Jim O’Neill and I were walking past the Trevi fountain on our way to the Rome bureau of the National Catholic News Service, now called the Catholic News Service. It was my first Rome trip there since my appointment as director and editor in chief. Jim, the bureau chief, was telling me about visiting a friend in a Roman hospital.
So I asked Jim, “Where do you go for treatment when you get sick?”
“To the TWA ticket counter,” he said with a smile.
TWA was the airline of choice for many American bishops, and for some folks who worked for the bishops. Like me. I have a life membership card for the TWA Ambassador Club, along with another for Pan American. I thought they would be good for my life, not the airlines’ lives.
Life is a gift from God, according to preachers and poets. All of us are created equal, according to patriots and philosophers. Life is a gift that keeps on giving, prompting some to ask What gives?
One day I read an article in Catholic Mind, a magazine published for many years by Jesuits in New York. The author was Bishop John Wright of Worcester, Massachusetts. I wrote him a note about his article, he replied, and eventually I went to work on the Worcester Telegram copy desk. That was a long time ago.
About the time Sally and I left Worcester for Honolulu, Bishop Wright left to become the Bishop of Pittsburgh. Our friendship flourished. When our first son was born in Hawaii we named him John Wright Wall. It was at the bishop’s home in Pittsburgh, years later, that I met a gifted young priest, Donald Wuerl, newly-chosen secretary to the bishop.
Wright became a cardinal when he was named prefect of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of the Clergy, and Wuerl became a cardinal decades later after he was named Archbishop of Washington. It really is a small world.
Honolulu was the center of the world for lots of transplants like Sally and me, with three children born in Hawaii. I was managing editor of the morning newspaper, the Honolulu Advertiser, when a long-time friend asked me to meet secretly with him in Washington’s Watergate hotel. Bishop Joseph Bernardin was general secretary of the conference of U.S. bishops when he invited me to become head of the news service with two major objectives. The news service budget was blotched in red ink, and losses were mounting as clients cancelled their orders. Objective number one was to regain the lost clients and pull the budget into black ink.
The news service prepared bundles of mimeographed news reports each day for mailing to clients. My job, objective number two, was to find a way to send the daily news report to clients everywhere via leased wire. The service had been negotiating with a domestic news agency that was better than nothing, but it was an answer to prayer when negotiations began with Reuters instead. Our contract gave us hours of transmission to anyplace in the world served by the giant news agency, plus the guarantee that news reports written by our correspondents would be wired to us in Washington within 20 minutes of being presented at any Reuters office. It was a suspenseful time for me, because Bernardin had told me I had to make all of the decisions and be responsible for the consequences.
I don’t suppose that left you in much suspense, but in case it did, both objectives were met. I kept my job, not aware that an incurable neurological disease was already sampling some of my brain cells. Bernardin departed to become Archbishop of Cincinnati and eventually the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago. And I wrote a book about him.
That neurological disease was eventually given a name, olivopontocerebellar atrophy or OPCA, later renamed multiple system atrophy (MSA). Somebody told me there can be as many as 100 billion neurons in the brain, and the brain controls thinking, memory, talking, walking. Anyone with MSA may be subject to zoom-speed dizziness, sudden falls, shocking headaches, gagging, distorted vision and so on – and not necessarily be aware of it.
Awkward behavior is part of the package. I’m glad I have friends who overlook promises I forget to keep, and conversations that skid right through my neurons, sliding out through my pores, never to be remembered. Friends know that MSA and arthritis coexist, gout is part of it, sometimes a shirt is easy to button, sometimes touch typing is still possible. The give and take of friendship, the giving and forgiving, is part of the mystery. Friendship is medicinal, prescribed by the usual folks, like Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Francis of Assisi, the other Francis in Rome.
A few years ago I gave up my drivers license because I could see highways swaying like hula dancers, and other dizzy distractions of MSA. One of these days MSA will revoke my touch typing license and etch my dizziness into the hard drive. After I stopped driving I had my pick of what to do next, read some lively murder mysteries, listen to music accumulating on my i-pod, buy things from Amazon, watch movies on TV, notice all the stars I never heard of who have become famous since James Cagney, Mae West, Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead, whatever.
Slowing myself down on my two active computers is as simple as deleting more commercial emails without reading them, enjoying hours of Jamestown photos and other Internet nostalgia, and savoring endless action via online newspapers, broadcasters, social scans and such. Everything gets older, including the bottled grains of Scotland and jokes via email. People get older and the luckiest of them are nudged, nagged and nurtured by family and friends. Thanks, nudgers. Thanks nurturers. Thanks naggers. Thanks proofreaders.