Saturday, June 12, 2010

Life is What Happens When You Are Busy Making Other Plans

A Long Journey Home - Thomas Lardner- RIP


Robert Moynihan writes the Inside the Vatican magazine.  Pretty much every week, I and other subscribers to his "Newsflash" report get an email of things that have happened in his journey of faith, usually around the Vatican.  I honestly did not notice that nothing came for a while, as I had other things that were keeping me occupied.  So, when this report and story arrived, I set down to read it immediately.


It is an example of what happens in your life if you desire God's will to be done, and if you are prepared to be an instrument of that happening.  People pop out of the woodwork, and unusual things happen.  Here in Mr. Moynihan's words is something important that happened over the last while.
An Unexpected Phone Call

I was standing inside St. Anne's gate when I got the phone call. It was Monday, May 24, the day after Pentecost, at about four o'clock in the afternoon.
I had just posted a "newsflash" -- the one prior to this one -- then gone to the Vatican for a meeting. In my mind, all I wanted was to get back to my desk and write. I felt I had so much to say... And that is why I wrote at the end "to be continued" -- because I had clearly in my mind all that I intended to say about what I had seen and heard in those previous days.
I had been traveling with a group of Russians, including Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, from Turin, where we saw to the Holy Shroud, to Rome. In Rome, we had venerated the bones of St. Peter (we were actually permitted to touch the small case in the crypt which contains the bones) and we had celebrated an Orthodox liturgy, just after dawn one morning, by Peter's tomb. And we had attended an historic Russian music concert, with Pope Benedict XVI, on the evening of May 20.
So much had happened, so many interesting conversations and insights, that I knew I would have material for many newsflashes. "I might even have a book," I thought. So I wrote, "to be continued."
But things turned out differently than I expected. I did not write anything at all, until today. And even what I write here is only a tiny part of what I have just experienced
In late April, prior to setting out on the trip through Italy with the Russians, I had called a number of friends in America to ask them if they would like to join me, as guests of the Russians accompanying Hilarion, for a few days in Italy in mid-May.
And everyone had turned me down. One was busy with one thing, one with another
Then, as I looked through my phone list, I came across the name of someone I didn't know very well, a man I had met two years earlier in Milan at the Hertz rental car desk: Thomas Lardner.
In Milan, Lardner, a big American from Dallas, Texas, noticed that my colleague, Deborah Tomlinson, was wearing around her neck a miraculous medal and a brown scapular
"Isn't that a scapular?" Tom asked. "I haven't seen one of those since I was a boy." 
And as we were fourth or fifth in line, and the line was taking forever, we struck up a conversation.
That was how it began.
"Yes, it is," she said. "And this is a miraculous medal..." 
Tom had been raised Catholic, but had drifted away from the Church, he told us. And, over the years, after marrying his wife Ann, from virtually nothing, he had made a fortune, tens of millions of dollars, he told us, in investments and real estate. He was 65 and retired
"And what do you do?" he asked me.
I explained that I was the founder and editor of a magazine about Vatican and Church affairs called "Inside the Vatican." He seemed intrigued.
"Send me a copy," he said.
So we talked, and at the end of our conversation, he asked Deborah to pray for his sons,
Eric and Colin. "I'm worried about them," he said. Deborah promised she would pray a novena. "And come visit me sometime in Dallas," Tom said, giving us his business card. "I'll take you out to lunch."
Some months later, in February 2009, after I was invited to Dallas to deliver a talk, we had lunch. We talked of many things -- of the Church, of the humanity and divinity of Christ, of human religions, of the soul, of language, of injustice in this world, and of how to make the world a little less unjust, a little more hope-filled.
And so, in late April, when I looked through my list of contacts, I came finally to Tom Lardner's name, and, on a whim, called him.
I asked if he remembered me, and he said, "Sure." And I asked if he would like to visit Rome and attend a concert and sit a few feet from the Pope. "I can't guarantee you'll meet the Pope, but I have several tickets to sit quite near him," I told him
"Sign me up," Tom said. "It sounds like the opportunity of a lifetime. What could compare with kissing the Pope's ring?
"I can't promise you'll be able to kiss his ring!" I interrupted him.
"That's ok," Tom said. "Just to be there will be enough."
So everyone else I had asked had said "No," but Tom had said "Yes," immediately, without hesitation.
Tom, his wife Ann, and his son Eric joined me in Rome in the middle of May.
Together with the Russians, we went to the tomb of St. Peter.
Together we went to the Pauline and the Sistine Chapel in the heart of the Vatican
We stood together before the frescoes of Michelangelo. "In this one room, Michelangelo summed up the whole history of the universe," I said to Tom. "From the creation, and the fall, and the hope of salvation -- the sybils and prophets -- to the end of the world: the Last Judgment."
"What do you think we will be judged by?" Tom asked.
"By what we have done, I suppose," I said. "By how much we have loved." 
Tom gazed for a long time upon the face of Christ with his hand raised in judgment.
Repeatedly in those days, Tom asked me if he would have a chance to kiss the Pope's ring. "That would be the experience of a lifetime," he said.
I asked the Russian organizers what might be possible.
On the night before the concert, the Russians told me my own name would be inserted among the 30 people, including Sophia Loren and her family and a number of Russian benefactors of the Russian Orthodox Church, who would greet the Pope and kiss his ring.
I asked if I could yield my place to Tom, but they said no, the protocol could not be changed at the last minute.
So at the concert on May 20, there was Tom, the fallen-away Catholic from Dallas, seated a few feet from the Pope, and there was I, greeting the Pope, and wishing I could have exchanged my place with Tom. I felt a little guilty that I had not been able to fulfill his dream for him.
We went to the post-concert reception, with Sophia Loren and Metropolitan Hilarion and Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi and Prince Hugo Windisch-Graetz and several Russian oligarchs, and Tom had a great time.
He was thoroughly happy with the trip, his travel agent told me later. "He told me, 'There I was, in between the Pope and Sophia Loren!'" she said. 
The next day, Tom visited the Tivoli gardens with Ann, Eric, and my son, Christopher, and he told me that evening that it was one of the best days of his life. The weather was perfect, not too hot, there was a slight breeze, and the gardens seemed magical. "It was as if we were on the edge of heaven," Eric, his son, later told me.
That night, Tom had a few drinks too many -- "More wine!" was his watchword at every dinner; dining with him was like dining with a character out of Chesterton -- and he got in an argument with his son Eric, who said it was unseemly for him to drink so much.
The next morning, Tom told Eric that he was sorry, and that he would try to amend his ways. Eric, who had business in America, left for the US later that day.
Then Tom and Ann went on down to Positano, a little town on the Amalfi coast, one of the prettiest little towns in the world, and I wondered when we might meet again.
I went to the Pentecost Mass on Sunday, May 23, and the next day went in to the Vatican to get the pictures from the concert at the Osservatore Romano office.
That's when I got the phone call
Tom had died in his sleep of a heart attack in Positano.
Death in Positano 
"I don't know what to do," Ann said. "I don't speak any Italian."
"I will be there in five or six hours," I said. "I'll rent a car and drive down."
And so I drove down to Positano that Monday evening. The sky was an angry purple, but the sun was trying to break through, and I saw a rainbow over the autostrade outside of Rome. (Photo of the rainbow over the highway.)
I took the wrong exit on the way to Sorrento -- I asked for a Garmin global positioning navigator at the rental car place, but they didn't have one, so I drove by guesswork, and by calling Deborah in America ("I'm at Exit 32, should I take it or the next one?"). 
I ended up off the highway at 10 pm, driving through Pompei and other little towns tucked into the plain between Vesuvius and Naples.
I decided just to go straight until I came to another highway. I drove through seemingly endless dark streets until I came to... an absolute dead end. Nothing but a wall in front of me.
I asked directions, and after a second right and a third left, I was back on the road to the coast.
The Amalfi coast road is tortuous, twisting, splendid and dangerous at once. It took me more than an hour to go 15 miles. And I drove right past Positano. I didn't see the sign for the town. I came to Prioria and called Deborah in America. "I seem to be lost," I said. "I can't find Positano. I'm in Prioria." "Go back," she said, looking at a map on her computer screen. "You drove past it."
I drove back. There was a tiny sign, and a one-way street down the hill, it looked like a driveway. Down I went, and I found the Hotel Sirenuse.
Ann was there. She was with two Americans who had helped her during the afternoon. But they had also advised her to sign over a power of attorney to handle the problems associated with getting Tom's body out of Italy and home to Dallas.
Eric called me from America at 4 in the morning. "Mom has apparently signed a power of attorney which is preventing the American consulate from proceeding on Dad's case," he said. "Can you help us in the morning to straighten this out?"
The next morning, the doctor came to ascertain that Tom had not died of plague, and the undertakers arrived from Naples, sent by the US consulate.
I asked Ann if she had signed a power of attorney the previous day. "No, I don't think so," she said. She seemed still in shock.
"Check your purse," I said. She pulled out some papers. One of them was a power of attorney for a Rome lawyer.
"I guess I did sign it," she said.
"Eric says we have to rescind that," I said.
"Ok, what do I do?" she asked.
After talking with Eric again (it was now 3 am or later in Dallas, and he was exhausted too) and with the US Consulate officer in charge of the case, who was very helpful, we dictated a note rescinding the prior day's power of attorney, and faxed and emailed it to the US Consulate in Naples. That cleared the way for matters to proceed.
"I want to have his ring," Ann said. "I don't want it to be stolen. We have matching wedding rings."
I asked the hotel manager if we could view the corpse.
"Yes," the manager said. "He's still in the bedroom where he died. He died in his sleep about 2 pm. When the wife called me frantically a few minutes later, I went down and looked at the body. He was lying on his side. His top side was all white and cold, and his bottom side was all red. His heart had simply stopped beating, and the blood had pooled on the lower half of his body."
We went into room #62, where Tom had died. The bed was still unmade.
There, in a transportable coffin too short and narrow for his powerful body, at the foot of the bed, lay Tom. He was still wearing his wedding ring. They had placed a refrigeration unit over the coffin so that the corpse would not quickly decompose.
Tom's shoes were on the floor; otherwise everything else had been moved out of the room. "Can we take the shoes?" Ann asked. I picked up his shoes and put them in her bag
The undertakers came, they loaded the coffin into a hearse. We followed the hearse all the way along the coast road to the Bay of Naples, then into Naples itself. Motorbikes sliced recklessly around us. 
They pulled up in front of a little church dedicated to Mary, and said the body would be kept there until the next day. It seemed strange, so I called the US Consulate to make sure it was legitimate; they said it was ok.
And so we left Tom. 
I spoke to Eric on the phone. "Colin is thinking of flying over to bring Mom home," he said.
"No," I said, "there's no point. I will bring her home. Don't worry. I promise you, I'll bring your mother home safely. 
I drove back up from Rome to Naples. At one point I started to nod off, and in that state between waking and sleeping I asked Ann if the hearse was still in front of us. "You had better pull over and rest for a bit," she said to me. I had been babbling.
I pulled over and slept right there in the front seat for half an hour, and she went into a cafe for a cappucino.
We had long conversations on that drive. It was one of those drives which seems predestined. I had a mission which I had taken on myself, or Eric had given to me, which was to get her home safely, and to receive a defined mission is a great gift in this life, for which I remain grateful.
There was much to discuss. What to do, and what Tom's life had been, what it had meant. I heard his whole life story. I was on a journey outside of time and space, the journey of a widow home to her sons.
"Tom and Colin hadn't spoken for months," Ann said. "But the last day in Positano, Tom told me he didn't want to go on to Paris, a city he really loved, but only to go back to Dallas and talk to Colin and make up with him. And so he called our travel agent and changed our tickets. We were going to stay two more days in Positano, and then fly directly home.
We took rooms that night in a hotel near the airport. The Lardner boys bought me a first-class ticket to travel with their mother.
The next day, I returned the rental car, then we went through check-in and control lanes together. I checked Tom's luggage as my own. Then an 11-hour flight.
In Chicago, the flight to Dallas was delayed for several hours. Ann was exhausted.
We made up a list of all that needed to be done: the legal, financial, emotional, and spiritual matters that needed attention. There would have to be a funeral Mass, though Tom had not been a member of a particular parish for many years. I said I would try to help. In the end, the Mass was held, in the cathedral church of the city.
Finally, we arrived in Dallas. I met Colin. I hugged Eric, whom I had come to know in Rome. And they hugged their mother, and wept.
Thomas Lardner spent the last days of his life in Rome and Positano. He spent the last days of his life trying to be near the Pope, and near the tomb of Peter. He spent the last days of his life thinking about the last things. And he reconciled with one son, and was intending to seek reconciliation with a second son. 
I had intended to write about different matters, about new developments in Catholic-Orthodox relations. And now we have a murdered priest in Turkey, and the Pope has been to Cyprus, and Cardinal Pell may not be coming to Rome to take over the Congregation for Bishops, and much more that I should write about.
But I am writing about Thomas Lardner.
For what is the meaning and value of the Pope's words, of they do not apply to real people, like you, and me, and Tom? 
In his Pentecost sermon, the Pope said, "On one hand, we want to be with Jesus, follow him closely, and, on the other hand, we are afraid of the consequences that this brings with it... We always need to hear the Lord Jesus tell us what he often repeated to his friends: 'Be not afraid.' Like Simon Peter and the others we must allow his presence and his grace to transform our heart, which is always subject to human weakness...
"So it is worthwhile to let ourselves be touched by the fire of the Holy Spirit! The suffering that it causes us is necessary for our transformation. It is the reality of the cross: It is not for nothing that in the language of Jesus 'fire' is above all a representation of the cross, without which Christianity does not exist."

2 comments:

John Connolly said...

Thank you for posting this remembrance. Tom was always a friend to me. It is nice to know that he and Ann had a friend with them during this time.

MBrandon said...

Dear Mr. Connolly:

Thank you for reminding me of this wonderful story told by Robert Moynihan. It brought a tear to my eye to re-read it.

Though my only knowledge of Mr. Lardner is from this story, I am sure that he was larger than life. He seems to have embodied what we Canadians see as the best of Texas.

As a winter US resident, and living near the US border the rest of the yesr, I have a great affinity for the good things of America, and it seems that Tom Lardner was one of them.

I am sure that he is in heaven praying for all those he left behind that they will join him there one day.

God Bless You
Michael Brandon