Two weeks before his death at sixteen, Brendan Kelly’s aunt helped him into bed one night. Owing to massive steroid treatments to fight the ravages of chemo, and being a big boy anyway, he weighed more than 200 pounds. So it was difficult getting him to bed, made more difficult because large sores covered his whole body.
There was no place you could touch him that did not hurt. Except his head. She patted him there and Brendan said, “Aunt Kelly, I am so happy. All you need to be happy is to open your heart to Jesus.”
A psychiatrist, who was supposed to help him through the rough patches of a lifetime of leukemia, asked him what it was like to have cancer. Brendan said, “It is like driving a car with Karen in the back seat.” Karen was a panther that Ricky Bobby’s father put in Ricky’s back seat so he could overcome his fear of driving. Don’t know the movie Talledega Nights? Brendan knew every line.
The psychiatrist ended up not charging for many of Brendan’s visits. She said, after he died, that talking to Brendan was like talking to God. And how could she charge for something like that? She also said his death was the hardest event of her life.
Brendan possessed a supernatural ability to spot pain in others and to move in like a surgeon to fix it. Brendan’s mother coached girls’ baseball. One girl on the team came from an abusive home. She was mean, uncommunicative. Brendan laid siege, sitting with her, putting his head on her shoulder, talking to her, trying to make her laugh, talking about Jesus.
This went on for weeks. At first she hated it. Eventually, she smiled, then laughed, then utterly transformed into a new person, which she remains to today. Such things happened all his life.
Brendan was born with Down syndrome. At four, doctors diagnosed him with leukemia, a cancer with a high rate of remission – but the treatment is devastating. They turn a fire hose of chemo into your body and then pump you up with massive doses of steroids. This can go on and off for months and with terrible effects.
After his diagnosis, his family applied to the Make-a-Wish Foundation: he wanted to meet the pope. Make-a-Wish didn’t quite believe him since only one other child had ever asked for that. So they met with him privately, tempted him with Disney World, a submarine ride, baseball stars. They wanted to make sure meeting the pope was his wish and not his parents’. Brendan insisted.
A wish come true: Brendan Kelly meets John Paul II
In September 2001, the family gathered with others at Castel Gandolfo waiting to meet John Paul II. When the pope entered, rather than wait his turn, Brendan broke and ran to the pope and stood holding his arm as he greeted all the other pilgrims. Brendan would not move and the pope loved it. He kept glancing at Brendan and smiling.
As the pope began to leave, indeed when he was out the door and around the corner, Brendan shouted out, “Good-bye Pope.” John Paul the Great returned and the family snapped the picture you see in this column.
Brendan was a mystic. He carried on a continuous conversation with Jesus and his Guardian Angel. After confession one evening, he made an extended penance. Outside, his father asked what took him so long, and Brendan said he was talking to Jesus. “In the tabernacle?,” his father asked. “No, in the light above the tabernacle,” except according to Father Alexander Drummond, the Church was utterly dark.
Brendan would not pass a church without blowing a kiss and shouting, “Hi, Jesus.” So normal and natural was this that a priest of Opus Dei still sermonizes about this as an advanced state of the interior life.
So in love was he with the Eucharist that after chemo, when he had to be isolated because his immune system was ravaged, the family would sit outside the church in their massive black Suburban. At Communion, Father Drummond would walk down the aisle, leave the church, and go outside. Brendan’s window went down and the priest would give him the Blessed Sacrament.
Brendan suffered with leukemia nearly his entire life. He got it at 4 and underwent two-and-a-half years of treatment. It returned at age 10 with another two years of treatment. At 14, it came again and he underwent a bone marrow transplant.
He offered all his pain for others. Among his special intentions has been Bella Santorum. Because of her own devastating disability, she should have died within hours of birth. In intense pain Brendan would shout, “I love you, Bella.” Bella still lives.
There are many remarkable stories about Brendan Kelly. One day his father received an urgent email from a colleague who had been taken hostage by terrorists in Mumbai. He asked for Brendan’s prayers. Brendan prayed and said the man would be rescued. That he was rescued that very night is less interesting than, at a moment of abject terror, he asked for the intercession of the boy with Down syndrome and leukemia.
Brendan was a normal boy. He loved sports and movies, and sometimes showed a scatological sense of humor. He did not want to be sick – or die – and wondered why God answered all his prayers except those for himself. He sometimes suffered anxiety and even depression. Father Drummond says Brendan was willing to carry even these as the Cross.
When Father Drummond asked if he wanted to be an altar boy, Brendan immediately said yes. Told he would have to wear a cassock and surplice, he “got a far away look in his eyes and whispered, “I love those.”
Brendan Kelly was buried a month ago in his cassock and surplice. Brendan Kelly, pray for us.