Sometimes you meet someone who leaves an indelible mark on your life. Who teaches you something you carry with you forever.
I’ve been blessed in my life to have met several such teachers. One of which was my childhood priest, Father Ron.
I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on him… this larger-than-life Italian who drove into our small town on a Harley, wearing a leather jacket and smoking a pipe, shaking up everyone’s notion of what an Episcopal priest was “supposed” to look like. I was 7 years old… and his Pittsburgh-Italian accent, salt-and-pepper hair, love of photography, and complexity fascinated me even then. I used to cherish afternoons spent playing with his boys (the eldest the same age as me, the youngest the same age as my little sister) at the rectory, Saturday afternoons working around the parish hall, and spaghetti pitch-in dinners, watching him standing guard over his own made-from-scratch sauce until it was ‘perfecto’.
As I got older, I began to learn that behind that tough exterior was a deep and intelligent mind, a soul who truly understood both the struggles of humanity and the quest to connect to something higher. He taught me to question everything, to never accept the teachings of man without weighing it against what you know, the wisdom of your teachers, and the stirrings of that inner voice. He was a man who had stared hell in the face and carried on anyway… he was tenacious and compassionate. I have carried his lessons with me since childhood. Even now that I’m grown, he never seemed to change. He always seemed invincible. During my last visit, though too long ago, left me smiling at how he never changes… relaxed, sharp-witted, opinionated as ever. I have been trying to find some time to go down and visit again, to introduce Munchkin to the giant who had such an impact on me.
Sadly, Ron passed away from this world this week. As much as I am saddened, I know that his family is heartbroken. He was a loving father, husband, and grandpa. He was a wonderful teacher, listener, and friend… and the world is a little bit darker without him. Those of us who were lucky enough to have crossed paths with him are forever changed.
When someone who has such an impact on our lives passes on… when someone we felt was impervious becomes mortal… it leaves a hole. It doesn’t matter that as my life became busier and I moved away from my hometown that I no longer had the time to sit talking with him for hours. I could walk in the door at any time and it would feel like no time had passed at all. He was just that kind of guy.
Ironically, I just ran into his youngest son out of the blue the other day. We talked for quite a while, reminiscing about our childhood memories, shadows of a time that was much easier… before tragedy struck their family more than once, before my parents divorced, before any of us grew up and had our children and started our own lives. We smiled, laughing over how Ron (now long-retired from the priesthood) never changed. He was as loud and opinionated and funny and stubborn as ever. A giant. Invincible. I told him to tell his dad I said hi, and that Munchkin and I would be down to visit soon.
But sometimes ‘soon’ isn’t soon enough.
Ron wasn’t one to dwell on “woulda, coulda, shoulda”. He would tell me not to be sorry for one second that I didn’t get to see him one more time. The last time we talked he told me how proud he was of me… of my photography (which meant a lot coming from him, a professional photographer before he became a priest), and of the way I was building a life for myself and raising my son. I guess that’s all I need to know, to carry in my heart.
Still… I know that any time I catch the scent of pipe tobacco and freshly-stewing spaghetti sauce… I will think of him.
Rest easy, rabbi. You are loved.
*Vita mutatur, non tollitur.*