Lest We Forget

By Jim Willis

Part Two: Colin’s Flight

About 7:00 that morning, Jorge, our Spanish exchange student, came blurry eyed out of his room and said, “good morning.” It’s hard to believe, but he had slept through all the commotion and didn’t know what had happened. Claudia told him that the next few days would be very painful and we could probably find another place for him to stay. “Oh no,” he said, “you are my family now. I’m glad I got a chance to meet Colin.” Claudia would have fed him forever for saying that. He surely was no dummy!

Robert and Claudia in 1986Robert, at age fourteen, and Claudia in 1986

The next few days were very busy around our house. There was a constant parade of people, bringing flowers, food, encouragement, and love. Of course, many arrangements had to be made: flowers, church service, mortuary, cemetery, pallbearers, etc. The pallbearers we chose were Dan Sapone, Will Sapone (age nine), Brad Morisoli, Diana Morisoli, Bob McAleer, and Janet Risher, Colin’s bus driver. One funny thing happened when we chose those six. Claudia and I first asked Dan and Donna Sapone if they thought their nine-year-old son, Will, could handle being a pallbearer, and they agreed he could. When I asked Will, he said, “What’s a pallbearer?” I told him that he had the opportunity to be one of the few lucky people to carry Colin on this his last and most important walk. Will said, “No problem. But why is it `pallbearer’? His name’s not Paul; his name’s Colin!” I then explained that a pall was a robe that hangs over a coffin. That gave Claudia a wonderful idea. We placed a white sheet on our dining room table, put colored felt pens nearby, and people who came over drew pictures or wrote good-byes to Colin on the sheet. It eventually was filled with color, with rainbows, with butterflies, and with loving messages. Erin drew a jigsaw puzzle, entitled “the Willis family.” It had six pieces and one missing piece where the heart should be. Robert wrote, “Colin, have fun licking God.” Colin, you see, loved to lick things and suck on things. He spent much of his time crawling around the family room and sliming everything in sight — especially the sliding glass door and the refrigerator. As Claudia said, “He definitely tasted life.” The sheet, by the way, draped over Colin’s little coffin at the funeral. It is now one of our treasures.

Erin in 1986Erin, at age sixteen, in 1986

Now to the funeral. When we arrived at St. Charles, we saw a large sign above the doorway, which read, “Welcome to a celebration of Colin’s life.” Also out front were three big posters filled with pictures of Colin with all the people important in his life. Everyone seemed to notice that he was smiling in every picture. That was the way he approached life!

On entering the church, we saw a marvelous thing. The church is usually set up in traditional fashion — the altar up front and rows of chairs facing the altar. In the middle of the church is a fountain, and on Sundays we always sat on the center aisle in the middle of the church near the fountain. We would move a chair out and move Colin’s wheelchair in. We did this because Colin loved the sound of the gurgling water. On that difficult day, August 7, the church had a new configuration — the altar had been moved down to the center of the church, and the 500 or so chairs had been put in circular fashion surrounding the altar. This was done so that Colin could be in his place — next to the fountain. What an act of love that was!

Early in the service, Claudia and I and our four remaining children put symbols of Colin on top of the pall resting on his coffin. We included his glasses, his tape recorder (he loved music), and his two favorite toys. One was a white ring with three colored rings attached to it, a toy that he sucked often and lovingly.

The music for the funeral was beautiful and extremely moving. I only wish there were a way for me now to type in the sounds. At least two of the songs cause me to immediately tear up even now, one year later. Each row of chairs had bunches of colorful helium balloons attached, and, of course, flowers were everywhere. Children played a large part in the service. At one point, they even did a little dance around his coffin, and I could almost sense Colin getting excited at their presence and beaming his infectious grin.

My sister, Lynn McAleer, and Claudia’s dear friend, Donna Sapone, did the bible readings; Colin’s godparents, Robbie and Jane Fowler, did the intercessory prayers; and Fr. Steve delivered a warm, healing homily. I especially loved the intercessory prayers, and here they are.

  • That through the example of Colin, we may all recognize, accept, appreciate, and love the differences we see in each other.
  • That we all can accept yet still strive to overcome our own handicaps.
  • In thanksgiving for the teachers, teacher aides, nurses, doctors, and bus drivers who have so lovingly looked out for and cared for Colin.
  • In thanksgiving for the faith, love, and support of our Christian community.
  • That we, through Colin’s example, may feel a sense of excitement with the simple joys of life.
  • That more things, which initially seem so painful, turn out to be so beautiful.
  • In thanksgiving for family and for friends who share in times of sorrow as well as in times of joy.
  • For all special needs children and their families, that they might have hope, perseverance, and courage in meeting their challenges.
  • That the remembrance of Colin’s smiling spirit will continue to bring a smile to all our hearts and to all our faces.

Near the end of the service, Fr. Steve invited people to come up to the pulpit if they wished. The first to rise was Dan Sapone.

Dan was about the only adult whom I would call Colin’s friend. Everyone liked Colin, but Dan, a former teacher and now a technical editor at the Livermore National Laboratory, really loved Colin. Whenever he was around (and that was often), he always spent time with Colin, playing with him on the floor, throwing him in the air, etc. The very last picture we took of Colin was of him sitting on the couch asleep and leaning against Dan. Anyhow, Dan was the first to the podium.

Dan said, “Jim and Claudia have often been asked what it’s like to raise a handicapped child. Well, it’s like this. You and your wife (or husband) have often talked about the possibility of going to Italy. Many of your friends have come and gone to Italy, and they say it’s such a wonderful experience. It’s so fantastic to be able to see the Coliseum, the Sistine Chapel, the gondolas of Venice, etc. You debate back and forth because taking such a trip involves sacrifices. But you finally decide to do it. So you buy guide books, you learn the language, you purchase the plane tickets. The day for departure arrives, and you are so excited. You are about to experience a dream fulfilled at last. You board the plane, fly across the Atlantic, and when you land, the stewardess walks down the aisle and says `Welcome to Holland.’ Your response is `Did you say Holland? There must be some mistake.’ The stewardess replies, `Yes, you have landed in Holland, and here you must stay.’ You are hurt, confused, scared, depressed, angry. You get out of the plane and look around. You don’t see the Sistine Chapel or the gondolas of Venice, but what you see isn’t disgusting; it’s just different. And so you buy a new set of guide books, you learn a different language, and you meet people you never would have met otherwise. And as time goes on, you come to realize that Holland has tulips; Holland has windmills; Holland even has Rembrandts. And the rest of your life, as your friends come and go to Italy and talk about how wonderful it is, it hurts deeply because you’ve had a dream ripped away from you, and the loss of that dream can never, never be replaced. But if you spend the rest of your life bemoaning the fact that you didn’t go to Italy, you might not realize how beautiful it was — in Holland.” (Adapted from “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl.)

What a great story! A lady then walked up to the microphone and, with a thick Spanish accent, said, “I work in Holland.” It was Rocio Smith, the director of Alameda County’s Department for the Developmentally Disabled. She had been the head of the Fremont school where Colin had been a student . She mentioned that one of the sad things about her job was that she often had to attend children’s funerals, but she had never been to one anywhere nearly as moving as Colin’s.

She was followed by a teenager who had baby-sat Colin and an elderly lady who had been his nurse. Donna Sapone, Claudia’s best friend, then presented a loving tribute to Colin and to Claudia’s care for him. Among other things, she said, “I’ve heard Jim often refer to Colin as one of God’s little spies.” She then turned towards his coffin and said with a beautiful smile on her face, “Well, how did we do, Colin?”

I then delivered a short, for me, tribute to my youngest child. I said, “For years, I have heard people use the word special when referring to children like Colin, and I always thought it was a euphemism, a way of not having to say handicapped, disabled or retarded. How wrong I was. I have four normal children, and I had one special child. If I had been asked seven years ago if I would like to have such a child, I would have said, `Hell no. Who needs the pain?’ But now that I have been through the experience, I realize that I was one of the few lucky enough to have such a child. Don’t get me wrong — having a special child includes many burdens, many heartaches, but even more rewards, and I wouldn’t trade the experience of being Colin’s father for anything in the world. He was special, and he made my life special.” God, how I miss him.

My 19 year old son, Robert, then walked up to the pulpit. Claudia grabbed my arm tightly at the time because he was the one of our four children who didn’t seem to be reacting to Colin’s death, and we were worried about him. Corrigan, for instance, who is very effusive, was down in his room punching his wall and yelling on the day of Colin’s death. But Robert seemed stone-faced and unmoved. We frankly thought he would be about the last person to get up to talk. Little did we know. When he got to the microphone, he momentarily stared around the church at the 500 or so people and said, “Thanks.” Then after a long pause, he continued. “I want to thank anyone here who ever smiled at Colin, touched him, spoke to him, or made him laugh because, you see, he was a good little brother. And he did things for other people. He did things for me. He couldn’t mow the lawn for me; he couldn’t wash the dishes for me. Well, he could lick `em pretty good!” He went on and on in a humorous and loving tribute to his little brother, and we thought he wasn’t reacting! We learned later that he had bought wrist sweatbands for members of his softball team and had Colin’s initials, CW, put on them. We all react (and need to react) to tragedy in different ways.

I want all the family members to remember every detail of the funeral, and so I am including the program from the ceremony. Claudia and Donna Sapone put it together, with aid from Fr. Steve. The actual program sheet itself was filled with caricatures of Colin drawn by children.

A Celebration of Colin’s Life:

  • Preparation for Prayer
    • Fr. Steve Swenson
  • Concelebrants:
    • Msgr. Robert Adams, Frs. Leon Hooper, Jim Buckley, Dave McCarthy
  • Instrumental (as people gather):
    • by Vince Ghiraldi
  • Preparation for Prayer
    • Candles placed:
      • Mike and Diana Richards
        Jim and Karen Spann
        Frank and Diana Bentancourt
    • Colin Comes in with friends:
      • Diana and Brad Morisoli
        Dan and Will Sapone
        Bob McAleer and Janet Risher
    • Wendy Celeste calls us to prayer through dance and mime
  • Opening Song:
    • “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness” by Ernest Sands
  • Greeting:
    • Fr. Steve Swenson
  • Sprinkling, Covering of casket, Placing symbols:
    • family members
  • Opening Prayer
  • Liturgy of the Word
    • Wisdom 3: 1-3,6-9 — Lynn McAleer
    • Responsorial:
      • “Send Us Your Spirit” — by Dan Schutte
        1 John 4: 9-10a, 11-13 — Donna Sapone
    • Alleluia (Celtic):
      • by Fintan O’Carroll and Christopher Walker
        movement with children
    • Gospel:
      • Matthew 18: 1-5, 10-11 — Fr. Steve
    • Intercessions:
      • Robbie and Jane Fowler
        sung response — “Shepherd Me O God” by Marty Haugen
  • Liturgy of the Eucharist
    • Table Set:
      • “Eye Has Not Seen” by Marty Haugen
    • Gifts
    • Eucharistic Prayer:
      • Children’s II
    • Antiphon:
      • “Sing We Now” by Dan Schutte
        children invited around the table
    • Holy, Holy:
      • “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord” by Dan Schutte and Bob Dufford
    • Amen:
      • “Amen” by Bob Dufford
    • Lamb of God:
      • “Lamb of God” by John Michael Talbot
  • Communion
    • Eucharistic Ministers:
      • Wayne and Janie Wright, Dan Ridolfi and Kathy Brown, John Celeste and Fr. Steve
    • Communion Song:
      • “Here I am, Lord” by Dan Schutte
    • Communion
    • Meditation:
      • “Sing of Him” by Bob Dufford; sung by John Durden
  • Final Blessing
    • Dan Sapone:
      • “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl
    • Others:
      • may go to the microphone to talk about Colin
  • Recessional:
    • “City of God” by Dan Schutte
    • Fr. Steve:
      • incenses Colin
    • Balloon people:
      • Diana Richards, Diana Bentancourt, Peggy Staiano, Wendy Celeste, Karen Spann, Donna Sapone move to the center with the balloons
    • Fr. Steve invites:
      • Erin and Robert to gather mementos; Corrigan, Kenon, Ben Sapone, Matt Sapone to fold the pall and to give it to Jim and Claudia
    • Fr. Steve invites:
      • pall bearers forward
        children to receive their balloons, follow Colin out, and keep their balloons until after the prayer at the cemetery
  • Procession group:
    • remain present for the first few verses of the song and then exit
    • Fr. Steve
    • Colin
    • Children
  • Instrumental until all are out

The Willis Family in 1989The Willis Family in 1989

At the cemetery, Fr. Steve spoke some beautiful words of comfort, and while one of Colin’s favorite songs (a song by Raffi) was playing, Claudia let go of her balloon. The rest of the family members did likewise, followed by the others present. As we then looked up into the bright, blue sky, we could see 200 or so colorful messages rising up into the heavens. It was quite a sight and quite a moment. I could hear sobbing all around me, and I heard people saying things like “Goodbye, Colin” and “He’s yours, God. Take care of him.” The moment was powerful; it was a catharsis.

A woman at the cemetery gave Claudia and me each a big hug and then told us that her daughter, a former student of mine, had not been inside a church for years and had sworn never to step inside a church again. She also had not spoken to her mother in months, but she was at the funeral because of us. She had been so moved by the ceremony that she had come up to her mother at the end, hugged her, and said, “Mom, we have to talk.” Little St. Colin was already at work!

Another former student of mine called the day after the funeral and, among many other things, said, “Mr. Willis, I hope you are not offended by this, but I actually had a good time yesterday.” Obviously, he got the idea.

A retired teacher told me that he and his wife were so moved by the service that they decided an element was missing from their lives and that, even though they were in their sixties, it was never too late to change. He said they were going to start looking for a church community to fit their needs and to which they could contribute. They were “unchurched” at the time.

My next door neighbor, Dick Jennings, a man nearing retirement, said, “You tell that priest of yours that I have not spent much time in churches, and the few times I have, I get real nervous after about 20 minutes. I looked at my watch near the end of the funeral, and I had been there almost two and a half hours and hadn’t realized it. You tell your priest that.”

Colin has touched many lives, and he will continue to do so. I talk about him in all my classes (both high school and college), and that leads to great philosophical discussions about how we treat people who are different, about suffering and how to grow from it and not let it destroy us, about the role of friends in our lives, about sacrifice, about love, about “you name it.” I have also spoken to various church youth groups (Catholic, Presbyterian, and Lutheran) about Colin, and with them I have talked about how important faith is in dealing with such a loss.

Speaking of faith, on the morning of the funeral, Claudia’s faith was being seriously tested. Our belief systems can be shattered (or strengthened) when we encounter suffering. She had been Colin’s primary caregiver for seven years. Her life (and, in many ways, identity) had been wrapped up in Colin, and then he was gone. That morning, while she was walking around alone outside, she said, “Colin, let me know you’re okay.” Just then, a butterfly landed on her shoulder. Call it a miracle if you wish; call it a coincidence if you wish. I don’t care. It happened, and it was wonderful. She now sees butterflies everywhere she goes. In fact, about six weeks later, while we were attending a Giants-Dodgers game at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, another butterfly paused in front of her for a time. What was a butterfly doing in the bleachers at Candlestick? Actually, the butterfly is the perfect image for Colin. He was a cute little caterpillar, crawling all over, and now he is a butterfly; butterflies are free. The symbol is most comforting.