Ten Weddings and Two Funerals

The following continues my experiences in Berkeley California during my novitiate year in March 2006.

There’s no such thing as a normal life, Wyatt. There’s just life.”
– Val Kilmer (as Doc Holiday), Tombstone


Two Saturdays ago, I went to my first funeral here at the Newman Center. The man who passed away was not a parishioner; instead, his parish seemed to be the trouble spots of the world.  He was a doctor working for an organization very similar to Doctors Without Borders. Through his job, he had been in some of the most dangerous places in the world, including Afghanistan and Bosnia at their most volatile. The reflections given towards the end of the service described a human being who was half Alan Alda and half Indiana Jones.

One of the eulogists reflected on the story where the soldier returned to England from the Crusades only to find death waiting at his door. When not out saving the world, the deceased was kind of a thrill seeker whose hobbies included sailing and skydiving.  A story was told of when his main parachute had failed to deploy during one vacation… and just at the last possible moment his reserve chute opened.  Yet it was sleep apnea that would take this doctor in his mid-fifties.

Another eulogist reflected on the man’s kindness, as he comforted a fellow aid worker in the middle of a combat zone over the atrocities she had seen. The speaker also reflected on what it took to have a career that led one to be available to the various crises of the world. When asked about this, the doctor’s responded “In life, you can either go hard-core, or you can go spouse-core.”

“Hard Core” or “Spouse Core.”  Those words sank inside of me as I reflected on my own life and circumstance. It also gave me a little fortitude for the meeting I would be attending next.

Marriage preparation was something that the pastor thought would be good for me to participate in. I have to admit, there was something in me that was a little hesitant about attending a meeting filled with ten happy couples about to embark on their future lives together; it’s a subtle reminder that I probably will never be a participant in one of the meetings. It’s also a less subtle reminder that exactly one year ago, I thought I myself was on that track with Marie.  But this time in Berkeley is about jumping into the experience, so I pop in to listen in on some of the talks.

I went in both skeptical and optimistic. Skeptical because I was in wondering if this was going to be the “greatest hits” of the Church’s best and brightest celibate theologians’ ideas on sharing a life with another human being. I have heard on more than one occasion from other couples that these workshops have the potential to be pretty simplistic and condescending.  On the other hand, as the child of divorced parents, I think these programs are a VERY good idea. They force people to look at and discuss issues they might not have even thought of before – like money, sex, in-laws, familial expectations – and brings them out into the open so that they can be directly addressed.

Time and time again, I have heard that people feel both welcome at Newman Hall in Berkeley because it is so open; Marriage Prep turned out to be no exception. While the Church’s perspective about marriage was talked about, it was also integrated in the reality of different peoples’ experiences and without a lot of waving fingers.

The reality check was good for me too. I’ll admit that part of the mourning I have been experiencing since joining religious life has been the idea of marriage and a family.  Like many of my generation, Disney got to me at a young age with glorious ideas of what a normal life should be.  The fact that I grew up in a suburban neighborhood filled with four bedrooms and 2.5 kids cemented other ideas of what a normal life should be.  But as strong as both elements are, I’ve come to suspect over the years that the “hard core” part of my personality would eventually trump my “spouse corps.”  That wouldn’t be right for anybody.

The next Saturday there was another Marriage Prep meeting… and another funeral. Because I was taking care of some other things that day I was only able to sit in on each of them briefly. Later on though, I got the back story on the man who died; after being married for ten months, he dropped dead of a heart attack at age 31. A heart attack… at 31. I could understand being by a bus, but a heart attack… at 31.

I do believe in being open to the emotions I experience and giving myself appropriate space to mourn the aspects of my life I have lost.  I’ve found that the healthiest way to do is to bite a little chunk of it at a time… and leave another chunk for the another day.  And when I’ve finished digesting the daily apportioned bite, I think about that man who passed away at 31, and how just ten months earlier both him and his wife probably had every expectation of a long life together. I think about the soldiers who are not coming back from the Middle East, as well as the everyday Iraqi citizens who are caught up in that war and are suffering losses that outnumber the number of people who died on 9/11 – times one hundred.  I think about the people being slaughtered in Darfur in a genocide we said we would never let happen again after the film Hotel Rwanda won its awards two years ago… after Schindler’s List won its awards ten years before that.

And I enter in to the realization—still not all the way but just a little bit more—that there really is no such thing as a normal life.

Father Tom Gibbons was ordained a Paulist priest in 2012. Prior to becoming a priest, he spent time as a Jesuit Volunteer in Phoenix, AZ, working with immigrants in El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. He's also worked as a graphic designer and web developer, serving nonprofits like Success For All Foundation, Baltimore City Head Start, and Catholic Relief Services. He previously wrote a blog entitled “Kicking and Screaming” for Busted Halo. After serving as a deacon at Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., Father Tom was sent to St. Peter’s Church in Toronto, where he first served as Associate Pastor and then as the Parish Administrator. In 2016, he produced a documentary on the founder of the Paulist Fathers, entitled “Isaac Hecker and the Journey of Catholic America” – featuring celebrity voices of Martin Sheen, Matt McCoy, and Bob Gunton. Father Tom is currently at work on a new documentary investigating the complicated legacy of the Catholic Church in California with the film “Junipero Serra: Statue of Limitations,” scheduled for release in 2022. In addition to his work as Vice President of Paulist Productions, Father Tom also performs pastoral work at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church and Transfiguration Catholic Church in Los Angeles, CA.