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There Are No Coincidences
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:9 NIV
For three days a fierce winter storm had traveled 1,500 miles across the North Pacific from Alaska, packing gale-force winds and torrential rains. In the Sierra Nevadas to the east, the snow was piling up and would offer great skiing once the storm had passed.
In the foothills of the Sierras in the town of Grass Valley, California, the streets were flooded, and in some parts of town, the power was off where trees had blown down. At the small church, the heavy rain and high winds beat against the windows with a violence that Father OÆMalley had never before heard.
In his tiny bedroom, OÆMalley was laboriously writing SundayÆs sermon by candlelight. Out of the darkness, the phone in his office rang, shattering his concentration. He picked up the candle, and with his hand cupped in front of it, ambled down the hall in a sphere of dim flickering light.
As he picked up the phone, a voice quickly asked, ôIs this Father OÆMalley?ö
ôIÆm calling from the hospital in Auburn,ö said a concerned female voice. ôWe have a terminally ill patient who is asking us to get someone to give him his last rites. Can you come quickly?ö
ôIÆll try my best to make it,ö OÆMalley answered. ôBut the river is over its banks, and trees are blown down all over town. ItÆs the worst storm IÆve seen in all the years IÆve been here. Look for me within two hours.ö
The trip was only 30 miles, but it would be hard going. The headlights on Father OÆMalleyÆs 20-year-old car barely penetrated the slashing rain, and where the winding road crossed and recrossed the river in a series of small bridges, trees had blown down across the riverÆs banks. But for some reason, there was always just enough room for Father OÆMalley to make his way around them. His progress was slow and cautious, but he continued on toward the hospital.
Not a single vehicle passed him during his long, tense journey. It was way past midnight, and anyone else out on a night like this would also have to be on an emergency mission.
Finally, in the near distance, the lights of the small hospital served as a beacon to guide OÆMalley for the last 500 yards, and he hoped he had arrived in time. He parked behind the three other cars in the parking lot to avoid as much wind as possible, slipped into the right-hand seat and awkwardly wrestled his way into his raincoat before stepping out into the wind-whipped deluge.
With his tattered Bible tucked deep inside his overcoat pocket, OÆMalley forced the car door open, stepped out and then leaned into the wind. Its power almost bowled him over, and he was nearly blown away from the hospital entrance.
Once inside, the wind slammed the hospital door shut behind him, and as he was shaking the water from his coat, he heard footsteps headed his way. It was the night nurse.
ôIÆm so glad you could get here,ö she said. ôThe man I called you about is slipping fast, but he is still coherent. HeÆs been an alcoholic for years, and his liver has finally given out. HeÆs been here for a couple of weeks this time and hasnÆt had one single visitor. He lives up in the woods, and no one around here knows much about him. He always pays his bill with cash and doesnÆt seem to want to talk much. WeÆve been treating him off and on for the last couple of years, but this time itÆs as though heÆs reached some personal decision and has given up the fight.ö
ôWhatÆs your patientÆs name?ö OÆMalley asked.
ôThe hospital staff has just been calling him Tom,ö she replied.
In the soft night-light of the room, TomÆs thin sallow countenance looked ghostlike behind a scraggly beard. It was as though he had stepped over the threshold and his life was already gone.
ôHello, Tom. IÆm Father OÆMalley. I was passing by and thought we could talk a bit before you go to sleep for the night.ö
ôDonÆt give me any of that garbage,ö Tom replied. ôYou didnÆt just stop by at 3:30 in the morning. I asked that dumb night nurse to call someone to give me my last rites because I know my deal is done and itÆs my turn to go. Now get on with it.ö
ôPatience,ö said Father OÆMalley, and he began to say the prayers of the last rites.
After the ôAmen,ö Tom perked up a bit, and he seemed to want to talk.
ôWould you like to make your confession?ö OÆMalley asked him.
ôAbsolutely not,ö Tom answered. ôBut I would like to just talk with you a bit, before I go.ö
And so Tom and Father OÆMalley talked about the Korean War, and the ferocity of the winter storm, and the knee-high grass and summer blossoms that would soon follow.
Occasionally, during the hour or so before daylight, Father OÆMalley would ask Tom again, ôAre you sure you donÆt want to confess anything?ö
After a couple of hours, and after about the fourth or fifth time that Father OÆMalley asked the same question, Tom replied, ôFather, when I was young, I did something that was so bad that IÆve never told anyone about it. It was so bad that I havenÆt spent a single day since without thinking about it and reliving the horror.ö
ôDonÆt you think it would be good for you to tell me about it?ö OÆMalley asked.
ôEven now, I still canÆt talk about what I did,ö Tom said. ôEven to you.ö
But as the first gray light of dawn crept into the room and began to form shadows, Tom sadly said, ôOkay. ItÆs too late for anyone to do anything to me now, so I guess I might as well tell you.ö
ôI worked as a switchman on the railroad all my life, until I retired a few years ago and moved up here to the woods. Thirty-two years, two months and 11 days ago, I was working in Bakersfield on a night kind of like tonight.ö
TomÆs face became intense as the words began to tumble out. ôIt happened during a bad winter storm with a lot of rain, 50-mile-an-hour winds and almost no visibility. It was two nights before Christmas and to push away the gloom, the whole yard crew drank all through the swing shift. I was drunker than the rest of them, so I volunteered to go out in the rain and wind and push the switch for the northbound 8:30 freight.ö
TomÆs voice dropped almost to a whisper as he went on. ôI guess I was more drunk than I thought I was because I pushed that switch in the wrong direction. At 45 miles an hour that freight train slammed into a passenger car at the next crossing and killed a young man, his wife and their two daughters.
ôI have had to live with my being the cause of their deaths every day since then.ö
There was a long moment of silence as TomÆs confession of this tragedy hung in the air. After what seemed like an eternity, Father OÆMalley gently put his hand on TomÆs shoulder and said very quietly, ôIf I can forgive you, God can forgive you, because in that car were my mother, my father and my two older sisters.ö
¬1996 Warren Miller. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul; by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Patty Aubery and Nancy Mitchell. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.