We all thought Papi was being a big baby when he stopped leaving the house. In the past year, he had become needy, asking us to drive all the way to his house to buy his groceries at the supermarket that was literally across the street from his apartment.
We were frustrated that he was contributing to his demise. He wouldn’t eat right, wouldn’t get any exercise, and eventually stopped driving. He stayed up late watching his enormous collection of romantic comedies or John Wayne movies, eating entire sleeves of Oreo cookies and slept most of the day.
At first we accommodated my father by finding a service to deliver his groceries, and another to check in on him, clean up and cook a few meals for him. But I couldn’t assuage the guilt that he was hiring somebody to do something for him that I should have been doing for free. I hated the guilt and all the mixed feelings that came from a lifetime of an ambivalent relationship with my father.
Verses From Sirach
One Saturday evening at Mass, right around Lent, I was turning these things over in my head when the lector read some verses from Sirach:
My son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fail, be considerate with him; revile him not in the fullness of your strength. For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, it will serve as a sin offering — it will take lasting root. (Sirach 3:12-14)
I decided at that moment that I would put on my big girl pants, and vowed to visit my father every Thursday during Lent. He loved the idea right away like I knew he would. I felt twinge of sadness at how easy it was to make his day. As a creature of habit, he loved that it would be predictable, and told me he looked forward to Thursdays every week.
Dutifully, every Thursday I would swing by Papi’s apartment in the afternoon, so as not to disturb his sleep. I watched him eat his “breakfast” at around 2pm, and we would sit and visit.
Occasionally he would apologetically ask me to trim his toenails. I did and rubbed his cracked feet with Aquaphor, admiring his healthy toenails and slim feet, unlike some elderly that suffer with circulation problems and toenail fungus.
My dad was a handsome man. He was the only 75 year old I knew with almost a full head of dark hair. He hated it when any of his five daughters fussed about how handsome he was, but he was.
During our visits we would talk about my kids or my classes. He was proud that I had gone back to school. That’s how our visits went. One time, I canceled last minute in order to get my oil changed, and I could hear the disappointment in his voice.
On one visit, I pulled out some old photographs from a brown folder in his coffee table. Most pictures featured him as a teenager in classroom photographs of his Marist school in Havana. There was one where his eyes twinkled. He was carrying some girl, who looked absolutely delighted, across his arms with a cigarette dangling from his lips. He told me that was Juanita, the girl who got away. Before I left, I promised my dad that I would see him the following Saturday to pick him up for Mass.
That Saturday, after Mass, I dropped my father off at his place and he lowered himself slowly out of the truck, adjusting his oxygen tank. On impulse, I took a picture of him walking away. I had a premonition that it would be the very last time I would ever see my father walk into his apartment doors. And I was right.
Eerily, when I looked back at those pictures, there was a thin column of smoke or mist in those picture that I didn’t notice when I took it. There is some debate between my siblings and me as to whether there was some spiritual significance to those photos or whether it was simply steam coming out of somebody’s dryer vent.
The Beginning of the End
On Wednesday, my father called me. He just didn’t feel well, and explained that it felt like his life force had been sucked out of him. I told him to call 911 right away. He said he would call only if I got the priest to hear his confession first. I promised him that I would find him a priest, but that he had to call 911 as soon as he was through; and he said he would.
Father Forlano, a young Italian priest from his parish agreed to make a home visit and hear his confession. I had made his acquaintance before on one other occasion when my father had expressed a desire to go to confession but a reluctance to drive anywhere. Father Forlano loved to practice his Spanish with my dad and he came gladly.
I was not a good daughter all the time, but one consolation I have, is that my father knew that I was the daughter he would count on to make sure his spiritual needs would be meet before the end of his life.
That was April 9, 2014 and the beginning of the end. My father discovered a few days later that he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer that was inoperable.
Something miraculous happened during those last seven weeks of his life. All six of my siblings flew or drove in from different parts of the country, and even outside the country, to be by his side. To tell you that his dying brought all of his children together is an understatement.
When my parents divorced, all of us children scattered to different places and the break in unity was palpable. But as he was dying, graces abounded. My mother came to see him and all seven of his children took turns being by his side almost around the clock. We prayed chaplets and rosaries with him, which was extraordinary since only a few of us are practicing Catholics. There wasn’t anything we wouldn’t do for him.
This man, who lived a lonely and sometimes self-imposed isolated life was quite literally the most visited man on the hospital floor, and later in the entire assisted living home. Imagine! Seven children took turns at one man’s side. He was the envy of all.
Eventually he was moved to hospice at my youngest sister’s home.
The Eucharist was an incredible consolation to my father and my parish made me an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist so I could bring my father Jesus. A friend pointed out to me, after seeing an old photograph of my father feeding me as a baby, that now I was feeding Him with our Lord. The bittersweet beauty of it did not escape me.
On the weekend of May 30, 2014, my youngest sister had a premonition that we should all gather by his side. Those who were far away traveled again to be with him. Father Forlano came once more to give him Last Rites. He could barely eat or drink at this point; but, mercifully, he was able to take the Eucharist.
His eyes were closed most of the time; but he would respond almost inaudibly to prayers. My husband, whom my father admired and loved, walked in as we were finishing up Communion, and my father smiled greatly with his eyes closed. He recognized Rick. I am convinced that the dying can see more with their spirit than they can with their eyes.
We said our private goodbyes to Papi. He told us in his lucid moments that he could see “the cross”, church doors, and hear choirs singing “Ave Maria”. Those days were filled with heavenly consolations and beauty. He died early Saturday morning, May 31, 2014 at 3am, with my oldest brother at his side.
I am eternally grateful that I listened to that small prompting of the Holy Spirit that Saturday right before Lent to spend time with my father. I was the one who was blessed.
“For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, it will serve as a sin offering—it will take lasting root.”
Photography: See our Photographers page.