That November day in 2004 began like so many others: off to early Mass, breakfast at Sparky’s Diner, and then on to work. It started taking a different turn late in the morning, when my son Tom called, asking that I drive him to a doctor’s appointment. I can still see Tom, sitting in the hospital bed with tears flowing down his face, trying to comprehend this. All of us were stunned. We just couldn’t believe that such a thing was happening to a thirty-three-year-old man who was otherwise active and healthy, just at the start of his life.
It was for some “routine” tests, he told me on the way over—just to check out some minor stomach pains he’d been experiencing for the last few months. But when Tom came out of the doctor’s office, he was saying something about blood levels and going to the hospital for an immediate CATscan. It was there that not just my day but my life began to unravel.
Kelly, Tom’s wife of eighteen months, and my wife, Barbara, were with us when we were given the test results: Tom had stage four stomach cancer that had spread to his liver and lungs. The survival rate was less than ten percent. Praying and Pleading. Our parish had begun Eucharistic adoration just a month before, and I had signed up for Sundays at 4:00 a.m. Getting up so early was a real sacrifice for me, but I liked being there by myself, alone with the Lord. Good thing, too, because the Sunday morning following Tom’s diagnosis was rather loud in our chapel, with me yelling at Jesus and him listening in profound silence.
I was furious with God. How could he let this happen to me and my family? Here I was—an outspoken supporter of Right to Life, a former CCD teacher, an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, and a daily communicant for over thirty years. What was God thinking? Every conceivable why? and how could you? crossed my mind and my lips.
During the next three months, as Tom underwent debilitating chemotherapy, my Sunday visits with Jesus found me pleading for my son. I offered myself in his place, if God would allow. Barbara and I invoked every saint and saint-to-be, contacted every prayer chain, asked for Masses and prayers from everyone we knew. But on January 10, 2005, Tom was admitted for the final time to a New York City hospital’s eighth floor, where the “soon to die” patients stayed.
“Show Yourself!” The hospital was wonderful, allowing our family and Tom’s fifteen-odd daily visitors to take over the lounge on 8 South for almost three weeks. His friends were always there, along with Kelly and our youngest daughter, Amanda, who gave up a semester of college to be with Tom and pray for his healing. Tom’s older brother, Rick, and his new wife, Julie, virtually moved into our home from theirs, a thousand miles away. His sisters Cathy and Jennifer spent many hours away from their own families.
We stayed with Tom day and night, talking, praying, reminiscing, doing all we could to keep his spirits up. Through it all, he never gave up hope. A new round of chemo seemed to help, but then his kidneys began to shut down.
One day I was massaging Tom’s feet (he loved that), with my eyes tightly closed, weeping softly. In my mind I was screaming at God again. Where was he, and how could he be letting this happen? And wasn’t I worthy of this healing for my son, after all these years of serving God and his people and standing up for our faith?
“You said that you loved Tom, so where is this healing love of yours? Show yourself! You owe it to me, God!”
In between my rants, I slowly became aware of something—a small quiet voice, barely understood, almost a whisper: “Open your eyes!”
I yelled again internally, and there it was again: “Open your eyes!” And so I did.
God’s Heart and Hands. My vision was blurred by tears, but as I took in the familiar scene in that hospital room, I finally understood what I was witnessing. It was the very presence of our loving God in the form of the people who were standing and kneeling all around Tom.
What I had so wanted to see—God’s healing love making Tom whole—had been happening before my eyes, though not in the way I had expected. Tom’s wife, his mother, his brother and sisters, his friends, and even me—we ourselves were the very reality of God’s love.
The doctors and nurses had told us very clearly that Tom would not have lasted so long without our loving him as we did. And now I could see the spiritual dimension of this love. All of us together were the hands and heart of God, weeping, holding Tom’s hands, stroking his head, kissing him, and telling him how much we loved him.
God was so very present in that room! It virtually glowed with the Holy Spirit.
The Love That Heals. Tom slipped peacefully into the arms of Jesus in the late morning hours of January 27, 2005. He was surrounded by his family, surrounded by the love of the Holy Trinity.
The wake—attended by more than 2,400 people—and funeral are a blur. But etched in my memory forever is every detail of my epiphany in Tom’s hospital room. That moment, when I saw God truly present and at work through his people, brought me the perspective I needed. In his dying, Tom was being truly healed and made whole; he was being born into eternal life.
This healing did not stop with Tom. God’s love is very much at work within our family, affecting our relationships with one another and with Tom’s friends. It has brought my wife and I so very much closer. It has allowed us to be present to comfort others who have experienced similar losses. All of us are slowly beginning to understand that God is the giver of life, not death, and that his wisdom far exceeds our ability to comprehend dying.
Early Sunday still finds me in the adoration chapel, talking and listening to God. I’m also enjoying many wonderful conversations with Tom. And I’ve put in a special request: that our Lord allow Tom to meet me when it is my time to go home.
I believe that I already know his answer.
Dick Eggers attends St. Gregory Barbarigo Church in Garnerville, New York.