Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, April 26, 2018

In my prayer book, nestled between in memoriam cards for family members and friends and novenas to saints, is a "Things to Do" list that reminds me of things I meant to do, but never did.

It’s a hand-written list of the typical obligations and errands, except for one: "finish report, pick up shirts at cleaners, go to dump, buy shaving cream, schedule dentist appointment and see Bernie."

I did everything except "see Bernie," and that was the most important one.

Bernie was one of my oldest friends. I met him at my first newspaper job when I was 26. He was the editorial writer at the paper. He was like a father to me, and over the years, he gave me career advice, encouraged my writing and always had a positive thing to say even when I wanted to be negative and disgruntled.

He smoked a pipe, wore a bow tie, and had a tweed jacket with a reporter’s notebook in the pocket. A consummate newspaperman, he was everything I aspired to be. I can still remember him walking through the newsroom, that day’s typewritten editorial in hand, with a ribbon of tobacco smoke trailing behind him that filled the room with its sweet aroma.

So, I put on a tweed jacket, bought a bow tie or two, grabbed a reporter’s notebook from the supply cabinet and stole one of my father’s pipes, figuring I was on the road to my first of many Pulitzers.

Several months ago, Bernie was diagnosed with advanced lymphoma and started to undergo chemotherapy. Even though the prognosis wasn’t good, he kept up his spirits, and when I visited him, I brought a bottle of his favorite vodka, because he said the doctor had put no restrictions on his diet.

Over the next two months, he was in and out of the hospital, and just when it seemed things might get better, he fell and broke his hip. After that, his condition deteriorated and the regular e-mail updates from his family made it clear it was only a matter of time.

That’s when I put "see Bernie" on my list, but somehow something else always intruded that kept me from driving 40 miles to the hospital.

Finally, I took Good Friday off from work so I could visit him, but everything conspired against me because I got a dozen calls from the office and three new assignments that had to be completed, along with 100 annoying e-mails.

Saturday would be different, I told myself, and I vowed to drive to the hospital the first thing in the morning.

I got up early, showered and shaved and checked my e-mail.

It was then I learned there would be no visit to the hospital because Bernie had died during the night. There would be no saying goodbye because I had waited too long.

I was angry with myself, my job, God and anyone else I could blame – all because I hadn’t put first things first.

All the contrived obligations had conspired to defeat me, and I never got to say goodbye to one of my best friends.

It was a bitter lesson that I knew I’d remember for the rest of my life. It was the kind of lesson you hope you have to endure only once.

I sat down and did the only thing I could do: I took out my rosary beads and prayed for him, amid the guilt and regret, and then I took the "things to do" list and placed it in the one place where I would never lose it so the memory would always stay fresh, the prayer book.

I promised myself never again to let the things I had to do get in the way of the things I really should do.

On the next morning, Easter Sunday, we went to Mass, but regret and sadness still filled me. After driving home, I pulled into the driveway, and my wife and I got out of the car. As we walked up to the front door, I smelled a familiar aroma, so distinct that it was unmistakable. I opened the door and the scent even filled the living room.

"Do you smell that?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. "It smells like pipe tobacco."

It was pipe tobacco, so familiar to me after so many years.

Bernie had come to say goodbye.

J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.