By Dan Russo
ANAMOSA — Tate Little smiled after receiving the sacrament of confirmation and maintained a joyful expression as he greeted the many people who congratulated him while passing his wheelchair in St. Patrick Church on the way to get holy Communion. While posing for photos after the Jan. 12 Mass in Anamosa, the 17-year-old insisted on standing, relying on family and friends to help him onto his feet. His actions that day were a powerful demonstration of how much progress he has made both physically and spiritually since a car accident almost took his life about 16 months ago.
Because of the traumatic brain injury he sustained, which left him in a medically induced coma for months, Little missed confirmation with the class from his parish. In an interview before the event, Little explained that he made the decision to be confirmed because “being Catholic is important to me.” He said the challenges he has faced since the Sept. 19, 2018, crash have had a profound impact on his soul.
“My faith, I’ll be honest; I did place some blame onto God at first, but then I realized it wasn’t God’s fault; it wasn’t the devil’s fault — it was an accident,” he said.
Leah Little, 19, stood beside Tate as Father Nicholas March, pastor of St. Patrick Parish, anointed the young man with sacred oil during the sacrament. Little, whose younger sister, Rilie, 12, also attended the Mass, chose his older sister to be his confirmation sponsor, calling her “my beacon of faith.”
“I’ve always been stronger in my faith, and Tate’s always … been a little slower with it,” reflected Leah. “After his accident, he really started to dig deeper into his faith, and that was really cool for me to watch. Through his accident and other things, I’ve just seen God work through him, and that has really helped me build my strength in my faith.”
The Little family has been on a long journey since the fall of 2018. Before the crash, all the Little children were very active. At 16, Tate Little was a sophomore captain of the football team at Anamosa High School, was involved in show choir and other sports, and worked as a lifeguard.
At the time of the collision, Little had just finished school. It had been raining hard that week. While going around a curve, Little’s vehicle hit a wet spot, hydroplaned and slid into another lane. An oncoming truck T-boned the car. Little was found unresponsive and taken to Unity Point-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids. Doctors wanted to airlift him to the University of Iowa, but the helicopters were grounded.
“None of them could fly because the weather was so bad,” recalled Joyce Little, Tate’s mom.
In the first of what she sees as a series of graces, conditions unexpectedly cleared, finally allowing her son to be transported by air instead of ambulance to Iowa City.
“I think God has been with us through all this,” said Joyce Little. “There’s some reason why it was not Tate’s time. God has a plan for each one of us. (Tate’s) story is just not done yet.”
After three weeks in the pediatric intensive care unit, Little was transferred to “On With Life,” a facility for people with serious brain injuries in Ankeny. He was in and out of consciousness until Dec. 26, when he started to respond to commands. Since then, he has received physical, speech and occupational therapy. He has had to relearn how to talk and eat.
He has regained the partial ability to move his legs, hands and arms. Over the course of his recovery, Little’s school, the wider community and his friends have played an essential role. He has returned to classes and been able to get involved with the football team and attend other events. Supporters visited him while he was in Ankeny, including good friends Caleb Otting and Andrew Morris.
“It’s just a testament to God that he’s able to do the things he does and hopefully inspires others to see God and find him,” said Shawn Little, Tate’s father. “To our whole community and all our friends and family, (we say) thank you. The continued support and prayers are welcomed greatly.”
Little worked with Julia Bean, faith formation director for the parish, to prepare for his confirmation.
“His family watched videos and did the coursework, and then I followed up with other pieces of information such as our core beliefs, the Holy Spirit, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Ten Commandments,” explained Bean. “And in our last session, we talked about ways that he will plan to serve the church, even though he has diverse abilities. … St. Patrick is blessed to have the Little family in the parish. Blessed because not only did the parish and community feel the tragedy of his accident, but it woke us up to be present to Tate, his family and ultimately to one another. And now we have the joy of witnessing how God has taken a tragedy and touched the lives of others with it. Because of Tate, we are changed.”
Confirmations are usually presided over by bishops, but because of the special circumstances, Father March was delegated the authority by Archbishop Michael Jackels. The priest’s homily before the sacrament reflected on the Gospel passage describing Jesus’ baptism.
“The first three words that Jesus said to John could be taken as our motto, our spiritual rallying cry. … Jesus said to John, ‘Allow it now,’” said Father March. “They could become the thing we say to ourselves every time life throws something our way we don’t think that we can handle.”
Father March related the reading to the ordeal Little and his family have experienced.
“It was a long road of recovery to go through and to continue to be on, but because you all said ‘I allow this’; this challenge of the recovery every single day, every week, every month — the heavens kind of open up a little bit, don’t they?” said the pastor. “You’re a little closer to experiencing the grace of God in a profound way, even in our suffering with each other, and we ultimately get to almost hear that voice, ‘This is my beloved son.’ … If we never wanted to enter into any challenge, we might miss that opportunity to hear that voice, as it were, to feel that heaven is so close, we can almost reach out and touch the very mystery of God.”
Joyce Little was full of emotion watching her son’s confirmation, saying she was “very proud of him.”
“I get teary-eyed because I’m glad that he has chosen (to be confirmed). I’m glad that he sees the value that I do in the Catholic faith,” said the mother.
Tate Little continues his therapy and is moving forward day by day. He has a simple message for anyone who might be facing challenges.
“Stay strong and keep faith,” he said.
Cover photo: Father Nicholas March anoints Tate Little with holy oil during his confirmation at St. Patrick Church in Anamosa Jan. 12. To Little’s left is his sister Leah Little, 19, who served as his sponsor. (Photos by Dan Russo/The Witness)