Sunday, September 6, 2009

Because of My Father I

My father came to me in a dream just before dawn this morning, and though I promised Ferde I'd turn off the blog machine until Monday, my father is a higher authority even than Ferde.

In my dream my father was sick, weak with fatigue and nausea just as he was last summer, his last summer, when he was dying of melanoma. He walked toward me dressed in black and slumped into my arms and said, "Oh, my son." I helped him to a chair, which in my dream was one of those schoolroom chairs with the flip-up seat and fold-down desktop. He slid into it, and I noticed that he was wearing a black cowboy hat, a darker version of the one he wears in the classic picture of Dad as a child, dressed as a cowpuncher. Then I woke up. I said my morning prayer of thanks and got up. Katie asked me what time it was. It was five o'clock. "Had a dream about Dad," I said, "and he was sick, but it was OK. It was a loving dream."

And so to blog . . .

My father, so proud of me and so supportive late in life, especially I think when I "went Catholic," was present at my first communion and confirmation in March 2008. He had become my best male friend in the years just previous. We played a lot of golf together, and took three long trips: a cross-country train trip, a roots trip through Minnesota and the Dakotas to see such sights as his parents' birthplaces, and finally a Civil War battlefields trip in 2007. Eighteen months later he was dead.

I want to be clear that my father was fully healthy at the time of my reception into the Catholic Church. I did not "fall into the arms of the Church" with grief over my father's illness or death. At least, we thought he was healthy. But a lesion that had been removed three years before had left its biochemical traces apparently, and the insidious, incurable melanoma found its way into his system. By the time he was scanned, the week he turned 83, there were tumors dotting his abdomen. The regimen of chemo prescribed by his oncologist was purely pro forma.

My father's last summer of life was my first summer as a Catholic. Viewed selfishly, there was something of the Resurrection for me in this. My earthly father was giving way, but my heavenly father was taking over. Well, OK. I didn't really think of it that way at the time.

What I experienced was the extraordinary grace of being surrounded by the Catholic Church, and especially by friends like Ferde and Father Barnes, as the final events of my father's life unfolded. The grace of being able to give him, I imagine, some small measure of spiritual comfort when I told him and wrote him, as I did, that I firmly believed he was in good hands. (A devout Episcopalian and faithful churchman, I trust that Dad believed it anyway.) The grace of sitting with him in his hospice room and ultimately sleeping in that room for four nights during his final week, and reading him psalms from the Liturgy of the Hours, even when he was apparently unconscious. He would rouse now and then and smile wanly at me. There was a quiet of heaven in that hospice room.

Dad's illness and death on September 23, 2008, brought us all together. The photo shows Dad and me with my younger brother, David, Dad's namesake. Dad loved David, as he did all of his children. By the time he passed away, each of Dad's six children and all of his eleven grandchildren had ample opportunity to say good-bye, to tell Dad just how much they loved him. For each of us at one time or another, he was what the psalmist says: our rock, our refuge.

Dad is gone now. The rock remains.

(I have titled this post with a Roman numeral. It's obvious to me that this will not be my last world on Dad.)