The Death of a Boy and the Founding of Families

Nine-year-old Michael Harrill inspired everyone who saw him bravely fight a year-long battle against a pediatric cancer called neuroblastoma.

Some months ago, my wife went to early morning confession at Christ the Redeemer Church near us. It is a remarkable parish pastored by three remarkable priests; they hear confessions every day from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. The line is often long.

This particular morning, the line was so long that my wife turned to leave. But then she watched a skinny, bald-headed little boy struggle to wheel forward in his chair. Obviously weak, he slowly turned the wheels on his way to confess his sins—what sins?—to Christ Himself.

My wife thought better of leaving. If Michael Harrill could struggle up to the box, so could she.

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Nine-year-old Michael Harrill inspired everyone who saw him bravely fight a year-long battle against a pediatric cancer called neuroblastoma that attacks the nerves and then can and did spread everywhere. His soft, kind face and shy smile were regular features of the congregation at Christ the Redeemer.

Early in his struggle, Michael’s father, Steven, read to his son the story of Brendan Kelly, who struggled his whole life with Down syndrome and leukemia. Brendan suffered greatly, died young, and brought many people to the Faith. Amazingly, Steven read his son the story of a boy who ended up dying. But one of the features of Brendan’s life was that he offered all of his suffering for others, so Michael was inspired to do the same. Michael offered his suffering extravagantly.

His funeral was packed, 400 people or more.

Tim McGovern should have died. The father of ten, including a newborn, suffered a hemorrhagic stroke a few months ago. And there he was, standing, walking, and talking, maybe slightly worse for the wear. But there he was. He offered his own suffering for Michael, and Michael offered his suffering for Tim.

Michael’s uncle, Bryan Barrera, should have died. He spent weeks in a Covid coma a year ago. He set a world record for time spent on an ECMO machine that takes your blood, oxygenates it, and sends it back into your body. It is usually used for short periods during heart surgeries. Bryan was on it for weeks. When his nephew Michael got sick, Bryan led a weekly Zoom Rosary for him. The weekly Zoom Rosary was actually started for Bryan when he hovered near death. Michael participated in that Rosary for his uncle long before he became the recipient of those Zoom prayers. And there was Uncle Bryan, in the third row at Michael’s funeral Mass, sitting near his father-in-law, Michael’s grandfather, paterfamilias Pat Fagan, who is well-known among Catholic activists and scholars.

Whether he knew it or not, Pat Fagan did not merely form a family; he founded one. I first noticed this idea a year ago at Mary Teller’s funeral. Some people seem to have a 100-year vision for their family. Mary’s mother, father, and her husband’s family had this vision. They founded dynasties based not on power, title, or money but on the simple idea that a family should reverberate through the ages.

Mickie Teetor and her husband, Chuck, founded a family. Mickie converted late in life. She had two children, both daughters, Vickie and Chris, who have had 19 children between them. Their 19 children have 32 children, and they are just getting started. Before Mickie died a few years ago, Vickie announced an open door to anyone who wanted to pray at her mother’s deathbed. My wife and I said a Rosary sitting next to Mickie, who was hovering right there on the very edge of eternity. Both Vickie and Chris, and a few dozen of their progeny, attended Michael’s Mass. This is the communion of saints.

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The communion of saints was out in force for Michael that day. You could look around and see hundreds of people who had prayed for Michael and his parents, Steven and Maria. When I say prayed, I mean really prayed. These people wore out their prayer bones for months, pouring themselves out for Michael, his healing, his intentions, and the comfort of his family.

A few weeks ago, Michael’s parents announced they were abandoning treatment. Treatment was not working and was ravaging the poor boy’s already fragile frame. He was thin as a rail. They went into at-home hospice care. If you knocked on their door, it would swing wide, and you would be welcomed into this intimate yet still somehow public moment. It was a house of peace. It was breathtakingly peaceful. They were waiting, watching, waiting. Michael sat on the couch propped up by pillows, his mother sitting beside him. He would speak to you softly. The communion of saints was out in force for Michael that day. You could look around and see hundreds of people who had prayed for Michael and his parents, Steven and Maria.Tweet This

In those days, Brendan Kelly’s family offered to lend Michael a relic of Brendan’s. The relic was the homeliest sock monkey you ever saw, a toy that was dear to Brendan, something that started as a joke between Brendan and his dad, Frank.

Taking it into his thin hands, Michael smiled gently and said, so very softly, “I’ll make sure they get it back.”

Even to the end, Michael Harrill was pure boy, and he knew his place in his family.

As the end neared, Steven and Maria prepared the children. They prepared Michael. When they told him that he would either get a huge miracle or he would soon meet Jesus, tears welled up in his eyes, and he smiled. He smiled. This profoundly thoughtful, melancholic boy smiled. He was ready.

On his final day, Michael was noncommunicative. Steven and Maria told him over and over how much they loved him. One of the younger boys came bustling into the room and said that if Michael was going to Heaven soon, “then Nicholas will be second oldest.” This stirred something in Michael, and he whispered, “He’ll still be third.” Michael knew his place in this founded family would never change.

That day, Maria announced to friends and family on Caring Bridge that Michael was in his final hours. Fr. Mark Moretti gave him last sacraments that morning at 11:00. Maria asked everyone to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet at 3:00 p.m. We said it. Everyone said it. You could feel everyone saying it. There was this sense that hundreds were saying it all over the world. The family then began the Rosary. Father whispered to son that he needn’t hold on any longer. Minutes later, on the fourth decade—the Assumption of the Blessed Mother into Heaven—Michael passed. We cannot canonize Michael, but we can certainly hope that Brendan Kelly was there to welcome him and is even now showing him around.

Michael Harrill, pray for us.

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tagged as: Catholic Living Saints

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