Monday, May 17, 2021

A Tribute to My Friend Tom Sullivan

Today we "went to" the funeral of a dear friend of more than thirty years, Tom Sullivan. (I use quotation marks because — like so many other events over the past year — we "went to" it virtually, via livestream. But I was very grateful for this and various other virtual connections over the past two weeks.)

Tom died of cancer last week. He was 60 years old. I have been trying to write these thoughts about him, but I kept procrastinating (something Tom would understand), but then also rewriting and changing parts of it and adding stuff. Nothing I say here, however, will be adequate to the memory of such a rich friendship.

Eileen and I got to know Tom very well through the Communion and Liberation movement. We were blessed to have him as one of my groomsmen at our wedding (which was almost 25 years ago). I went through a lot of old “snapshots” from that day looking for a good picture of him. But Tom was not a camera hog. (The best old pictures of him are from 30-ish years ago, shared by my friends, and they are nearly all funny group pictures.) All I could find from our wedding were a few general multi-person pictures, in which details of him can be seen in the background. This is the reason for the “mug shot” I have posted here, an attempt to digitally enhance a photographic glimpse of Tom, in the shadows, looking uncomfortable in his Tux (it was a very hot day). The truth is that no "still picture" can adequately represent his irrepressible personality and his enormous generous intelligence.

I hadn't seen much of Tom over the last decade, and he had been living in Houston for the past five years. Yet we had that kind of long-standing, deeply-rooted friendship full of common experiences and the mutual awareness of being on a journey together toward the fulfillment of life's meaning. I know we could have easily "picked up" communication at any moment, and (especially) gotten together personally without awkwardness and with lots to share from the intervening years.

If there is a "downside" to this kind of friendship, it is only in the way it can so easily be "taken for granted." Human adulthood seems to reach a kind of "plateau" that stretches out over several decades. Really, there is something of an illusion in all of this, but its a surprisingly stubborn illusion. You attain a kind of "status" (through your profession, your vocational life-commitments, etc.) which brings to some resolution the restlessness of youth. Once you're married, raising a family, and/or engaged in your life's work, you feel like you've reached a "level of life" that is just going to continue "forever" (or at least "for a long, long time"). Even in today's tumultuous world where we are constantly moving and changing places, jobs, interests — not to mention breaking vocational commitments, escaping responsibilities, or enduring traumatic interruptions and upheavals — we still retain some sense of this underlying "plateau" which we just take for granted as "normal life." 

Meanwhile, the years fly by (tempus fugit, "time flies," — like all the classical human proverbs — has more experiential depth than we realize when we are young). And our middle-aged expectation that everything will always stay the same is frequently upended. The "plateau" is in fact a bumpy, twisting, turning, difficult but beautiful stretch of terrain on life's journey. We need to pay attention to the beauty. The difficulties, however, will be hard to ignore. The truth is that life, at every stage, is full of challenges and transitions that take us by surprise. In today's world, age 60 is still "too young to die," but it does happen. Nevertheless, we're not expecting the death of friends and colleagues from our own generation. We still "feel" like we're 30, at least in some respects, and we have felt that way for the past 30 years. It's too easy to take things (and people) for granted.

More recent and more characteristic pic
This digression is a very long way of saying that I regret having "lost touch" with Tom in recent years. It was not from a lack of basic affection, but simply from the distraction that causes me to ignore so many other important things in life. Sure, I have been sick, he was far away, I am not a "telephone person," he was not on any social media, etc., etc., etc. but still, I regret my "forgetfulness." Tom's friendship has been a great gift in my life which I did not sufficiently appreciate. Still, I am grateful that we were able to accompany him — however "remotely" — in his last days, thanks to “real-time” updates from mutual friends who were at his bedside at the hospice in Houston, and our corresponding “real-time” prayer. 

Our prayer, of course, unites us through the definitive, unfailing, ultimate reality of “interpersonal communication” which is the “Mystical Body of Christ.” Jesus has been “lifted up” on the cross (cf John 12:32), in the resurrection, in glory, in the Spirit, in the life of the Church stretching through all of space and time. Jesus “draws all to himself” (cf John 12:32), making us members of His Body through our adherence to Him in faith, through Baptism and the Eucharist, the Sacraments and the life of the Church, and for us in the particular realization of ecclesial experience conveyed through the charism of CL. This communion is real and vital and transforming beyond anything we could establish by our efforts alone. Nevertheless, communications media can be helpful in serving to enrich our awareness of being united in Christ, and enable us to express it in new ways. It’s something I have been discovering (not without difficulty, frustrations, and mistakes) over the past 12 years, and something we have all been learning about since the Pandemic of 2020-2021-...202? and all its limitations on so many ordinary interactions.

Belonging to one another "in Christ" is a unity that transcends even the strange separation of death.

Here again, I seem to digress ... but not really: in any case, Tom would not only be pleased with my abundance of words, he would egg me on to even wider spheres of digression without ever losing the thread that holds them all together. He and I would follow this thread, but since others reading this might get confused (understandably) or even bored, let me get back on topic.πŸ˜‰

Tom Sullivan had a special gift for friendship, as many tributes have indicated. He was one of those rare people who was a great talker (oh boy, could he talk!) but also a great listener. I should know, because I can also talk (though I'm not as good at listening as I'd like to think). We had so many conversations about faith, politics, philosophy, culture, media, history, movies, music ... usually all of these themes would come up in a single conversation that was never organized but also never aimless.

Tom was a fountain of information about ... everything, and his interesting words and observations were always on hand. Back in the early days of the Internet, we used to joke that we could “surf” Tom just like we could “surf the web.” Just throw a word at Tom —  any word — and he would talk about it. But he was not dull like a dictionary (I’m sure he could have verbally covered the dictionary but that wasn’t his style). He had anecdotes, witty observations, news stories, cultural references and it all came streaming out in a rapid yet articulate fashion. 

So, for example, if you said the word “orange,” he could take you on a journey from Florida to California to Brazil, consider the controversy of organic versus GMO, ponder what makes the best tasting oranges... and then maybe jump off to “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland (“orange” being the color of the Protestants) which would lead to U2, new wave music bands in Great Britain, distinctions among the factions in European politics, two or three really good books you have to read, and..., and... you might find your way back to “orange” at some point (say, in a consideration of the best cocktails that use orange juice).

I remember getting together for breakfast on a Saturday morning with Tom and another friend at one of those nice Washington DC cafes that were a “new thing” back in the ‘90s. It was pretty early, before 9AM. There we were, three brainiacs getting breakfast and talking and talking and getting refills of coffee and talking and talking and getting more coffee and talking... and then we saw people coming in and receiving different menus. It was lunchtime! Talking (and listening) takes a lot of energy, and we were far from “finished,” so we went ahead and had lunch. And talked and talked and totally outlasted the lunch crowd. We did leave, finally... probably because the place didn’t serve dinner!

There was one time when Tom and I were forced to stop talking. It was because we suddenly faced a battle for survival against the forces of nature! This story — gosh! — they could do a whole documentary on the Weather Channel using just our experience. It was the first weekend of January 1996 (if you're old enough you might remember the famous northeastern USA "Blizzard of '96"). 

That weekend we had some kind of regional CL pow-wow at a retreat center near the very end of Long Island. Montauk Point was nearby, and New York City was more than three hours to the west. Lorenzo Albacete was there, and he was "Lorenzo-ing"(πŸ˜‰) all day Saturday, while occasionally we heard increasingly ominous weather reports about an incoming snowstorm. Lorenzo somehow got out of there Saturday night (maybe by helicopter, I don't know), but we all decided to leave "around noon" on Sunday. When we set off from Montauk, there wasn't a flake to be seen. Tom and I had driven in his car. Other friends had taken various other cars. We thought we'd get through okay and beat the storm (which was really a moment of collective irrationality on all our parts, or at least it was "wishful thinking" — getting stuck in Montauk didn't seem like a viable option). But not even the weather forecasters were expecting what ended up happening.

Yes, like THIS!
We drove for more than two hours and it was easy-peasy. I'm sure we talked about all the problems of the world during that time, while the snow started to trickle down. Traffic was moving normally, at first. Then came more snow. And more snow. And more snow. But the highway was full of cars and they kept driving, so we kept driving. Around the time we reached the Staten Island Freeway, it got crazy! It was like the sky just started dumping buckets of snow. Traffic came to a virtual standstill on this packed highway. There was no way to get off the road, and no where to go. We would drive a couple of inches, and then I would have to get out of the car and clear several inches of snow from the windshield. Tom and I looked at each other and said, "we're gonna die out here!" So it was just basically "Hail Marys" after that. We just kept crawling and clearing the windshield, crawling and clearing the windshield. It was 1996 so we didn't have cell phones or GPS or a clue as to where we were. Finally an exit ramp appeared in the midst of the squall and we found ourselves in some area of Staten Island, on streets where plowing had been attempted but at best it turned the streets into ice sheets. The car was like 99% out of control, just sliding wherever there was space for it to go.

And then, shining up in the sky, we saw a sign. It was an amazing sign that gave us hope! Red letters glowed in the sky and they said "STATEN ISLAND HOTEL." (New Yorkers, if you drive in this area, you've seen this many times, because it's on top of the tallest building around, a Holiday Inn [and you're a long way from the skyscrapers of Manhattan]). I don't remember how we managed to get to the parking lot (the angels must have carried the car). A bunch of our friends ended up stranded in the same place. But the hotel had plenty of rooms. And there was a bar (πŸ˜‰πŸ»πŸΊπŸ·πŸΉ). We all ended up stuck in this hotel for three days. Three to four feet of snow had fallen all over the region. The whole East and Mid-Atlantic were basically closed — it was ... COVID-esque ... at least in the sense of everyone being confined and everything being shut down. The hotel even ran out of bread and started serving toasted hot dog buns with breakfast. Thankfully, however, the bar did not run dry.

Anyway, Tom would tell the story better than I am. After 25 years, it's a humorous memory. It was a rare experience with Tom that did not involve vivid conversation.

Tom was full of so much varied knowledge, but I want to stress that he was not a “show-off.” He was really interested in all these things, in what they revealed, in the questions they raised. He took you on an adventure of inquiry along the scattered and cluttered paths of his mind, but you never felt “lost.” There was focus at the heart of it all; Tom was driven by the search for meaning — indeed the need for meaning, the hunger and thirst for meaning, and the confidence that there was meaning — that things ultimately didn’t fall apart. They came together and found their peace.

His peculiar awareness of particular facets of reality was especially surprising when you realized how much he knew about you, your needs, you special interests, your likes and dislikes, and how much he valued you as a person. Here his penetrating knowledge was not looking at your faults, much less for material for gossip. It was entirely dedicated to concerned and courteous service, affirmation, and generosity. His friendship for you was deeply particular, yet there were many other people that he also cared for — each in a manner suited to them. 

He often surprised me this way. Sometimes he even reminded me of things I had forgotten I was interested in. And his awareness of my interests led to gestures that corresponded to it. There were, of course, often books and articles recommended and even procured. But what I especially appreciated was how Tom was always attuned to my love for music. Indeed, he shared it, and — like me — he was interested in affirming positive elements in contemporary popular music (while not ignoring the overall decadent cultural context that so often compromised or distorted other elements that pervaded the music scene).

Yeah, really young Sarah

When I returned to the States after a year in Italy, the first CD I bought was by a young Canadian artist (very young at the time) who was just beginning to get attention in the U.S.A. I went home, popped on my headphones, and put Sarah McLachlan's Fumbling Toward Ecstasy into the CD player. I don't know if you kids today can appreciate what it was like to hear for the first time some of these wonderfully innovative sounds that artists were introducing in the early '90's. Anyway, this album knocked my socks off! (I still think it was her best...) I told Tom and, well, he had known about her since her earliest stuff in Canada, and had interviewed her and written two articles for his newspaper (his work there was actually related to the editorial page, but he would also do articles on music and the arts on his own time, and the paper would publish them — much to their advantage, I think). Anyway, some months went by and Sarah's star was rising rapidly. She and her band came through DC to play the sold-out Warner Theater (she was still playing smaller venues back then). Tom called me up and said, "I've got two free tickets from her management because of my articles. Wanna go?" Row 12, right in the middle. If we had been any closer we would have been on stage. Great seats for what was a music show (not an exotic circus like some concerts can be). But Tom remembered my appreciation for the young Sarah McLachlan. It seems like such a small, insignificant thing when I write about it here, but it expressed his particular friendship in a manner that stands out in my memory, and that represents countless other gestures that were basic features of Tom's approach to people.

Another time had to do with a group that had also made a ripple in the early '90's music scene. They were called The Innocence Mission, and Eileen and I were both big fans. They kept making good music even after the "music spotlight" had moved on to other styles (styles that were cheaper, flashier stuff, alas...). The Innocence Mission was still recording and touring clubs in the later '90's and came to the DC area. Tom had an idea: "let's interview them for the CL magazine" ... and he also had the connections to make it happen. Tom and Eileen and I ended up spending a delightful hour backstage with Don and Karen Peris (husband and wife, guitarist and lead singer), and we wrote a very appreciative article that was published in the magazine.

How do I keep this tribute to Tom Sullivan from turning into an article about music, or politics, or "all-the-things"? What a rich life this man lived, even though he had little of value in material goods and was disorganized with the few things he did have. His clutter was legendary (in this he was a kindred spirit, if not an inspiration, for me). But he always (eventually) found that book or article or whatever it was he wanted to share with me. His many "ordinary" gestures of companionship added up to a kind of attentiveness and self-giving that had an "extraordinary" quality.

As I look back, I wonder if this capacity for friendship might have been a special gift from God — indeed, I think Tom was a powerful example of a particular “opening up” of Christian hospitality (as an expression of mercy, a work of mercy) that the Lord sometimes gives to people who live their baptismal vocation as single persons in the midst of the world. Without any particular “consecration,” without even a determination “never to marry,” but simply with the daily intent to follow Jesus within the circumstances of life as they are here and now given to them, many single Christian men and women have the freedom of time and attention that permits them to practice a great “hospitality of heart” toward those around them. Single people also have been created to love and to be loved. This is a real vocation. It is a special gift, and one much needed in this time of so much alienation, loneliness, and interpersonal violence.

I don’t know why Tom never married. Many single people in their older years may feel that they have “missed out” on a full human life, that they are failures, that there is something “unlovable” about them. (And it’s no comfort to them to tell them that many married people also feel this way.) Single people have fewer spaces to hide from their own vulnerability. It is a kind of poverty, but by God’s grace it takes the shape of the poverty of the Beatitudes. It is blessed, and leads to further blessings when it becomes a special capacity for being merciful.

Tom was a merciful man. He accompanied people. It meant everything to him, of course, that he was loved by Jesus with a love that was concrete and expressed in the Church and through the ecclesial charism of CL. He didn’t allow this to be reduced to a place of “safety,” or an exclusive club; rather he sought to share this love within the whole range of human particularity that he dealt with every day, and among many friends, co-workers, writers, political and cultural figures, and a great variety of people he met as a newspaper staff member, writer, journalist and editor, and as an administrator in publishing and academia.

He gave greatly from himself. Yet people who spoke to Tom near the end of his life remarked on his simple expressions of gratitude for the love they had given to him. Tom Sullivan was, and remains, much loved by all of us, and he remains a sign of Christ's enduring love. Of course, those of us who remain in this world miss his earthly presence. Even when we believe that Jesus has conquered death, it remains mysterious to us. It is obscure, and causes sorrow.

Goodbye Tom, old friend! 

Lord, grant him eternal rest, and the joy of eternal life through Jesus Christ, in the communion of saints. Grant that we may all be together with You forever, O Lord. Have mercy on us!

If we grieve, that does not mean that we lack hope. Grief is part of the journey of this life, and we have tears that only God can wipe away.