Anniversaries of Meetings and Partings

“Life is full of meetings and partings. That is the way of it.”  – Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit

A few months from now I will celebrate the 10th anniversary of my ordination as a Unitarian Universalist Minister.  Before that ceremonious occasion became a reality at First Church in Leominster, MA on June 3, 2007, I had to achieve some other important milestones along the way.  One of them was being accepted into the Fellowship of Unitarian Universalist Ministers.  My formal certificate of Preliminary Fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist Minister is dated April 20, 2007, but my interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee was on March 23, 2007 – the day my sister Lisette died. Ten years ago today.

Rev. Tony (right), with his sister Lisette and brother Nick

Lisette was my half-sister and we had half a sibling relationship. We loved each other and liked each other.  We enjoyed getting to visit each other and exchanged cards and gifts and phone calls. But she was almost a decade older than me and we lived in different places, I in Massachusetts and she in Ohio. We were never truly close physically or emotionally, as I am close with my brother.  I have always been closer to my other half-sister, Lisette’s full sister, Teresa, but Lisette’s death carries more emotion, more loss, and a deeper feeling of connection for me than does the death of any other family member, including my father who passed away in 2015.  The reason is that today, like every other day and anniversary of this date is intimately connected to my life as a minister, I can not separate the entry into ministry from the passing of Lisette.

My appointment  with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association was scheduled for Friday, March 23, 2007 at 10 a.m at a hotel in Chicago.  My internship congregation sent me off to the interview for the weekend. I flew in on Thursday night and would stay until Sunday with gift certificates and cash from the congregation to cover expenses, and a dining and to-do list provided by a couple in the congregation that had lived for many years in Chicago. Chicago was going to be my kind of town. For a weekend at least.

Some weeks before my scheduled appointment, the news came that my sister Lisette was indeed going to lose her battle with cancer and would be entering hospice care.  A few days before I left for Chicago, word came to us that Lisette had entered a final decline and wouldn’t last more than a few days.  I conferred with my father and brother, talked with my mom and my sister Teresa, and everyone agreed I should keep the appointment with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Just getting to that point is no simple or easy road and there would be no guarantee about  when I would get another appointment, perhaps not for another year. I headed to Chicago after making an agreement with the family – if Lisette passed before Friday afternoon, no one would call and tell me, so that I could concentrate  on my interview.  I flew into Chicago on Thursday evening, had dinner, stayed up late reviewing notes on Unitarian Universalist history and going over my sermon (each interview begins with a sermon).  I finally fell asleep.

I woke up with a start in the early morning. I jolted up as if waking from a nightmare, but could remember no dream. I was a bit disoriented. I looked at the hotel room window. It was still dark out. I looked for the digital alarm clock on the hotel night stand. It was just after 5 am. As my head cleared, I knew. Beyond a shadow of a doubt I knew. My sister had died.  I almost called my brother to check, but I didn’t. After some tossing and turning I fell asleep again.

I woke at 8 when the alarm went off. I dressed in my suit and tie, gathered up my sermon text and headed off to the hotel where the interview would be.  I arrived.  The Ministerial Fellowship Committee was already running late. I would have to wait longer than expected.  I remember not being nervous. I had not gotten as anxious about the Ministerial Fellowship Committee interview as many others. I figured that interviews with newspaper editorial boards and a televised debate as a statewide political candidate had taken the interview nerves away. After waking up knowing my sister had passed, however, I lost whatever anxiety I had left.

Eventually my turn came. I went into the interview room and preached. The Ministerial Fellowship Committee asked me questions about theology and history and religious education and pastoral care.  One question I remember in particular involved a scenario where I had been summoned to the emergency room as a woman in my congregation had lost her partner to a deadly motorcycle accident.  What would I say?  I vividly recalled waking up with a start a few hours earlier that morning knowing my sister was gone.  “Say?” I echoed, “ I’m not sure I would say anything. Sometimes there just isn’t anything to say.” Apparently that was the right answer.

I returned to the waiting room while the Ministerial Fellowship Committee debated my performance and candidacy for the last time.  Before long, a member of the team came out to get me so the they could tell me the verdict. I passed, with a “1”, the highest grade.  I was elated but reserved. I talked with them a few minutes and accepted very nice and very sincere congratulations.

Rev. Tony’s certificate of Preliminary Ministerial Fellowship

I went to the building’s lobby and called my brother. He answered. “How’d you do?”

“Excellent,” I answered. “I passed. Got a ‘1’, the highest grade.”

Then he told me, “Lisette died this morning.”

I know, I thought to myself, but didn’t say anything.

He continued and told me the time, about 6 am. I did the math. She was in Ohio, one time zone east. Yup, just about the exact same time I woke up with a start in my hotel room.

I don’t remember much else about the conversation after that.

I forget birthdays and anniversaries and I even sometimes forget to send Christmas cards, but every year on March 23 I remember the anniversary of my sister’s passing because it is intimately intertwined with my life and my identity as a Unitarian Universalist minister.

Ten years ago today I met and was welcomed into the ministry by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  Ten years ago today my sister passed into whatever is next after this life.

“Life is full of meetings and partings,” St. Kermit of Sesame told us. “That is the way of it.”



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