Rhiannon’s Vigil and Funeral

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On Thursday, September 11, a vigil for Rhiannon Gladelle Wilburn took place at Wages and Sons Funeral Home in Stone Mountain, GA. The family received guests from 7 to 8 PM and at 8 PM a brief prayer vigil was presided over by Father John Molyneaux, CMF. People told stories — mostly humorous — and Rhiannon’s dear friend Cindy Lou Harrington sang two of Rhiannon’s favorite songs: her own “Let Me Win” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” (with lyrics specially rewritten for “our” Rhiannon).

Here’s a video of Cindy Lou singing “Let Me Win” with Rhiannon, at a benefit concert a while back:

On Friday, September 12, a funeral mass celebrating the life of Rhiannon Gladelle Wilburn took place at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Stone Mountain. Father John Molyneaux, CMF was the celebrant, with concelebrants Father Greg Kenny, CMF and Father Tom Francis Smith, OCSO. Music was provided by Andrew Fazackerly (keyboards), Elias Benn (cantor), and Cindy Lou Harrington (vocals/guitar). Claudette Cuddy and Mary Jo Macintosh were lectors, and the gifts were presented by Liz and Joe Walsh.

The readings were Lamentations 3:22-26; Revelation 7:9-10, 15-17; and Mark 10:13-16.

The processional hymn was “All Creatures of Our God and King” and the responsorial hymn was “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” For the offertory Cindy Lou sang “Amazing Grace” and the Communion hymn was “I am the Bread of Life.” After Communion Cindy Lou sang a rousing version of “I’ll Fly Away” and the recessional hymn was “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”

Here is the homily, by Father John Molyneaux, CMF:

Fran, Carl, family, and friends, today as we gather to celebrate Rhiannon’s birth to eternal life, we reflect a bit on her earthly life among us.

A Happy Family, March 2011
A Happy Family, March 2011

Our gospel reading reminds us that if we do not accept the kingdom of heaven like a child, we will not enter it. Jesus calls each one of us to be, not childish, but child-like. And I think God sent Rhiannon into each of our lives to help show us the way. As we reflect on Rhiannon’s earthly life, two very important child-like qualities stand out.

As a special needs child and young lady, Rhiannon was extremely dependent. Fran and Carl, as her primary caregivers, Rhiannon depended on you for most things we take for granted. She needed you every step of the way. And you both responded with a generosity that was both awe-inspiring and sometimes burdensome. And when that burden became heavy, Rhiannon taught you to become dependent.  Both Fran and Carl have expressed how they depended on — and are grateful for — you who gather here today. It takes a village to raise a child; it takes a special village to raise a special child.

Our culture values independence. “I don’t need anyone.” “I don’t need God.” “I am a rock.” But our faith values dependence on God — all is gift — and dependence on one another.

Thank you, Rhiannon, for teaching us dependence.

As I mentioned last evening, Rhiannon took literally the exhortation to “make a joyful noise to the Lord.”

She knew the best way to praise God is to sing, to dance, to woop it up. And she did so with abandon!

And her joy was infectious.

Although some folks would find her style of worship immature — or child-like — we can learn from her. Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.

Thank you, Rhiannon, for teaching us joy.

Like all of you, I am convinced that Rhiannon has indeed entered the kingdom of God. And like’s John vision of that kingdom in the Book of Revelation, Rhiannon had her own vision.

Rhiannon, today we thank you for  helping to teach us how to enter the kingdom of God, and we pray that your vision of that kingdom has become a reality: that you are walking, and climbing trees, and hopping like bunnies.

After Communion, Fran and I were given the opportunity to share a few brief words of reflection. I went first:

Rhiannon Gladelle Wilburn spent the first eight weeks of her life in neonatal intensive care, her tiny abdomen swollen with kidneys covered with cysts, other organs like her lungs and bowels seriously underdeveloped. Against the odds, she survived, and began an extraordinary life as a medically fragile, developmentally delayed child. The polycistic kidney disease led to a variety of additional complications, including liver disease, hypertension, and, at age three, a severe stroke that left her partially paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of her life. As the years progressed, she struggled with debilitating headaches, intellectual disability due primarily to the stroke, visual impairment, esophageal bleeding, severe anemia, an enlarged spleen which underwent a painful infarction, and finally the inexorable onset of renal failure which ultimately claimed her life.

Partners in Crime
Partners in Crime.

Rhiannon wanted to walk. For years she met with physical and occupational therapists on a regular basis, using a variety of braces and standing equipment to help her strengthen her muscles and improve her motor skills. But even with supportive technology, the goal remained elusive, and eventually her therapists made the difficult determination that the best use of her energy would be to develop life skills while using a wheelchair. Although this was a clear disappointment, she never expressed bitterness or despair because of it.

Due to the complexity of Rhiannon’s condition, a transplant was deemed too dangerous, and even dialysis eventually was rejected for being too potentially traumatic for her, given her weakened immune system and low blood counts. After a particularly difficult hospital visit in January of this year, Rhiannon chose to enter into hospice care, where for the final seven months of her life she focussed on what she always did best: giving and receiving love.

I am not Rhiannon’s biological dad. I entered her life a few weeks prior to her seventh birthday. When I met the girl, with her bright eyes and playful spirit, she charmed me immediately, and accepted me into her loving heart. Like many stepparents I suppose, I had to learn how to love Rhiannon, and she had to learn how to love me. I soon discovered that she mastered this life lesson much more quickly than I did. She opened her heart to me, accepting me, loving me, and befriending me. Soon we were partners in crime, inventing silly songs, misbehaving in public places, and telling everyone we knew that we were both so grateful for Fran, because every family needed to have one adult. Over the years Rhiannon and I bestowed pet names on each other, based on movie characters we both enjoyed. At first, I was Balloo and she was Mowgli; later on I played Shrek alongside Rhiannon as the Little Donkey, and finally, and perhaps most enduringly, she became Kermit the Frog, and I, Gonzo the Great. Each of these pairings represent deep and dear friendships, because that’s what Rhiannon was, not only to me, but to many people: a truly special friend.

Rhiannon had her flaws like the rest of us. She had a temper that rivaled my own, leaving poor Fran to play peacemaker as we railed at each other. She could be overly possessive of her friends, which at times was charming but often seemed simply annoying. Yet she understood forgiveness and recognized that relationship mattered more than being right.

The Cistercian monks, from whom I receive my spiritual guidance, speak of the monastery as a “school of charity” or school of love. God gives us one another, and in learning how to love our neighbors, we learn, by fits and starts, how to love God. For over twenty years I was privileged to be enrolled in a school of love with a true master of the art, Rhiannon. She now has been called in to the silence of eternity, and I am left heartbroken — “mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.” But I know that the love she shared with me, and with so many of us, remains. Let us take comfort in that love, and let us love one another. That, after all, is what Rhiannon would want us to do.

After I spoke, Fran had these thoughts to share:

Rhiannon was a miracle. When she was born none of the medical experts expected her to live at all and if she had been born sooner the technology needed to support her might not have been available. But of course God’s timing is perfect. And again and again throughout her life she beat the medical odds until finally the doctors stopped making predictions about her.

She was a fighter whose strong God-given will to live kept helping her to bounce back when all the odds were against her. Her fighting spirit supported her in overcoming most of the limitations caused by her medical condition for much longer than anyone dreamed possible. And when some doors closed, such as when she finally had to give up the dream of walking here on this earth she rarely complained. She was much more focused on living in the present moment and enjoying her interaction with the people around her than worrying about what she did not or could not have or do.

Love.
Love.

Rhiannon was a lover. She had an iPad and a computer filled with music she loved that would entertain her happily for hours. But more than those precious things she loved people. She loved her family and friends deeply, passionately, and unconditionally. I believe her greatest joy came from time spent with people she loved.

Rhiannon was a teacher. When I was pregnant a very intuitive friend told me that my child would be a great teacher. I immediately thought of classrooms and chalkboards but God had other ideas for her. She was instead a great life teacher. I learned more from her and through caring for her than I have ever learned from anyone else. Some of the many things I learned from her were about loving myself and others unconditionally, not giving up and accepting help from others gracefully when I need it.

Most of all Rhiannon was a precious gift.  Caring for her for so many years was a trial by fire that refined me and my faith in ways that I could not always see at the time but that have become more clear to me as I look back on our lives together. Before Carl entered our lives Rhiannon and I had become quite a team but I realized I was wearing out trying to care for her day to day needs. I prayed for a life partner who would be a loving stepdad for Rhiannon and Carl was the answer to that prayer. But even with all the love, laughter and fun we all three  cultivated together the job of caring for Rhiannon was too big.

And that is where all of you come in. Many of you became special friends for Rhiannon and for us. You gave us hugs, pats on the back, helping hands, and words of wisdom when we needed it most. You provided observant eyes, listening ears and an occasional shoulder to cry on. You nurtured us physically and spiritually and you may not have always realized it at the time. Most of all you loved us and prayed for us and we can never thank you enough for that.

Often you became God’s answer to our prayers for help and we thank God for you–our family both of blood and of the heart, our friends, and our community. Our loving God has done a great work here in our lives. He gave us the incredible gift of Rhiannon Gladelle Wilburn to share our journey for a while. Now he has called her home to heaven to be with him and one day we will see her there.

In the mean time, just as the light of a distant star continues to shine on the earth long after the star itself is gone, may the love Rhiannon embodied continue to shine in our hearts. May we dry our tears and carry on without her physically present because that is what she would want us to do. She would want us to take care of ourselves and each other — to love as fully as we can and to let God use us to create great good in the world for His glory.

After we spoke, each of the priests censed the urn containing Rhiannon’s remains before the congregation sang the recessional hymn. Then we gathered for a lovely reception at the church, featuring the wonderful hospitality of the Corpus Christi Community.

These two days were filled with grace. Fran and I are profoundly grateful. So it seems fitting to end this post with a video made about three and a half years ago, of Fran and Rhiannon singing at a L’Arche Atlanta Coffeehouse the song “Ordinary Miracle” (originally by Sarah McLachlan).

Rest in peace, sweet Rhiannon. We will see you again.


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Carl McColman

Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Centering Prayer Presenter, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.

By Carl McColman

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