Wednesday, April 2, 2014

in memoriam

In scripture we read that when the Lord returns, He will come like a thief in the night.

I suppose that is the way death comes too. Even though we know its arrival is inevitable, for each and every one of us, we are surprised when it shows up.

In my dad's case, death didn't arrive in the night. It arrived on the first Sunday of spring, in the early afternoon. Most likely they had just completed the opening hymn at our parish church, where Dad had worshiped for over 50 years.

When Dad died I was not at his side, as I imagined I would be. Rather, I was shopping at my favorite department store, trying on items that would be suitable for his funeral. I cried bitter tears after receiving my brother's call. I was overcome with guilt. What kind of person was shopping for a blazer, black with small white polka dots, while her father died?

I got over it rather quickly. Not his death, but the fact that I wasn't there. I got my vanity from Dad, who would approve the blazer and the fact that I wanted to look pretty for his wake. We were like that, the pair of us. We strove to look good - to be attractive - when it didn't really matter to anyone but us. It doesn't really make sense, and I imagine is not the "godly" way to look at life. But it comforted him to dress in a suit and tie every Sunday, and to be slim and tan. I like those things too, and for today I am embracing that fact. I won't be ashamed of the inheritance he left me.

I used to hate him. When I was a teenager, I could not understand what made him so stubborn and angry. He drank too much. We fought. I argued, which was not seen as a positive trait, although I actually entertained the idea of studying to become a trial lawyer, as my skills seemed to be perfected in those days. He said I would argue with the Good Lord. I said that of course I would. But only if He was wrong.

Many saw Dad in only his later years. They imagined that he was faithful, devout, and loving. That he had a great sense of humor, loved people, and would always flirt with the prettiest girl in the room.

They were right.

My brother and I, and my mom, we know there is more to Dad than that. He was human. He had faults and failings. But as each day passed in recent years, that became a blessing to me, not a curse. I was reminded that each of us, parent or child, is imperfect. We expect much of one another and are disappointed. I forgave my father for his imperfections, and the way he may have hurt me. Because truly, even in our worst moments, I never doubted his love.

He did not say "I love you" to me until I was 40 years old. He spoke those words to me over the phone, the morning after my 7th child was born. When she died four months later, I knew this was one of the gifts she had given me. Dad continued to say those words, inspired I think by an episode of Oprah or The View. It made me smile every time.

For the past year or so he was very different. The dementia took something from him and did not give it back. We didn't know it at the time, but a tumor was also growing above his heart. I imagine that the tumor was actually a special gift the Lord had given him. As it took his breath and stopped his heart, without our even realizing it, it was likely part of his path to redemption. I'm convinced the Lord allowed him to suffer it in secret. But I'm sure his sufferings were united with Christ's, and that fills me with joy.

On the day of Dad's funeral, we took a long drive to the cemetary. My brother reflected that he would have enjoyed it. He traveled there in a Cadillac - the brand he had spent 30 years assembling. We took a meandering path through Dearborn, where he had first lived when he came to Michigan. Some of the roads were rustic and natural, and even hilly, like his birthplace in Pennsylvania.

At the cemetary, beautiful and spacious and well-kept, as we neared the mausoleum, where soldiers awaited him with Taps and flag, two deer crossed the road. They were does, perhaps carrying fawns who would soon arrive to herald the season of renewal. Dad used to hunt deer, but he told us he never shot a fawn or a doe. The first sprinted across the road, and I imagined my father in heaven, running, breathing sweet air deep into his clear, strong lungs. The second deer crossed too. As the hearse crossed the road, the graceful animal turned to look back. She froze and gazed at the vehicle, not moving until Dad had passed. It was a like a benediction; a sacred, sweet moment.

Now we are left to remember, grieve, and celebrate. It's the odd mix that we Christians face. I'm inexplicably exhausted, and strange things attract me, inspire me, and drain me. I'm surprised at how odd I feel. Surprised at how my father's death made me think about life, and how each of us approaches it.
Flannery O'Connor said “I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.” I understand that. We writers "operate at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. (Our) problem is to find that location."

That is why I'm here today, in my Field of Blue Children, where I feel safe. I need to begin to process what I am experiencing, and to know what I think.

I think I have a few regrets. I should have made more time to be with him. I should have forgiven him sooner. I should learn to forgive myself.

I think that I am strong and good and faithful, and I will not apologize for that. I trust fully in God. That is a great grace, not a character flaw, even if some view it that way. Trust in God does not make one naive. It makes one wise.

I rejoice, fully, that I was given an imperfect father who modeled generosity and loyalty. I rejoice that he struggled with many faults and was able to remain faithful in the ways that matter most.

A month or so ago, my brother (whose heart is great and faith is even stronger) told me that he was at peace, because one day, in a lucid moment, Dad had told him he was afraid he wouldn't go to heaven.

That tells me two things.

My Father was humble, and he believed in heaven.

If I learned nothing else from him, I will treasure those lessons forever.

I love you, Daddy. I will always be your buddy.