If you were lucky enough to be born into the social circumstances of my father, you would be lucky enough, as the Irish say. If you were lucky enough to lead his length of 89 years, all the better, though it was not without sorrow. But if you were lucky enough to die the way my father died last Wednesday morning, March 26, 2014, or even to witness his death, your luck would runneth over. Like me, you would no doubt be left to process the miraculous nature of those events for years to come. So although I have not yet grasped it fully, I will share it anyway with the hope that you will see the treasure within and claim its possibility for your own.
A bit about his life. My father and mother (who predeceased him by ten years) had eight children, one of whom died in his late twenties. My brother's tragic death cracked the shell of our imagined immortality. My parents, heartbroken, soldiered on, but were lucky enough to enjoy years of abundance with their ensuing brood of eighteen grandchildren. My mother's sudden death twenty years later widened the crack, leaving my father bereft, ambushed by grief.
A few years later, as rarely occurs, a light glimmered through that crack. An old friendship of my father's grew into an endearing companionship that endured until his death last week. So he was lucky enough to find love twice. His companion, Eileen, had twelve children of her own. Including our remaining seven, their list of social opportunities was long and varied. They were busier than any of their children. His life and hers burst at the seams with love, activity and joy.
My father was a religious man in the traditional sense. He followed rules, yes, but he also nurtured a deeply-felt faith and love of God. Before his recent hospitalizations, he attended daily Mass, often serving as Lector or Eucharistic Minister. His faith was largely uncomplicated; he believed what he'd been taught. Although he was a well-educated MIT engineer, he nevertheless received spiritual teachings as articles of faith, not reason. He never wondered about his heavenly reward; he expected it. Which is not to say he was anxious for it; he was not. Just last year, in order to buy himself some time, he opted for a mitral valve repair in spite of its lengthy and difficult convalescence.
On Tuesday, March 25 my siblings and I were called to his side rather suddenly. He had only been hospitalized a few days for what seemed an exercise in caution. When the doctors asked him why he was there, he replied, "That's what I came here to find out!" In other words, nothing evident. A slew of tests confirmed that no cardiac or neurological event had taken place. He alone sensed what was coming.
That last night he seized the opportunity to tell us individually how much he loved us and that he would continue to pray for us when he was gone. We thought he was being dramatic, but no. He had us call a long string of absent and unsuspecting family members to whom he issued specific messages. He had crystal clarity. When his dear friend, Father Chris Osinta, anointed him, he participated consciously. He recited the Act of Contrition. Then to our great surprise, he sang a hymn into his oxygen mask and surrendered to his God.
But God didn't take him in that moment, and this confused him. "I'm ready to go!" he said. "I'm already there."
"Where are you?" we asked.
"And who are you?"
We gasped. What did he mean? Only now do I realize that God was speaking and acting through him, that he had already claimed the aspect of his nature that was divine.
Back and forth from human to divine he moved like a pendulum, straddling the space between. The messages slipped between divine reverence and comical human impatience. "I'm ready to go," he said at one point. "Get the management. I'm supposed to be gone by now. Nothing happens on time around here."
He clenched the sidebars of the hospital bed, squirming vertically before resting, and then repeated the action -- more like a birth than a death. Alternately he struggled to a sitting position visibly shaken that he had not yet shed his physical form. Watching this expanded my understanding of the palpability of other realms and how seamless and transparent the other side can be. How it is we who create the illusion of separation, and how easily that separation falls away when our eyes are opened. How could I ever question the literal reality of a paradise that my own father, having witnessed, craved so desperately that he would not take no for an answer?
Early the following morning he died. My brother, Gerry, visited the patient whose room Dad shared, apologizing for the disruption of the previous night. The roommate, a Marine just back from Afghanistan, said no apology was necessary. He'd talked to Dad and they'd discussed their military experiences -- Dad a navy veteran. He told Dad that times were tough for him and he felt like giving up. Dad said, "Marines never give up." He told the Marine that it wasn't his time to die, and encouraged him to live the full course of his life. The Marine told my brother that after witnessing the love and warmth of the preceding evening, he was a changed man. My father showed him the fruits of faith and persistence, his final legacy.
To those of you who have never had the gift of witnessing a man literally try to climb out of his body to get to his heavenly reward, I promise you would never forget it. It happened. I pray that I'm one day lucky enough to experience that kind of death myself. And I wish it for you.
May the road rise up to meet you, Dad, as the Irish also say. And may we all be lucky enough.