Francis was an extraordinary man. He had an incredible influence in my life, so I felt unprepared when he suddenly left it. He had been in my life for 8 years, over the past year we had talked every day, and that last week we had talked the day before he died. On Thursday afternoon we had talked about what we would do at the Learning Hour on Saturday afternoon, and by Friday noon he was dead. A few of us were lucky. His wife had called us and told us they were at the hospital and in the emergency room. We were there with him in the last two hours.
Francis came into my life almost as abruptly. He entered it on the second day I was in a recovery program for addiction. He offered to have breakfast with me once a week, he called me frequently, and he offered me his guidance and support. He taught me to trust another human--a man--and he taught me to reach out to others in the same manner. And what he taught me, he did with dozens of other men.
But he did not confine our activities to recovery. He led me and others down the path of rediscovering our intellects. He taught us to use what he called "that muscle between the ears." Over a seven year period, he led me and others through Bronowski's "Ascent of Man, " Kurtz's "Not-God," Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth," and Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." In fact, we did "Grapes" the last month together in the Learning Hour, which he had started two years before.
And when I made the mistake of the worst and most troublesome marriage, he was there every day on the phone supporting me. He would not let me leave; he said, "This time you are going to learn what commitment is about." But he also listened to me every time I called, and he ended every phone call with, "Don't ever hesitate to call me about this."
Francis did not do this exclusively for me. Over a period of years, he had done this for dozens of men. When he died, the largest Catholic Church in town was filled with men and women of all ages and all walks of life. Seven priests, personal friends of his, were in the pulpit, and three bikers, also friends of his, were in the funeral procession. There was a message from the governor, and friends read poetry. At the cemetery, we, not the gravediggers, buried him. We took the shovels and dumped the dirt into the grave.
To this day, three years later, I am still recovering from the loss of Francis. It felt at times like it would destroy me; I was not sure how to live without him there. And this spring, I hit a crisis, a week of rage and sleepless nights, when I thought I would lose my mind. I discovered that I had been coping with his loss by avoiding everything that reminded me of him. That took away much of my support and prevented me from getting on with the grieving and recovering. I rejoined many of those activities and those people. Over the past six months, I have talked and cried, and last week found myself talking and crying about it in a group of 20 other men.
What I have realized recently is that though Francis is physically absent, he is still with all of us. Not a week or a meeting goes by that he or something he said is not mentioned. His words are still in the back of my mind. When I am hurting or puzzled about what to do I hear him talking to me. His spirit lives on in all of us. We all had a wonderful gift in having Francis in our lives.