Evan and Ellen Harrington. (photo courtesy Harrington family)

Evan Harrington had a contagious joy. He would grab onto your arm and laugh, and you’d find yourself laughing too, as though you were both sharing a joke, even though Evan hadn’t said anything.

Evan was termed “nonverbal” and “nonambulatory.” Since birth he had been in and out of emergency rooms for seizures, respiratory problems and low immunity, which meant catching a cold could be fatal. He was also mentally disabled. All these things can result in exclusion, but his family wouldn’t let that happen.

Ellen and Stephen Harrington welcomed Evan into their family in the same way that they had welcomed their three other children. “We didn’t think of him as different. He was just the fourth child.”

Ellen was at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral on Feb. 11 to celebrate the annual World Day of the Sick Mass. She said the celebration was beautiful, noting that the cathedral was filled with other faithful who had come to reflect on the needs of the sick and the suffering.

Ellen first heard about the Mass a few years ago through a member of the Order of Malta, the organization in charge of organizing the celebration. Tom Pieronek, a Knight of Malta since 2009, had approached Ellen at American Martyrs Church in Manhattan Beach, asking if she would be interested in going with her son on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, the site of a series of Marian apparitions and miracles.

The Lourdes pilgrimage, sponsored by the Order of Malta in the spring of 2015 was a spiritual journey, Ellen recalled. Although the event came just months before Evan tragically passed away suddenly — and just a month shy of his 18th birthday — their experience at Lourdes helped her find peace after Evan’s passing in November 2015.

At Lourdes, the sick and disabled were able to bathe in the famous waters where Our Lady had instructed St. Bernadette to “drink at the spring and wash in it.” Afterwards Evan was laughing for an hour, grabbing on to anyone who came near him and causing everyone to join in the laughter.

“Evan was filled with joy and simply wanted to share that unbridled excitement and happiness with everyone,” Ellen said of the experience.

The pilgrimage allowed her to reflect on the gift of her son’s disability. “Having him be a part of our lives, albeit for a much shorter time than we expected, has changed the way we interact with everyone,” she said. “Especially those that may be challenged in some way.”

Evan took the people in his life into a deeper level of being human. “As much as we made Evan a part of our world, he also brought us into his. He taught us how to talk without words, how to laugh without there seemingly being a reason, and how to cherish and enjoy the most simplistic of moments.”

Ellen considered it especially important to find or create a community where Evan belonged. “Growing up, his siblings came to understand that having a brother with special needs wasn’t unusual; it meant our family was special — everyone in our community knew who we were.”

Ellen stressed that although Evan had special needs, he was never a burden. His challenges were just different from the challenges that her healthy children faced. Finding a school was difficult at first, but once she found one, she knew that Evan had found a place where he felt welcomed and belonged. Evan also had the assistance of a caregiver with whom he formed a special attachment.

She added, “The adage that God never gives you more than you can handle was the mantra of our home.”

The family always made sure to bring Evan to Mass every Sunday. Participating in Mass and other religious community events were ways of teaching Evan the faith.

“It’s not like you could sit him down and teach him the rosary,” said Ellen. But he could be with others through the celebration, participating in his own way. Evan would often vocalize during the hymns. “And that was his way of singing,” Ellen said.

Pieronek was with Ellen and her son at Lourdes. He remembers Evan’s infectious smile. “There was an ability to communicate at the most basic level,” he said. “You don’t rely on the verbal; you don’t rely on the conversation.”

Pieronek said he saw the Lourdes trip as a blessing to Ellen since she had the opportunity to be with a community where everyone was eager to reach out to her son. “Her child was an object of attraction,” he said.

Pieronek recalled Ellen speaking to the group about the difficulty some people had in communicating with her son. She told them to make the first move, to kneel down to his level, talk and put an arm around him.

“Just try,” Pieronek said. Although people may feel shy about reaching out to the disabled, it’s an important thing to do, he said, or else the disabled can find themselves isolated from others.

The Knights of Malta are well versed in communicating with the sick and the disabled. During the pilgrimage, “everyone just wanted to say hi, everyone just wanted to come out to him,” Pieronek said.

Ellen noted, “As parents, we are supposed to be teachers for our children, leading the way and setting the examples — but Evan taught us far more than we could have ever taught him; he led us and set the examples for us to follow.”

She added, “We were privileged to be his family. We are thankful for the realization that our simple family existence impacted others.”

Since the pilgrimage, Ellen has begun the process of joining the Order of Malta. Next year, she will be invested as a Dame of Malta, and she will continue to serve the poor, sick and disabled. She sees it as carrying on the mission of her son.

“We were honored that, despite having never spoken a single word, Evan touched the lives of so many others,” said Ellen. “We have carried on without him, forever holding his spirit, his infectious smile and unbridled joy in our hearts, realizing that our lives have been forever changed for having known him.”