By Barb Arland-Fye
At Christmastime 25 years ago, my husband and I and our 1-year-old son Colin didn’t have relatives living nearby and work schedules prevented us from traveling to see family. Mary Lou Clark, who worked at the Clinton County Courthouse, which I covered on my reporting beat, invited me to join her and her husband, Gary, for a Christmas get-together at their house.
We enjoyed their hospitality, which included Gary’s famous knock-knock jokes and his encyclopedic knowledge of topics of general interest. We opened thoughtfully chosen gifts (I’m sure mine included a bag of M&Ms) and ate a delicious meal together. Friendship grew from that much-appreciated demonstration of hospitality. The Clarks of Clinton and the Fyes of rural Fulton, Ill., became like a second family, celebrating Christmas, Easter, birthdays and other special occasions. Even Mary Lou’s parents welcomed us into the family at their Christmas and Easter celebrations in those early years of our marriage.
When Mary Lou and Gary adopted a little girl, Jennifer, we were as happy for them as we were for our own siblings welcoming a new child into the family.
Our get-togethers became less frequent after Mary Lou and Gary moved to Illinois and we moved to LeClaire, but we still got together around Christmastime to open gifts, eat pizza and have a good laugh.
Mary Lou has always been so encouraging; when Colin was diagnosed at age 3 with autism, she provided a shoulder to lean on. When I fretted about Colin missing milestones, Mary Lou made a comment that will be forever helpful:
“It doesn’t matter when Colin learned how to walk, he learned how to walk; it doesn’t matter when Colin learned how to talk, he learned how to talk; it doesn’t matter when Colin learned how to tie his shoes, he learned how to tie his shoes.” Mary Lou provided a sense of hope that comes from a faith steeped in the Gospel message, the Mass and in prayer.
So, when Gary sent an email a couple of weeks ago that Mary Lou was in the hospital and wouldn’t be home for Christmas, my heart ached for the two of them. She has struggled with myasthenia gravias, an autoimmune neuromuscular disease, for about two decades. Gary’s email noted that Mary Lou had already purchased and wrapped gifts, set them under the Christmas tree and mailed out Christmas cards. Ours arrived in the mail last week, signed, but without the Christmas letter we’ve come to enjoy.
In a telephone conversation last Sunday, Gary said Mary Lou is making better progress in her physical rehabilitation than anticipated. She would very much appreciate a visit, he said in response to my offer.
In a homily he gave during an October Mass at Casa Santa Marta where he lives, Pope Francis observed that hope “is what Mary, Mother of God, sheltered in her heart during the darkest time of her life: from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning. That is hope: she had it. And that hope has renewed everything …”
That is what I will pray for Mary Lou, that she is filled with the hope that our Blessed Mother experienced, the sense of hope Mary Lou conveyed to my family through her thoughtful gesture of hospitality at Christmastime 25 years ago.