Sunday, October 7, 2012

Reflections on My Father's Death and Life

My dad was not Catholic.  He was a non-church-going Protestant who neither disclosed a denomination, nor quoted from the Bible.  Although he was the parent to drive me to C.C.D. every Saturday, the only religious instruction I received  from my Dad was his pronouncement, “I read the whole Bible once! You should read it, too. Forget your soap operas;  there’s some far-out, racy stuff in that Book!”  He often said he went outside “to walk my little dog and talk to Jesus,” but his tone was such that I never knew if he was kidding or serious.  Although he had quit drinking when I was thirteen, he told the best man at my wedding how he envisioned heaven: “I’ll be sitting on a cloud with a bottomless keg of Coors.”  

This is why I could not bring up heaven or God or prayer with him as he was dying.  Given the fact that he’d never trusted Holy Rollers and I had pretty much recently transformed into one,  I feared offending him and becoming a barrier between him and Christ at that critical time.  He couldn’t eat, he looked like a skeleton, he had constant excruciating pain, but he wouldn’t even admit to himself that he was dying!  He was diagnosed in October and he died the following January, and really, he’d always thought he’d get better and have another year or two.  He never asked his doctor to tell him a prognosis.  In light of his denial, to suggest or ask if he was prepared for the next life would have been the Ultimate Violation of Trust.  

Yet I knew dad’s physical suffering was intensely compounded by fear, regret and anguish as he faced his End.  It seemed he doubted entrance into heaven... or if heaven would even be there.  

I believe in the Divine Mercy.  I wanted Dad to have the comfort of that knowledge, too. I  ached with my awareness that he thought he suffered alone, that his suffering counted for naught, that it was a sign of his failure...  While I did not think my dad’s soul was somehow destined for hell, I saw how his purgatory had already arrived with a fury; I wished to lift him from despair, to direct his gaze to the One in the room who loved and forgave and was waiting to bring him peace.    

Dad and I had rarely talked about our “feelings”; anything too personal was just embarrassing.  We loved through our actions for one another, through our mutual respect.  Yet I felt in my core that my weakened, dying dad needed to know he was a good dad, that he was my hero, that he was not a failure.  He needed to know why I was able to do so well in school when mom was drinking and raising hell every night before passing out on the couch;  why in spite of the chaos and financial uncertainty in the wake of his debilitating accident, I could still feel safe or happy or be successful; the reason why was because I came home to him.  

Every afternoon after school, I’d find Dad in the kitchen, grilling a cheeseburger just for me, timed by him to be piping hot as I stepped off the school bus.  This was how my dad provided for me.  He did not earn a salary or have a job because of his disability.  He relied on an embarrassing social security benefit to supplement my mother’s secretary salary to raise me. 

I called a priest I knew, and unloaded this all on him.  When I finished, Padre assured me that God is Love. To sit by dad’s bed and tell him how much I loved him would suffice in witnessing to Christ, without ever uttering His name.  My prayers for our blessed Mother’s intercession did not need to reach Dad’s ears, only hers.

Right then I decided to take the next day off from work, and drive to Massachusetts to see my dad;  I knew it was time.  

In the hospital room, I trembled all over as I smeared cold cream on his dried-out fingers, and dabbed some vaseline on his cracked lips, and worked myself up to what needed saying. I reminisced about those burgers and moments like it.   I told him that I wanted to be the kind of parent he had been for me...that I’d decided to leave teaching because I wanted to be home with my kids, full-time for them, like he had been for me.  I thanked him for accepting and loving my husband like his own son, when Emre’s own dad had abandoned him.  I told my dad that I loved him and loved him and loved him forever.  

(I did, and I do.  And my dad was so proud of me.  I will never in my life make anyone so proud as I made my dad. ) 

I held his hand and I sang to him.  Actually, I hummed, because I have a fairly lousy singing voice and it wasn’t a private that would just be weird.   But all that Autumn and Winter, I’d woken up thinking of my dad and praying for him, secretly depressed that I wasn’t with him.  And in those private moments when my husband and babies slept, as I prepped coffee and lunches for our work days in Connecticut, I imagined being in Massachusetts with my dad, singing a hymn I’d heard at church.  I fulfilled that odd fantasy as I hummed for him, while he drifted in and out of sleep, unable to talk:

O Lord my God!  When I in awesome wonder,
 Consider all the works Thy hands have made;
 I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, 
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee;
How Great Thou Art, How Great Thou Art...

Was my desire to share this hymn with Dad my subversive way of bringing him to Christ?  I’d thought it was at the time.  Six years later, I understand my compulsion to do so more fully.

On the darkest days of my mom’s drinking and my parent’s financial stress, my dad at times exuded a kind of peace.  He had such a gratefulness for simple things: walking his little dog around the yard, sitting on the front steps with a cigarette and his newspaper.  Eating a greasy, pan-fried linguica on squishy white bread.  Grilling Cinnamon Swirls, in butter, “until they look crisp and warm like perfect little sunshines.”  Eagerly appreciating every episode of The Cosby Show.  Teaching me to tie my shoes, to play checkers, to string up lights on a Christmas tree.  Each of these moments was entered into fully and celebrated by my Dad.  

While I desired to remember Christ to my father; I also needed to signal to dad that he had -already and always- brought me to Christ.

Dad in relationship to me now: still present, just outside my field of vision.


  1. That Padre is quite a guy...

    This blog entry is powerful beyond words. Wow.

  2. Wow, really powerful. Although I had a less complicated relationship with my father, it was in many ways similar to yours...and he was always there in a different way than my Mom was..

    1. Thanks Christina. Fathers are complex, and so very important.

  3. Your reflection on your father is beautiful. I often wonder how I will be Christ to those I love. I love your priest friends advice that God IS love and that through our loving others it witnesses Christ's love even without mentioning Him.