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Song For My Father

By Fr. Rick Frechette CP

The author is a physician and priest who has been working in Haiti for a generation, running hospitals and social programs in Port au Prince as well as a Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos orphanage on the outskirts of the capital. Fr. Frechette is the author of The God of Rough Places, the Lord of Burnt Men and First has often posted his stories from the depths of poverty in Haiti.

When his father died last month, Fr. Frechette felt under an "obligation, which was also a privilege" to speak clearly about what his father had "learned by a long and full life, by illness, and by accepting death as his teacher." Here is Fr. Frechette's attempt to express his father's earned wisdom.

My mother was buried four years to the day before my father. She was everything to dad, and four long years without her taught him this first lesson, which was key to the meaning of his life.

A popular song from the 60’s goes this way:

Once there was a boy and girl, the boy said “I love you so!”
The girl said “I’ll never leave you!”
They grew older, and loved each other, and that’s the way love goes.

For him, this is the whole story of his life, Meeting and marrying my mother was his destiny, and was a calling, a vocation. Fidelity to this calling would bring fulfillment. And this is where love should lead you, and me. It’s what love is for. Love is a vocation.

It starts with magic, the arrow of Cupid. It seems like fantasy, like a fairy tale.

But love cannot stay magical and still survive. It has to take on a mystical dimension. It has to become part of a story that God is writing underneath, a deep story that widens love in an ever-expanding circle that grows far beyond the bonds of the two lovers. The mystical aspect becomes a scaffold, so that love is preserved in great distress, trouble and trials—when sometimes it doesn’t even look or feel like love at all. Love is an ever-growing procession. When cultivated and protected, it becomes strong and enduring.

The procession of love becomes real as a family grows with sincere devotedness, including an ever-widening circle of friends, and achieving, even if slowly, a concern for and embrace of the whole world, the stranger, and even the enemy.

I remember as a young child of 5 or 6 years old, sitting in the tender hold of dad’s strong arms while watching the new invention called television. There was no end to amusing programs, but there was also a new phenomenon that started with TV.

Newsreels from the Second World War found their way to the TV screen, a war which had ended only a decade before, and for the first time Americans saw what war looked like. All previous wars in all of history had only been visible to the soldier. Now, as a 6 year old American, I was getting to know war.

But I got to know if from the secure, strong and loving embrace of someone who seemed bigger and stronger than war.

Later, when your dad puts you down, and you walk through your tens, twenties, thirties, forties and beyond, you walk into that world of war. As a missionary priest and physician, I came to know massive destruction first hand—from violence, from unmitigated poverty, and from powerful forces of nature.

The “magical” feeling of the embrace of strong tender arms, gives way to the every-growing, stronger but invisible embrace of many friends, and strangers united in prayer. This love makes real and palpable the loving arms of Providence. Love generates a procession of strength, ever stronger, ever outward. As is the case with love, sometimes it doesn’t look like strength or feel like strength, but it is.

With this inner assurance, you find remarkable strength to face and manage the world the way it is, with its glories and its agonies.

We must never miss the chance to be strong and tender arms for the weak and vulnerable.

My father never spoke to us much of his life for almost 83 years. But he did a lot of speaking after that, during his long grief as a widower. We learned his thoughts and reactions spanning decades. He reminisced of being born into the great American depression and growing up in a world at war. We learned how many times his family was evicted from houses where they could no longer pay rent. How he worked in tobacco fields as a boy to bring a small income to the family, and how he had to send $23 of the $25 he earned while in the armed forces home to support his brothers and sisters. These stresses influenced his personality and habits and decisions. Some reminiscing was full of comical and heroic stories about family members, especially his father and mother, and also about the confusions and secrets never grasped or illuminated. These were silent forces that worked in destructive ways on him and his clan.

Old memories invoked old resentments, and strong judgments. My father started seeing himself as a prisoner of these judgments. Blaming his elders for their dysfunctions and imperfections enabled him to scapegoat them—deflecting attention from his own anxieties and inadequacies.

Looking back on his own life errors, he started to realize there was no book to go by, no secret code explaining how to handle life’s dilemmas and decisions. He realized his own shortcomings came down to this: there was no book to go by.

Then he was able to see that it was the same for the next generations. There was no book for them either. In fact, there has never been a book. To acknowledge dissatisfactions was ok, but to blame and resent could bring no resolution. He began to grasp:

If we are going to blame upwards to our parents we have to accept blame from downwards, from our children.

He understood that almost all resentments are mutual and not one-sided, and that to resent also invites resentment, and that the best way through life is to lay resentments down, seeking understanding, resolution, harmony.

He understood we all have bad periods of our life we would rather forget. The bad parts of the story cannot be the measure of our life. He understood God holds us to the best of ourselves, not the worse. But that God can do this only if we do the same: hold each other to the best that we have and are. Jesus said the measure we use to measure others will be the same one that measures us.

My father was a tough, private, imposing man, until he started to enter old age. He was well-named, since Leo is Latin for Lion, and that he was. As he aged, he mellowed quite a bit. In his grief as a widower, he mellowed even more. But he was never NOT a Lion, even to the very end. The beautiful thing about being led by God’s spirit, is you get to stay you. You keep your personality.

God was working within my father during his long last suffering, to help him understand his relationships, his purpose, and the depths of his being. And this showed through in many ways. In Christian teaching, this is how we recognize the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They show through. People notice the changes, even if your personality keeps its rough edges.

Dad’s private ways and aloofness gave way to grief counseling. He was so often in the cemetery at my mother’s grave, that he got to know all the daily visitors. Some with very recently buried dead and some whose daily visits spanned ten or twenty years. He felt their sorrow, chatted with them, promised his prayers. People looked for him on days he missed, and commented on how comforting he was. He would tell stories of their tragedies and pain.

Dad visited me in Haiti even when he could hardly walk. His shock and sorrow at the many people stuck in tent cities long after the earthquake made him a stronger advocate, and he started sending personal thanks to donors.

When he got cancer, Merkel Cell Carcinoma, he would joke about how rare that disease was and the attention he was getting from medical professionals who had never even seen it. He said his destiny was to follow my mother out of this world the same way she left it, with cancer. He would follow her every step, and catch up with her.

His strong arms were changing. The right arm was becoming swollen, mottled and rotten from the cancer. The left arm became weak and thin, since the right stole all nutrition to feed the tumors. With a failing embrace, he was now held tightly by the loving bonds he had created, and by the great gift of the arms of Providence.

And so, as a dying man, dad talked and joked. He prayed, read spiritual books, received friends, and reminisced. He said many times he was not afraid to die, and he was ready. In spite of occasional bouts of roaring, anyone who visited him remarked on how peaceful, strong and determined he was, and grateful to God for his life, his family, and his friends. Dad wished he understood at a much younger age what he understood now. Family, friends, rich relationships with other people, concern for our world and the most vulnerable within it, discovery of our purpose and living it out, and living from the depths of our prayer—these are the values of life to treasure.

For those of us who are healthy, and have much of life’s work still ahead of us, the last days were not easy. Only those who have done so understand what happens inside of you when you look into the dying eyes of your father, as you try to comfort him, to help in his last agony. The help we could give him was to stand with him as a family and surround him with love and prayer, his favorite prayer, the Mass. This must have been pleasing to him. As we all placed our hands on his cancer-ridden body during the Lord’s Prayer, he started passing to the other life, and was gone by the final blessing, leaving his blessing, rather, with us. We don’t need to wait until we are 83 years old to ask God to help us appreciate our relationships, live out our life’s purpose, and grow in self knowledge.

On January 17, 2014, the morning of the day that my father died, as I went out to greet the sunrise with a hot coffee. The full January moon was setting across the barren cornfields of our home, behind the barren branches of trees that seemed so cold and forlorn. A full, pale moon, sitting on the western horizon, clear and crisp against the winter sky. This January moon is called the “full wolf,” by the Farmers Almanac. I would call it the full lion. The lion in winter. My father died like a Lion in winter. The first nation peoples called this moon the “old man.” And so it seemed to me, his death was announced this way by the morning sky: a life that spanned the full four seasons , and traversed the long expanse of the sky, to set on barrenness and cold, yet full of hope for the springtime. As it sets, the sun also rises right behind. A new Leo is born today, or maybe a Leona. And that’s the way love goes.

The new Leo, the new Leona, and you and I, will be blessed to end our lives so fulfilled, so peacefully, so strong.

I started with a secular song. I will close with a Biblical one, from the book of Ruth:

Wherever you go, I will go.
Wherever you live, so shall I live.
Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God too.

Wherever you die, I will die.
And there will I be buried beside you.
We will be together forever,
And our love will be the gift of our lives.

January 21, 2014
Wethersfield CT

From February, 2014

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