My Friendship with Frank

Below is a witness given at Frank Simmonds' memorial in January, 2017.

I was—no, I am, a friend of Frank Simmonds. In fact, that is what I would like to talk to you about—how Frank is a friend to me now. First of all, thank you Rita for asking me to speak this morning.

As I was thinking about what I wanted to say, one experience I did not have with Frank came to my mind; that is the experience of an awkward silence. You know what I’m talking about, I’m sure.

We have all experienced that awful moment when you’re one on one with another person, usually someone you don't know very well (but it can also happen with someone you’ve known for 20 years, a dear friend, even a family member). You are having an ordinary conversation and suddenly everything comes to a halt. A silence falls and it just hangs there. Seconds may pass and the anxiety builds, until it becomes almost unbearable. This experience can be terrifying. And so you desperately try to fill up that nothingness that has revealed itself in the silence by grasping for a topic, any topic—the weather, sports, “How’s so-and-so doing?” Or, in the worst cases, you make some pathetic excuse and slip away. I think we have all had this experience many times.

Frank and I did not see each other frequently. However, there were three occasions when I spent extensive periods of time with Frank alone, just the two of us. Twice when I was filming him for various media projects and then for a few remarkable hours in the hospital just before he died. We joked around when we were working and, of course, the conversation in the hospital was much more profound. He was really looking directly at the face of God by that point and the things he said were prophetic and extraordinary. But on all three occasions what strikes me most of all now, in reflection, was what happened during the many lulls in conversation and the long moments of silence between us.

Those moments of silence with just about anyone else would have felt very uncomfortable. There would have been some anxiety and a temptation to fill up that silence. But with Frank, remarkably, it was not like that. The silences were not awkward and did not induce anxiety, because they were not empty, but full.

One of the times I was with Frank, we were supposed to be filming a scene for a film I was making. Only it started to rain, so we had to wait it out. Frank and I sat in my van and made some small talk and joked about our wives. But at a certain moment, we just sat there and listened to the rain falling on the roof and windshield. It was a very beautiful moment.

It is true that Frank said many extraordinary things to us, his friends. But, to me, even more striking was simply the way he was. Being with Frank was very peaceful in a sense because you knew you were with someone who was really there; he was totally present, with his whole self. It was clear in those silences that Frank truly experienced his existence as gift from God. And also that moment in time was a gift. And that he accepted my own presence with him as a gift. You can’t fake being present. It isn’t a trick you can learn from a book or a technique to be taught by an expert. That way of being that Frank had was the fruit of an awareness that was given to him by the Holy Spirit through his wife, his children, his friends, through the Church in the CL Movement and through the whole remarkable path of his life.

You know, Jesus is a genius. I think it was very significant that, toward the end of his life, He made Frank a doorman. We have to pay attention to that fact. I’m sure it was not a mistake. It was a sign from Jesus. What is the main task given to a doorman? It is to simply be there, to be present. When I was with Frank at the hospital (this was during a period when he was in and out of consciousness), he told me that at some point in the previous days, he had experienced death. Frank told me that he had come face to face with the Lord, but Jesus told him that it was not time for him to die yet, because He still had things for Frank to do.

There are so many people Jesus touched and helped through Frank when he was in his hospital bed—and also through the videos he made with Rita during the time of his illness. To me, he really was Jesus’s doorman! In my time with Frank, I had an experience of timelessness. You could even say it was a holy experience. In fact, when I was working at the New York Encounter this weekend, I spent a whole day off on my own completing a project for the final assembly. There were curtains separating the spaces and at one point, I heard two of the encounter volunteers talking. One of the girls, a college student, was explaining to her friend about today’s Mass and why we were gathering. She had never met Frank, but she was trying to tell his story. And she got it basically right—how Jesus had pulled Frank out of the gutter and transformed his life. For that girl, Frank’s story was something vital to this moment that had to be shared.

I’m sure Frank has zero interest in us “memorializing” him in the traditional sense. But memory isn’t just recalling something lost in the past. Memory is also remembering a fact that affects you now. And this is one way Frank’s friendship manifests itself in my life today. His witness provokes a question in me. It makes me ask myself, am I alive now? Am I present? I have no idea what happens in Heaven. I can’t imagine what it must be like; it is a complete mystery to me. But I do know one thing Frank is doing right now, because he told us when we were at the hospital. He said that he would be praying for us and when he prayed with us he asked for three things. First, that we would be aware of the presence of Jesus in our lives.

Secondly, that we would be given the grace to live our friendship with Christ through the community He gave us. And thirdly, that we would be bold and go out into the world, announcing and sharing Jesus’ friendship with everybody. So, there is a clear way I can live my friendship with Frank right now—and that’s to ask the Lord for the same things that Frank is asking on my behalf. I’m a storyteller by vocation. They tell you that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But my friendship with Frank did not end when I left that hospital room. Our friendship does not have an end. It has a destination, but not an end. Because this destination is a place where Jesus makes everything new. Jesus let me experience that newness in my friendship with Frank as a sign of what is to come.

I believe that is what Frank wants us to remember today—that Jesus has a beautiful destiny prepared for each of us and that by helping each other walk toward this destiny, we can live our friendship with Frank and with each other.