Guest Columnists

Special Graces When Close Friends Die

by Carol Powell

The obituaries of Father James DiGiacomo and Regina Barry appeared in the same issue of The Tablet (Sept. 28). Both of them were personal friends of my family and me for many years. My husband, David, first met Father DiGiacomo when he was a high school Latin student in Brooklyn Prep. Father Jim, a great sports fan, attended many games with David’s father and later with David and my sons.

I encountered Jim for the first time when, as a young woman, I attended a religious education convention in Miami. Jim was the keynote speaker. I was duly impressed by his presentation, as was everyone else. That’s why I was surprised when David and I were married that David not only knew this guru of religious education but also actually wanted to invite him to our home for dinner.

As I was preparing the meal, the baby, our first child, began to cry. Father Jim said, “Go ahead, Carol, take care of the baby. I’ll stir the pasta.”

People sometimes forget that men and women who are internationally known and recognized are really just down-to-earth people like the rest of us. Father Jim taught us that. Our four children thought of him as “Uncle Jim” and never tired of playing all kinds of silly games with him. When they were very little, they delighted in messing up his hair and his clothes and calling him “the messy old father.” He would laugh and enjoy himself, but when things got too wild, he would say to David and me, “This is fun, but you confirm me in my celibacy.”

Jim’s generosity knew no bounds. He’d shower our children with gifts, especially on Christmas. He’d come with our family to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. Then he’d take us back to America House where he lived and serve us cookies and hot chocolate. He was a godparent to our third child, Helaine, along with Regina Barry, who was her godmother. He was a mentor to my husband and encouraged both of us in many ways in our writing and speaking careers. He took a two-hour subway ride to anoint my mother when she was dying and was with us when David’s father took his last breath.

During the last year of his life at Murray-Weigel Home, we visited him often and shared many stories from the past. Toward the end, he said to us, “I’ve had a great life, a great run.”

He will be greatly missed by those of us who loved him. We wanted him to live to be 100, but that was not God’s plan.

Regina Barry was the maid of honor at my wedding and, as I mentioned above, godmother to Helaine. She was also my other daughter Mary’s Confirmation sponsor. Regina had no children of her own, but she was an “aunt” to everyone, always taking care of people. She once housed a young unwed mother for many months, providing food, shelter and encouragement. Later in life, she allowed a battered woman to live in her house. These were only a few of the many good works she performed.

Once, on a very cold winter day, she saw a homeless man on the avenue. “Sir,” she said, “I am going across the street to that store and get you a jacket.” The man looked up and said, “Oh no, don’t go there. They don’t have good quality in that store.” I just laughed when she told me that story. She worked at the parish homeless shelter for many years, doing laundry and purchasing gifts for the guests from her own money.

In May, 1977, Regina was in the hospital with chest pains. One evening, her husband, Donald, came to visit her. After she walked him to the elevator, she returned to her room and suddenly had some very deep thoughts. “Dear God,” she said, “Tomorrow is the beginning of the rest of my life. Please transform me.”

Unbelievably the next day, even though it was she who was in the hospital, her husband died of a heart attack. This began a very difficult period of bereavement and adjustment during which she continued to help others in various capacities. God was working on that “transformation” especially during the last five years of her life, which she spent in a nursing home.

Sister Anne Burke, C.S.J., and I were privileged to journey with her during those very difficult years.

After a series of accidents, her health went from bad to worse. She had been a person who loved to talk and who appreciated good food. In the end, she wasn’t able to speak or eat. Yet, one of the last times I visited her, she looked straight at me with her big blue eyes. I felt Christ looking at me through her gaze. Then she put her hand on mine affectionately, and I was suddenly reminded of the words of St. Paul, “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.” David told me he had a similar yet different experience with Father Jim at the end.

When Regina finally went to the hospice, Sister Anne and I were whispering in her ear that God loved her and that we loved her. She started to breathe more quickly, and we saw that her heart was beating faster. We could see that her tongue was trying to form the word, “love.” Realizing that she was getting agitated, we told her that we knew she loved us. She didn’t have to tell us.

That about summed up her life and Father Jim’s life – love. And love is who God is.