Death of my dad
A local writer's thoughts about religion and mortality
There’s nothing to get you thinking about your own mortality like watching your father die shortly after you turn 50.
I wasn’t prepared for losing my father, not by a long shot.
At 81, my father was a study in contradictions. A lifelong Catholic, he had two marriages and one divorce under his belt, five children, and four grandchildren. I know when he and my mother were together, he was unfaithful, which ultimately led to their divorce. He was the one who brought us to church each Sunday; we were with him, and he bought us special dresses at Easter. Sunday was always “family day,” which we celebrated with morning Mass, brunch, then Sunday dinner. Yet my father didn’t do a particularly good job at balancing his two families and their competing needs throughout his lifetime.
But he tried. I remember him making lots of trips between Redding and Chico to see my swim meets or other school activities that my siblings and I were in. (Often, because of the animosity between our parents, he wasn’t even allowed to take us out for a Coke afterward.) Still, for a divorced parent in the 1970s, my father was one pretty involved dad. It’s too bad that anger, jealousy and resentment crept in with his second marriage and forced him into untenable positions.
I went to Catholic school, took first communion and confession and went on to confirmation in the ninth grade because of my father. It was fitting, then, that I happened to be at my father’s bedside on October 29, 2012, when his friend and pastor, Fr. Michael Canny, looked in on Dad following surgery.
This was the eve of the last day of his life.
Fr. Canny silently walked up to his bedside and started reciting what I quickly noted was the prayer of the “anointing”—or the last rites. It was amazing to me how quickly my Catholic kicked in, as I started reciting the prayer to myself, along with the priest. Afterward, Fr. Canny said, “Your father’s sins have been absolved—whatever happens today or tonight, (he’s covered).”
It was a special moment to share with my dad, even though he wasn’t fully awake. It was one of those “God” moments—something that I couldn’t have orchestrated myself.
At the time, I had no way of knowing that only two hours later, Dad would be rushed from the rehab facility to a full-service medical center, as he was failing to wake up from the anesthesia. My stepmother and I stayed with Dad from 6:30 that evening through 2 p.m. the next day. Other family members gathered at the hospital that afternoon, and Dad passed peacefully, surrounded by loved ones.
I’ve long been a “lapsed” Catholic for personal and political reasons. Still, some of the Catholic ways and beliefs linger, and I find myself questioning long-standing tenets in the wake of my father’s death.
Is there a purgatory? And if there is, then why all the hubbub about absolving sins prior to exiting our earthly carriages? For that matter, why, if Jesus died on the cross for our sins, would we need a purgatory?
Still, there’s some part of me that likes the thought of a way station of sorts, where a soul can go through additional “purification” if needed.
In spending time with Dad in the final hours of his life, I had a lot of time to reflect: on forgiveness, on life lessons, on charity.
As I was whispering to him that it was “OK to go now,” and that “we’d be OK,” I remember the overwhelming sensation I wanted him to feel at that moment was peace.
Wherever you are right now, Dad, I hope you are at peace.