Tuesday, July 28, 2020

"I'm Home!"

The first time I met him, he affected me like Mt. Rushmore.

I was invited to the house of a friend of mine for the first time.  When I came in, her father was sitting in his favortie chair.  He did not get up to greet me, but held out his hand and waited for me to come to him.  This was not a man easily moved by the whims of others.  He was solid, like granite.  His head balding, lines in his face like the hard-earned chisled marks of a life of labor.  He was a sheet-mettle worker.  Blue-collar, through and through with no aires about him.  

He was a hard man.  I don't mean that in any negative sense.  There are hard men and there are soft men.  I grew an upper-middle class nerd who never had yet to have a job.  I was sensitive and leaned towards creative endevours.  I was soft.  When a soft man enters the presence of a hard man, the soft man can almost feel the hard man's weight crushing him.  The inadequecesis of soft men are made very clear when standing next to a hard man.

I was shocked by this man.  His daughter in many ways was the opposite.  She was light, sweet, with her heart on her sleeve for all to see.  She was always quick with a kind word in her dulcet falcetto voice.  I had met her mother and the apple did not fall far from that tree.  But her father sat like a mighty oak from which his daughter flowered.  This youngest daughter would greet her father by singing "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine... you make me happy when skies are gray..."  And he would sit there in his favorite chair and graciously accept this abundant affection while remaining this immovable pillar.

Needless to say I was intimidate by him from the start.

This was even more the case when I began dating his daughter.

Whether it was all in my head or not, I could not shake the feeling that he could sense my softness.  This was a man who committed his body to back-breaking labor each day to provide for his family.  And here I was, with callous-free hands going to college so I could break into the low-paying theology teacher field.  Could that kind of man provide for his daughter?

At gatherings, I barely spoke with him.  Then one day, his wife brought out their wedding photo and began to tease him about how he had aged.  He insisted he hadn't aged as much as she had.  Wanting a second opinion, she brought the photo to me and asked, "So what do you think?"  

I looked at the young, smoothed-faced man with a full head of hair in the picture and back to the older man sitting in his favorite chair.

She asked again, "Does he look as good as he did on our wedding day?"

I looked up and said, "As good?  No.  Better."

And this hard man who intimidated me so much began to laugh.  From that point on, our relationship changed.

Over the years I learned more about him.  His mother was an alcoholic.  When he was a baby, she used to put mashed potatoes in his baby bottle.  This means that he would try to drink from the bottle, but would get nothing and cry.  His mother did it because she thought it was funny.  He had a sister who also became an alcoholic.  Knowing that level of abuse in that house, it completely changed my perspective on the man.  What I at first thought in my ignorance was a rough, antisocial man was in fact a person who, under the circumstances, was heroically well-adjusted.  There was no drinking in his house.  But there was faith.

Some people, like me, are very chatty about our faith.  Others hold it close to themselves like a precious secret.  This man was not big on outward evangelization, but he made faith into the bedrock of his life.  When he found out what his daughters were learning at PSR, he made a point of correcting all of the errors so that they could know the true faith.  When his parish began making aesthetic changes to their worship space, there was some talk of switching parishes.  But he said, "I'm not leaving my church."  There was strong moral urge of fidelity in him that permeated his life.

And his life was not easy.  As I said, his labor took its toll on his body.  In later years, his knees caused him great pain.  When his youngest daughter contracted juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, he would take the long drive back and forth to Rainbow Babies and Children's hospital for her treatments.  There are very few things more difficult for a parent than the heartache over a sick child.  But in all the years he was a solid rock of dependence for her.

His stoic nature in no way dissuaded her affections for him.  When she was little, he would have to get up very early in the morning before dawn to prepare for the long work day ahead.  He would come into the kitchen and sit at the table to drink his morning coffee and then begin the work day.  His little daughter discovered this and she would wake herself up so that she could have some father/daughter time each morning.  She got her a little golden mug and poured her a tincture of coffee and the two would talk.  Actually, she did most of the talking and he smiled and nodded.  Even as he walked to the bathroom, she would stand outside the door, still talking to him, eager to have has much time with her father as possible.  And though he never said it, I know he treasured those mornings.

About five years ago, after he retired, his health began to deteriorate.  We taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with severe COPD.  It took a while before they realized that he was building up toxic levels of CO2 in his body, causing him to hallucinate.  However, even when treatments began to work, he had to be placed in a nursing home for several months has he began his hospital rehab.  He was placed on oxygen, which he continued taking for the rest of his life.  But, by the grace of God, he recovered enough to come home.

I will never forget the moment he stepped through the door.  He had an oxygen tube around his nose and he was leaning heavily on his walker.  But as he stepped over the threshold, I saw a smile on his face wider than I had ever seen it.  For a moment, all of the hardness of his life seemed to melt away and his face was almsot that of a giddy child as he shouted, "I'm home!"

And he remained home for the over four years.  His days consisted mostly of well-earned leisure in drinking his coffee and watching TV.  He also had with him his several prayer books.  He made sure to pray the rosary every day in devotion to our Blessed Mother.

When the COVID lockdowns began, his life did not change much, since he was mostly homebound.  But because of this, we visited much less, for fear that would could inadvertently pass something on.  At the end of May, we got a call that he was going to have to be taken by ambulance to the hospital because of an infection.  My wife and I dropped everything and went to see him before they took him away.  Because of the restrictions, we could not visit him in the hospital.  We would have to wait on calls from there to us.

From what we were able to gather, he had an infection and they were treating it.  But news was sparse.  Then on the second night, my wife got a call from the hospital.  She answered, and on the other end of the line was the rough, but melodious voice of her father sining:

"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine... you make me happy when skies are gray..."

Even in the hospital with all he was enduring, his first thought was to cheer up his baby girl.

After a few days he recovered.  Over the next two months, my wife and I visited much more often, bringing groceries, dinner, and simply visiting.  I had the privilege of bringing him the Holy Eucharist because he could not leave the house.

But then one morning he would not wake up.

They brought him to the hospital again.  He was in and out of consciousness.  He was allowed one visitor every 24 hours.  His eldest daughter was able to see him.  On one of his good days, my wife was able to video chat with him.  She was able to sing to him:

"You are my sunshine... my only sunshine...."

She told him she loved him and he loved her too.  And he smiled for her.

(And in his signature candor he commented, "My ass hurts.")

Five days later he was gone.

I look back on his life and I see so much that I admire.  We came from very different backgrounds, but he showed me the value of hard-work.  But more importantly, he knew what he was working for.  People talk about having careers.  This man did not have a career.  He had a job.  His job was what he did so that he could provide for the truly important thing in his life: his family.  

His legacy is his 57 year marriage and the successful raising of two wonderful daughters, one of whom is the greatest woman in the world, my wife.  Stoic as he was, he never withheld his love and affection from his daughters.  Love and faith were the pillars of his home.  Every day, my wife brings me closer to our Lord and that is because her father brought her closer to Him.  His legacy is the eternal life in knowing Jesus.  And that is the greatest gift you could possibly give.

His last few years were hard, but now all of his grief and pain are behind him.  By God's grace he was able to receive Extreme Unction before he began his final journey.  And I cannot help but imagine him stepping over the threshold of Heaven, no more oxygen tank and no more walker, with a smile on his face of a giddy child as he looks up and shouts:

"I'm home!"

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