This morning in church, I closed my eyes to fully absorb the priest's deep, husky, richly-layered voice which emanated from the alter and, suddenly, I was transported back ten years, to a time in my life when I was buoyed by this same powerful voice, the one speaking to me now as I sat in my maple pew on this cold, rainy Sunday morning.
Ten years earlier, I had been up all night, uncomfortably spooning with my wife in a lazy-boy recliner in my son's hospital room, waiting anxiously for morning to come. Neither of us wanted to leave Cole's side. Neither of us wanted morning to come, either. Morning would bring surgeons and specialists who would transport my son to the operating room, to debulk and biopsy a neck mass discovered the day prior. A day prior that was filled with haunting, harrowing memories of being told, after several emergency CT scans, that my son had something "seriously wrong." The news of the tumors in his neck and chest, accompanied by swollen lymph nodes, had collapsed our world.
Finally, five a.m. arrived. The early light of another day, confirmation that the world wouldn't stop with our sorrow, began slivering between the room's vertical blinds. I rolled off the lazy-boy, covering my wife with our shared blanket, before gingerly tiptoeing to the crib. I watched my son's chest rise and fall, his complacent, peaceful face giving no indication of the cellular war raging in his tiny body.
I was mesmerized, surrounded by my son's clouds of pure innocence, as I clung to the bars of his crib, trying to make reason with this path my son was suddenly placed upon. I listened to his steady breathing. I watched his little eyelids flutter. I wondered at the shadows of beautiful angles that his bent limbs created under his blanket. No different than the day before and, yet, the knowledge of his devastating illness now changed everything.
Suddenly, around 6 a.m., the room's phone screamed out, ringing to interrupt my trance.
"Hello," I answered, supposing it was someone from the hospital's staff.
"Hello, Jim," the familiar voice spoke, "it's Father Tom." Of course, I knew it was Father Tom. He needed no introduction to my ears, ever. Just hearing his calm voice, resonating with love and concern, wrapped a blanket of comfort around my aching heart. He continued. "I'm calling to see if you or Karen need anything." I should have expected our beloved priest to be checking in with us during our turmoil. Just not this early.
"Father Tom," I whispered into the phone, "we're okay. We have a tough day ahead of us, though. Please just keep Cole in your thoughts and prayers through the day and we'll let you know, as soon as surgery is over, what we are facing."
"Jim," he spoke again, his voice steady and strong, "I don't think you understand. I'm downstairs in your hospital lobby. I'm on my way up to your room but wondered if you or Karen needed some coffee or a bagel, even."
"What, Father Tom?" I asked, confused. "You mean you are here? Right now? In the Children's Hospital?" The hospital was at least two hours from our home, which meant that he would have had to have left by 4:00 a.m. to get to us at this time.
"You don't think I would stay away on a day like today, do you, Jim?" he asked. I couldn't answer, my wonder and thankfulness of his presence choking my words. A few moments of silence followed as he waited patiently for my answer. "No," I finally said, before continuing, "and Father Tom, thank you."
With that phone call, on that fateful day, Father Tom's voice ingrained itself into my memory.
And from that simple phone call, Father Tom's magnificent voice continued to harmonize much of the discord in my life. That day alone, in which Cole came through his surgery, Father Tom stood in a circle with us in the family room, hands joined, offering that consoling voice in prayer and reassurance. Later, when I asked him "Why? Why? Why?" my son was chosen to bear his burden, to have to fight for his life at a young age of two, his voice cracked, one of only a few times I have heard this. "I can't answer that, Jim," he had said, "but I can only pray that at some point in Cole's life, on his journey, the answers of why will become more evident." Yes, Father Tom, I can see some of those answers already.
Through those trying years, including an additional year of chemotherapy for Cole when he came out of remission and my mother's eventual death from leukemia, Father Tom, his voice in tow, continued to grace all of our lives. Whether at our home for lunch or dinner, or whether a Sunday morning sermon, his distinguished, distinctive voice, with its classy delivery, never failed me. Even before delivering my mother's eulogy, he approached me. "The grace of God is with you," he had said, clasping my face between his hands at her funeral, "you will do your mother proud as she sits there on your shoulder with you."
Unfortunately, as with our Catholic religion, priests can be reassigned to another parish after several years of service, and this was no different for Father Tom. He moved over an hour away, assigned to another parish, too far for us to travel for services . We did surprise him one Sunday but, otherwise, relied on emails, phone calls, and rare dinners to catch up. It wasn't the same.
I had lost my spiritual guidance, of sorts. I missed the power of his voice and wise words. And I missed my friend.
Thankfully, though, Father Tom informed our family at the beginning of this past summer that he would be returning to our area, to a parish just twenty minutes from our home-base parish. I couldn't wait for the day to arrive.
Today, finally, was that day. Today, on this gloriously cold, autumn day, I was blessed to sit in church, beside my healthy son, my lovely daughters, and my beautiful wife, listening to the voice of an angel.
The missing voice that I couldn't replace in my life.
The voice of Father Tom.
As always, big thanks for reading. Anybody's voice in your life that you rely/relied on? See you midweek...