My father died yesterday. He was 89 years old and lived a full, happy life. We were not especially close; a product of the “Greatest Generation”, he provided faithfully for his family, and considered the little time he had left over after working ten-hour days, six days a week, to be his own. He was in his element on the golf course and in his public life, where he delighted in the attention he received as a small town celebrity, dispensing gardening advice over the radio waves and to packed audiences of gray-haired ladies at local garden clubs.
You don’t miss what you don’t know, so it was never of great concern to me that I didn’t have much of a relationship with my father. The distance was a comfortable one; he was always cheerful, never mean, rarely angry – he just wasn’t generally present.
This arrangement worked well until about ten years ago, when my mother died and Dad was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer a few months later. Perhaps he re-evaluated his life. Perhaps he was lonely at the loss of my mother. Whatever the catalyst, suddenly my father was interested in me. He asked about my children. He actively sought a relationship with my husband.
This was annoying, to say the least. I don’t do well with change.
Now I was having to make room in my life for someone who had never been part of it and I, being the deeply flawed person I am, resented the imposition. Where had he been during my childhood? Where had he been during the early years of my children’s childhoods? My thoughts ran along the lines of an uptight theatre usher: “No late seating allowed!”
Fortunately, my father was patient and persistent, and my husband provided gentle reminders around the theme of “better late than never”. I slowly adjusted to sharing a bit more of my life with my father and hearing about his. He liked to talk, by the way. His stories were many and long. He savored his life, especially now that he’d had a cancer scare which had been barely beaten into remission through an intense course of radiation that left him with nerve damage in his legs and a panoply of other side effects. He never complained. He always smiled.
At one point, I happened to mention I had just read Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, which is widely touted as a modern-day parallel to the Confessions of Saint Augustine. He expressed interest; I sent him a copy of the book. Soon after, he paid a visit to his parish priest and asked if he might renew his acquaintance at church. He was heartily welcomed, of course, because God is a much more gracious being than stubborn and resentful adult daughters. God understands “better late than never”, and it is never too late with Him. In his last years, my father attended mass often, sometimes daily, and he became close pals with Father Sullivan.
The cancer, inevitably, returned. The last year and a half of his life was a blur of ups and downs. He began to end all of our phone conversations with “I love you”, another change that called me deep consternation. In our family, no one ever, ever said I love you (a failing that I may have over-corrected in my own parenting, since my constant declarations of adoration for my children have led them to consider themselves, if anything, somewhat over-loved.) Responding in kind was a tough order. I stumbled over the words; the awkwardness of this new intimacy made me hesitate and stammer. Did I mention that I am deeply flawed?
A final, cruel run of chemotherapy last spring took more out of him than he could bear, and he finally said “enough”. The doctors told him he should probably make the acquaintance of the local Hospice folks, but, characteristically for him, he never wanted to trouble anyone so he managed to the very end without engaging their services. He nearly died before Thanksgiving, but rallied for the holidays and celebrated his 89th birthday in January with a visit to a nearby casino.
He never, ever complained. Not once. He demonstrated a courage and a grace that astounded me and everyone around him. During our last visit in December, he took my husband aside, as he had many times before, to tell him how much he admired him for both success as a businessman and his devotion to me and our children. I often joked that my father had a “man-crush” on the CE. What was probably more accurate was that he saw and admired in the CE was a dedication and fulfillment in marriage and fatherhood that he wistfully wished he could have shared.
A few weeks after his birthday in January, he returned to the hospital with complications from the cancer, which was now on a crash-course, attacking organs throughout his abdominal cavity. The doctors suggested he might have two to three months to live. Working around our scheduled trip to the East coast, the CE and I tried to decide if we should stop through the Midwest to visit Dad on our way to New York or the way home. We chose the latter, thinking he would be in better shape after a chance to rally from the latest surgery. He had begun physical therapy and was hopeful of being released from the hospital soon.
I spoke with Dad almost every day in the past few weeks. With long practice, I was finally improving at our parting “I love you’s”. On Monday, I told him I had stepped into St. Patrick’s Cathedral to light a candle for him and say a prayer. He was deeply emotional and wept with gratitude at this simple indulgence, thanking me profusely. I did not tell him that my prayer was that he not be asked to suffer unduly. On Tuesday, he told me again how grateful he was that I had lit a candle for him. He cried again. “I’ll see you soon, Dad”, I said. “I love you, too.”
On Wednesday morning, I received a call that Dad had gone into renal failure and slipped into unconsciousness. That night, I lay awake, wondering if I should catch a plane in the morning. I drifted into sleep around 6 am and was awakened by a call at 9 – Dad had passed away a half hour before. In the end, it was not him that waited too long, but me. But thanks to his concerted and persistent efforts over the past several years to salvage our relationship, there was nothing left unsaid and no unfinished business to be conducted. He was at peace with God and with his family; a final gift for us all.
Dad was a “celebrity” to the end; his passing was announced as “breaking news” on the Elkhart Truth’s web-site, where a story about him is posted today: http://www.etruth.com/Know/News/Story.aspx?ID=535427