"I cannot adequately express the joy I've experienced being Daniel's mother." These words of Maureen Christie moved me greatly when I viewed the Hillsong funeral of her son, one-punch victim, Daniel.
Maureen evoked an image of a young man – whose body lay in a coffin before her – who was wise beyond his years, determined about his path, and loving and caring to his family and to all. Despite her grief, Maureen was proud and grateful.
“My name is Tinah, and I had the great privilege of being the mother to Emmanuel Francesco Tohi.”
Another mother; another son deceased; another example of motherly pride and gratitude for a son graced with caring and wisdom and strength during his too-brief stay on earth.
This is the story of Mum, Tinah Tohi, and her almost seventeen-year-old, Emmanuel.
Emmanuel was born at Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital. He died in Melbourne on 1 December last year, victim for two years of a brain disease for which there was no treatment and no cure. He did not live to fulfil his dream of returning to Newcastle to attend university.
Like Maureen, Tinah could not but speak of her joy in her son. She had returned to Corpus Christi Church, Waratah, for a Mass to celebrate Emmanuel with his Newcastle connection, those who shared his life here before the family’s move to Melbourne.
Prior to the move Emmanuel had completed his first year of secondary schooling at St Pius X, Adamstown. His connection also embraced teachers and students at Corpus Christi, Waratah, his team-mates in local rugby union and league clubs, and the many he joined in church activities, especially youth events involving his musical talents.
According to his Mum, Emmanuel experienced a highlight in his brief life when World Youth Day was celebrated here in 2008 and Emmanuel found himself among thousands of youngsters celebrating the faith he valued.
His faith was a serious matter, and joyful. Perhaps being a Christmas baby and being named Emmanuel (Hebrew for ‘God is with us’) foretold that it would be. According to Tinah, “over the years he really did live up to the name, as he lived out a simple Christian life, reminding his friends and family, through his actions, that God is always with us.”
As the second-born of ten children, and with a well-established identity within extended family and community, Emmanuel was blessed with a great start in life. The beach and fishing featured in his Newcastle upbringing. His nature seemed blessed, too. Despite being an active boy he was gentle with his siblings, cousins and peers, a ready sharer, and respectful and obedient to the adults in his life.
“From a young age Emmanuel was a boy full of wonder and awe. He loved learning, and his favourite subjects were Science and Religion.” He had “a very strong Catholic faith. He seemed to grow in faith and have more courage to do things that he normally wouldn’t do. I remember being surprised at his Communion party, when I jokingly asked my quiet son to do a speech to the one hundred and fifty people present, and he got up and did one.”
In his secondary school years Emmanuel “loved to talk about spiritual matters” and tried to convince his friends of the existence of God. However, his “very strong faith…was seen more through his actions than what he said” according to Tinah. Sometimes he passed up lunch so that he had money to buy treats for his little brothers and sisters whom he loved deeply.
In contrast to Daniel’s sudden one-punch death, Emmanuel suffered a two-year relentless decline. He was fifteen when he suddenly started to have difficulty with homework; his hearing deteriorated; he got lost at school. Then the diagnosis – and fatal prognosis.
“When Emmanuel found out he was dying, and that medicine could not help him at all, he relied totally on God….I told him that we would storm heaven with prayers, and that God would be so sick of us asking him to heal him, that he would have to listen. Emmanuel said to me, “at the end of your prayers you need to say: Thy will be done, because I will only get better if it is God’s will.’ My son often came out with these wise thoughts. I thought that I was the one to teach him about our faith, but in the end he started teaching me.
“Emmanuel’s determination and joy in what he could still achieve were inspirational. He persevered at school and was out and about as long as he could be. When completely blind and almost deaf, he discovered that he could walk around the oval, with his hand on the fence to guide him. He was so happy that he did not need us to show him where to go, that he could do laps around the oval like this for hours.”
Emmanuel attended Mass daily even as blindness, deafness and immobility inexorably progressed. When completely bedridden he wanted daily Eucharist and prevailed on his family to attend Mass and bring Communion to him. He admonished his Mum, “Are you going to keep going to daily Mass if I don’t get healed? You can’t just stop if I don’t get better...”
Other forms of prayer also strengthened Emmanuel and his family. He wanted them to pray the Rosary and the Divine Mercy prayers together. “He did not pray for himself, but his family, other sick people and departed souls in purgatory.” He died peacefully while his family was gathered around him, praying with him and for him.
“It was difficult to watch the prison he was in, and the suffering he went through, but we all trusted that God loved Emmanuel more than we did, and that there had to be good reasons for Emmanuel having to go through this. We could already see many of his friends, family and even strangers praying more every day, and getting closer to God themselves, as they asked God to help Emmanuel.
“His devotion to God inspired many. If Emmanuel could still be so devoted to God, when he was given such a horrible disease, then it became a great lesson to all of us, to not give up our faith, when difficulties presented themselves in our lives.
“You can either lose your faith completely, and wonder how God could let this happen, or rely totally on God to cope with all of it.
“In the end, I am so proud of my son, for the short but courageous life that he led.”
Like Maureen Christie, Tinah Tohi treasures the gift of her son and values the gift of motherhood. Both endure great loss and both will ache and question throughout their entire lives. I think that both will continue to be consoled, delighted and inspired by the goodness and beauty they see in their sons which will live on with them forever.
I think they know intuitively that motherhood is God’s attribute with which they have been graced, and that God’s motherly love enfolds their sons even more than their own plenteous love. If God is love, as St John assures us, then God is the best of mothers.