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 North American Sierra Nevadas, 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 the town, the power was off where fallen trees had snapped overhead cables. At the small church, the heavy rain and high winds beat against the windows with a violence that Father O’Malley had never before heard.
In his tiny bedroom, out of the darkness the phone rang. As he picked up the phone, a voice quickly asked, “Is this Father O’Malley?”
“I’m calling from the hospital in Auburn,” said a concerned female voice. “We have a terminally ill patient who is asking us to get someone to give him his last rites. Can you come quickly?”
“I’ll try my best to make it,” O’Malley answered. “But the river is over its banks, and trees are blown down all over town. Look for me within two hours.”
The trip was only 30 miles, but it would be hard going. His progress was slow and cautious, but he continued on toward the hospital. Not a single vehicle passed him during his long, tense journey. Finally, in the near distance, he could see the lights of the small hospital, and he hoped he had arrived on time.
With his tattered Bible tucked deep inside his overcoat pocket, O’Malley 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. He heard footsteps headed his way. It was the night nurse.
“I’m so glad you could get here,” she said. “The man I called you about is slipping fast, but he is still coherent. He’s an alcoholic and his liver has finally given out. He’s been here for a couple of weeks this time and hasn’t had a 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 doesn’t seem to want to talk much.”
“What’s your patient’s name?” O’Malley asked.
“The hospital staff has just been calling him Tom,” she replied.
In the soft night-light of the room, Tom’s thin, sallow countenance looked ghostlike behind a scraggly beard.
“Hello, Tom. I’m Father O’Malley,” and he began to say the prayers of the last rites.
After the “amen,” Tom perked up a bit, and he seemed to want to talk.
“Would you like to make your confession?” O’Malley asked him.
“Absolutely not,” Tom answered. “But I would like to just talk with you a bit, before I go.”
And so Tom and Father O’Malley talked about the Korean War, and the ferocity of the winter storm, and the knee-high grass and summer blossoms that would soon follow.
After a couple of hours, and after about the fourth or fifth time that Father O’Malley asked the same question, Tom replied, “Father, when I was young, I did something that was so bad that I haven’t spent a single day since without thinking about it and reliving the horror.”
Father O’Malley gently said, “I’m sure that God will forgive you, Tom, whatever it was you did. He is love. He wants us to confess and to receive His forgiveness. He wants you to be free of whatever it is that has plagued you for so long.”
“Even now, I still can’t talk about what I did,” Tom said. “Even to you.”
O’Malley silently waited. Finally Tom said sadly, “Okay. It’s too late for anyone to do anything to me now, so I guess I might as well tell you.
“I 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 ago, I was working in Bakersfield on a night kind of like tonight. It was Christmastime.”
Tom’s face became intense as the words began to tumble out. “It happened during a bad winter storm with a lot of rain, 50-mile-an-hour winds and almost no visibility. Two nights before Christmas, the whole yard crew drank all through the swing shift. I volunteered to go out in the rain and wind and push the switch for the northbound 8:30 freight.”
Tom’s voice dropped almost to a whisper as he went on. “I 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.
“I have had to live with my being the cause of their deaths every day since then.”
There was a long moment of silence as Tom’s confession of this tragedy hung in the air. After what seemed like an eternity, Father O’Malley gently put his hand on Tom’s shoulder and said very quietly, “I know God can forgive you, son, because I can. In that car were my mother, my father and my two older sisters.”
By Warren Miller