"I have no doubt that families with disabled children can be happy, but who, being able to choose, would not want a perfectly healthy child?"
Recently, I was asked this question by a person in favor of assisted reproduction, if a couple risks giving birth to an ill child. I admit that if I had not known the story of Nicola and Giulia Gabella, I would not have been able to dismantle his reasoning point by point.
Mind you, that "life is life," always and in any case, I would have told him and tried to explain that a child should not be "tailor-made," but welcomed, supported, loved, regardless of how he is; however, I know very well that I would have been unconvincing, being the mother of two able-bodied children. And also, because I myself, although opposed to abortion and in vitro fertilization for ethical reasons, could never have thought that the burden of having an ill child could be not only "accepted," but even "loved"; not only endured, but considered an opportunity for "healing."
And yet, this is the paradox that these two spouses from Bologna, Nicola and Giulia , experiment and testify strongly. They are parents of three children, one of whom is afflicted by a significant disability. For them, the disease has become a cause of purification of love and the desert turned into a garden (to go back to the title of the autobiographical book written by Nicola Gabella himself, Il deserto diventerà un giardino , published in 2011, and not available in English yet).
But let's go in order. Because before seeing the light, this family had to pass through darkness from which there seemed to be no way out.
Promise of broken happiness
It was June 1996, when Giulia and Nicola got married. They were in love and full of joy. After a first pregnancy, unfortunately ended with a miscarriage, in April 1998, the couple welcomed little Samuel. The happiness of being a family of three was huge, but the spouses soon wanted the family to grow again. Giulia becomes pregnant again and in April 2000, Sara was born.
This time, however, there was something wrong. Right from the start, the doctors were worried: the baby constantly slept, and wouldn’t eat. Days passed and, after many check-ups, it was clear that the child had considerable problems.
This was the beginning of the tunnel. A happy family suddenly collapsed in pain and in a sort of existential apathy.
Moving from one hospital to another, Nicola even hoped that God would take that being away from him. He felt sorry for her and for himself, afraid of not being able to look after her for the rest of his life. His daughter's disability nearly paralyzed him.
Meanwhile, Giulia lost her mother: another hard blow, which only led the already tried couple to grow further apart.
Their once luxuriant love had withered, overwhelmed by burdens too heavy.
"Who, being able to choose, would not want a perfectly healthy child?" At this point in story, Nicola would have answered yes without hesitation. And, perhaps, in a moment of sincerity, he would add that he didn’t want that child.
They had faith, but a faith that was too fragile, still immature, which did not allow them to deny themselves and accept that it is Other who takes and transforms the burdens they bear. Indeed, Nicola felt betrayed by God and was tempted to abandon him.
"The darkest moment of the night precedes the dawn" (Pope Francis)
However, in this desperate situation, the roots were being laid for a great love, which Giulia and Nicola could not even remotely imagine.
A priest very dear to the Gabellas, advised them to go to Assisi, to meet with a "special" family, headed by Lorenzo and Marusca: two spouses who adopted a child with down syndrome. The testimony of the latter would turn out to be a decisive beacon in the life of Nicola and Giulia.
From them, they learned that it is necessary to get rid of some idols, in order to truly love the other. A parent, in particular, must stop seeing his child as an extension of himself, as the bearer of all his expectations. They discovered that a disabled child has – more than ever – the power to unmask false love, because true love gives, without pretension, even when the other cannot "give back."
They learned to humble themselves and ask for help – from God and others – and discovered that sharing fatigue is liberating for them and enriches communities.
They learned to put the couple at the center, because it is from conjugal love that brings forth children, not the other way around. The main mission is always about the spouses: children are a consequence of their bond, not cause.
They learned that you cannot waste time chasing "an ideal life," different from what you have, because true happiness originates when you love concretely under any condition and in any situation in which you find yourself.
It is by giving that you receive
Nicola and Giulia emerged from the rubble and, in 2003, another sister arrived for Samuel and Sara: Anna, a very cheerful, bright little girl.
The commitment of the Gabellas was remarkable: they now had three children, work, take care of Sara’s special needs (the child, in fact, spent a lot of time between speech therapists and physiotherapists). The efforts were not lacking, and sometimes they were discouraged; yet, they felt surrounded by so much affection. Moreover, they understood that to be happy, even in suffering, it is necessary to give, without expecting anything in return and to continually generate "community."
They were so convinced of this, that they began to open their doors to those who needed to be heard and prayed for; they began foster care, welcoming children, young people, and the elderly who found themselves in difficult familial situations (like the son of a single girl, a prostitute protected by a gang, an elderly lady without any family...).
"Why you, though, who already has so many problems?", someone might ask. Nicola, a social worker by profession, would answer: "The good we received is too much to keep it for ourselves."
Today, Sara is 19 years old. The doctors had predicted that she would never walk or even talk . The parents concern to take care of her was so great, that Sara, today, is able to express herself and walk on her own two legs. She graduated, has a job, goes out with her friends, and has her own debit card. But that's not all, because Sara has something that, unfortunately, few young people have: so much joy to live and a desire to do. I had the honor of meeting her and I can testify that in her presence, it is the others who feel disabled.