Monday, February 4, 2013

Viva la Vida: Tribute to a man I never knew

Viva la Vida (Live Life) is a running series of posts about my life experiences, meant to help me reflect on the "why's?" of who I am becoming through my ongoing conversion. It won't be chronological or all-inclusive, and I'll be careful not to indict anyone else (too much).

"Let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice." Although man can forget God or reject him, He never ceases to call every man to seek him, so as to find life and happiness. But this search for God demands of man every effort of intellect, a sound will, "an upright heart", as well as the witness of others who teach him to seek God. - Catechism 30
As I'm sure is the case with most, if not all, the witness of others has greatly influenced my perspective on life. Some of those witnesses will never know that their lives have touched mine. One of those is Carroll Nelson.

I never met Carroll or had the pleasure of really knowing him, but I hope that by sharing this little story of how Carroll gave me a different perspective on just one little thing in life, you will see that we are always witnesses; hopefully for the better.


Most of this post is taken or based on the words of Carroll's wife Liza, Fr. Timothy Heines, and Carroll himself.

The Man

Carroll met Liza when they were sophomores in High School "in Mrs. Frankson’s biology class". Liza says they dated for four years before she "finally convinced Carroll to marrying" her.

Carroll was always an active person. He traveled regularly in his work for Whataburger. It was part of his daily routine. He was also an athlete who played tennis, baseball, and golf. He was a musician who had a beautiful voice, played the guitar, and occasionally the piano. These are all things that Carroll would tell you defined who he was. And of course to his family, he was a loving father (Carroll III, Colin, and Joe) and husband.

A Heart-Breaking Day

Carroll began seeing an Orthopedist after he realized that he wasn't able to run like he used to when playing tennis.  The Orthopedist referred him to a Neurologist. In the course of trying to determine what was causing the weakness in his legs, he underwent many tests.

Eventually, he began to develop foot-drop in his right foot and just before this symptom developed, he found that he was diabetic. The doctors felt that he could have diabetic neuropathy, and so he underwent many more tests which made Carroll feel tired and weakened.

The doctors began to suspect ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Carroll was concerned to tell his boss that the doctors were suspecting he may have ALS, and so he tried to hide his weakening physical condition. But in June of 2004, Carroll had an episode where he fell flat to the ground in the presence of his co-workers, boss, and a few members of upper-management. Carroll had to have a "heart-to-heart" with his boss.

After that conversation, his boss called with contact information for Dr. Stanley Appel at the ALS Clinic in Houston. Dr. Appel had devoted his entire career to the research and treatment of ALS. Dr. Appel and his team ran a battery of tests and examinations of Carroll over a three day period.

At the conclusion of these tests, it was confirmed that Carroll did indeed have ALS. Liza describes that day as "heart-breaking for us all".


As the disease progressed, he was no longer able to fully express himself or enjoy those things which he had previously found his identity in. He was no longer an athlete, a musician, and all too quickly lost the ability to perform his job. Carroll found himself in a position where he was forced to re-define who he was.

Carroll began experiencing conversion, and sharing with our parish some of his experiences, he said

"I believe that my conversion may not have happened without facing this trial. Previously, I relied on my physical strength and very little on my spiritual strength. Now, I found as my body weakens, my spiritual strength increases many times over. That’s not to say that it isn’t trying at times, but at the darkest time, I know I can lean on God." 

Carroll had begun to find his identity in God.

What Does This Have To Do With Me?

I had witnessed Carroll and his family at Mass in our parish many times. I was always moved by this family, but I could not put my finger on it.

I was a sponsor in our parish RCIA and on retreat in early 2007, when Carroll and Liza came to speak to us. By that time, Carroll's speech was impeded to the point that Liza had to read to us what Carroll wanted us to know. And so I use the words "Carroll said".

"The most basic of human functions, eating, toileting, even resting and most vitally, breathing becomes the challenges of the day. As I lost the ability to do the things that had previously defined me; singing, playing the guitar, athlete, etc, I found new joy in things as simple as a cool breeze on a warm day. Things that previously went unnoticed; I found a new awareness of and greater appreciation for."

And then, it was a very simple thing that Carroll said, but even now as I type brings me to tears.

Carroll told us of how he was dreaming one day. He dreamed about a clear summer day which he described  everything to the last detail; down to the air he was breathing. He was mowing the lawn. And then, he realized that it was a dream. He said that some men from our parish were mowing the lawn and how much he appreciated their help.

But most importantly, he missed being able to mow his lawn.

Guilty! I am not a fan of mowing the lawn. I can whine and complain and procrastinate and grumble, and you get the point.

With simple words, backed by the witness he had already provided (also unknowingly) as I previously observed him and his family, Carroll helped me to at least try to appreciate some of the things I should be more appreciative of; like having the ability to.

Last Words

Carroll passed away in September of 2007. His last words were

“Pray the Rosary!”

Although I never met the man, I went to Carroll's funeral Mass. After all, he had...has contributed to my continuing conversion.

I still don't enjoy cutting the grass. But since that day, every time I start the mower, I think of Carroll, and I appreciate having the ability to mow my lawn.
Below is the transcript of the Homily for Carroll's funeral Mass; given by Fr. Timothy Heines. I hope you will read the entire Homily as it gives more insight into the life of Carroll.

In our Catholic faith, there are two words that are very special to us: sacrament and consecrate. In our tradition, we believe that God works in many ways to reveal his presence to us. As en-fleshed beings, body and soul, it is sometimes difficult for us to see and fully experience the presence of a transcendent God. For that reason, God reaches out to us and reveals himself in many different ways. Seemingly earthbound, we sometimes struggle to see heaven.

So in the fullness of time, God so loved the world that he sent his Only Son. His Son spoke words of hope and love, and reconciled us to the Father through the gift of his own body and blood. His message was of a new order, a new creation, a kingdom. He spoke in parables that allowed us to begin, despite our mental feebleness, to begin to understand something that transcends human experience. He also worked miracles, so that despite our physical feebleness, we might through signs and wonder begin to experience something of the promise that awaits us as his Kingdom Comes.

The signs continue in the world through the ministry of His Body, the Church. We have the sacraments: washed in the regeneration of baptism , nourished by that which appears to be bread and wine, anointed in the Spirit through the healing balm of oil. Yet, let those who have eyes, let them see. For the sacraments are not something that one merely receives. When we truly understand the manner by which our God works, and appreciate the transforming power of God’s grace, we should know this: a sacrament is something that one is to become.

When we are imbued with the presence and power of God’s love, which we call grace, we become his instruments. This is why the words “sacrament” and “consecrate” come to mind as we gather to celebrate the life of Carroll Nelson. For as we remember the life of Carroll Nelson, the reality of becoming a sign of something more comes more sharply into focus.

For many of us, Carroll embodied the virtue of Hope. He was a living symbol to us of that key Christian virtue. For the righteous, the key virtue in life may be faith. For the saints, it is obviously love. But for the rest of the poor schmucks in this world—the vast majority of us, the virtue which guides and shapes our choices, our attitudes, our perspectives, our lives, is the virtue of hope.

In common usage, hope refers to some kind of wishful thinking. In the Bible, it is something much more positive. It is shaped by an expectation of the future, a trust in the promises of God, a way of living in the midst of trial, and a way of letting go of ego in light of surrender to the providence and power of God. 

Carroll was a character—a joker, a singer, a man who enjoyed friends and food and fun. And as his disease progressed, the irrepressible spirit of the man was slowly being trapped in a body which could not express or enjoy the fullness of life’s own promises.

Yet we gather here to celebrate because Carroll did not surrender to that imprisonment. Instead, by embodying that kind of hope, he, in many ways transcended the prison of his own body and revealed to us a freedom that many of the most healthy, strong, and physically vibrant among us will never know.

He lived a hope in a world to come that enabled him to love in times of despair and to have faith in times of darkness. The paradox of his final days, while barely to communicate in the conventional sense, was that he said a great deal, loudly and clearly. He showed us that true freedom is not merely the accumulation of choices or the exercise of power for oneself, but comes with a trust in the will of God. The paralysis of the body was caused by Lou Gehrig’s disease. But the paralysis of the soul is caused by selfishness and bitterness. When one lives for oneself, one will always be wanting more and will never be satisfied. When one lives for Christ, he finds himself giving…

Until the very end, we saw Carroll give in that manner. There is a story about his last night. There was a wonderful young woman who used to come to the house and help the Nelson family out. On the last night of his life, before she prepared to leave, Carroll struggled to communicate with her. He mouthed the word “food.” He wanted to make sure that she took some food home for her family. He was aware that he was dying. He was struggling to breathe. He was afraid. But he thought of others. Indeed, his last word of advice to everyone was “Pray the Rosary!”

Indeed, he became for many of us a sacrament, a sign of hope. And I mentioned the word “consecrate.” The word “consecrate” literally means, to set something apart for a special purpose. Carroll, through his conversion experience and his deepening spiritual life, (which I can attest to as his confessor), allowed himself, in the midst of weakness, to be set apart to remind all of us of what is truly important. In the preface for the feast days of martyrs, there is a line which comes to mind. Addressed to God, the prayer says, “You choose the weak and make them strong in bearing witness to you.” This is taken from the first letter to the Corinthians which states:

Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God. It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord."

Towards the end, this certainly could be the epitaph of Carroll Nelson. And so this begs the question then, how do we respond? Because here’s the deal, when we encounter a sign of God, it calls a response forth from us.

God works through human beings so that we may not only see him in a new way, but may respond to one another in a different way. We do damage to Carroll’s memory and we dishonor the God who graced him, if having him in our lives for some amount of time, we do not listen to the lessons of his life. Can we live with hope and give hope to one another? Can we shun bitterness? Can we accept the will of God being content only with the freedom of being able to love and give? Can we trust?

Carroll also had one other message which speaks more to Liza than to him, I think. He said that he wanted everyone to hear the words of scripture: “Husbands love your wives. Wives love your husbands.” It is perfectly ok to grieve right now, but we do so with hope. As Queen Elizabeth said on the occasion of 9/11: Grief is the price we pay for love. It is appropriate and as Jesus reminds us: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

And let us remember the Resurrection of the Body…

And so let us joyfully pray together our Eucharistic prayer—the hopeful banquet that anticipates the one in the Kingdom to Come. It will be a banquet where Carroll will be freed from all infirmity and surrounded by his loved ones will celebrate the fulfillment of the promise that gave him hope. And what was that promise? 

"Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."


  1. George, I'm a bit speechless at having just read this post! All I can think to say, is thank you for sharing your experience with me and others. It confirms the wish I stated in the very beginning of this horrific, yet beautiful journey. As we grew to realize the fate we were about to endure (not only Carroll's illness & all that would entail..but staring into the face of death...Carroll's death), I said, If we MUST go through this (and praying with all my might that we wouldn't) then, I want to or it to, glorify God! Yours is a testimony to that fact and I am certain Carroll would be pleased by your sharing. I might also add that Carroll often said, "He'd never wish ALS on anyone, but he was glad he had brought him closer to God and into the man God intended him to be." Just goes to show that while none of us like to suffer, there are benefits in our trials and without it, we can never truly appreciate or see those for which we should be the most thankful to God for.

    I guess I was just speechless for a moment! lol

    God bless you dear man.
    Liza Nelson

  2. Loved this entire post, what a wonderful reminder of the unseen influences we have on people. Not only did Carroll Nelson influence you, but now me as well. And thanks for including Fr. Heines homily, I especially loved this "But the paralysis of the soul is caused by selfishness and bitterness." Indeed!