Brendan Kelly: A Life That Touched Many Hearts

February 9, 2018

The email started out as many do: a request to support a worthy cause, in this case the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society annual fundraiser in Washington, DC.

It was the second sentence that nearly knocked me off my chair: “As you know, our precious son Brendan passed away in May 2013.”

Stunned and filled with dread, embarrassment and guilt welled up in my throat. Somehow I didn’t know that Brendan had died, and therefore had continued to whistle “Happy Birthday” to him for three years after he passed. The first time was only two weeks after his lengthy battle with leukemia took him to the Lord.

Like it was yesterday, I remember when I learned that Brendan was ill. His father Frank and I ran into each other at New York’s LaGuardia Airport shuttle lounge in 2009. Though only casual acquaintances Frank and I are always delighted to see each other. He lives in the Washington, DC area and travels to New York often, as do I, so such meetings on the shuttle are common.

Not only did Brendan have leukemia, but he was also born with Down Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes a range of physical and cognitive challenges. Frank told me of his then nine year-old son with a combination of pride and resolve. They were working hard to beat the illness that had invaded his little body. As the father of three young healthy children, I had no idea of what his life was like on a daily basis, but I imagined it was hard.

I said the Ullmans would pray for little Brendan, and I asked when his birthday was, so I could whistle for him. There wasn’t much else I could do.

So the Ullmans set to praying for little Brendan. We have a daily prayer list that includes people who are sick, those who need jobs, and people who would like to be married and have babies (“Preferably in that order,” I sometimes add, to my young children’s confusion).

In a twist, there were two other people on our prayer list who had Brendan’s last name, “Kelly,” in their names. There was Kelly Martin, Cara Kelly, and now we added Brendan Kelly. Kelly and Cara both had cancer.

Our kids has never met any of them, but embraced praying for them as if they were family. Our son, Justus, who was six years old when we started praying for Brendan, would sometimes ask who these people were. Kelly was a friend of Mommy’s from Bible study, Cara was the daughter of Uncle Dale’s friend, and Brendan was the son of a friend of Daddy’s.

The prayers continued for years, seeking healing, but praying that “Thy will be done.”

Several years in, we learned that Cara beat her cancer. Then Kelly succumbed to her illness, and Brendan went into remission. When Kelly died, the kids asked what happened. We said that she fought hard and the doctors did their best, but the Lord called her to his heavenly kingdom. “Did our prayers not work?” the kids asked. I wondered the same thing, but reminded myself that discerning God’s will is a fool’s errand. We talk of His omnipotence and omniscience, but have little understanding of what that means. All knowing, all powerful–His ways are not our ways. We seek mercy and healing, and sometimes it comes, sometimes not–at least not always in the form we would like. We forge on, hopefully appreciating that great gift of life while it is ours and accepting His will, with its mysteries and sometimes seeming illogic.

As I recovered from my initial shock of having whistled “Happy Birthday” for someone who was no longer alive, I quickly wrote an email to Frank, apologizing for adding to his heartache.

Frank’s response floored me.

He said they thought I knew and was honoring Brendan by celebrating his birth and life. The family, he said, would gather around the speakerphone and listen to my recorded rendition as they remembered his birthday. He called it a blessing.

Then he brought a smile to my face. Brendan so enjoyed my annual birthday serenades, he taught himself to whistle. Frank wrote, “What you don’t know is that your whistling convinced him to try and learn to whistle. And he did–it wasn’t perfect, but is was the most beautiful thing in the world watching my little Down Syndrome guy pucker his beautiful little lips together and whistle a happy song. We knew when he whistled he was happy and being a normal kid, not a sick kid.”

Frank ended his note this way: “…please please please: keep leaving birthday whistle messages!”

Imagine that–a father asks me to help keep the spirit of his son alive through a simple song; a son my wife and kids and I never met, but formed a bond with nonetheless, a kid who battled and beat a cruel illness three times until he couldn’t fight any more. He was a child of God who was challenged with Down Syndrome, but who touched many lives: 3,000 people attended his wake.

So, what will I do on every May 12 for as long as my lips will cooperate?

Deliver a simple serenade to Frank and his family as they remember and honor their son Brendan.

(Find this and other stories in my new book Find Your Whistle: Simple Gifts Touch Hearts & Change Lives.)