarantees our existence will be miserable and empty; life becomes unhappy to the same extent that we choose our will, instead of God’s.
So many times we’re tempted to place artificial limits on what God can do. Even the early Christians sometimes thought in these terms. Jewish Christians assumed that, because they were part of the original Chosen People of God, only they were worthy to receive the Holy Spirit; they were surprised when Gentile believers were also granted this gift. Fortunately, St. Peter recognized the need to welcome and accept all who believed in Jesus. In this he fulfilled Christ’s commandment in the Gospel: “Love one another as I love you.” Jesus considers us not slaves, but friends. Slaves do what they’re commanded, but nothing more; friends go far beyond this, because they’re motivated not by fear or duty, but by love. If we truly love God and our neighbor, we can ask for whatever we need, and know that our prayer will somehow be answered—even if it takes a miracle.
May Lemke believed this—and the story of her and her family is very fitting on Mother’s Day, for someone has said that mothers more consistently follow Jesus’ teaching on love than any other group of people. We must never give up. If, for instance, those of you who are mothers and grandmothers (and even fathers and grandfathers) are worried or upset because your children and grandchildren no longer practice their faith, or because they seem unresponsive to your love—the way Leslie was at first with his adoptive parents—don’t despair. Keep on praying and loving, for whenever there’s love, there’s hope.
Even as we today honor our mothers, we remember in a special way our Mother in Heaven, who never forgets or abandons any of her children. Writing of Mary, St. Maximilian Kolbe once said, “Let us allow her to do in us and through us whatever she desires, and she will surely accomplish miracles of grace, and we ourselves will become holy, great saints . . . because we shall succeed in becoming like her, and by means of us she will win over the entire world and every individual soul.” As St. Maximilian knew, many miracles have been worked through Our Lady’s intercession precisely because there are no limits to her love for Jesus and her love for us. The love of Jesus and Mary isn’t limited to those persons who are famous, healthy, wealthy, or wise; there are no restrictions based on sex, nationality, race, or social status. This great love is available to all of us, and is meant to be experienced and shared; it’s truly the secret of life. Sometimes miracles can occur—if we let love make the difference.