IF there was ever a story of hope, especially at Christmas, then this is it.
Hope may as well be David McGovern’s middle name.
Having completed his first year as pastoral associate in Victoria Point parish, in Redlands Shire, south-east of Brisbane, with a teaching degree at the Australian Catholic University underway, David is the only member of his family who eats.
His wife Celena hasn’t digested or even tasted food her entire life and their son Brodie, 2, has the same condition – hollow viscous myopathy.
The condition is described as “a mobility problem that affects the stomach sack, bowel and bladder”. From the age of four to 14, Celena was kept nourished by a tube into her stomach.
“After that my bowel broke down and couldn’t support the food. I ended up on an intravenous feed and that’s how I survive,” she said.
While working in public relations for Wesley Mission in New South Wales just over a decade ago, David was on the lookout for interesting stories.
He heard about “the girl who had never eaten and found God through Bon Jovi” and was intrigued.
Celena, accustomed to being in the spotlight but rarely seeking it, didn’t return David’s calls for an interview.
Believing there’s “no such thing as coincidence”, the pair both volunteered to run the Alpha course, presenting the basics of Christianity to youth and young adults.
It was early 1997 and David, who was born in Cowra, west of Sydney, was not long out of a serious relationship.
The two “struck up a rapport and went from there” they recalled.
Celena’s condition didn’t deter David as he had been accustomed to life “a little outside the box”, with his youngest sister Sharron suffering William’s Syndrome.
Similar do Down Syndrome, David said those with William’s Syndrome are often called “pixie children with tight, curly hair and pointy ears”.
They have “extreme social skills” which, in the safety of a loving family are accepted, but to the outside world, often lead to misunderstanding.
“It was a challenge to look out for Sharron,” David said, “Especially supporting her through the realisation that she was different.”
Often relied upon as “the advice giver” to his five younger siblings and parents Frank and Cath, David himself relied on his Catholic roots as the foundation for all that he did.
Admitting that God “refined him” along the way, David faced his own struggles growing up including relationships that went sour and the constant battle between who he knew he was in reality and who he was called to be, because of his baptism.
“I was always asking myself, ‘Are you the man God has called you to be?'” he said.
Feeling a great sense of being called to love Celena, the two married in 2000 in the Fairy Garden at Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick, Sydney.
The hospital was where Celena had spent extended periods of her teenage years, with medical experts often not believing she would ever leave.
David said the memory of her walking towards him at the start of the wedding ceremony he will “take to his grave”.
“As Celena approached me there were dozens and dozens of faces in the windows above us. Doctors, nurses, children, parents … it was like they formed a guard of honour at the window,” he said.
“They really rejoiced in seeing one of their live-in patients go on living … God was there and we were very visible about our faith.”
Knowing they would continue to walk in faith, the couple had a 50 per cent chance of passing on Celena’s condition to their children.
Confident in God’s mercy and love, they welcomed the birth of Amber Rose the same year.
She wasn’t a sufferer but was born, at 26 weeks, with a hole in her heart.
David recalled the morning of October 10 when Amber faced her third operation.
“I walked with her to theatre and I remember her looking at me and smiling.
“People say you can read too much into things but I thought that she knew she was going home and she was telling me that it was okay,” he said, choking back the tears.
Amber came out of the operation but died in recovery.
As they were attempting to save her life, David said he didn’t know what to pray.
“I remember standing there and hearing the (doctor’s) words that if she recovers she won’t be the same.
“Not knowing what to ask God, to pray for her release or to pray that she recovers, the words of the Our Father came to me … I just said, ‘Thy will be done’.”
Amber was farewelled in a moving, heartfelt ceremony and the couple decided on “a change of scenery”.
David accepted a job as state youth ministry co-ordinator with the St Vincent de Paul Society in Brisbane not long after and the couple eventually moved to Victoria Point, close to Celena’s parents Marion and Doug Gauld.
The family had often worshipped in St Rita’s together, and Celena and David became increasingly involved in ministry, especially to young people.
In 2005, knowing the risks, the pair welcomed Brodie at 28 weeks gestation. He was born with Celena’s condition.
Admitting he “almost lost them both”, David said his wife’s determination to live gave him courage.
“When they took me into surgery to have Brodie I knew there was a chance I wouldn’t wake up,” Celena said.
“But I told David that I was going to fight … Doctors forget that a positive attitude and faith can move you beyond that,” she said.
And fight she did. Plus it seems that Brodie was born with the same fighting spirit.
“One of the things that attracted me to Celena was her huge appetite for life, even though she couldn’t eat … and I see the same in Brodie,” David said.
Describing Celena as “an amazing cook”, David is often giving her meals to parishioners in need and he said he very rarely goes hungry.
“Everyone thinks I get spoilt,” he said.
Sometimes feeling frustrated that he can’t “take Brodie to the shops without having to load up”, David said he wishes their lives didn’t revolve “around feeding regimes”.
Nowadays the McGoverns cherish time together and take Brodie to Mass in his “little red car” where he’s “pushed up for his blessing”.
They are grateful for the support received in their local parish.
“Whatever I achieve at St Rita’s will not be enough to repay them for their kindness to us … We are so grateful to Fr Leo (Burke),” David said.
He also is grateful for Amber, their “guardian angel”.
“Amber was only with us for 137 days but when she was born I felt like I could take on the world … and she was preparing me for life with Celena and Brodie.”
This Christmas they will be surrounded by family and friends with David thankful for his many blessings.
“Brodie has made me a better man and Celena, a better husband. I’m realising that God only gives special people to special people,” he said.
And it’s with that brand of hope that the McGoverns heartily face the future.