I left Hawaii’s extraordinary climate just before the New Year to be with my 90-year-old parents on the wintry east coast near Philadelphia. I arrived the day after my father was admitted to what my mother refers to as “the mental hospital.”
It’s my father’s first time in such a facility. He was committed of his own free will which is “one of the greatest and most dangerous gifts God gave us”, he tells me repeatedly. He is a fiercely independent man who realizes that God’s gift of free will has led him to such a state of confusion and sadness when he decided to no longer take his anti-depressants because they had not “cured” him. “Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do?” he badgered my mother in the days before he was taken to the treatment facility. Why take them if he had to keep taking them, he argued. It all made perfect sense to him as he yelled at my siblings who had rushed to the house in late December 2016 to protect Mom from more dangerous outbursts.
I was urged by my extended family to return home after 43 years to be with Dad because of my own extensive history of mental illness. I immediately found a flight that would bring me to Philadelphia in 13 hours. I was stunned to see my father so helpless, confused and wounded in the treatment facility. I knew how he felt because this same illness had been a part of my own life as far back as I can remember. It had even contributed to the death of my 26-year-old son in 2002 when policemen thought he was attacking them when he stood perfectly still with the knife he held in each of his hands. Eight bullets later, Aaron died on our living room floor. I witnessed everything, even Aaron’s last words which he addressed to the policeman as he was being handcuffed: “Why did you shoot me?”
As I write this, I am sitting near my Mom in the quiet suburban house where she and Dad want to live until they die. Both of them are in good health, but experience difficulty walking. Dad lost his eyesight four months ago. He has macular degeneration, which appears to have been a factor leading him deeper into the darkness of depression.
Snow is falling outside the house. We might get seven inches.
The falling snow and uniqueness of each snowflake is the topic my Mom employed when I was in the second grade and she was teaching me how to write a descriptive paragraph. The exceptional Sister who was my second-grade teacher had done her best that day in school, but I still did not get it. That is, until the love and sensitivity and creativity of my Mom helped me to express my hidden delight in the extraordinary quiet and beauty of the falling snow that long-ago evening. I was inspired to embrace the light and power of the Word that was nascent in me and in all of creation.
Serving as a Deacon
Love of the Word eventually led me to become a permanent married deacon three years ago. It’s what fills my heart as I serve the poor and neglected, and preach in churches on the Big Island of Hawaii.
I’m staying with Mom, keeping her company, taking her to do food shopping and to visit my Dad. I bring Holy Communion to both of them. My siblings participate in our Communion services, too. As a deacon, I am an “ordinary” minister of Holy Communion, but I still feel extraordinary to be able to minister at such a sacred and holy family meal. We are nourished by Our Lord in His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. It’s a unique blessing for me to be able to do this with my extended family for one of the few times since Mom and Dad traveled to Kansas City for my ordination and first homily three years ago.
We celebrated New Year and the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, in the treatment facility. We celebrated the Epiphany of the Lord in the facility, in a feast of light and hope. I hope to stay with my parents for a while, perhaps longer if my wife, parents and six brothers and sisters will let me. I have been gone too long. For forty-three years, I visited them for a week or two. I remember all of the roads and driving shortcuts from my first twenty years here.
Writing About Depression
My Dad wants me to publish my book about the illness he and I have both experienced. He wants to help others in similar situations. I completed the book last year. I wrote extensively about Aaron’s death. We never sued the police department for his death. We could have done so but decided forgiveness and mercy were more important issues to address. We met with police officials and successfully expanded mental health training for them. In turn, they developed an award for officers in honor of Aaron. They also provided funding for two mental health agencies and for our family.
In the book, I also trace the genesis of depression in my family back to the 1902 murder of my great-grandfather on my Dad’s side. My grandfather was nine years old at the time of my great-grandfather’s death in Ireland. His mother had died five years earlier. He heard the nearby scuffle between his father and the neighboring family from across the valley. His father was strangled with the reins from the horse that transported the family cart on mysterious errands involving illegally distilled liquor that could have been sold to a boycotted family. Boycotts had just come into vogue as a method of shunning and even harming uncooperative neighbors who broke a secret code of connivance. Depression
Depression in the Family
After his Dad’s death, Pop was a nine-year-old orphan. His siblings sent him to a distant relative working in Scotland, and Pop became a shepherd for a period of time. He finally immigrated to the United States and served in World War I, being wounded in Verdun and St. Michel’s.
Pop told us his life story as we were growing up, but no one had ever verified the murder or untimely death. On a trip to Ireland in 2005, I found in a local library the newspaper story reporting his “melancholy death” and attributing it to my great-grandfather’s excessive personal use of alcohol. Based on my interviews with family still living in Ireland in 2005, I was able to determine that the reported version of my great-grandfather’s death appeared to be part of a cover-up by his neighbors. Moreover, I came to believe that the intergenerational history of depression in my family had a “binding” impact that might have had a curse or “demonic bond” associated with it. It might even have something to do with our extensive depression
In 2006, I became involved in a deliverance ministry and even later underwent two deliverances. I began to recognize the spiritual warfare going on all around us. My diocese sanctioned my involvement in this ministry, which was headed by a permanent deacon who reported directly to the bishop on our team’s ministry. I had to take leave from this ministry because I was not fully prepared for the severity of the counter-attacks.
It’s clear to my Dad and me that depression can extend far back and be disguised or nor understood in a family tree. Perhaps the openness and lack of shame we both feel about our own condition could be a future ministry for my Dad and me after his release.
It’s still snowing outside. My wife just told me it is 80 degrees in Hawaii. I have to leave soon to visit my Dad.
As we begin Ordinary Time in the 2017 Church Year, we seem to be living in quite extraordinary times, as ordinary people with access to extraordinary grace. May we live this grace of a New Evangelization that is bringing our Church deeper into a living relationship with our Blessed Mother and the Most Holy Trinity.
Let it snow!