It is the phone call you most dread. You see the number, and know you just spoke to your sister an hour ago and that you covered all of the issues that needed to be addressed. But you can't dodge the call because you do not want to learn that your father died on a voicemail message. So, you take it and even though, in those few seconds, you have realized what you are about to be told, and braced yourself for the blow, the voice cracks when you open the phone and say, "Hello."
My father, who died last night, was a saint. I do not say this in a manner of speaking or as a figure of speech. I say it with all the facticity with which I can say that I have a cup of coffee at hand. And I can say this without fear of trying to associate myself with his sanctity because I was not like my father, but like my mother, and she was not a saint. I can't remember my father being selfish. I can't remember even seeing him being pushy. Already this morning, the emails have a constant theme: He was so kind to me, so gracious, always made time for me, he listened to me when I was a kid and most adults didn't.
He enabled all of us in ways that may not have been conducive to our sense of personal responsibility, but he did not think in terms of modern psychology. He approached the world in biblical terms. When the Holy Word of God says you must forgive those who transgress against you seven times 70 times, he took it seriously. When he heard, "Give him your coat as well," he took it literally. When he heard, "Take up your cross and follow me," he heard and believed.
Tertullian said that Christians are made, not born, but if he knew anything about my father's large Polish family, I think Tertullian would have thought twice about the assertion. They were dirt poor, but all nine kids went to Catholic school. My grandmother was as devout as they come, so in a very real sense, my father discovered the faith in the catechumenate of the womb. Once discovered, he never doubted. He sinned, as do we all, but he never doubted. He went to Mass and said his prayers with the easy regularity with which he breathed. He prayed simple, earnest prayers. He was not the least bit intellectually inquisitive about the faith, and when I first started writing about our Church, I would bring him an essay and he would say things like, "I am sure it is very good," and pass it on to my mother. He was a very smart man, but for him faith was not an intellectual exercise at all.
My mother was the great love of his life. When her Parkinson's came on strong, he became her nursemaid. They were joined at the hip. Then after the car accident, he would spend all day at the nursing home with her each and every day. I remember the morning she died: it was a Sunday, and some of the staff came in on their day off to console him. "You know, some families drop off their loved ones and we never see them again," one nurse told me, "so seeing your family's devotion, and especially your father's, well, it helps us keep at our work." He was himself at the St. Joseph's Living Center briefly this summer, and he made friends with everyone on the floor the nurses told me. (Did I mention he was friendly? He could make friends with a rock.) Since my mother died nine years ago, Dad has picked at life the way someone who is not feeling well, but who has been told they must eat, picks at their food. It did not really interest him as it had during the 54 years of their marriage.
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The one exception to this generalized lack of interest was his granddaughters. They could put a smile on his face. After my mom died, I would bring him to Puerto Rico every winter. He and my mother had lived there when they were first married, and so he felt her presence there very keenly. I started bringing one of my nieces, and soon it was her presence as much as the memories that made the trip important to him. He looked forward to driving his youngest granddaughter to school every day, even in this last month when he went along for the ride because he couldn't drive himself anymore.
Every night, usually between feeding the dogs and the start of the Red Sox game, I would call my dad. (He did not want you to call during the Red Sox game!) He would send me clippings from the Connecticut newspaper so that I could stay in touch with my home state. Our time together here in Connecticut, driving up to visit his brother in Maine or his cousins in New Hampshire, the annual Puerto Rico visit, they were graced times. Even though we were separated by many miles, I always felt his presence very closely. Today, it is his absence that dominates. I am reminded of what I wrote when my mom died and it still rings true: Apart from prayer, anything anyone can say is worse than useless.
I shall be taking a few days off. I thank those who already offered prayers and those who already will. I was told by a Redemptorist friend that the day after Fr. Bernhard Haring died, my friend ran into, of all people, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who had not exactly been on the same theological page as Haring on many issues. My friend said he was going to the funeral, and the cardinal said something to the effect of, "You don't have to pray for the repose of his soul. He was a holy man. He is surely already with God." I believe those words could be said of my father. I am sure he is already with God as I am sure he is already with my mother. Still, there is, if not exactly comfort because it is too soon for that, deep human love in the prayer of the Church: Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]