Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Tough Anniversary

Three years ago today, May 30, 2008, was one of the most difficult of days of my priesthood.  I suspect it will always be remembered as such.  It was my first funeral. It was for Chris Alex, my roommate sophomore year at Penn State and lifelong friend. We met an hour after arriving on campus for freshman orientation on September 15, 1968.  We had been assigned to Nittany Hall 31, a green pentagonal barracks, built as temporary housing during WW II, that was ugly and cramped. And, of course, we had a great time.  I lived across the hall from Chris and his roommate Paul Vespa.  Al Stewart lived next to Paul and Chris.  For the next two years the four of us were generally hanging out together in some combination, particularly at football games.  During sophomore year Chris and I lived together in Geary Hall while Al and Paul were in a nearby dorm.  A year later Chris and Paul moved into fraternity houses and Al and I took an apartment downtown. 

It is impossible to understand what brings two strangers together as friends within a matter of days and allows them to remain friends for 40 years.  Proximity is a large part of it.  It took years to figure out why Chris and I became friends almost instantly and, with the usual periods of separation after college, remained friends until his death.  But then it hit me.  Despite having just returned from a year as an exchange student in Brazil and traveling through South America, I realized that Chris Alex was the most exotic man I’d ever met in my life. 

I was (and still am) a kid from Plymouth, PA in the middle of the hard coal mining regions of Northeastern PA.  Beer, bowling and poker were the limits of my experience growing up.  Chris was an alien species.  He sailed yachts competitively.  He was on a lacrosse scholarship, an unknown sport in Northeastern PA at the time. He played bridge.  He was from LAWWWWNG Island (Yes, he had a rather marked accent when he said Long).  And, he knew how to make a martini.  I could not tell the story of the great sophomore year martini party in our room during the homily at his funeral because we were in sacred space.  Suffice it to say that gin has not crossed my lips since fall term 1969.  There are no plans to indulge in it any time soon.

We went to every football game (and won every one until the third game junior year), took long walks and drives, had some wicked arguments, ate 2 AM breakfasts downtown and everything else associated with being in college at the time.  Chris had a particular propensity to playing practical jokes and, on one occasion, paying dearly for it.

Life changed dramatically about on hour before I left Washington to drive to Plymouth for Christmas 2007.   At the last moment I checked e-mail before turning off the computer. There was a message from Chris asking me to call him if I was in the country (Chris hated using a phone. Initiate a phone call?  Not on your life).  I called.  He had just been told there was a mass in his chest. 

I won’t go into the details of that Christmas except to say that it taxed everything I knew about internal medicine and tapped every medical connection I had in the Boston area.  He was very ill.  Because of the on-call schedule I couldn’t get to Boston until the week after New Year’s.  That was the first of five trips to Boston in four months, the fifth trip being for the funeral. 

The following appeared in an interview I gave to the Temple Medical School Alumni Magazine a few months after Chris died.  The question was about being both priest and physician.  “My first funeral Mass at the end of May was for my roommate at Penn State.  More than anything else Chris’ illness and death brought my two vocations together.  When he was diagnosed with cancer in December every physician synapse was called into action.  Dr. Siberski received the pathology report, made phone calls to physicians and later sat with his wife as she heard grim news about rapid disease progression.  Father Jack sat at his bedside talking with him when he was awake and praying quietly as he slept. 

I last saw Chris in the Mass General ICU twelve days before he died.  An hour after he died his wife called and asked me to celebrate the funeral Mass.  After hanging up I sat down and cried; a physician who had lost another encounter with death.  Preaching the funeral homily was anguish.  Yet, a few minutes later during the consecration, I had a mystical experience that was almost frightening; a sense of pure being in which time was suspended with emotions beyond sorrow, joy, or any other affect I can describe.  The physician had lost the encounter with death; the priest hadn’t.”

I will never forget that feeling during the consecration.  It was when I felt Chris’ presence most intensely and realized that those forty years of friendship, particularly the times at Penn State, would never be lost; nor would Chris as long as I had a memory.  It was and is the friendship with Chris, Al, and Paul that made my memories of being at University Park so great.  I can still recall a long walk with Chris on homecoming eve freshman year.  He had just received a call from home that one of his closest friends from high school had been killed in an airplane crash.  His dad, a dentist, had to identify her from dental records.  He was totally shaken.  We both were.  Two teenagers were confronting mortality for the first time.  We walked miles and talked a lot. The confrontation with mortality was no easier some forty years later but it was also tinged with the firm belief in the promise of everlasting life. 

Christine chose the responsorial psalm for the Mass wisely.  

Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters;
they saw the deeds of the LORD,
his wondrous works in the deep

They rejoiced that the sea grew calm.

For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven,
they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;

They rejoiced that the sea grew calm.

They reeled and staggered like drunken men,
and were at their wits' end.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress

They rejoiced that the sea grew calm.

He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.

They rejoiced that the sea grew calm.

It has been a long three years.  However, I rejoice in the forty years that preceded them.  The picture below was taken about 2 hours after the ordination Mass at St. Ignatius Church in Boston.  Except for gray hair and facial hair (also gray) we look just as we did at Penn State. 
In fact, we both weighed about the same or less than we did in college.  That ain't bad after 40 years.

1 comment:

  1. This is a riveting post.

    I found my way over here some weeks ago from Joe's place at The City and The World and have been enjoying your journey. But this morning as I began to read, I immediately thought of a long letter I received after my son's death from one of his best friends after. Sadly, they did not get 40 years; they got little more than four.

    "The physician had lost the encounter with death; the priest hadn't." How amazing that I should read those words on this particular morning, as I prepare to head to church to preach about hope. Thank you for this.

    PS: Word verification: Alite!