In Christ’s cross, Frank Simmonds discovered how his messy life could lead him to a place he never imagined
Rita A. Simmonds March 30, 2018
When I first met Frank Simmonds, I never imagined that he would one day be my husband. It was around Thanksgiving time, 1998. He was living in a shelter on Riker’s Island and helping my friend David care for the homeless at a Volunteers of America satellite on the George Washington Bridge.
David knew that I lived with a group of women who belonged to the Catholic lay community, Communion and Liberation (CL), and asked if I could invite Frank for Thanksgiving dinner. When I did, Frank was very moved, to the point of tears, but said he could not accept.
Well, Frank ended up taking his small stipend and buying crack with it that same day. He never came back to work at the George Washington Bridge. When he finally got in touch with David, he was in rehab. He apologized for disappearing and for not being honest about his crack addiction. He would later recount the story of that night:
After selling my coat and my shoes, I sat on the steps of an abandoned building. I’d run out of money, had nothing to get anymore drugs with, and I said, “Well, I’ll rob the next guy who comes by, and then I’ll just keep moving.”
It’s two o’clock in the morning, so of course you’re not expecting a whole bunch of people running by that you can rob. But I hear footsteps and am like, “Oh, good.”
I look around and here’s this guy, just doe-dee-doe, coming up the sidewalk. I thought, “Perfect, I got it.” As he came closer, I noticed he was wearing black and he had something white by his neck. And I was like, “Oh man, this is really getting bad now. I’m about to rob a priest! Dang, man, how low can you go?”
He comes by, and he gets closer, and I’m preparing myself, getting all rigid. Six foot one, a hundred thirty-five pounds, and now I want to go rob people on the street. He gets closer and I think, “You know what, let me give him a break. If he don’t say nothing to me, I’m going to let him go. I’ll find another guy.”
He goes by, and he stops right at the corner, but he turns around and says, “Young man, if you think God is going to come and lay down with you in the gutter, he won’t. You know why? Because he’s holy. But if you ask him, he’ll come and take you out of this gutter.”
And I said, “Man, you got to get stepping, because I’m ready to jump on you right now, man, you know what I mean? Go!”
As he went up the street and turned the corner, I thought, “Forget it, I’m going to rob him.” I went running around the corner, but he was gone. I looked. There were no lights on. He was gone, and it tortured me.
I didn’t even think I was a person then. I didn’t even know what a person was. I don’t even think I knew what love was. I didn’t even love myself. So I was tortured. I was one of those guys you see walking up the street. And I said, “You know, I can’t take this.”
It was like one of those “Wolfman” movies: the full moon comes up, I turn into this monster. But when do I turn back into me? I’m the monster all the time. I couldn’t take it. I wanted to end it.
All of a sudden, I got all these great plans of how I’m going to commit suicide: I’m going to go to the train station and jump in front of a train. Brilliant! With my luck, it would cut off my arms and legs and my body would still be there, alive.
This is the way my life was. And as I was walking up the street I was yelling at God, “You’re not real! You’re that picture on the wall. Let me see you stop me from what I’m about to do right now. You’re all that powerful ... stop me!”
And as I was walking, something cried out from inside of me. It cried out and it came out of my mouth and it said, “God, if you stop me from what I’m about to do, I will serve you for the rest of my life.” And I was like, “What? What is this?” I couldn’t believe it; my skin started to crawl.
After that happened, I was in such shock. I’m standing in the middle of the street, a car was going by and a guy yells, “Yo, man, get out of the street!” I was like, man, maybe he’ll hit me and I can get it done without having to do all the work myself. But he just went on by.
Before I got to the train station, I thought of the guy from the night before, the priest, and I thought of a guy who told me, “Look, if you really get into real deep trouble, call this number: 1-800-WeDetox.” And, just so conveniently, there was a phone there. I went to the phone and dialed the toll-free number. They were like, “Yes.”
I said, “What are you saying ‘Yes’ to me for, I need the answers from you.”
They said, “What answer are you looking for?”
I said, “Man, I’m a drug addict, really hopeless. I don’t know why I’m making this phone call, but I’m about to kill myself. Help me.”
They asked me where I was and then picked me up. They took me to a hospital that was like a rehab. I said, “This hospital looks familiar.”
“Yeah,” they said, “this used to be Hempstead General Hospital.”
I was in shock: Hempstead General Hospital was where my [now] dead mother had worked. And I realized, right then and there, that someone still loved me, even though they weren’t present.
And what is it that the heart is really looking for? Isn’t it looking for love and relationship? Right then I encountered the very thing that I wasn’t aware of. And I’m still living it now, it doesn’t end.
Later he went from rehab to a program called “Ready, Willing and Able” in Harlem. It was a residence that required constant alcohol and drug testing and the residents were required to work during the day, sweeping the streets of Manhattan, streets that Frank was very familiar with, having lived on them for decades.
David gave me Frank’s address, and I wrote him. I remember sending him a Christmas card even though the holiday had passed. I received a reply from him on Jan. 18, 1999:
“I continue to read your Christmas card over and over again. It doesn’t matter if you send all your letters on Christmas cards because after meeting you, it feels like every day is Christmas.”
From that moment on, it was clear to me that Frank had the eye of God on him. I was going through my own struggles, trying to live the life of a consecrated virgin, but I felt something was missing in my life.
I started to get very depressed and eventually had to seek psychiatric help. Frank’s friendship became very dear to me. He never made me feel ashamed of my weaknesses. I was drawn to the mercy that he lived and breathed.
Soon we were calling each other all the time, and then we started meeting, and it became obvious that we wanted to be together as a couple, but how? We were so different.
Frank told me, “For me to be with a woman like you would be like climbing Mount Everest.” His previous relationships had included sex, and without that, he remarked, “What are you, a doll? Am I supposed to just look at you?”
Needless to say, it was not an easy courtship for either of us. We broke up three times. Frank was always frustrated; I was always crying. We did not understand each other. I spoke to my priest friend, Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete.
He told me, “It will be much easier for you to be a married woman than for Frank to be a married man. Marriage will require a much greater change for Frank, and you don’t want to push him.”
I can’t say that I didn’t push him, but he was not the type of person you could push, anyway. He often told me, “I am not going to get married just because people think I should. I have to decide that it’s what I want to do.”
Another time he told me, “It’s not you; it’s me. I know you’d be a good wife; I’m not so sure I’d be a good husband.” But I knew that he loved me. His heart never wavered.
The last time we broke up, he met me on the street on Third Avenue. I was sitting in my car and he was standing on the sidewalk. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m probably making the biggest mistake of my life, but I’m going to have to cut you loose.”
I answered, “Well, if you know that it’s the biggest mistake of your life, why are you making it?”
“This relationship is just too hard for me. You have too many rules and regulations. I’m sorry.”
He walked away sad, and, of course, I was heartbroken.
Afterward Frank went on a trip down south with a friend. He called me many times, even though we were broken up. I tried to date other people to relieve the terrible pain of not being his “woman” anymore. But there was no one like Frank.
I was living with my sister Naomi at the time. A guy I was dating used to call and leave messages on the answering machine. Naomi told me, “When I hear this guy’s voice, it makes me think, he’s nothing like Frank. I really miss Frank.”
And Frank would not stop being a part of my life. He still called and told me he loved me, but I was trying to move on. I remember telling everyone, that was it; never again; we were done.
One day I was driving on the FDR, and I just turned the wheel and got off at Frank’s exit. It was a deliberate wrong turn because I thought I just wasn’t strong enough to stay away. I drove to his apartment building and rang the bell.
He greeted me with great excitement. We were instantly back together again, but I told him that we needed to think seriously about getting married.
On one of our dates at a Chinese restaurant, I was trying to make conversation, and Frank didn’t respond. I started crying, fearing we had nothing in common.
“What’s wrong now?” he said.
“We have nothing to talk about. How will we ever get married?”
“I just put food in my mouth and you want me to talk! How am I supposed to make conversation with a mouthful of food?”
I burst out laughing. Frank was the perfect man for me.
Not too long after that, Frank surprised me and said, “God put it in my heart that you are my wife.” And Frank was a man who lived, not by rules and regulations, but according to his heart!
He even said, “We don’t even have to get married because you are already my wife.” Of course, I objected to that, but he treated me much differently. The change was obvious.
We went to Msgr. Albacete for Pre-Cana. Frank went in ready for a fight. Although he was born and raised Roman Catholic, he did not like having to answer to the Church. When he met Msgr. Albacete, he was immediately enchanted. The two became instant friends.
“Did you buy her a ring?” he asked.
“No,” Frank answered.
“Well, she should have a ring,” Msgr. said.
“Did you set a date?” he asked.
“No,” Frank answered.
“Well, you need to set a date, and this date can change. It’s not written in stone. We’ll call it a target date.” Msgr. understood how difficult it was for Frank and he walked Frank through, step by step, allowing for him to back out at any moment.
We planned on getting married in October. It would be my 40th birthday. Frank decided to move the date up to July because my father was sick. Frank wanted to make sure that my father would be at the wedding because he told my father, when we visited him in the hospital, that he would be well enough to walk me down the aisle!
When the wedding day arrived, my dad did indeed walk me down the aisle. Frank was very moved. We stood before Msgr. Albacete in St. Rose Church where I had made all my sacraments, and Msgr. Albacete’s first words were to Frank: “Are you sure you want to do this, because it’s not too late to call the whole thing off.” Frank emphatically proclaimed that he was sure.
It didn’t take long before we had two sons, which was completely unexpected considering I was over 40, and Frank was 50 when our youngest was born. (He also had two older children from previous relationships, and he was a grandfather.)
He did not want to have more children and that was another hurdle we had to get over, which we did, with the help of Msgr. Albacete and other men in the CL community, whom Frank respected.
Soon Frank became the leader of the CL community in New York, but he told me, “God is getting ready to ask something more from me,” but he didn’t know what until our choir director asked him to carry the cross over the Brooklyn Bridge in our Good Friday procession to Ground Zero.
It was 2009. Frank was so excited. He felt he was born to carry the cross. He used to tell people, “I don’t carry the cross; the cross carries me.”
And he carried it every year until 2014, when he could only hold it at the beginning of the ceremony at St. James Cathedral in Brooklyn.
He had advanced-stage neuroendocrine cancer. Frank understood that Christ was asking even more of him, and he gave him everything, offering all of his sufferings for the world.
Frank passed away on Jan. 19, 2015, at Calvary Hospital in Brooklyn. In the weeks leading up to his departure, he was visited by a steady stream of family and friends who came to console him, but left consoled by him.
After he had breathed his last breath, I was amazed by the feeling of triumph that surged through me. “You made it, Baby! You made it!”
Rita A. Simmonds is an award-winning poet. She is a regular contributor to the magazine Magnificat, and is author of a book of poems, “Souls and the City” (2013). She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her two sons.
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