In a few days I will mark the passage of one year since my dad died.
Remrandt’s Apostle Paul (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
Just writing that sentence made me feel a little weird. My father remains the finest man I will ever know. Not only did he give me life but he took care of me. For the 39 years I had him on this earth with me there was never a time when I didn’t know in my heart that he cared for me. Through my childhood he raised me, provided everything I needed and many things I wanted. He gave his advice, though not always in a sit-down “Son, we need to talk” kind of way. In fact, we never had a conversation like that. He taught by example. I never heard him complain, not even once, about a solitary thing in life. We laughed one night at dinner a few years back when he made a comment about not liking pot roast much because Mom had been serving it for dinner almost every Sunday for years. He was happy with the life God gave him.
But one year earlier the light seemed to go out of his life somewhat. He was old. He was tired. And he had just been dealt a terrible blow. In October of 2015 my oldest brother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I still hate that term. My parents watched as their son, who had lived perhaps not the most exemplary of lives, literally came home to die. Thirty years earlier they had lost three children in a terrible tragedy. Back then Dad didn’t have time to grieve. Now, he couldn’t help himself. No parent should ever lose a child. To lose four… I can easily forgive him for coming to the conclusion that it was his time to let go as well.
My dad was fond of a passage in Paul’s Letter to Timothy. “I have fought the good fight, I have run the race, I have kept the faith.” When he died these words came back to me. The man was a fighter, stalwart in his faith. That’s what he taught me. I remember in the day or so after her died printing a copy of that passage. Mom had asked me and my niece to read at his funeral. I was honored to read at this mass. My dad had been a lector for years when I was growing up. From him I learned my love not only of the Catholic faith but of what was his passion – the liturgy. I remember so many years, day in and day out, before I moved away where I would go with him to mass every day and later as an adult when I would take him with me. I, too, am a lector and I think of him every time I read at mass. My niece, a young girl of 13, had been reading at daily mass – the mass they’d take Grandpa too – for a while and I know how much he loved to see her read. But something happened. When we got to the sanctuary, she asked me where the reading was. I mistakenly mentioned that it was in the book. Instead it was in my pocket. She read a different reading. It was still very fitting but it wasn’t 2 Timothy 4:7.
I had to make this right for him. At the cemetery I mentioned to Mom what had happened and asked the priest if my niece could proclaim that reading there at the grave. She did. Somehow it seemed more fitting here.
The last words spoken in the presence of his earthly remains were from his granddaughter and I know in my heart she was speaking them of him.
“I have fought the good fight, I have run the race, I have kept the faith.”
My dad impressed upon me the solemn duty of an Irishman to attend wakes and funerals. “It’s just what we do,” he had said to me before.
And as if to show him I had learned his lesson I stayed behind with the funeral director as the last man, his youngest boy, until my father’s casket was lowered to his final resting place. I dropped the rose from my lapel the fifteen feet or so and watched as it landed squarely on his coffin. I was kneeling in the dirt as I said good bye to Daddy.
Other than the impending anniversary, I don’t know why this memory is haunting me at the moment. I still talk to the man every day. Typically I blurt out “Dad, help me!” with one of my many crises. I’d like to believe he’s working overtime to obtain for me whatever particular grace it is I’m seeking at the moment.
Dad doing a crossword. He did one of these every day for decades. I learned to love crosswords from him.
He was an amazing guy. Anyone who’d ever met him loved him. He was funny, smart as a whip, and incredibly loving and kind. His family was his world. And my mom… She was the sun, moon, and stars to him. There is one thing he taught me that I think I actually get right most of the time. I learned how to love from the both of them but I learned how to treat my wife from him. I never saw them go anywhere where he didn’t open her door. He laughed with her. He thought she was the most beautiful creature God ever put on the earth and he was always happy when he was with her.
In a few days I will board a plane and travel to see her and to celebrate and remember a remarkable man who gave me life and taught me how to fight, to run, and to keep faith. I can’t say I’m much of a fighter or a runner and I often feel like despairing; but he taught me what to do. The reason I was a teacher for so many years was because he first taught me.
As we draw near to that day, I will carry him ever more in my heart remembering the lives he affected and how much better we all are because he fought and ran and kept the faith.
God bless you for reading this far. Say a prayer for my family if you would be so kind. And say a prayer for me. 40 years from now if even one person could say of me that I kept the faith I will die a happy man.
Oh, and I started running again. I’m 40, I’ve got a major spinal problem, I just quit smoking after 22 years, it’s cold, and I suck at running but I’m doing it. Dad is probably laughing. But perhaps I’ll be able to say literally that I’ve run the race.