Reflections on the death of my father

 

My father almost never went to mass when I was growing up. My mother took us children to our suburban parish’s 4pm Saturday anticipated mass. My father stayed home and took a nap. When we got home, us kids woke him. Mom baked a pizza, for Saturday was pizza night.

I recall us attending mass on Sundays on a few rare occasions, perhaps Palm Sunday. As an aside, I always felt revulsion at the folk singer guitar-and-tambourine group camped out on the right side of the altar at those Sunday masses. Saturday masses and the Wednesday school masses always had organist accompaniment. It was Mass.  But I digress. On Sundays, my mother did the weekly household laundry and ironing. It was anything but a day of rest for her.

Several times, I tried to ask my father why he didn’t go to mass, but he wouldn’t respond. As in, he literally would say nothing. There was stony silence. After a few tries, one got the message that you aren’t to ask that question. Accept that you will not know, just as you will not know how old your father is until your 5th grade religion class family tree assignment requires him to reveal his birth year. (Years later, you learn your father lied by several years to make himself seem younger. But I digress.) My father’s now dead and buried and I don’t know why he wouldn’t go to mass with us. I’m not ready to ask my mother. Part of me is afraid to find out some horrible truth, like he was an atheist or something.

Around age 25, I learned that my paternal grandfather had been Protestant. At that age, I was Catholic in name only, having stopped going to mass after leaving home for college, and fully immersed in the gay lifestyle. Nevertheless, I felt shock and shame that I wasn’t “pure” Catholic. My grandparents had a mixed marriage, it turned out, permitted by my Catholic grandmother’s family on the condition that any children would be raised Catholic.

All of my father’s schooling was Catholic: the Chicago neighborhood parish grade school, an all-boys Catholic high school staffed solely by priests, and a Catholic university. By the time my siblings and I were in Catholic grade school, all the teachers in our suburban parish school were laity. My father enjoyed telling us stories about the school sisters of his youth, and their strict discipline; How they’d rap you on the knuckles with a ruler, or make you stand in the corner, drag you by the ear, or otherwise ensure order though corporeal punishment, and how lucky us children were that our father didn’t whip our asses with a belt like grandpa had done to father. There was pass before school every day, in Latin, with the priest facing the altar. Strict parish boundaries meant my father had to walk a half-mile to his parish school, instead of going to the parish a block from his house. Later as a teenager, he took a bus or walked to a mile to high school.

After college, my father was drafted into the army, and then spent years focused on himself and building a career. He lived with his parents. Eventually, one of my father’s coworkers dragged my father to a Catholic singles dance where he met my mother.

My father openly told us children that he’d wanted a simple wedding ceremony at a courthouse in downtown Chicago. Instead, his Polish fiancé’s family engineered a big wedding, at a prestigious church, officiated by a prestigious cleric. Home movies shows my mother and father both kneeling at a prie dieu and receiving the Eucharist on the tongue at their wedding.

Children came. All were baptized Catholic and once again, home movies show my father attended. He went to our First Reconciliations, our First Communions, our Confirmation, and the rare “high holiday” Sunday mass. He always remained seated at Communion time.

When the nest was empty, and retirement from work accomplished, my mother became a Church Lady. She went to the Church Lady meetings, baked brownies for bake sales, and volunteered for parish garage sales, etc. It was then that my father resumes weekly mass attendance. I get the feeling it was more out of respect to my mother and avoiding her any further embarrassment for having a non-believing husband than any personal conversion.

Once, my mother told me my father went to confession at their parish because there was a visiting priest; Dad wouldn’t have to confess to the pastor who’d see him every week. So my father was a man of some pride. Again, until age 10 my father refused to tell us children how old he was! When I was 16 I found out (only by accident) how old he really was. Mother later told me that father didn’t want us to think of him as an “old man,” so he kept his age secret. I always thought that silly. Shouldn’t he expect us to love and respect him no matter how old he was?

I’m the last person in the family who saw Dad alive. As he lay sedated, wheezing, and dying two weeks ago Saturday, I stayed with him for a while after the rest of the family went home for the night. Kneeling down next to his bed, holding his hand, I asked him to accept Jesus, to forgive anyone he held a grudge against, and I implored Jesus to visit me with any suffering that would merit my father entrance into Purgatory at the least, if not Heaven.

The next morning, I woke up at 6:45am and lay in bed for a long time. After 20 minutes, mother phoned to say Dad passed away at 6:45.  I went to confession before Mass that morning and prayed for him throughout the Mass, offering the consecration of our Lord’s body, blood, soul, and divinity to God for mercy on the soul of my father.

Visitation and funeral

The visitation and funeral were several days later. A wise cousin counseled me that, “There are two times when a woman gets whatever she wants: The day she marries her husband, and the day she buries her husband.” I deferred to Mom on a lot of the wake and funeral arrangements and offered my input when asked. That meant “No” to the ugly 1970s holy card design she eyed, and instead selecting a traditional, overtly Catholic holy card design. It also meant requesting Eucharistic Prayer I (Roman Canon) and warning a sibling who’d asked to deliver a eulogy, “Do not canonize Dad.” I would not have made some (perhaps any) of the music selections Mother chose for the mass. I would have preferred not having to enter the sanctuary and read the Second Reading, but one has to choose their battles. On the whole, it was as solemn, reverent, and dignified as a suburban Novus Ordo funeral mass could be. (There were no Sanctus bells run at the consecration – that was jarring.) My family is not one for exuberant displays of emotion. Only a niece cried openly.

All dads go to Heaven?

I have it on the assurance of many well-wishers, one deacon, two priests, and a religious sister that my father is in Heaven. I lost count of how many well-wishers at the wake pledged to us that, “He’s in a better place.” I absent-mindedly replied to one lady, “We hope so…” Mother pursed her lips, flashed her familiar “Polish Mother look of disapproval,” and gently shoved me in the elbow. Oops.

As an aside, a thoughtful even brilliant relative brought in sandwich trays and cookies from Costco to the funeral home during the wake. The funeral home had a kitchen and lounge. When a family has to stand vigil with their dead for six or more hours, receiving a constant stream of visitors, the stomach does growl and leaving the premises to dine-out isn’t a practical option. Do consider this courtesy the next time a loved one must wake their dead! I’m grateful for the Church Ladies who literally dragged my mother by the arm to “go eat something.”

Near the end of the wake, a deacon from the parish led us all in prayer. He told us father’s in Heaven, in a better place. “But we need to pray for him.” At the funeral mass, the parish priest also canonized my father in the homily. A week later I attended a mass offered for my father and the priest and a religious sister again canonized him.

Our family has a younger relative who’s an open, obvious lesbian. My mother granted her request to serve as a pallbearer. The woman, whose hair is closely cropped, wore a man’s shirt and tie.

As I have no wife, I accompanied my mother in all the processions. She declined a graveside interment, to my disappointment, so we concluded the funeral at the cemetery chapel. Having kept a stiff upper lip since shedding tears Sunday morning, I nearly broke down as the bugler played taps after the American flag was removed and folded from my father’s casket. At the luncheon that followed, someone remarked on how “sonorous” I sounded delivering the Reading at Mass.

Postscript

I was dismayed but not surprised that at no point during the wake or funeral did anyone mention Purgatory or Hell. I wonder if I’m the only person who’s truly prayed for mercy on my father’s soul, either before or after his passing. The wake should be about praying for the deceased. The funeral mass should be about offering sacrifice for the soul of the deceased. Neither are about canonizing them, or solely for the consolation of the family. Wasn’t it Our Lady of Fatima who said so many souls fall into Hell because they have no one to pray for them? I trust that the Lord heard my pleas, but as of yet, suffering has not visited me. Perhaps it may be many years, perhaps even requiring the sacrifice of my own life. So be it.

Every morning in the two weeks since my father died, I’ve lied in bed saying a rosary for him after I awaken.  In those two weeks of daily rosaries, I’ve experienced no serious temptation to impurity, my primary vice.

As the Church Militant, pray for the souls of your dead family and friends. Pray for the souls of the priests who baptized and ministered to you throughout your life. Pray for the poor souls in purgatory, the Church Suffering, for those souls forgotten, for those sisters, brothers, monks, priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes who have no one praying for them. Pray for those elderly Catholic men and women lingering in Purgatory, having been denied Catholic funerals by their apostate descendants. Pray to the souls in Heaven, the Church Triumphant, to intercede for you in your pursuit of holiness and obedience to the Gospels.

Lord, have mercy on the soul of my father. Daddy, if you’re in Heaven, pray for me.

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