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The road to atonement

Sr Mary (from left), Mgr John Sheridan and Douglas Kmiec worship together just hours before the tragic accident of August 25. Photo: The Sisters of Saint Louis.

Sr Mary (from left), Mgr John Sheridan and Douglas Kmiec worship together just hours before the tragic accident of August 25. Photo: The Sisters of Saint Louis.

US Ambassador Douglas Kmiec is still struggling to come to terms with the tragic car crash that robbed him of two close friends six weeks ago. He tells Ariadne Massa how he wakes up at night with a jolt every two hours as he relives the haunting moment.

Douglas Kmiec was driving along the winding road through the canyons of southern California when one of his passengers, Mgr John Sheridan, asked him to adjust the car’s air conditioner.

“It’s possible that, you know, as I was doing this (turning the knob) the wheel...” he sighs, lingering mid-sentence and looking in the distance as if in search for an answer to the “awfulness” of the accident.

“It would have been insignificantly adjusted on a normal road, but on a canyon road, when it turns sharply to the left you don’t get any forgiveness of that kind. It could have been that.”

As the road turned sharply to the left, the front wheel of the rented Hyundai Accent went off the highway, drifted onto a dirt road, smashed into a concrete abutment and struck a drainage ditch. The US highway patrol has classified the incident as an accident.

“There’s a variety of ways in which that could have happened... While I know it’s important in a technical sense to figure that out, it’s not really what I think about. It’s just the event itself. Why me? Why do I have to be the chariot driver to eternity?”

Prof. Kmiec replays this moment, lasting no more than seconds, for hours in his head as he attempts to find a reason in the “gauzy mists of shock” for the accident that robbed him of two close friends – Mgr Sheridan, 94, and Sr Mary Campbell, 74 – and left him seriously injured.

Sitting on the armchair at the embassy’s residence in Attard, with his head leaning heavily to the right, the feelings of grief and remorse are palpable in the blue-grey eyes of the 59-year-old ambassador as he attempts to deal with the loss six weeks on.

August 25 was a magnificent day; a date that held special memories for Prof. Kmiec because it was the birthday of his mother who passed away some years ago. But the complexion of this date changed forever.

He had just returned to the US after attending the funeral of former President Guido de Marco, and was enjoying an “unexceptional respite” from the normal busy life in the embassy with his wife Carolyn.

They had rented an apartment in a small town in Glendale, California, far away from their home, and were relishing time with their own thoughts and hearing what their five children were doing.

The highlight of this lazy summer vacation for him was the giant Barnes and Noble bookshop right across from the apartment. He was “the cheapest reader around”, gathering all the latest bestsellers, settling in a soft chair, reading them and just buying one. He jokes that it was only diplomatic immunity that allowed him to spend any time in the building.

Mgr Sheridan called, asking if Prof. Kmiec would take him and Sr Mary on a 40-mile journey to Louisville High School, Malibu, to attend the 60th anniversary of the founding of the nuns’ organisation, to which Sr Mary belonged.

The sun was out and it was just warm enough. The singing was beautiful and all of Sr Mary’s classmates had gathered on the hillside for Mass. The bishop started by singling out Mgr Sheridan who, in his 67 years of priesthood, represented “the ultimate gratitude to the religious sisters”.

“The monsignor was not a prideful person, but you could tell he was especially warmed by the expression.”

After Mass, the three friends went to the refectory for a light meal of fish and salad. Someone handed out little rosaries made out of string, a memento that would turn out to be quite significant.

They strolled around the grounds, looking at old pictures and hearing people talk about the order’s history. Then they got in the car and turned onto Mulholland Highway. Six miles later, “life as I know it stopped”.

Punching the palm of his hand with his fist to describe the impact, Prof. Kmiec lowers his voice as he describes the silence that ensued when the car came to a standstill in the ditch.

“Oh, was that an awful silence!I turned round as best I could, but I really couldn’t turn around much because the steering wheel had planted itself in my abdomen, and the seat belt had decided it wanted to make an impression on me too,” he says, attempting to smile, but not quite managing.

Sr Mary, who did not make use of her seat belt, was leaning over on the back seat and he knew in that instant she had died.

Cushioned by seat belts and air bags, Prof. Kmiec and Mgr Sheridan were both conscious, although “me more so than him”. He took out his mobile phone and dialled 911.

“They insisted I keep talking to maintain consciousness. I said I’m going to keep talking but I’m going to say the rosary... The monsignor and I took out the string rosaries we had just been given minutes before at the luncheon and said the rosary,” he says.

“The monsignor was more inarticulate at that moment. I could hear his voice, but it was soft.”

The firemen came after 15 minutes or so and they were and flown to UCLA Medical Centre, where they underwent similar operations to repair perforated colons.

Throughout his narration, Prof. Kmiec’s loafer-clad feet shift up and down, shaking his body as he recounts the distressing details.

Asked if the slight leg tremor is a consequence of the accident, he finds the strength to tap into his wit and replies: “The tremor comes and goes, but if as I get older it becomes more persistent, we might explore it as a source of alternative energy for the new embassy.”

His smile lingers, as he retraces the path of his friendship with Mgr Sheridan and his “sidekick” and assistant Sr Mary, whom he got to know when he moved to the parish of Our Lady of Malibu in California.

The monsignor had retired in 1991 but remained active in the Malibu parish as pastor emeritus, celebrating morning Mass, which Prof. Kmiec attended before his lectures in constitutional law started at the neighbouring Pepperdine University.

“He was a priest of extraordinary generosity and kindness... To him it was entirely an act of love to introduce one person to another.

“Thousands of people account for their friendships in California because at the end of Mass monsignor would say ‘oh you must know each other’,” Prof. Kmiec says, imitating the deep Irish accent of his late friend.

Sr Mary was always around, governing her life with simplicity. He recalls how she would wear the same blue sweater every day and stay at the back of the church watching to see if children were paying any attention.

“If they weren’t she would just give them a little frown. Now frowns didn’t come easy to Sr Mary because her face was naturally constructed to smile. But if the child saw she was frowning that was all the punishment they needed to go straight,” he says, with a fond smile.

Sr Mary often invited Prof. Kmiec to lecture her students, letting him speak at length about St Thomas More and Dorothy Day, the modern founder of the Catholic Worker Movement in the US.

“Dorothy Day used to have this expression: ‘You don’t have to have an institution to do good, you can go out yourself and do a little today, all by yourself’. Sr Mary loved that as a motto for herself and for her students.”

Their friendship flourished, and when the ambassador was posted to Malta by US President Barack Obama, the three remained in touch, Skyping every Friday at 6 p.m. and sending e-mails.

“Often, on these Friday night conversations Mgr Sheridan would say, ‘Doug, when are you coming home? I’m not going to last forever you know!’ And I would tease him and urge him to stop with the morbid thoughts,” he says.

Sometimes the conversations would go on for so long it was not the first time Prof. Kmiec would hear snoring at the other end and realise Mgr Sheridan had gone to lie on the couch, as Sr Mary listened on.

“Mgr Sheridan, Sr Mary and I are great friends. I speak in the present because I believe they’re still with us, walking in the new Jerusalem, as monsignor himself would put it,” he says, recalling the last time he saw his confessor before he died.

Prof. Kmiec had just been discharged, but returned the next day to visit his friend. Mgr Sheridan could not speak because he had a tracheotomy, but he could listen and his eyes were expressive.

“I took John’s hand and I looked him into those deep, wonderful blue eyes and it was clear he was really studying my face. A normal person may say he was saying, ‘why me?’ or ‘what kind of a dunce driver are you?’,” he says.

“But he was saying neither of those things. He was not blaming or recriminating. He was saying through his eyes, ‘Doug, you still believe? Is your heart still with God?’ At that moment I said ‘of course John, where else could it be’. I held his hand and at that moment it relaxed.

“As I left the hospital I said to my son Kiley, ‘I told the monsignor I believe, but I’ve got to tell you, this is the greatest challenge to my belief that I have ever had’.

“I wasn’t angry with God, I was just confused. What kind of a mystery is this? Where’s the plotline?” he says, adding that having made this promise to Mgr Sheridan he was not going to go back on his word. The belief is now a belief sealed by a vow of friendship for my two friends who I’m confident are saints in heaven.”

The expressions of sympathy, empathy, and grace from well-wishers, including the kind words of the relatives of Mgr Sheridan and Sr Mary, are what Prof. Kmiec holds on to, to sustain his faith.

“The dear relatives of the monsignor said: ‘Well, you know it’s pretty clear that God looked down into that car and saw two who were ready and one who wasn’t and now you’ve got your work to do, He obviously left you here for a reason.’

“I believe that in my work now, if I’m not doing it with extraordinary kindness and thoughtfulness, with the kind of attitude they would have brought to the people who came to them, then I’m separating myself from them. I never want to be separated from them.

“My reaction to all this is, Lord I’m your footnote. What are you doing giving me this main tax to carry. Footnotes are meant to be just isolated facts you could live without and somehow he’s saying I want you to be more than that.”

A “cradle Catholic”, Prof. Kmiec’s ability to put on a brave face and confront the outcome of the fatal car crash through faith is rare, but all this seems to crumble when the night falls and he becomes his own “most prominent accuser”.

Most nights he wakes up with a jolt at 2 a.m., 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., reliving the accident.

“So if you’re living in the same Attard street you can see the lights go on... You know it’s a shock to the system, and most psychologists and counsellors would say some of this will dissipate over time and I’m counting on that to be true, but it will dissipate only because I’m going to be conscious in my waking hours of the obligation I have.”

Although the ambassador is back at work, he still has to undergo one last operation, which he hopes will be performed in Malta in December or January.

“At the moment, you can’t quite see it, but beneath this suit and tie is a lot of tape, bandages and some things I’d rather not have. I’m hoping, and I’m confident the doctors in Malta will be able to look at me... and even though Humpty Dumpty broke himself in California they can put the ambassador back together again,” he smiles.

“I don’t know of any medical disability that’s long-lasting beyond the surgery.

“I’m not worried about the physical, as painful as it sometimes is, and the wound is deep and big; that will heal. It’s the emotional and spiritual side that is the hardest, the sleepless nights, the missing of monsignor and sister in the form they were in,” he adds, clasping his hands as if in prayer.

Work is a good balm for the soul and Prof. Kmiec is looking to be more attentive to those who cross his path while he is an ambassador; he plans to ask himself more genuinely if there is something in his repertoire that can be of use to them.

Mgr Sheridan was buried on Prof. Kmiec’s birthday on September 24. Now he thinks of the anniversary of his mother’s birth and his birthday as a sign.

“I see this as a kind of meta­phorical symbol given to me by a larger presence to say you are reborn, you have been given new opportunities to do more than you’ve done before; don’t waste it. Live life to the full, live it well, live it in grace and blessing and extend that to others.”

Watch excerpts of the interview at www.timesofmalta.com.

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