From: Here I Am, Lord: Spiritual Autobiography and
Reflections on the Permanent Diaconate
Tears in Heaven
I was wrapping up my senior year of high school. In less than a month, I would graduate. I was in the home stretch of an important chapter in my life. But the Author had a few plot twists in store that I did not anticipate. It was May 31, 1992; a rainy Sunday morning. I woke up - actually, I was woken up. My mom knocked on my door, announcing that the ringing telephone was for me. As I rubbed my eyes and cleared my throat, I tried to figure out who it could be. After all, my friends were no doubt asleep also!
The voice on the other end of the line was an acquaintance from high school. We were in a few classes together, but certainly not close enough that he would simply call me on a Sunday morning to chat. He did not give me much time to try to guess at his reason for calling.
“Mike Gill’s dead. He was at a party, and slept over instead of driving home. Somehow the house caught on fire and he didn’t get out.” That is all I remember of that call. Although on a superficial level I did not believe him, I guess I knew deep down that it was true. Folks don’t make stuff like that up.
Mike was a good friend of mine. We were in a lot of the same classes, and participated in several extracurricular activities together. He was a genuinely nice guy, sincere and kind. He was the kind of person who would never simply walk by a homeless person. On several occasions I saw him stop to chat. He would take the time to get to know anyone. As I look back on his life, I can see now how, even at eighteen years old, he was a wonderful model of Christian love. He never preached with words; his life was Gospel enough.
But now he was dead. Or, so I had been told. I quickly jumped in and out of the shower, got dressed for church, and told my parents I would meet them there. I said I needed to “check on something.” I never even got to see the house. I didn’t need to. The flashing lights of the police car blocking the road confirmed my fears. I knew the officer, and asked him if it was true that Mike had died. He told me it was. I got back in my car, and drove to the church.
I did not immediately go into the main sanctuary. I went instead into the chapel. It was the original church building. The parish outgrew it years ago, but it was still used for daily Mass and reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. It was the building I used to go to for the early morning Mass with my dad. It was the place where I first experienced the Sacred Liturgy. It was where I received my First Holy Communion. It had been beautifully restored to its original grandeur when the newer sanctuary was constructed, yet still echoed with the sacred silence I remembered from my childhood. I knelt down in a pew to pray.
I recall that I did not cry. I wanted to, but the tears did not come. I prayed that God be with me and my friends; I may even have prayed for this to be some sort of elaborate joke. I cannot remember the words, but the emotions remain vivid: confusion, sorrow, and even a little fear. I did not sit with my family. When I walked into the main sanctuary, I saw some red-eyed classmates. We hugged and sat together in the back. At the end of mass, Father Lasch stepped up to the ambo. He announced that although it had not been officially confirmed, it appeared that a young parishioner had died tragically in a fire the night before. He asked everyone to pray, and indicated that friends would be gathering at a nearby home.
I drove over to the house in the pouring rain. I remember that spring rain vividly. Although it was as if all of heaven and earth was crying, I still wasn’t. I spent the entire day at the house. It was somber. Circles of teenagers sitting on the floor in stunned silence. I will always remember the first face I saw when I walked in the door. It was Amy, Mike’s prom date. The look of total horror and sorrow on her always smiling face will forever be etched in my mind. The prom was scheduled for that coming Friday. But that day it was the farthest thing from everyone’s mind.
That evening there was a memorial service. Afterwards, we decided to gather at a McDonald’s. No one wanted to go home. No one wanted to be alone. I don’t know if it was out of fear that someone else would be lost, or if we just didn’t think that our families could provide the comfort we were receiving from our friends. Either way, amidst the milkshakes and fries, Christ’s comforting presence was at every table. A few of Mike’s closest friends, especially the ones who had been present at the fire, were in no shape to drive; I offered to chauffer.
That night, when I finally got home, I could not sleep. I still couldn’t cry. I don’t know what bothered me more: his death, or the fact that I couldn’t cry about it. I tossed and turned. I didn’t know what to do. Then I remember hearing a voice, clear as day,
“Joe, you need to do what I would do.” It was Mike. That was all I needed to hear. Mike would be the comforter. He would be the shoulder to cry on. He would be helping others to get through this difficult time. Now I had a mission. I finally fell asleep.
I woke up the next day, got dressed, and headed to church. I felt called to start my day with daily Mass. The chapel was empty when I walked in. I knelt down in the first row of pews, looked up at the tabernacle, and lost it. I cried like a baby. I sobbed. It was a release unlike any I
had ever felt. Father Lasch came in, getting things set up for the Mass. He walked over and placed his hand on my shoulder. That didn’t help matters. I wept even more. I finally gathered myself together just in time for the Mass to begin.
At the end of the liturgy, I knelt down again. The waterfall continued. A woman approached me, and placed her hand on my shoulder. To this day, although I do not know who she was, I remember her comforting words:
“Son, I do not know what is troubling you, but I will pray that you find peace.” At that moment, a sense of comfort and peace came over me. It was that same feeling I had when Mrs. Jablecki found me in that parking lot the day that Sunday School was cancelled. I was not alone.
I headed off to school, and for the next four days, I did all I could to minister to others. I was a shoulder to cry on, a friendly ear. I laughed and cried and shared stories about the good times with Mike. At the wake, I remember sitting next to Will, the boy whose house had burned to the ground. He had thrown the party while his parents were away. He and his family had lost everything that they owned. I sat there with my arm around him for so long, that it fell asleep. At one point, the associate pastor, Father Mike, approached me and commented on what I was doing. I told him that it was what I was called to do. We buried Mike on Thursday. The church was standing room only. I served as a Eucharistic Minister.
The day after the funeral, I went to my senior prom. There was a lot of debate about whether or not it was appropriate to have the event at all. In the end, we decided that we needed to be together, and that Mike would want us to celebrate his life, not to mourn it. There was nothing somber about that night! It was a much needed emotional release. That weekend, as was tradition, we headed off to the beach. I remember lying in the sand, basking in the sun, thinking what a difference a week makes. It was so peaceful. In the past seven days I had experienced shock, sorrow, anger, confusion, fear, compassion, joy and now peace.
As I look back on that time, I am not so sure that it was Mike I heard that night that I could not sleep. His compassion and caring nature often made him easy to mistake for Jesus. The more I reflect, the more I realize that it was Christ himself who was telling me that I needed to “do what he would do.” It would not be the last time I hear that call.
JOHN GIVOT/ The Oregonian
Braden Grawrock, 17, (left) comforts fellow Aloha High School student Garret Wilson, 15, (right) at a memorial for their friend, Ross Barfuss. About 60 students joined Monday to share stories about the junior and write notes to his family. Barfuss was at Gleneden Beach off the Oregon coast Saturday with his brother, Lance, and Wilson, when they spotted 11-year-old River Jenison, struggling in the water. Jenison washed ashore and he later died at a hospital. Barfuss went into the water to help the boy and has not been seen since.