A Poem for my Father, on his Birthday

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Pleas reach beyond the great divide, to halt the cavern deepening and wide. The weight of dimensional bonds that hold and cloud my senses beyond the fold, press deep into my my inner ear and wake the songs of old.

The harp, the double helix trills old madrigals inside its strings, a thousand different songs awake, that still the sting of loss and ache, and from the staggered clefs I see the anthem that is me.

Embedded deep within my soul your holy composition soars, ascending notes so clear and true I know the song must come from you. Lilting concentric circles span, outward forging future’s plan, with heaven’s joyful chorus.

And when the waves of sadness come, and loneliness its bitter sting, I will be the melody you helped build and I will simply sing.

 

 

 

 

You would know the secret of death

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Here is the poem I read at my father’s funeral…I made it almost the whole way through, until the part about dancing…

On Death

Kahlil Gibran

You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life? The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light. If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the the river and the sea are one.

In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond; and like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring. Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity. Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honor. Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king? Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then you shall truly dance.

 

I still hear his voice, telling me that the smallest gestures can make the largest impact, to live fearlessly and faithfully. I embrace fully in the dream of building the Kingdom of God, one simple brick at a time. Papa, you taught me that and you showed me that by all the people that showed up to celebrate you…from your students, neighbors, colleagues, family, the diocese, and many friends. Your heart was open wide to the body of Life and from above you still walk with me and all those you love to keep singing and dancing until we meet our King.

Letters from my Father

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7/12/1928-10/11/2016

During this painful waiting time, while my father comes to terms with the finality of his corporeal life, I dug out all the letters my father wrote to me in college. They are incredibly thoughtful and wise. Here are some excerpts from the many letters I received, listed non-chronologically:

About my personality:

God has ways of doing what is best even though we don’t realize it. It is not as though you have never been told that you are too harsh, though. You do lack a sensitivity to people at times, and you are aggressive. I dearly love you and know you better than they, but at times you piss me off by that behavior. I know it’s a cover for other feelings and I yet I still feel that way. However, I wouldn’t change you much. I would never want you to be meek. I want you to grow to be comfortable with you, who you are now and what you will become. I would want you to be more sensitive to people. Learn to read their feelings and respond accordingly. You are so wonderfully strong and I want no less, but your strength should not ever be to cover a weakness or fear. Is this confusing? I know, because I’m not sure how to say it. I have been hurt by similar things but have grown as a result and hopefully have become better. Sometimes, we must have things pointed out to us that we don’t see. It is most important for you that you work with it, test it and grow. You are almost perfect…but not quite! I think of you and pray for you, do the same for us. I continue my love and support, but no money…Ha! Ha! Harrumph.

and yet again:

Nice to hear from you, but you sound up-tight. What do I say. You’re always so anxious you know you must simply relax and take things slower. You will go over the herd. You see so much and are so interested, you see so many different ramifications that others are not with you. Not that your’e wrong you’re so ahead that people don’t always know what point you’re coming from. However, you always question everything. Perhaps its time for you to accept things as you learn then file them not to question them. You must learn quietness, acceptance, patience and slowness. Things must be questioned and challenged (this is a logical process) but not with the intensity that you go at it. All life is a process. As you proceed in life or in literature or studying theology, by your humanness, you are forced to go step by step until we get to the end which for people of faith we never do. Our concepts are imperfect and constantly changing. Even our knowledge of God changes, although God doesn’t. This is what makes life so interesting. We go step by step and learn more and more and try to enjoy where we are at each moment. That is why there is always a need for scholarship. But good scholars are patient. You can’t skip the middle of the book. You might like to know, or even re-write the final chapter, but until you have the means… you can’t. Enjoy what God Gives us each minute, patiently, slowly and learn more and change according to the plan. Un-hunch your shoulders my darling, study and learn but just not with such ferocity but a thankful, patient slowness. Enough homily, but I demand you relax and take life a little easier.

His humor:

I’m surprised to hear that there was a bee that had enough guts to attack you. Obviously the poor thing was suffering from delusions of grandeur…and then died

On a men’s bible study:

I started a Bible class on Saturday morning for men only. We are going to study from the Wisdom tradition, Proverbs, etc. It will be a new, different opposite from the traditional. It was very good and the book we have to read is exciting. Basically, the point of view is that man is made a free individual who God trusts. A man, in his scope, makes decisions and hopefully they are worthy ones that he must live with the outcomes. Unlike traditional beliefs, culture is pleasing to God because he has given man the power to create and this is our greatness. Less emphasis on “saviorhood” of Jesus and more on his humanity because God wants us, like David, to embrace life, now, daily-not to suffer life and be rewarded in heaven. Heaven is now or should be, and also after. So man must be concerned about his community (culture) and his fellow man because we are brothers of Jesus, in terms of justice and peace, etc. right now. We should know life and God trusts us to do the right thing: this is more responsible than saying man is degenerate and weak and asking God to handle all our problems. This kind of prayer always baffled me…asking God to take care of everything. If I was somewhat God-like in power because of Jesus why would I cast them aside and make myself less? I always pray out of thanksgiving and love not of weakness. Although at times I say this is what’s going on and I can’t handle it God. Somehow, I think this is OK but I don’t know why. The important thing is that God trusts us, life is great. Even though we make mistakes God is not angry. He is if we don’t do what is life giving. I guess it is better to over live than under live. The ideas are so very exciting!!!

About speaking in tongues at during the charismatic movement:

When we prayed the Confiteor at the beginning of mass, the priest said we should express our sorrow and love. I though, O.K., then everybody began to talk, and sing and clap very loud and independently of each other. It sounded like a symphony orchestra warming up. I stood amazed, flustered, and I suppose embarrassed. Suddenly as though by a pre-arranged signal all was quiet. It was an interesting phenomena but I was shaken momentarily. More than anything I felt like someone looking in a window at a party where I wasn’t invited. It was a slightly lonely experience. Then I thought the hell with it. I’ll come to your party if I damn well please any time I please. You’ll have to beat me up and throw me out. Isn’t that strange to feel all that at mass? Embarrassment, fear, love , anger all at the same celebration.

About politics:

The news on the political front is disturbing. It looks as if the Democratic party is splitting. Short (the candidate) does not represent the people as he says. He represents money and power. However, with diligence we will survive and the world will go on in spite of the political chicanery and volume of words with no meaning. This may be the first year in my life I’ll not vote. It does seem there is only solace in God.

About fundamentalism:

I’m flattered that you see me as an expert, which of course I’m not. You probably know more about the Bible than I. Your mother is the real expert. What I know, I know from listening to priests and your mom, but mostly from seat of the pant logic. I am glad you disagree with fundamentalism because to be narrow as they are apt to be, leads to a narrow frustrating life. They tend to gather around others like them and fail to find goodness in those who are not like them or put their own their own faith to tests of honesty. They’re good people but they stay status quo, with no growth. It seems to me they put limits on God. To me theology is a process of change which goes on continually in a life time. One must continually grow by learning new things, theologically. As you learn more your life changes in accordance. Everything you learn, in turn, must be challenged and tested. This is how you arrive at growth, or truth. I do not judge how others believe because ultimately we are responsible for our own Christian lives and we must act according to what we know to be the Truth at the time. Over a time we may prove to be wrong but only because we had insufficient knowledge or our logic was faulty. There is always so much we don’t know but we have to have faith that somehow God will reveal to us how right or wrong we are, and with way we grow. I’m sure God does not abandon us and sometimes things happen we cannot handle alone and we give it up to Him. I see you in everything I have said. You plan your own path well enough.

About the death of Hubert Humphrey:

I suppose you are aware by now of Hubert Humphrey’s death. I’m pleased and sad. He fought it so gallantly and he had enjoyed life. I’m sure he was a figure of stature we will not see in our lifetime again. Such an indomitable man, God must be very proud of Hubert for his just spirit, his true love of humanity and life. He had a full realization of what God has given us. What profound joy there must be in heaven where his spirit joined those whom God has loved and who loved God. I pray our lives are full of the justice, humanity and love that Hubert had. If all of us could exercise our power to one tenth of what he did, what a wonderful world and lives we could have. I hope his spirit still works in our lives and gives us hope.

I added the last note in the hopes that he understand that is exactly how I see him and his impending welcome into heaven. There are more letters to cherish and when he is gone they will give me comfort. That wisdom formed me, calmed me and still gives me hope. I love you dad, more than you can ever know.

Do not go gently into that good night but rage, rage against the dying of the light

me-and-dad

This poem by Dylan Thomas is loved by my father who is in hospice care right now. It pretty much sums up his attitude toward living…never idle and always in a continuous fight for light it its many forms. Whether it was the light of intellect (he has four degrees), the light of truth (his involvement in politics, from school boards to general elections), the light of faith (a devout Catholic and when he retired from teaching, a second career as a deacon), the light of love (married to my mother for 60 years and with her raised 5 very different and exceptional children). A jack of many trades, he was always planning the next great thing and the reality of Alzheimer’s and cancer has altered those plans, leaving the many in his stead whom his light has touched to continue to rage against darkness and be champions of the light.

My father has always been quite the orator. Whether it was Shakespeare or the Gospel, his voice commanded the moment, his inflection amplified and diminished words in perfect measure and cadence. Once, after he was done reading the Gospel at church, without thinking, I naturally started clapping instinctively as if it were a performance. Of course, I was embarrassed when I realized that I was the only one clapping, but I knew by the gentle laughter that I had done what everyone else had wanted to do in that moment. Words matter to my father, he required good grammar and for us to speak intelligently. Ignorance was simply unacceptable, as was the cruelty of gossip and unfounded innuendo. He held high standards for his children and his students because he had the uncanny knack of recognizing other people’s potential even when they, themselves, could not. That is the greatest gift he could give us as a teacher, to help see ourselves in the fullest light. He wasn’t always successful, but always maintained hope. Even as his cognition wanes, I still see the light he sees in me, reflected back in his face whenever he looks at me.

My parents and I have often sat around the dining room table and┬átalked about theology and the world at large for hours. In fact our whole family has spent many hours around a table laughing and telling stories. Those kinds of conversations began by having dinner at the same table all together growing up. We all shared an appreciation for the absurdity of our human condition and the hilarity of these moments gave us stomach aches from laughing so hard at all our escapades. Our dinner table was as much a place for talking as it was for eating. Dad, at the head of the table, was the inspiration for much of the conversation. I think I picked up my sense of humor and storytelling from that dinner table. I remember him telling stories of reciting Macbeth in a Swedish accent, or all his English classes wearing orange on St Patrick’s day (you Irish Catholics can figure it out) and the stories of his time in the Navy, or growing up down the street from Charles Schulz who wrote the Peanuts cartoon. He had as many serious stories of intervening to help students, parishioners, and many who struggled. The best advice I ever got before I started teaching was from my dad. He said: Be prepared, never raise your voice, always look them in the eye, never talk down to them, and always hold them to their highest selves and more times than not they will rise to the occasion.

In a recent conversation about heaven he had with my younger sister, he contemplated whether he had done enough in his life. While surprising, given everything he’s done, I understand what he meant. My father always knew there was so much more to do, that the Kingdom of God was hardly finished and he wanted to be there to see how it all turned out. My prayer is that he will have a front seat to all the action, to celebrate and guide us from above while we continue to refuse to walk gently in this life and carry on his legacy of fighting for the light.