Flooded with cheery holiday lights, St.John’s sanctuary is a beautiful setting on this day before the Christian celebration of Epiphany, twelfth night.
A life-size manger scene and two towering Christmas trees fill the front of the room. Above the altar are two massive east-facing windows.
The trees outside the oversized sanctuary windows are devoid of foliage, and rough against the dreary winter sky. I feel such a contrast between the warm, serene church and markings of a cold January day.
Today is Tommy’s funeral day.
Tommy was Jessica’s older brother. As a second grader in a new school, my son gravitated to Jess on the first day, and they were good buddies until high school.
When Junior crossed over from Webelos to Boy Scouts, Tommy was one of the big kids.
When Junior fell into the creek on his first camping trip, Tommy pulled him out. He helped him dry off and see that it was not a big deal. They laughed, and my son’s confidence grew.
Tommy pulled a lot of other little guys out of many creeks, real or metaphoric.
The thing about Tommy is that he was not a bully himself; he had the biggest heart of any boy I ever knew,
His immense heart meshed with the cheesiest grin – and he managed to look out for the little guys and let the mean kids know he meant business, all with a smile.
On one particularly distressing day in seventh grade, Junior was stuffed in a locker by the Usual Suspects. Tommy pulled him out and from then on, he had Junior’s back.
Without question, Tommy was the most popular of the Boy Scouts in his troop, with his leaders and friends. If there was a project, Tommy was the first one there and the last to leave. Because of his large frame, he usually did the most work.
Once the troop was building a deck for the local fire station, an Eagle project which took weeks. Many of the boys helped, giving a weekend here or there. Tommy came weekend after weekend and did a man’s work. It wasn’t his Eagle project. He was fourteen. The firefighters gave Tommy a fishing pole in recognition of his diligent work at the other boy’s Eagle ceremony. He was humbled. Even then, it was obvious to everyone Tommy was raised to work hard and not expect a reward.
The oldest of three children, Tommy helped his single mother from a young age. If he didn’t know how to fix something, he learned.
I had not seen Tommy in a while. Boy Scouts grow up and become men and go their separate ways. My son has not lived at home for five years and lives in a city a thousand miles away.
Last Sunday night Junior, who was home for a few days, was in the basement hanging out with a friend that he still sees from his childhood. This young man, a year younger than Junior, lived across the road and shared the same Scout troop.
Like Junior, he was one of the “little guys” that Tommy bird-dogged.
Somebody knocked hard on the door, and I was surprised because it was a snowy, lazy Sunday and I couldn’t figure out who would be coming over on such a cold night.
It was Jessica, now married and a mother, with her husband.
She told me, my husband, and Tommy’s two Scout brothers the horrible news that Tommy was dead, killed early that morning in a horrific car accident.
After hanging with friends, Tommy was coming home around 2 a.m. and missed a curve on an icy road. His truck crashed into a house and killed an older couple asleep in their beds. Tommy’s truck went through the house, turned upside down, and killed him instantly.
Did he confuse the accelerator with the brake? Was he drinking? Was he speeding? How much ice was there? Was it black ice? Was it visible? Did he fall asleep? Why did this happen? Did this actually happen?
We did not ask these questions to his beloved sister because it did not matter on that evening.
Three people are dead. One of them was the kind, beautiful boy who pulled my son out of a creek on a 110 degree July day.
Now in the church, three altar boys light the candles. The congregation stands and faces the narthex as the altar boys lead the processional, one carrying a wooden cross almost larger than he.
The crisp, clear soprano of the cantor rises above the congregation, as six young men in suits and one odd fellow in a striped polo shirt accompany their friend on his last trip down the familiar aisle.
Behind the silver casket walks the family.
Father sprinkles Holy Water on the casket, and then the family spreads the white funeral pall over Tommy’s casket, a linen cloth that represents his Holy Baptism twenty-plus years ago.
I’m surrounded by members of our Scout family in the center rear of this huge church. Two young men near me were in the same troop as Tommy and my son; both are outstanding young men making a life for themselves.
In my mind’s eye, I still see them as I do Tommy, perennially seventh graders, all scraped knees and bad haircuts and tan Scout shirts stuffed haphazardly into belted green pants.
Tommy has many friends here. His life was more than the eight years in Scouts; many young people come to honor him on his funeral day as one thousand people did last night at the wake.
I hear the comforting words of the Mass. Even as a non-Catholic I can appreciate the familiar liturgy and prayers.
I pray this familiarity brings comfort to Tommy’s family, something in their family life that has not changed forever.
The recessional duplicates the processional, but is so final and is so much sadder if it could be any sadder.
As a Christian, I believe in free will. I do not believe in a God that plays favorites, and prefers the Patriots over the Packers.
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your perspective, God created a beautiful, random, chaotic universe or multiple universes within multiple black holes, and in those endless stars, all choices have consequences.
I do not believe things always happen for a reason, and when someone tells me that I want to punch them in the face. I do believe that God gives us the inner strength to deal with what comes to us. At least, I hope that is a case.
In the end, what we have is hope. Two thousand years ago, when the Magi looked in the sky and saw that lone, shining star, what drove them to meet the Prince of Peace was hope.
I pray to God that Tommy’s family can find a reason for hope, and will also find solace in the Prince of Peace.