The least of these

December 5, 2012 | 18 comments

As many of you probably already know, the Dobrovits family lost their special little boy named Henry last week.

The story of his short two years on earth, and of how he ended up in their family, is an amazing one that needs to be shared. I had the honor of meeting Henry’s mother, Carla, at the Behold Conference both in 2011 and this year, and was profoundly impacted by the story of her discernment to adopt, and the journey they’ve been on since then. I’m glad Carla has been keeping a blog the whole time, so I can let her tell you their family’s story in her own words.

Here’s how it all started:

Usually I spend the first week of each January deciding what I want to focus on over the next calendar year. One year it was running – and I did a 1/2 Marathon. One year it was having my household run more smoothly – and I streamlined my laundry and cooking system to what works so well for us today (I really should add in cleaning one year though……)

But on January 1 of 2011, I did something totally out-of-character for me….I decided to let God decide what He wanted me to focus on this year. And as I prayed I thought it might be “helping orphans.”

Not knowing where else to start, Carla Googled helping orphans, and came across the Reeces’s Rainbow site. She saw the faces of all these beautiful special needs children in desperate needs of homes, and her soul was rocked. She continues:

I thought I had my mission. So many amazing families were raising money to pay the “ransom” to get these children home….there was NO TIME to save the thousands of dollars needed….these children had to get here to the US now!! So I resolved to give money to RR families in 2011. I was SURE that was what God wanted me to do in 2011.

But then, as I shared in my last post, I started looking at the “Waiting Children” listings….and I saw Henry.

It was like a lightning bolt.

He was the same age and at the same orphanage with a little boy called “Winston” who was missing part of his leg….Winston had a committed family with a few weeks. But Henry did not.

So I resolved to pray specifically for Henry to have a family. I prayed for him every day….often at Eucharistic Adoration (where Catholics go spend time in the presence of Jesus who we believe is present body, blood, soul and divinity in the consecrated bread)….and then one night….at 3 am….I woke up….and knew that God was telling me that WE WERE HIS FAMILY.

I did not hear voices. I knew this in the deepest part of my heart. I truly had no thoughts AT ALL of adoption before this. I was just going to pray and send money.

But God had other plans.

And then the thought hit her: how could she tell Paul, her husband?! Henry had severe special needs that would require extensive medical intervention. International adoptions are always expensive, international special needs adoptions even moreso — but this one would be a whopper even by those standards, not to mention the huge amounts of time and other resources this kind of adoption would require. Carla’s family already had six kids, so it’s not like they were sitting around with nothing to do. Carla was terrified. So here’s what she did next:

I was scared to death. Paul and I had been talking about how we were going to afford to send Brent (my oldest) to college in the fall and then Luke the year right after him…But we had also been talking about how to truly live our Christian faith in the very secular suburbs we were living and raising our children in.

So I prayed some more….asking God, “ARE YOU SURE??? I ALREADY HAVE 6 CHILDREN!!!” and also, “Please help me tell Paul. I am so scared.”

So on January 30 I presented all the information about Henry and Reece’s Rainbow to [Paul]. I told him that he is the head of our household and that I would not badger him about it but that I really felt this was what God was calling us to do in our marriage and family.

Then I did one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.

I SHUT MY MOUTH for a month.

And over the next month their family faced severe, intense spiritual attack (yes, it’s real, and I will note that I’ve rarely seen it be as obvious and intense as when couples are discerning adoption). You can read Carla’s post for all the details, but let’s just say that pretty much everything that could have happened to make their lives difficult and put pressure on their marriage happened that month. Carla kept praying through it all, not badgering her husband about the adoption, but instead turning it over to God:

So I kept praying and Paul kept trying to keep up with the unexpected repairs and bills….and one Sunday…February 28….

Paul came home from an afternoon watching sports and celebrating his brother’s birthday with his mother and other brother….

and said we should do it. We should commit to Henry.

And we never looked back.

You can read her blog archives to get a feel for the roller coaster that ensued, with countless delays and frustrations getting Henry home. Finally, in September of last year, Carla was able to bring Henry home to meet his new family. Just a few weeks after they had him home, though, they found out that he’d been given the wrong diagnosis in his country, and that his disabilities were more severe than they’d realized. Thus began a whirlwind of doctor visits and therapist appointments and surgeries, sometimes far away from home. The medical bills and appointments began to pile up. Just last month Carla was writing about how desperately fatigued she’d become from yet another hospital stay full of complications and problems. But there was never any question of whether it was worth it, no calculations of whether the sacrifices the family was making for Henry were “paying off” for them. On November 3 of this year, Carla wrote:

That moment…

When your adopted child rouses from post surgery anesthesia on a vent searching frantically with his eyes… And his meet yours… And his whole body softens and relaxes and he squeezes your finger and slowly and peacefully closes his eyes again.

Yeah, that moment…

Worth every penny, every sleepless night, every hardship.

Then, last Wednesday, after fighting an infection that suddenly got worse after one of his many surgeries, Henry passed away. He was only two years old.

The same day that Henry was called home, this amazing article by Cristina Nehring was published in Slate. Nehring was a self-described career woman who never wanted children, and she writes powerfully about what she has learned since becoming a single mother to a daughter with Down syndrome who is also battling cancer (h/t to the Evangelista). The piece centers around Nehring’s response to a book by Andrew Solomon that examines parent-child relationships, often from a coldly utilitarian perspective. In response to the “what’s in it for me?”, “I want to have perfect kids that don’t interrupt my important goals” mentality that pervades the book (as well as so much of our culture), Nehring responds powerfully:

[Her daughter, Eurydice’s] gifts are the opposite of my own: Where I am shy, she is bold; where I am good with (known) words, she is good with drama, dance, and music; where I am frightened of groups, she loves them, and the children in her preschool compete hard to sit by her side at lunchtime as the nurses in her hospital petitioned to be assigned to her room.

Am I “cheerily generalizing” as Solomon says of other Down syndrome parents, “from a few accomplishments” of my child? Perhaps I am. But one thing I’ve learned these last four years that possibly Solomon has not: All of our accomplishments are few. All of our accomplishments are minor: my scribblings, his book, the best lines of the best living poets. We embroider away at our tiny tatters of insight as though the world hung on them, when it is chiefly we ourselves who hang on them. Often a dog or cat with none of our advanced skills can offer more comfort to our neighbor than we can. (Think: Would you rather live with Shakespeare or a cute puppy?) Each of us has the ability to give only a little bit of joy to those around us. I would wager Eurydice gives as much as any person alive.

I kept thinking of that second paragraph as I mourned Henry’s death along with Carla and her family, and watched from a distance as they displayed such hope — and even a certain kind of joy — in the face of their circumstances. If there were a crystal ball that would have revealed how everything would play out with Henry’s adoption — that he would be on earth with his family for a painfully short time, that he wouldn’t live long enough to be able to say “I love you, ” or even to lift his little head — worldly wisdom would tell the Dobrovits family to skip the whole thing. The cost-benefit ratio would tell them that this adoption wouldn’t be “worth it.”

But the Dobrovits’ understand something that the world does not: That you can’t run cost-benefit ratios when it comes to relationships with other human beings. It’s impossible. Because on the “cost” side you might have finite things like a dollar amount of medical bills, or missed deadlines on personal projects; but on the “benefit” side you are have an eternal connection with another soul that will last even after everything in this world falls away. You can’t compare dollars or time to love; one is finite, the other is infinite.

Carla and I were exchanging notes earlier this week, and she talked about the explosion of love and graces that came from Henry’s short life, that have had an impact far beyond their own family. At the end of one of her emails she said, “I just keep thinking how God truly uses ‘the least of these’ to do his most important work.” As Cristina Nehring said in her article, we walk around thinking our worldly ambitions are so important; we worry about other people inconveniencing us and preventing us from carrying out our oh-so-important plans. But to look at a life like her daughter’s, or Henry’s, is to be profoundly humbled, and to realize that none of that matters. The most important contribution any of us could ever make to the world is also the simplest, and perhaps the hardest: it is simply to love.

If you would like to donate to help Carla’s family with medical and funeral expenses, Leila has a link at the bottom of her post here.

Top photo by 5 boys + 1 Girl = 6 Photography


  1. Joy

    Wow, so amazing, I almost can’t think of what to say. But I think how you touched on the whole “What’s in it for me” mentality is worth reiterating. It might sound stupid, but this is something I’ve just been realizing in the past few years (and I’ve been a mother for 13) is so prevalent — and so wrong — with our approach to parenting. I have some cousins in their later 40’s who are currently adopting a Haitian boy with special needs, and I have been marveling over the way what they’re doing is so dramatically different from the norm.
    This kind of just takes my breath away.

  2. Jenny

    I.Love.This. St. Henry, pray for us.

  3. nancyo


  4. Marcia

    What a painfully beautiful story, what unconditionally generous hearts…

  5. Christy

    Every time I read about this sweet boy and his beautiful family I’m overcome by how powerful love it. Its so inspiring to read about a mother’s love, and a family’s love to welcome such a boy. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for them right now, but I know God will reward them. I pray we can all live that kind of love.

  6. Laura

    Jennifer, Thank you so much for sharing this story. I especially love your second-to-last paragraph. It calls to mind my very favorite line from Evelyn Waugh (The End of the Battle): “Quantitative judgments don’t apply.” They just don’t apply. Thanks again.

  7. Leigh Anne

    I too have a sick child. In my better moments, I remember Jesus’ words: “When I was sick, you cared for me..” Though very sad, I hope I’m not being presumptuous in saying that Henry was given the very honored role of being Jesus to his family. They were blessed in being able to serve him, as Mother Teresa would say, “Jesus in distressing disguise.”

  8. Jenna@CallHerHappy

    What a beautiful little guy. No wonder God called him home early; he’s a little angel! Also, I loooove this line: “you can’t run cost-benefit ratios when it comes to relationships with other human beings. It’s impossible.” Saving it. Praying it. Thank you, Henry!

  9. Kara

    Beautiful. Henry and Carla are how I found Nico, the baby boy we are working to adopt. She is such a testament of faith. Henry was such a blessing to this world and so is his mommy.

  10. Nell

    So powerful!! Thank you for sharing. It really brings tears to my eyes and heart. What beautiful families.

  11. Bonnie

    “…That you can’t run cost-benefit ratios when it comes to relationships with other human beings.” This line, in itself, sums up Jesus Christ and God’s salvation plan. It is the essence of God Himself. Beautiful Jen, just beautiful.

  12. Claudia

    This was so poignant, Jen! Thanks so much for sharing it. Along the same lines, Scepter Books just came out with a beautiful book, A Grace Given by Kent Gilges, a personal account of the impact that one life, however seemingly insignificant, can have on those around it. Beyond that, it explores the meaning of faith, the growth and deepening of spirituality that comes from suffering, and the gift that a severely handicapped child represents. Definitely worth a read!

  13. Kris, in New England

    …we walk around thinking our worldly ambitions are so important; we worry about other people inconveniencing us and preventing us from carrying out our oh-so-important plans. But to look at a life like her daughter’s, or Henry’s, is to be profoundly humbled, and to realize that none of that matters. The most important contribution any of us could ever make to the world is also the simplest, and perhaps the hardest: it is simply to love.

    Wow. Now those are words to pray and live by.

  14. Connie Rossini

    It’s so true, and we need the reminder: life is all about love. However, I have to say that I’d still rather live with Shakespeare than a cute puppy!
    Faith-based education, Carmelite spirituality

  15. Cathy

    The Nehring essay is gorgeous, though I think she’s a bit hard on Andrew Solomon — after all, she takes him to task for a cowardice about parenting a disabled child that she fully admits she shared right up to the point she had one herself. Indeed, one of the recurrent themes of Solomon’s book is the insuperable gap between most people’s visions of parenting a child with radical differences, and the experience itself, which is by no means necessarily easier, but is virtually always suffused with an unanticipated richness and meaning.

    But your gloss is downright inaccurate — both as a description of her take on his book, which she actually admires quite a bit, calling it often incisive and *occasionally* exasperating, and as an account of the book itself, which takes a perspective on parenting that is the opposite of “coldly utilitarian.” If you haven’t actually read it — and I’m guessing you haven’t — I recommend it highly; I don’t agree with every word in it, but it’s a magnificent achievement.

  16. Nancy

    Their story has really captured my heart, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Henry’s life is bringing glory to God. Thanks for these thoughts about the nature of parenting, love and adoption — we are waiting for our second daughter through international adoption right now, and it’s good to have a reminder that all the uncertainty is worth it.

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