A very good friend of mine (Pete O’Neal) lost a close friend this week, and I find myself grieving with him. My grief reminded me that this time last year, I lost two friends whose deaths affected me much more strongly than I would have thought they would, and I am grieving for them again, as well. One died thirteen years ago, but I only learned of his death this time last year. He was my best friend in high school and Irish as the day is long was Michael Sean O’Brien. He was a groomsman in my wedding, but we lost touch when I moved to Los Angeles in 1970. My sister let me know of his passing (he died of ALS) and through her, I got word to her widow (whom I have never met) of a story about Mike and I from our high school days that she didn’t know. It seems strange that I should be so sad when I hadn’t seen or heard from him in almost 46 years, but I was. He was a part of who I am and his passing left me with a hole in part of my heart.
The other friend was Elie Wiesel, who was my professor for the Book of Job at Boston University. I only had him for the one course, but I made many trips to his office, and we became friends. We would talk often, sometimes of trivial things, sometimes of deep things. When I graduated in 1992, he wrote me a handwritten note you can see in the picture at the right. The note says, “My dear Charles Wiggins — We will miss you in class — I do hope our paths cross again — Be well, wise, teach and learn well— And all the best to you, Elie Wiesel.” I once asked him if he had a special prayer that he prayed on a regular basis. He told me that every night he would ask God, “So, how’d I do today? Did I make you proud? or were you ashamed?” We would all do well to pray that prayer every night. I have the note in a picture frame with my favorite picture of him where he is laughing. He didn’t laugh often as filled with sadness as he was, but I could make him laugh in class and out of class. In fact, for a while, on campus, I was known as the guy who made Wiesel laugh. I was proud of that. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, and the text that accompanied the prize read, “Wiesel is a messenger to mankind. His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.” His death was noted in the New York Times as it should have been, and he will be mourned by many. The Times writer, Joseph Berger, wrote that “There may have been better chroniclers who evoked the hellish minutiae of the German death machine. There were arguably more illuminating philosophers. But no single figure was able to combine Mr. Wiesel’s moral urgency with his magnetism, which emanated from his deeply lined face and eyes as unrelievable melancholy.”
I will always remember the first time I met him when he came into class, put on his yarmulke, looked up into our eager faces and asked, “So . . . was Job Jewish?” There were some rabbis in that class and not one of us knew the answer, so he told us to search the text. We did and found that there was no reference to anything Jewish in the book of Job. What an introduction to a wonderful man who would change the way I looked at the world, forever.
So I find myself saying goodbye to Mike and to Professor Wiesel once again as I join my friend, Pete, in his grief, knowing that it was all my friends who helped to make me who I am, and I am blessed that I have had such good friends in my life.