Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Deeper into the Forest
I experienced death for the first time in my life when I was eight years old, the death of my father. My father had what now is considered a fairly curable cancer. In 1956 when my mother was six months pregnant with me, the doctors told my father he had six months to live. He clearly wasn’t ready when the doctors said he would be.
Thankfully, both of my parents were two very spiritually enlightened individuals. My mother didn’t refrain from the truth about my father’s situation as I grew. What my mother did, something for which I will be forever grateful was ingrain in me that death was no less miraculous of an event than birth.
My father was going to a marvelous place where he’d see the face of God, his grandparents and his parents. My mother assured me (and my three siblings ages 6, 4, and 18 months) that when the time came my father would board a ship and while those of us on this shore would wave good bye for now and say “There he goes!” that those on the receiving shore would wave hello and say “Here he comes!” This painted a non-fearful picture of a journey. This is not to say I wasn’t profoundly saddened, but the brush strokes my mother used made death another chapter and not the end.
My mother, half Irish half Scottish, and my father, half Italian and half Scot/Irish both came from strong Catholic backgrounds and especially for Catholics at this time period they were very open minded. Two months before my father’s death, on Halloween, my 6 year-old brother and I visited my father in the hospital. During this visit, nurses rushed my brother and me from the room. What we didn’t know for a few days is that my father’s heart had stopped. As many who have experienced near death, my father’s experience was fairly typical. It was a place of intense love and comfort, but for four young children, he told us that where he was going you could eat hotdogs for breakfast, fish all day, swing on a tire in the moonlight, ask God anything you wanted, and best of all my father’s soul would watch over us all always.
A few nights before my father died, my mother sat in the hospital in a sitting room adjoined to the room where my father slept. My father’s voice in conversation distracted my mother. She rose from her chair and stood in the door way of the dimly lit room. My mother felt certain that someone else was in the room with my father. He spoke in answer to someone my mother could not see. His eyes followed the unseen presence around the room. It became clear at one point that the presence was standing right next to my father’s bed. My father held out his arms and cradled something which my mother could not see. Later my father explained to my mother that St. Anthony of Padua had visited him. He carried the Christ child. They spoke of many things, and during their conversation, St. Anthony asked my father if he’d like to hold the Christ child. My father accepted the invitation. While my father held the Christ child, St. Anthony told my father, that very soon he would begin a new journey, the pain would cease, and his family would be all right no matter what.
The morning after my father died, my mother shared this story and others in a way that cemented our universal view that life is eternal. Although my mother remarried a wonderful man several years later, and we were therefore blessed with a second father, and two more siblings, my mother often told me that my father was with her always. She told me she regularly dreamed that she would stand in a forest calling to him. He would come from behind a tree and embrace her. She would tell him she loved him and he would tell her that when she was ready, he would be waiting near that tree in the forest.
Five years ago today my mother walked deeper into the forest holding the hand of my father.