“A Second Chance” by T. Thomas
When I was a student at Saint Mary’s College, young men from the dorms at Notre Dame would invite girls from our dorms to dances called “Screw Your Roommates.” It sounds worse than it was. This was back when the word ‘screw’ didn’t have quite as strong of a sexual connotation that the word has today. The dances were just fun mixers. Roommates set each other up on these dates, or your date was chosen by the friend of a friend, usually after looking at your picture and interests in the “dog book,” a Notre Dame/Saint Mary’s student pictorial directory of sorts, kind of like a rudimentary hard copy of Facebook.
Anyway, some of these mingle events were formal; others less so, more like casual parties. One of these dances I went with a young man who was quiet and serious, clean cut. I don’t remember how the date was set up. It could have been random, his dorm and mine pairing up. Or maybe it came from a phone call after a dog book perusing; nevertheless, there we were.
What I do remember is my date’s name was Tom. He was a history major. He had short, reddish blonde hair. I remember him opening a door for me at the beginning of the date and fetching me a Coke, a polite gesture my mother would have said reflected character. His speech was courteous and while he didn’t talk much, he did speak of substantial, not trivial, things. He wasn’t particularly outgoing, but neither was I. He also wasn’t “grabby” like many of the other dates at similar events had been. He wasn’t wild or rowdy, yet got along well with others. In other words, he stood out among a mass of typical college boys. He also happened to play on the football team, which I only found out at the end of the evening, so I suppose you could say he was humble too.
I had a nice time talking to Tom that night, or should I say shouting short answers to one another over loud blasting music and sipping on soft drinks. It was a pleasant, uneventful date, ending on a good note. Just one date, though. That’s all it was. To this day, I still don’t know if he would have remembered me, later in his life. But I remember him, mainly because he was so different from the other rowdy college boys.
Fast forward many years. I was married with nine kids, perusing the sports section of some newspaper and I happened upon a vaguely familiar face, then I read Tom’s name. I wondered if it was the same boy I had met in college years before. This person in the paper was coaching a college football team out east, and while the age and line of events would make sense, I couldn’t tell for sure. A quick Google searched proved my hunch correct. The biography listed made it certain—this was the nice young man I met so many years ago.
Reading the newspaper article, I discovered that Tom had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I had recently undergone a diagnosis of and grueling six months of chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma myself, a very similar cancer to what was challenging this man. How weird was that? Out of the blue, the idea popped into my head to drop a note of encouragement, not knowing if he would even remember me, but noting that notes even from complete strangers during my own cancer battle comforted me and pushed me on. At least I could offer prayers and let him know of that. It would be easy enough to send a note in care of the team he was coaching. Maybe my words of encouragement could make a difference?
I ripped out the article from the paper and set it aside on my desk. I couldn’t write right then (too busy), but I decided I’d get to it as soon as possible. Every time I passed my desk, I would see that ripped out article, and every time I just didn’t make the time to do it. I’d figure I needed more time to think about what to say, or I didn’t want to spare the minute. I even second guessed dropping a note, excusing myself by saying he didn’t really know me and what difference would it make. I moved the article around and before I knew it, in the “hectic-ness” of life, I had simply forgotten entirely.
Fast forward again. It was a year later. I found the article wedged between my computer desk and the wall when I was cleaning the schoolroom. Oops, I thought, I should have done this when I first thought of it. Well, never mind; I would do it now. I sat down to write words that might be considered encouraging, faith-filled and direct. I kept thinking I should have done this a long time ago. When I was finished writing, since I couldn’t remember what team Tom coached for, I Googled his name to know where to send my note.
That’s when I discovered: Tom had died.
I stared at the computer screen, then went to another article. Yes, he had died. Not only had he died, he had just died. I missed my opportunity to be a blessing, and I had barely missed it by a few weeks. All because I had been too lazy to make the time to write a short note.
I felt terrible. Although I didn’t know Tom very well, my procrastination meant I lost my chance to extend kindness to another fellow human being who could have used it. In my busyness, I neglected to encourage. What if people who sent me notes had equally procrastinated, had equally found their busyness too much to reach out to me? What if my note in some small way could have helped this person keep the faith during a harrowing, challenging time? What if God gave me this chance and I had (despite being offered kindness of my own) had failed? There was no going back.
Then I read his obituary.
“A devout Roman Catholic his entire life…who had a sincere love for the Lady on the Golden Dome…he committed himself to making an impact on the lives of young men…his mission to use coaching to teach his players not only the fundamentals of football, but more importantly the fundamentals of how to become better men…” He never married but was devoted to his extended family and especially had a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother.
You know, sometimes in life you think you are going to be the one helping someone and it turns out that you’re not that important after all, and that someone ends up inspiring you instead. It sounded like Tom had handled his illness better than I, with a faith stronger than mine, and an inspiration that reached out to others. Isn’t that funny how God can show you a weakness of your own yet comfort you in it at the same time? That’s how I felt that afternoon I whispered a little prayer to God in relief. I had not failed Tom. He hadn’t needed my “inspiration” at all. But in the midst of this experience, I did humbly learn a lesson about procrastination.
My son texted me earlier this week. His good friend’s mother who has cancer is dying. He asked me to pray for her. After months of grueling chemotherapy and other treatments that weren’t working, not even helping her improve, her body can’t take it anymore.
“How old is she?” I asked my son.
“I think around your age.”
“Do you have her address? Can I write a note?” I asked.
“You’d better do it soon if you’re going to do it,” he replied, “she may only have a week or so”.
This time, I knew what to do. I went on the internet. I perused the pages of an online store, and carefully and deliberately selected some beautiful lavender flowers. Then I wrote this stranger mother of my son’s friend, who is bonded to me in a shared suffering that will…sadly… end in different ways.
I wrote to her that lavender is the color of grace and elegance, and suffering that can be redemptive; that each petal represented my prayers for her. I tried to encourage without being trite. And I told her that our sons were friends and that I would pray for her and willed that she prayed for me.
And that was that.
Then I hoped she’d be there to receive it, and that she would understand the sincere sentiment with which it was sent. And I prayed for her, and that in some small way, she might feel just a bit of respite and peace and encouragement and love, even if from a stranger.
Why did I get cancer and treatment that gave me a new lease on life and she didn’t? And Tom didn’t? I don’t deserve my health and more years any more or less than they do. I don’t claim to know God’s plan or God’s ways or if it’s even fair to put it that way into words. But I do know now that as long as I have any breath in this body, I will serve He who is the Author of Life and seek to ease the pain of others, instead of selfishly an apathetically focusing only on myself and my daily duties and troubles. I will not hesitate, nor procrastinate, again.
Note: I sent the flowers to the mother of my son’s friend on a Thursday. She received them on Friday. The text I received from my son said that she loved them, and as her son read the note from me he wept. She died the next day, on Saturday, October 1, interestingly the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the “Little Flower,” who once said she will spend her heaven doing good on earth.
My son texted me from her funeral. She had been a runway model in her twenties, so the words “elegance” and “grace” would have been very important to her. The Holy Spirit indeed inspires. I also found out that she was a very devout Catholic. God’s blessings abound. I had my second chance.
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Theresa Thomas is a Catholic mother of nine children. She lives in Indiana.