Exclusive Interview with Tom Fargnoli
Many of us end up leading an “Unexpected Life,” Tom Fargnoli certainly did. And, as his compelling book illustrates, the unexpected can offer both good and bad. Tom went from studying law enforcement to computer programming, to working as a magician and serving as a deacon of the Catholic Church. He married his high school sweetheart and had two children and five grandchildren. Then his “Unexpected Life” took a turn for the worse. His wife took her life. After his wife’s passing in 2016 Tom had to make a difficult, challenging decision.
His new book “The Deacon: An Unexpected Life” tells the true story of how Tom’s life went from essentially having it all, wife, children, grandchildren, health, great job etc., to having it all suddenly ripped away. The book takes the reader through Tom’s journey - how he coped with the loss of his wife to finding new love and confronting the difficult decision of choosing between remaining in the church as a deacon or starting a new life and remarrying. Below is our exclusive interview.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I was born in Camden, NJ in 1953, the youngest of four children. I was raised in, and still live in, South Jersey, currently in Clarksboro. In high school, I thought I wanted to be an FBI agent, so I pursued a BA degree in Law Justice at Glassboro State College, now known as Rowan University. After graduation and before pursuing a law enforcement career, I took a temporary 13-week position with RCA as a computer operator in 1975. After being exposed to computers, I found them interesting, especially with regard to computer programming. RCA offered me a full-time position which came with educational reimbursement benefits, so I went back to college and received a BS in Computer Science. RCA eventually became Lockheed Martin and I moved into Software Engineering and then into Systems Engineering, earning my master’s degree. I retired from Lockheed Martin as a lead systems engineer at age 62 after 40 plus years of service.
While working as an engineer at Lockheed Martin, I found myself involved in many educational opportunities. This resulted in traveling across the country and teaching various computer languages and analysis techniques. I was very effective in this respect because I had the ability to simplify things that many people found complex.
As a professional magician for several years, I also used various magic tricks to emphasize the subject matter, leaving students with more than just an understanding of course content. I also started teaching computer science at the community college as a senior adjunct.
As a deacon in the Catholic Church, after almost 6 years of formation, I was involved in various ministries, including baptism preparation, religious education, hospital ministry, funeral services, Mass homilies / sermons, and marriage preparation.
I was married to my high school sweetheart, Maryellen, for 40 years. We lived in Blackwood, NJ for 40 years and raised a son and daughter. I currently have 5 grandchildren.
After my wife’s sudden and tragic passing in 2016, I had to make a decision whether to stay a deacon, which meant I had to stay celibate and not pursue another loving relationship that could lead to marriage. After two years of trying to make that decision, I chose to leave the diaconate. After leaving, I met Dorothy, who also lost her husband suddenly and tragically. Two years later, Dorothy and I were married and currently live in Clarksboro, NJ. We are both convinced that God and our deceased spouses had something to do with bringing us together.
What was the impetus for writing your book " The Deacon: An Unexpected Life?"
In dealing with the sudden loss of my wife of 40 years to suicide, I discovered that, with suicide, grieving takes on a whole new dimension. In addition, based on the Church’s rules of celibacy if I lost my wife, a rule I was familiar with, I struggled with making a decision whether to remain a deacon, or leave the diaconate and possibly pursue another loving relationship. I just could not make this decision and this certainly made my grieving even more intense. What did God want me to do? I ended up in the hospital with open heart surgery and experienced new levels of loneliness. It was during this time that I made my decision. A decision that came with much rejection – rejection from church members, brother deacons and priests.
My psychologist told me to write things down – more of a cathartic exercise to help me deal with all the unexpected events that occurred – unexpected in that, before my wife died, life was good – wife, home, children, grandchildren, health, retirement and an amazing ministry. But now, everything has changed. Keeping my faith through all these unexpected changes was a challenge. As I wrote things down, it occurred to me that this could come together into a book. A book of hope and faith through chaos, grieving, and pain. It also occurred to me that in sharing all my unexpected and unfortunate events, and still managing to keep my faith, I would inspire others, amidst their chaos and pain, to find glimmers of hope, faith, love and peace.
I am sure this was a very emotional book to write. It’s based on your experience, but fictionalized. How true to life is it?
It’s completely true to life. Yes, I used a fictionalized character, a reporter, to bring out everything that happened, but it all happened just as I told it. The fictional character turns out to be someone special but that was just my creative way to tell my story. Because it is a true story, it was indeed emotional to write, but as mentioned, it was cathartic.
What were the challenges you faced when writing the book?
In one way, the story was easy to write because it was a true story and I drew upon my experiences. But making the story moving and piecing it together in a way that would hold the attention of the reader was my biggest challenge. This involved sequencing the events in a manner that would facilitate that goal. I felt that it came together nicely and after receiving several letters from readers that told me they could not put the book down once they started reading, I felt that I met that challenge.
Why was this book important for you to write?
The book was truly a cathartic exercise, but it was also important for me to write in order to reconcile myself with respect to leaving the diaconate. It was truly like losing two loves – my wife and a ministry I loved – I was grieving both. Leaving the diaconate, even though I was familiar with the rule just didn’t seem right - I missed serving as a deacon - working with the Holy Spirit to construct homilies, doing funeral services, baptizing, providing marriage preparation, conducting Communion services at the nursing homes, visiting the sick at the hospital, and of course, assisting the priest on the Altar during Mass. I still have dreams that I am a deacon. It was my dream to spend my retirement as a deacon and be a channel of Christ’s peace as a deacon in His Church.
Two other reasons that were important to me was sharing with my readers about how to treat someone who lost a loved one to suicide. They should never assume they understand the cause of suicide because in most cases they probably don’t. They should be aware that suicide survivors are grieving and that their grieving may be much more intense and difficult than ‘normal’ grieving. It’s more difficult because many people believe that those who died of suicide are weak, that they have committed an unforgivable sin, or that they could have avoided suicide if they had faced their problems.
Finally, I wanted to point to my readers that no one is truly alone when God is in their life. I’ve emphasized how my relationship with God has been my salvation through all my experiences and that that relationship doesn’t happen overnight. I wanted to let my readers know that in my time of being alone, it actually strengthened my relationship with God and that that can also happen to them.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
That life changes. Unexpected events occur to all of us and our loved ones. You lose love, you lose friends, and you lose pieces of yourself that you never imagined would be gone. And then, without your realizing it, these pieces come back in one form or another. New love enters, different friends come along, and a stronger, wiser you is staring back in the mirror. I also hope that in reading my book, they will show compassion to those who are grieving, particularly those who have lost a love one to suicide. Finally, I hope that they will see the importance of a relationship with God and know that with that relationship, they will never be alone and will never face unexpected and unfortunate events by themselves.
Are you planning on writing any other books?
Yes – based on the letters I’ve received from people I don’t even know, I would like to turn my attention to writing and through my storytelling, I hope to connect to people who, amidst their chaos and pain, their unpleasant and unexpected experiences, their loneliness and grieving, can find some glimmers of hope, faith, love and peace. The essence of being a deacon is “to serve”. I don’t need to be wearing a fancy robe to do that. I can continue to do that through writing. As Confucius said, “It’s better to save one life than to build a seven story pagoda.” I am currently planning to write a sequel to the Deacon focused on the way forward.
For more information on Tom Fargnoli and his new book please visit: https://thomasfargnoli.com/