The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Relationships, Renewals and Encounters

Life, this remarkable gift with which we've been blessed, often seems to be marked less by who we think we are or what we have done as individuals than by the relationships we share with others. If I try to define myself, I usually turn to words that mean nothing outside of the human relationships they describe: "I am a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a grandfather, a friend, a child of God..." These are the words that first come to mind, and it is right that they do so. After all, God so loved the world that He sent His Son. He didn't send an idea or a concept or a philosophy. He sent a Person, Someone with Whom He has the deepest and closest kind of relationship imaginable. Indeed, the Holy Trinity is all about a relationship. It's also telling that the Father's Son was born into a human family with a mother and a father. Jesus didn't just appear; He became one of us in all things except sin.

In the same way, our closest relationships tend to be familial or of the kind of friendships that last a lifetime. Other relationships rise and fall with the rhythms of our lives. We move. We change jobs. We change interests. Some of us even retire and settle in Florida. Gradually some earlier relationships fade while others develop. Life goes on, even though we might occasionally glance backwards in time wondering about those faded friendships and asking, if only of ourselves, "Whatever happened to...?"

One of these long-ago relationships came to mind this past week. As I've mentioned before, I'm on the board of the Wildwood Soup Kitchen, an ecumenical ministry in nearby Wildwood, Florida. At our last board meeting we appointed a new soup kitchen manager, and the other day, as I helped Dear Diane (my wife who's also the Thursday cook) prepare and serve nearly 300 meals to our guests, I had the opportunity to speak with our new manager for a few moments. At one point she said, "I understand you were involved in the recoveries of some of the Apollo astronauts." I told her I had been a Navy helicopter pilot and, yes, had flown on several of the recovery operations. At that point, she said, "My brother-in-law was a crewman on some of those recoveries. Maybe you knew him? Glen Slider?" I almost dropped the box of donated food I was moving. Glen Slider was a Chief Aircrewman, one of the two aircrewman who flew with Chuck Smiley, our commanding officer, and me and on the Apollo 13 recovery. Over the years I had completely lost track of Glen, so it was wonderful to hear he was doing well and occasionally visits here in The Villages. What a marvelous coincidence! It will be nice to renew our acquaintance after so long a time.

The photo below shows the crew of the recovery helicopter for Apollo 13: (left to right) Chuck Smiley, me, Mike Longe, Glen Slider. I was a very young 25-year-old back in April 1970.
Apollo 13 Recovery Crew
Other renewals of past relationships are less spontaneous. For example, two weeks ago Diane and I attended my 50th high school reunion in White Plains, NY. I actually enjoyed those four years at Archbishop Stepinac High School. We were blessed with some outstanding teachers, all priests and brothers, although very few are still with us. Stepinac was and remains an all-boys school.

Prior to this reunion I had visited the school only once since my graduation, and had never attended a class reunion. I was likely too busy with work and family. And so it was a pleasure to renew some old friendships and to form a few new ones with classmates I had really not known at all. As I recall our class had about 400 members so I was unlikely to know everyone very well. And yet, as you might expect, Diane and I spent most of our time with the few friends with whom I had stayed in touch over the years. I'm very happy we took part, although I was disappointed that so many classmates did not attend.

Our connections with some people, however, are the result of simple encounters and can hardly be called relationships. And yet, for various reasons some of these brief, often single, encounters become firmly planted in our memories. My chance meeting with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the streets of Rome back in February 2000 certainly falls into this category. As a result of this brief encounter -- we spoke for perhaps two or three minutes -- I have a wonderful photo and a delightful personal letter from the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI.
Cardinal Ratzinger, as I give instructions to the photographer

Late last month I had another of these enjoyable but brief encounters; however this time I had no idea whom I had met. Diane and I were in Dublin, Ireland and had stopped by to meet some friends at their hotel. While there, we discovered the hotel was hosting a fundraiser, including a barbeque and live entertainment, for a local Catholic parish, so we all decided to attend and bought tickets. While waiting for our friends to join us, Diane and I sat at a small table outside the hotel's pub while I enjoyed a pint of Guinness. After a moment we were joined by a man carrying a clarinet. He sat down with us and like all Irishmen began to talk and ask us questions. Noticing his clarinet, Diane told him about our eldest daughter who had played clarinet in our town's band on Cape Cod. He then told us how his father, who also played, made him practice when he would have preferred to be "playing football with my mates." He went on to tell us of his years touring the States and in Las Vegas playing with his band on the strip. And so the conversation went until our friends arrived and he had to leave to join the other entertainers.
Paddy Cole at the St. Mary Parish fundraiser

Later, when he stepped on the small stage, he was introduced as the famous Paddy Cole, whom we discovered was one of Ireland's most loved musicians. He entertained us all for quite some time, playing the clarinet and saxophone and singing wonderful old songs that brought back many memories. What a delightful, unassuming man, one who placed his family first, above his show-business career, and today was willing to share his talent to support St. Mary Parish in Dublin. Here's a video of an interview of Paddy Cole that spans his entire career:

It's unlikely I'll ever sit down and chat again with Paddy Cole, or run into a future pope on the streets of Rome, but who knows what kind of new encounters and renewals of old relationships the future holds.

What a marvelous gift life is.

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