God Squad: Rabbi Marc Gellman remembers Tommy
On Feb. 16, my best friend, Father Tom Hartman, had been dead for six years.
There are less stark ways to speak about a person's death. We often speak about a person passing on, or we say that he or she is gone but they did not pass and they are not gone. They are dead and death is the truth of human finitude and the knife in our souls. So, please forgive my blunt prose, but I prefer to say simply and quietly that Tommy died six years ago, and then accept the fact that I am still bleeding out of my soul for my dead friend, partner and teacher.
Every year on the anniversary of Tommy's death I try to write a tribute to him that reflects his wisdom when we wrote this column together. It is a fruitless task. It is like trying to sing a duet with one voice.
One of the deep challenges of death is to find a place to put it that does not corrode your hope and smother your smile. Since I am basically a storyteller, what most helps me tend to my smile and hope are the thousands of stories about Tommy I keep in the treasure house in my heart. Here are some of them.
I remember Tommy.
Once a grandmother did not want to come to my synagogue to attend her grandson's bar mitzvah because we have an organ, which is prohibited in her orthodox synagogue. She just hated our organ, but after several conversations I finally convinced her to attend her grandson's bar mitzvah. As the service was just beginning (with organ music), Tommy walked into the sanctuary wearing his priest collar. He walked down the main aisle, sat down next to me in the front of the congregation, gave me a hug, and smiled and waved to everyone, including the grandmother who had her hand over her mouth at the sight of a priest and a rabbi hugging each other in a synagogue. She then turned to her daughter and said, "Maybe the organ is not that bad."
I remember Tommy.
I once asked Tommy what was the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to him. He took a deep breath and then told me about a graveside funeral he performed just as a torrential rainstorm hit the cemetery. There was a big crowd huddled together so Tommy stepped back to make room for them and … slipped and fell into the grave. He somehow managed to scramble up and out of the grave completely covered from head to toe in mud. He then smiled and said, "He is risen!"
I remember Tommy.
I may have told you this one (it is my favorite). We were visiting a woman in the hospital who Tommy told me was dying from cancer, and he wanted to pray for and comfort her. I went with him to pray for her and went for pizza with Tommy after the visit. "She is in Room 402." Tommy said. We found her sitting on the edge of her bed staring pensively out into the night sky. Tommy sat near her and after small talk he said to her, "Dear, you are going to die." (I guess that is where I first learned to use the real word about death.) Then Tommy told her, "Dear, you have nothing to fear because after you die God is going to hold your soul in his hands like a little bird." She was sobbing deeply when he finished his little bird speech. Then he asked her, "Are you still afraid?" She screamed. "Yes, father, I am still afraid!" Tommy asked her, "Why are you still afraid? Do you understand what I told you about God holding your soul like a little bird?" She sobbed, "Yes, I understand." Then Tommy asked her gently, "Then why, my dear, are you still afraid?" She gathered herself, wiped her tears away, looked Tommy right in the face and said, "I am still afraid, father, because I only came into the hospital for a hermia operation!" Again, without a pause (Tommy was utterly unflappable), he said to her, "Well then, you are not going to die." As we hurriedly left the hospital, Tommy smiled at me and said, "Maybe the dying woman was in Room 502."
So, in the smiling memories of my friend, let me offer you all this hard-earned advice. When you tell someone they are going to die, try to be fairly certain that they are actually going to die.
I miss you, Tommy, but I am sure that God is holding your soul like a little bird.
SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at email@example.com or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.